Yeats speaks to all the ages
The endlessly quotable body of work left to us by our greatest poet has been absorbed into our national consciousness, writes John Boland
That WB Yeats was the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century is seldom disputed, except perhaps by advocates of TS Eliot.
That he remains the greatest of Irish poets is undeniably true, as Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney and others have dutifully acknowledged.
Even Patrick Kavanagh, in so many ways the antithesis of Yeats, gave him grudging respect, while across the Irish sea it took Philip Larkin years to shrug off his influence and turn instead to Thomas Hardy. And in one of the finest of 20th-century elegies, WH Auden wrote on Yeats's death in 1939:
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
And in the same poem he noted:
You were silly like us;
your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women,
Yourself. Mad Ireland
hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness
and her weather still,
For poetry makes
Poetry, though, made something happen in Ireland, where the spectre of Yeats still looms over generations of writers attempting, often vainly, to free themselves of the dauntingly rigorous example he set.
As for the silliness that Auden mentions, many will find it in the mysticism and occult practices he espoused from an early age and also in the right-wing leanings of his later years, while the "parish of rich women", which included Lady Gregory and Annie Horniman, helped him to develop his incomparable art.
That art, or at least the poetic side of it, resulted in a body of work that's endlessly quotable, with so many of his verses, lines and even phrases having been absorbed by lovers of verse and also into the national consciousness: "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams"; "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,/It's with O'Leary in the grave"; "Those that I fight I do not hate,/Those that I guard I do not love"; "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born"; "That is no country for old men"; "Great hatred, little room"; "Still the indomitable Irishry".
The list could go on and on, and the marvel is that Yeats had the facility, and the grace, to make it look so easy - as he noted in his great poem, Adam's Curse:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching
has been naught.
The result is lyric verse of such unforced beauty that the reader is hardly aware, except in the mind's ear, that most of it is in strict rhyme and conforms to a metrical tradition from which he seldom departed.
Yet if many readers mainly know Yeats through the dreamy and melancholy poetry of such early Celtic Twilight volumes as The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and all those lovelorn verses inspired by the unattainably beautiful and fiery Maud Gonne (poems that continued, sometimes bitterly, well into his older years), what's exciting about his work is how it developed - to the extent that he became a genuinely public poet.
The 1914 collection, Responsibilities, was the turning point here, the poet either scornfully berating a new and more crass Ireland that was content to "fumble in a greasy till", or, in 'Easter 1916', finding himself moved by the sacrifice of men for whom he would hitherto have had little time, including the "drunken, vainglorious lout" John MacBride, who had married his beloved Maud Gonne.
Coming from an Anglo-Irish background, even if not an aristocratic side of it (his father a celebrated painter, his mother from a Sligo business family), he found himself unavoidably engaged with the turbulence of the war of independence and the subsequent civil war, though his sympathies remained with the Anglo-Irish tradition.
Indeed, in his late poem, 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited', he looks back on Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, Hazel Lavery, Hugh Lane and other crucial figures from his younger years with sad remembrance, ending with the declaration:
Ireland's history in their
Think where man's glory most
begins and ends,
And say my glory was
I had such friends.
Some of the later poems can make for difficult reading by those brought up in school on his early Lyric verses; indeed, some of them, especially those that evolved from his occult studies and the "automatic writing" of his wife, Georgie, can seem baffling, if not downright nonsensical.
And the many plays he wrote and staged at the Abbey Theatre he co-founded with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn can seem either impenetrable or very wispy to modern theatregoers (though they're not often revived), while such prose works as A Vision can be even more bemusing to the ordinary intelligent reader.
But it's the great poems on which his reputation rests and remains secure, and it's thrilling to leaf through the Collected Poems and realise yet again how many great poems lie between its covers.
And what's thrilling, too, is how these poems change in their meaning and impact as the reader himself or herself changes throughout their lives. There are the romantic poems that enthral the young and perhaps come to seem less enthralling as he or she grows older.
There are the political poems that fire the social conscience of those developing a social and political conscience of their own. And there are the meditations on ageing and on the past that seem of no consequence to the young but that have a wrenching poignancy for older readers.
Or to put it another way, Yeats is a poet for all of us.