Eileen Battersby: WB Yeats was a towering figure in Irish life
Paying tribute to the many faces and phases of Ireland’s global literary giant
WB Yeats: a prevailing influence in the making of modern Ireland. He would seem to be not only Ireland’s enduring great poet, but the major Irish public man of the 20th century. Photograph: Getty Images
It all begins with the birth of a first child, a baby son, born in Sandymount, Dublin, 150 years ago today. And whether or not a squadron of enchanted beings actually did flutter about his head, there was little chance that William Butler Yeats would be other than an artist. Small matter how many stories were to fill the imagination of the boy who delighted in the magical Co Sligo countryside of his Pollexfen mother’s family, little Yeats, the eldest of six children, must have grown up aware of his unhappy lawyer father’s determination to paint.
The family shuttled back and forth between Ireland and England. John B Yeats did become a portrait painter although history remembers him as the father of a gifted brood including a Nobel Laureate poet, a world-class painter and two indomitable daughters who were pioneers of the arts and crafts movement.
Possibly the finest English-language poet of the 20th century ,William Butler Yeats was also a national poet, an eccentric seer, whose genuine love of his country never deflected his rise as an international artist. His vision is romantic, heroic, epic; his art told his story while also shaping the identity of the nation he wanted Ireland to be. His legacy is so immense, even overpowering, some Irish poets simply looked elsewhere, inwards. Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh had their own voice, leaving the young Thomas Kinsella to battle Yeats’s ghost. Louis MacNeice was influenced by Yeats as is Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.
Seamus Heaney never felt obliged to deal with the Yeatsian tone as he recalled never having read him until he was in his 30s. No, Heaney was never either guided or burdened by Yeats. It is fascinating, though, to consider that while Heaney did confront the political and tribal unrest in Northern Ireland his work draws on a powerful, zoom-in sense of personal memory, Yeats with a keen eye on posterity used a broader lens. He emulated Jonathan Swift’s sense of being driven by a responsibility to his country.
The first Irish writer since Yeats to share this cohesively responsible approach is playwright Brian Friel who openly addressed the conflict in Northern Ireland while exploring the competing national cultures within Ireland. Yeats, quoted by school children and statesmen, casts a huge shadow and continues to do so. Only Shakespeare and possibly Dickens are more frequently quoted. Yeats hovers and now, 76 years since his death, continues to do so. As Stravinsky is to 20th-century classical music, or Picasso is to 20th-century art, so too stands Yeats to international poetry.
He was culturally engaged – he championed a national literature; Yeats was a Modernist, albeit one influenced by an earlier visionary, William Blake. He was also a symbolist and was initially drawn to French symbolism, while also deferring to the traditional forms. As an artist he mastered the core techniques, he was inspired if deliberate and calculating. The self-absorbed young romantic became the passionate seer. He was an original; magisterial yet daring. His lyric, rhythmic verse exudes sophisticated, rhetorical power. Radical in ways, he did not, however, dismiss the voices that preceded him. Instead he embraced forebears such as James Clarence Mangan, Thomas Davis and most particularly, Samuel Ferguson as “a company/That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong/Ballad and story, rann and song.” (From To Ireland in the Coming Times.) It was Yeats who supplanted Thomas Moore as the national poet. Whereas Moore’s romantic celebration of the folk memory lulled and seduced, Yeats, who also knew the folklore and through his Co Sligo connections was shaped by it, perfected eloquently controlled rage.
In a career spanning more than half a century – and Yeats during his final days was still writing, still planning, still dreaming – he evolved dramatically as an artist, from the floppy-haired Victorian aesthete penning the beautiful lyric verse collections of Crossways (1889), featuring works such as Down by the Salley Gardens, or The Rose (1893) with The Lake Isle of Innisfree, to the stern visionary observing the developing state with the intensity of an exasperated parent evident throughout his seminal quest volume, The Tower collection (1928) and Last Poems (1939), including masterpieces such as The Statues, Long-legged Fly and The Circus Animals’ Desertion.
James Joyce glowered magnificently in exile; Yeats, a mystic by nature, remained in Ireland, aside from lengthy sojourns in England, Italy and France, and was to reveal ever increasing layers of political consciousness – and pragmatism.
