Saturday 24 August 2019

Ambitious heart: The subtle eloquence of Yeats the poet

Truth-telling lessons will be drawn from his life and times but what really matters is the subtle eloquence of Yeats the poet, alert and curious to the end

A portrait of WB Yeats from the Irish Independent/NPA archives.
A portrait of WB Yeats from the Irish Independent/NPA archives.

By Professor Gerald Dawe

In a little over a month's time, June 13th, the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats takes place. Focussing on the anniversary day though, or even on the 150 years that separate us from his birth in Sandymount in south County Dublin, might well obscure the fundamental point about when he was born - 1865. The Dublin in which he grew up, along with his family life moving between Dublin, London and Sligo, is in a sense ancient history. WB Yeats belongs to another time.

By the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Yeats, in his mid-thirties, was a recognised poet, political activist, an editor collaborating on various anthologies such as Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Irish Fairy Tales and A Book of Irish Verse, a newspaper correspondent, committee man, traveller, reader and adept networker hanging out with the literary celebs of the time in Britain and Ireland.

He has already published at least three full collections of lyrical verse - Crossways, The Rose and The Wind Among the Reeds as well as completing long narrative and dramatic poems including 'The Wanderings of Oisin' and had written a novel, John Sherman, as well as trying his first steps as a dramatist with The Countess Cathleen. His energies would indeed turn to the theatre and theatre management within a few years of the new (20th) century as he became the driving force behind the establishment of the Irish national theatre.

So by his 40th birthday in 1905, Yeats was already a well-established and visible force in literature in English with a string of greatest hits behind him such as 'The Stolen Child', 'Down by the Salley Gardens' and numerous other ballads and lyrics in which he took on the voice of the Irish folk tradition, an experiment that would pay dividends later on in his writing life.

But this 'younger' Yeats - a tireless working writer, who undertook and sought commissions to help with his family's welfare - was nothing if not pragmatic about the poet's life. Whatever visions he saw, whatever views others had of him or his politics, which changed over time, indeed whatever caricatures his personal style produced - from the contemporary flow of his bow-ties, the somewhat detached presence, his height which brought a kind of haughtiness to mind - the overall impression was of an artistic dynamo. Yeats would express different versions of Ireland to itself and to the listening world. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 he was in effect synonymous with the world's cultural views of Ireland.

Yeats believed first and foremost in language as a form of music. His theatrical readings of his own verse - well worth checking out online - might sound a bit stretched to our ears and yet Yeats's idiomatic and unmistakably Irish accent conveys an enthusiasm for words alone. What or where they lead to is another matter. Read out loud 'The Madness of King Goll' and you'll hear what I mean. Try the much better-known 'The Stolen Child' and the century-and-a-half between us disappears.

Yeats hit the sean nós early on, if just a little self-conscious, but with a rhythmical rap you can quite literally tap your foot to: 'When the wave of moonlight glosses| The dim grey sand with light,| Far off by furthest Rosses| We foot it all the night,| Weaving olden dances,| Mingling hands and mingling glances| Till the moon has taken flight.'

These early poems established Yeats and most crucially, for the development and direction of his reputation, created a popular audience. If the poems were applauded in the polite societies of Britain, North America and further afield, they were also taken to heart at home. The integration of great Irish myth and mythical figures such as Fergus, Deirdre and Cuchulain matched by Yeats's reading of 19th-century Irish poets such as Thomas Davis, James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson, provided him and his expanding audiences with a new sort of 'code' - to use Nicholas Grene's apt phrase - to build upon an almost cultic following of mystery and sorcery which was exotic, secretive and defiant of Victorian rectitude and materialism all at the same time.

It was trippy stuff - '…all benighted things that go| About my table to and fro,| Are passing on to where may be,| In truth's consuming ecstasy| No place for love and dream at all;| For God goes by with white footfall.' Ariel-like, Yeats seems to be floating here and only the couplets keep his feet on the ground. But if this sounds too far out, the other voice that Yeats was rehearsing started to get a stronger purchase. An edgier, less sonorous sound system makes its presence felt as Yeats captures other ways of saying things. 'Although I shelter from the rain| Under a broken tree,| My chair was nearest to the fire| In every company| That talked of love or politics,| Ere Time transfigured me'.

We can overlook the dated 'Ere' because by the poem's end Yeats has gone a step further: 'I spit into the face of Time| That has transfigured me'.

'The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner' from which I'm quoting, identifies 'lads' who 'are making pikes again| For some conspiracy| and crazy rascals [who]| rage their fill| At human tyranny'. By the time Yeats published In the Seven Woods in 1903, conspiracies and crazy rascals were surfacing all over Europe, raging against tyranny.

For all his statements to the contrary, Yeats was drawn more and more into that bloody crucible of war and revolution, siding with militant nationalism and then stepping away from it; expressing a startled ambiguity about the Easter Rising while retaining a neutral stance on WW1 and flirting with very disagreeable right-wing politics in the late 1920s after his brief spell as a Senator in the newly-fledged Irish state.

Fascinated like a moth by the flame, Yeats could never quite get out of his system the heady adrenalin rush of his earlier life at the beginnings of the new cultural nationalism of the 1890s and later on.

Is this why, in Ireland, he remains a talismanic figure of contradiction and controversy almost eighty years after his death in 1939? I think not. Yeats is important and we remember him because of his poetry; the rest is indeed history. Truth-telling lessons will be drawn from his life and times but what really matters is the subtle eloquence of Yeats the poet, alert and curious to the end; who learnt how to adapt and adjust his marvellous fascination with the difficulty of language and to make it seem so simple. For this reader, beyond all else, Yeats revealed this country, its peoples and landscapes and through the dint of commitment and, late on, good fortune, to make it all anew.

Professor Gerald Dawe's ninth poetry collection, Mickey Finn's Air, is published by Gallery Press. The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs has just appeared from Lagan Press and Of War and War's Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing is due later this year from Cork University Press. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin.

WB & Me

Fergal Quinn

Senator and Businessman

I felt a real grá for Yeats when I learned that, as a young man, he used to ink his feet to hide the holes in his socks. That is not the man who was later regarded as austere and aloof.

WB’s impact on the nation is best remembered by his comments in the Seanad and his efforts to ensure that the voice of the Protestant minority would be heard.

Yeats has left his imprint on many aspects of Irish life. From being a founding member of the Abbey Theatre to being Chairman of the Coinage Commission that designed the animal-based coins that lasted until we joined the Euro.  However, his real impact must be his poetry tinged with his patriotism, ‘The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time’.

Irish Independent

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