Wednesday 22 November 2017

A Nobel affair

When WB and his wife George heard of his distinguished prize, they celebrated by cooking sausages. Graham Clifford on an historic trip to Stockholm

William Butler Yeats with his wife Georgie Hyde Lees, photographed in 1923, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
William Butler Yeats with his wife Georgie Hyde Lees, photographed in 1923, the year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
George Bernard Shaw also won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Seamus Heaney paid tribute to WB Yeats when he received his Nobel Prize.
Nobel winner Samuel Beckett.
Yeats arrives in Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize in 1923.

On an evening in mid-November, 1923 as WB Yeats and his wife George Hyde-Lees prepared for bed the telephone message arrived.

It contained news that would bring Yeats to the attention of millions of new admirers worldwide.

Yeats explained: "Early in November (1923) a journalist called to show me a printed paragraph saying the Nobel Prize would probably be conferred upon Herr Mann, the distinguished novelist, or upon myself. I did not know the Swedish Academy had ever heard my name.

"Then after some eight days comes the telephone message from The Irish Times saying that the prize had indeed been conferred upon me; some ten minutes after that comes a telegram from the Swedish Ambassador; then journalists come for interviews. At half past 12, my wife and I are alone, and search the cellar for a bottle of wine, but it is empty, and as a celebration, we cook sausages."

The magnitude of the award could be witnessed in the list of previous winners - in 1907 Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and esteemed French novelist and poet Anatole France was awarded the prize in 1921.

For Yeats, though, this was about more than just a recognition of his individual work - he saw it as a collective victory for those who played their part in the Irish literary revival.

Indeed, he used the occasion to highlight the recent ground-breaking political achievements in his country.

His reply to the hundreds of letters of congratulations sent contained the words: "I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe's welcome to the Free State."

When he stepped off the train at the Central Station in Stockholm in 1923, the footage of which can still be seen on the Nobel Committee's website, Yeats knew he was there to represent both himself and his nation.

In his banquet speech at the Grand Hôtel Yeats told the room of distinguished guests: "Thirty years ago a number of Irish writers met together in societies and began a remorseless criticism of the literature of their country. It was their dream that by freeing it from provincialism they might win for it European recognition. I owe much to those men, still more to those who joined our movement a few years later, and when I return to Ireland these men and women… will see in this great honour a fulfilment of that dream."

In presenting the award Per Hallström, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, bestowed on Yeats the title of 'Ireland's interpreter'.

He said: "Yeats has achieved what few poets have been able to do: he has succeeded in preserving contact with his people while upholding the most aristocratic artistry. He has been able to follow the spirit that early appointed him the interpreter of his country, a country that had long waited for someone to bestow on it a voice."

From a practical viewpoint Yeats's Nobel win was also greatly significant.

For years he got by thanks to the generosity of friends, benefactors and even his sisters but there were often lean spells too. This prize, and the vastly increased worldwide attention, led to a significant increase in the sales of his works as his publishers Macmillan sought to capitalise on the award.

And as the books changed hands and the payment filtered down to Yeats he had, for the first time in his life, a steady income allowing him to pay off his many debts and those of his father.

Yeats, of course, became the first Irish Nobel Prize-winning laureate. Over the years his success was mirrored by George Bernard Shaw (1925) and Samuel Beckett (1969).

And then in 1995 Seamus Heaney became the most recent Irish Nobel winner. Heaney, a regular visitor to the Yeats International Summer School, even spoke at length about Yeats in his acceptance speech in Stockholm paying tribute to a poet he admired so much.

He said: "When the poet WB Yeats stood on this platform more than seventy years ago, Ireland was emerging from the throes of a traumatic civil war that had followed fast on the heels of a war of independence fought against the British.

"The struggle that ensued had been brief enough; it was over by May, 1923, some seven months before Yeats sailed to Stockholm, but it was bloody, savage and intimate. Yeats barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence in his Nobel speech… he chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement…

"He came to Sweden to tell the world that the local work of poets and dramatists had been as important to the transformation of his native place and times as the ambushes of guerrilla armies."

Irish Independent

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