Never mind living in exciting times, which included the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, domestic rebellion and world war – Yeats lived in an exciting household, full of talk, anecdote, frustration and hysteria; his father’s hopes, his ailing mother’s despair. Childhood summers spent in Co Sligo with his mother’s family introduced him to myth and legend, the notion of stories, faeries and ghosts lurking in every stone. An imagination could not help but soar. His London years helped shape his awareness of being caught between cultures. He certainly saw the artist as an outcast. As a schoolboy at the Godolphin school in Hammersmith he did poorly. Back in Ireland he went to High School. Purists criticised his lack of Irish but concession should be made for his disrupted schooling.
Change, always change. Yeats was born into a world in which Queen Victoria sat resplendent on the throne of an empire, 28 years into a reign which would last a further 35. He was not quite the Anglo-Irish patrician he is frequently classifies as; his family resided on the margins of the discreet waning of Irish Protestant ascendancy life. Yeats was a middle- class, and undeniably, lofty Dublin Protestant who, though rejecting violence, wanted the English out of Ireland and sought the dawning of a revival celebrating the Gaelic past. Nor did he go to university; he attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, now the National College of Art and Design. While there he met George Russell, AE, who shared his interest in mystical religion, the occult and things supernatural. Art became life for Yeats.
Artistic torment he realised was vital in achieving artistic greatness. He needed urgently an unattainable muse, he decided, and at 21 he found her in the volatile radical Maud Gonne, who would play the title role in his subversive play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, in 1902; inspire his finest poetry; and, having spent some 14 years rejecting his offers of marriage, remain a presence until his death. While Gonne, who survived him, again by 14 years, living on until 1953, is considered the possible cause for his turning to politics, the young Yeats had already been touched by the fire of the old Fenian John O’Leary. By the late 1890s onwards Yeats’s involvement with the cultural ambitions of the Irish Literary Theatre, soon to become the Abbey Theatre, had placed him within the context of cultural politics. National politics beckoned ever closer.
Public reaction to The Playboy of the Western World famously offered Yeats a master class in how culture and society interact. It also positioned Yeats firmly within the nationalist political lobby. The Literary Revival had in itself given Yeats a political role. Through it he was actively participating in shaping a national consciousness. The detached artist was, by drawing on aspects of Celtic myth, legend and story, devising a plan for what the “new” idealised Ireland was to become. Little wonder that the supreme isolationist Joyce disapproved as Yeats’s “theatre business, management of men” acquired a national purpose. It is interesting that whereas Parnell was so valid a presence for Joyce the Catholic, Yeats the Protestant only became drawn to him much later. It took the abrupt fall and early death of Parnell to alert Yeats to the dead leader’s tragic, and therefore, romantic potential: “He might have brought the imagination of Ireland nearer the Image and the honeycomb” (From Autobiographies). For Yeats, O’Leary was a far more immediately inspirational, quasi-paternal presence.
Intended as a grand gesture rather than a serious bid for independence, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 took all but the participants by surprise. Most commentators, Yeats included, who was at the time living in England, disapproved of the rebellion. His friend and fellow modernist poet Ezra Pound greeted it as merely something “to give that country another set of anecdotes to keep it going another hundred years”. Yeats had publicly disassociated himself from Pearse’s politics and had also attacked Eoin Mac Neill. This attitude would change as the leaders were executed and suddenly became martyrs, and therefore more appealing. When Yeats presented Easter, 1916, it was Gonne who correctly detected the ambivalence at its heart.
Early in life while an art student Yeats had discovered the supernatural. Spirituality and symbols were to preoccupy him and he was drawn to the occult. His excursions into this as a member of The Order of the Golden Dawn has helped consolidate theories that Yeats was at best eccentric and at worst, mildly crazy. It is far more complex than this; Yeats was a magician confident of an existence beyond death that bypassed conventional religion.
Time and again when exploring the life and work of Yeats, the reader is struck by the depth of his thought. He was a profound thinker and for a man who lived and loved so much in the real world, he was fascinated by death and the spirit world. It is as if Yeats, no matter how engaged in life around him – and he was an organiser and an embracer of causes, many of them lost – always lived at a remove. Admittedly, he did things differently, even to finally getting married at the relatively late age of 52 to the heroically supportive George Hyde Lees – of whom he wrote “comely & joyous & aged but 24. She is a great student of my subjects & has enough money to put us above anxiety” – and fathering his two children, Michael and Anne, at an age at which most people are welcoming their grandchildren.
