Poet was 'determined to grasp once again love' before his death


THE NATIONAL Library is not a venue where you expect to hear sex discussed, but WB Yeats’s sex life and the poems it inspired in his final decade was the key topic of a lively public talk there by Prof Roy Foster.

Prof Foster and actor Fiona Shaw, who gave powerfully invigorating readings of a number of Yeats’s later poems, were both taking part in the National Library’s month-long programme of events, Summer’s Wreath, to mark the 60th anniversary of the poet’s death.

“Poets are ruthless in their search for a theme, especially if they are suffering a block from the imaginative engine,” Prof Foster, author of an acclaimed biography of Yeats, told the audience on Wednesday evening. Five years before Yeats’s death, he had a vasectomy, which had “the superficial effect of reviving desire. Yeats was determined to grasp once again love.”

Prof Foster spoke of how the poet had many lovers in his final years, including Dorothy Wellesley and Olivia Shakespeare, and how he searched for wisdom through the experience of love late in life.

What Prof Foster described as “the earthy pulse of sex” was apparent, he said, in his remarkable later poems such as Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman. “Ghosts and their sex lives preoccupied him.”

The middle verse of this poem reads:

A lonely ghost the ghost is

That to God shall come;

I – love’s skein upon the ground,

My body in the tomb –

Shall leap into the light lost

In my mother’s womb.

Fiona Shaw’s only intervention of the evening was after reading this poem, which she described smilingly as “being about necrophilia, actually”.

Prof Foster told the audience that Yeats’s spirit “haunts this building, where he spent much time as an apparently shambolic student”.

The poet is the subject of the National Library’s very popular Yeats exhibition, which was supposed to end its three-year run this summer. However, the library will be extending the exhibition for another year, as it has been getting such an enthusiastic response from the public.

While most of the talk focused on the later love poems, and on associated topics of “bitter wisdom” and ageing, Foster also spoke about Yeats’s brief interest in the Blueshirts in the 1930s, when he was involved in writing marching songs for them.

Summer’s Wreath events continue at the National Library until June 30th.

Tonight, Bob Geldof is speaking about Yeats (wait-list availability only). Participants for the rest of the month include novelist Edna O’Brien, film-maker Neil Jordan, artist Robert Ballagh, actor Adrian Dunbar and musicians The Waterboys. There will be a one-day immersion course on Yeats’s life and poetry on Monday, given by academic Gerard Dineen.

All events are free but ticketed. See also: www.nli.ie/yeats.