William Butler Yeats 1865-1939. Wonderful Irish crackpot.

24 Mar

Of course William Butler Yeats was an Anglo-Irish crackpot:self-obsessed; into witchcraft and the occult; apocalyptic visionary for the future; incurable romantic; sometime stalker of the charismatic Maud Gonne. His dismay at the money-grabbing middle-classes was matched by his inability to reconcile the brutal heroism of the Easter Rising of 1916, in Dublin with his own deeply-felt nationalism.

And yet he revered the ‘terrible beauty’ of ‘MacDonagh and MacBride and Connelly and Pearse’ the shakers and movers of the IRA who died for their cause. His was a softer search for ‘Irishness’: in myth and landscape; art and drama; love and friendship.

Teaching Yeats is tough. His poems can be technical, enormously varied, romantic, indulgent; terse,dense; bonkers, impenetrable; uplifting, revelatory.  Getting to know him over time provides lasting pleasure, an unending and contrasting resorce of rythm and discord, warmth and bitterness, joy and disappointment. Above all, truth.

The sentimental romance and derivative poeticisms of his early poetry are, simply, arresting – often beautiful. Wandering Aegus of folklore myth searches life-long for his love, whom he has only once glimpsed – it’s a delicious, joyous search but always with hope:

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

W.B.’s story is always at the romantic heart of these folklore musings. That means his unrequited love for Maud Gonne and, indeed, Ireland. He switches easily from things pastoral and mythological to himself.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made..

He sees himself as the fok-hero; a throwback whose Irish pulse beats out the tunes of the West of Ireland as walks the streets of London

….on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core. 

This ability to see the heroic as well as its tawdry opposite is at the core of Yeats’ greatness. Love and friendship are all; a vision of a better life – of the aesthetic, of time-honoured values; of a striving for what is  noble, honest  and of good report.

When I think of the fragility of young love my mind trips easily into  Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne is captured in so many places and could provide an anthology for the lachrymose Kleenex brigade: The Pity of Love,The Sorrow of Love, When You Are Old, Never Give All The Heart etc ad infinitum. MG has a bloody lot to answer for. But it’s all lovely.  And the range of imagery surprises. The tough, near brutal, rhetorical love poem No Second Troy suggests that love for this passionate woman was inescapable for she had:

                                                    a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this..

His great friend Robert Gregory, shot down in the First World War was loved somewhat similarly for a carefree, perhaps careless dynamism captured in the wonderful An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that  shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight  do note hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

Here a timeless reminder of war’s absurdity but also the paradox of life, death, love, friensdships and fate which Yeats both embraced and wrestled with. He lost his best friend but his love for this noble renaissance man is enshrined in In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,

As ’twere all life’s epitome.

What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?

I think of bankers’ bonuses, of Carlos Tevez, of the murdered, innocent French schoolchildren; of British binge drinkers vomiting on the early morning streets our major cities (and elsewhere); of Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, rainforests and the arctic thaws. The extraordinary excesses and abuses of our lives have blunted the edges of proportion, decency, morality. We have bludgeoned ourselves into a hypnotic acceptance of what is – and our vision is blurred – even blinded – to what should be.

Yeats saw all this too. He hypothesises what Christ might find if he returned for a  Second Coming- indeed what sort of ‘Christbeast’ the early 20th century might have spawned:

And what rough beast,its hour come round at last

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The poem has the image of a gyre, spinning out of control – civilisation seemimgly at its extreme, depraved limit – Things fall apart the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. It’s uncomfortably close to our desensitised world of acceptance of : greed,  environmental disaster, human suffering, conflict and war, religious disharmony and the unstoppable mantra of ‘grow the economy’.

Yeats was a celebrated figure of post partition Ireland – a senator, politician, eminence grise of the inter World War years. He, however, dwelt on his (and our) failings and, in so doing was both indulgent and achingly memorable. He was a grumpy old man, recognising that, An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick. But he loved his friends, his country and his values. These stand out in his poetry, often underpinned by a craftsmanship that was fine-tuned over a lifetime and needs more attention that this brief blog. As an old politician he chuntered:

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics….

He concludes simply:

..O that I were young again

And held her in my arms

So while there was a continuing sense of disillusionment – even failure – finding its last expression in The Circus Animals’ Desertion – we are left with the sense of a rich life of energy and involvement and contribution. The declaiming last poem Under Ben Bulben is a typical call-to-arms:

Irish poets learn your trade

Sing whatever is well made,

He is passing the baton of purveying Ireland’s heritage through art and language to the next generation. He is sceptical that the challenge can be met by base born products of base beds but he set his stall out before the turn of the century:

Know, that I would accounted be

True brother of a company

That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,

Ballad and story, rann and song.

His dismay at what the world was doing to itself never overwhelmed him. He thought of that girl; he thought of Ireland’s ballad and story; he smiled at the thought of horseman, racing past his grave, no time to stop – just wave and ‘pass by’.

2 Responses to “William Butler Yeats 1865-1939. Wonderful Irish crackpot.”

  1. Alison Harrop April 27, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Lovely to hear all this and brilliant photo! Have pointed Roger towards it. Is it time to write your novel, perhaps ? xxx

  2. Joycelyn April 11, 2014 at 10:59 am #

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