In 1919, looking back on the 1890s, Yeats, as Shirley Neuman records, describes himself as having “three interests: interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality.” By 1904 Yeats, when writing to AE, George Russell, is condemning the “exaggeration of sentiment and sentimental beauty” of his own early poems. Yeats’s reasons are obvious: he has discovered politics – a new deliberation is about to enter his work. The autobiographical as used by Yeats is informative, never confessional. He places his experience within the context of history and approaches his idea of a unity of being as symbolised by a tree, his image of Ireland. It was Yeats who grasped Ireland’s political and cultural hatreds and balanced this awareness against his nationalist aspirations and his vision for the Abbey Theatre.
Considering the weight of his poetic achievement – even his elegist, the great WH Auden, in fairness approaches rather than challenges Yeats as the finest English-language poet of the 20th century – it is easy to see why the range of Yeats’s prose writing is so often missed. This is partly explained by the divided reactions to his plays.
Yeats was an obsessive writer. He not only wrote more than 7,000 letters, he published volumes of prose on a range of subjects including philosophy. There is also Yeats the speech maker. On entering the Senate in 1922 he proved an active member during his six-year term which would be dominated by his spirited speech on divorce in 1925, defending the Protestant right to a civil freedom which was being threatened by the new State’s ban. “We are no petty people,” Yeats argued, summoning Swift, Henry Grattan, George Berkeley and Parnell in a powerful defence of his own culture. But there was more to it than this. Having spent years supporting the establishment of an Irish State and having articulated a heroic conception of the role of the Anglo-Irish, Yeats, the canny politician, was capable of magnificently turning this against the pieties of the new State. A convert to nationalism, Yeats then discovered, ironically, that once this culture was consolidated, he had to defend his own.
The poems of The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) and increasingly, Responsibilities (1914) and The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), reveal the singular clarity that marks the best of his work. They are also poems in which Yeats is not only serving art, he is responding to his changing country by chronicling those changes. Yeats always conceded that he was a mystic but he liked to remind people he was also practical. For all the dreaminess and the theatricality – throughout his life he favoured touches of flamboyance in his dress – he had impressive presence of mind.
On route to thunder abuse at the dissenting opening-night Abbey audience attending O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926: “You have disgraced yourselves, again”, Yeats was sufficiently prepared to deliver a copy of his speech to the Irish Times office before arriving at the theatre. Conor Cruise O’Brien identified the poet’s singular opportunistic blend of “passion and cunning” – from the famous, often discussed essay of the same title which was published in 1965 – that sustained Yeats throughout a remarkable public career. Here was a dreamer who became a political player possessed of astute political consciousness.
Yeats was egocentric, obsessive, and certainly a bit odd, yet he was also aware of everything, aware even of Fascism which briefly attracted him. This, of course, has been gleefully pounced upon by his detractors who saw him as a supporter of Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. Others would never forgive him for not learning Irish.
Yet the wonderful difficulty about Yeats is that even those who deplore his elitism and alleged snobbery – he appears to have been terrific company even if he did have a somewhat unsettling habit of declaiming his poetry in bizarrely surreal tones that contrast with his Edwardian Irish accent – is that it is impossible not to admire him. Yeats in old age battled against time with a desperate creative urgency akin to that of Picasso in his final paintings.
There are many faces to Yeats the poet; the young romantic, the frustrated lover pursuing a wilful woman and later her daughter, Iseult, by then already a former mistress of Pound. Yeats the lyric poet, the public poet; the speech maker, the commentator, the visionary, the large man in the wide hat complete with monocle, the openly unfaithful but indulged husband, the legend, the international literary giant. He was all these things as well as a prevailing influence in the making of modern Ireland. He would seem to be not only Ireland’s enduring great poet, but the major Irish public man of the 20th century.
Footage of the return of his body to Ireland in September 1948, nine years after his death in France, evokes images of a warrior restored to his people. It is a theatrical pilgrimage of which Yeats would have approved. Above all he believed in Ireland. What an incredible life’s journey which began on a June day in 1865 for a little baby born 150 years today.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent