‘Given the choice of compromise or fight, WB Yeats rolled up his sleeves every time’

Yeats could apply that same laser-like intelligence to public affairs that he applied to his poetry or drama, and he laid down arguments that are vital to our current National Cultural Policy

So much Irish cultural debate is fixated on the idea of commemoration, and as the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of WB Yeats’s birth come to an end, it might be time to ask, why commemorate Yeats?

The side of Yeats that is most amenable to commemoration is his public persona. If there is a constant in Yeats’s life as a public figure in Ireland, it would be his active pursuit of controversy: given the choice of a harmonious compromise or a fight, Yeats rolled up his sleeves every time.

There was his visionary scheme to build an art gallery arching over the river Liffey to house Hugh Lane's collection of pictures, or his lively, controversy-stoking interventions in the protests over JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World in 1907. Those who protested against the play, he told The Freeman's Journal on the week of the riots, were clearly people who "have been so long in mental servitude that they cannot understand life if their head is not in some bag" - hardly words to defuse a situation. In 1926, when protests erupted over Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, Yeats stood imperiously on the Abbey stage and told the protestors: "You have disgraced yourselves again" – prompting one to throw a shoe at him.

Less well known, however, are his public interventions in those same years when he was a member of Seanad Éireann. In particular, there is his speech opposing the introduction of legislation banning divorce, delivered on June 11th, 1925. His defence of the Church of Ireland population of Ireland in that speech is well known: "We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe." However, less well known is the passage that precedes it, in which he argues against the prohibition on divorce because it would violate a more basic principle: toleration. "I have said that this is a tolerant country. I have no doubt whatever that, when the iceberg melts it will become an exceedingly tolerant country."


This was a remarkable prediction to make in 1925: Yeats would have seemed prescient indeed in the light of events on May 22nd, 2015, when Ireland voted resoundingly for something that would have been all but unimaginable 90 years earlier - marriage equality.

Yeats argued that legislating for divorce involved a confusion of what he called “the religious mind” of Ireland, which he argued was something quite different from “the political mind”. For a writer who spent so much of his life in pursuit of the spiritual (and, indeed, spirits), this was a remarkable statement. To have made it in 1925, at a time when the strongly expressed official view was that “the religious mind” and “the political mind” should be one and the same, was to court more than controversy: it was to declare war.

When he chose to, Yeats could apply that same laser-like intelligence to public affairs that he applied to his poetry or drama, or to the management of the Abbey theatre; and when he did so, the effects still resonate. Yeats the public figure, by being at odds with his own time, in some ways speaks to ours.

And yet, with Yeats, the easy way never quite works, for running through his writing is a distinct discomfort with his role as a public controversialist, which he seemed to embrace with such bravado. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, he chose to focus his acceptance speech – arguably the most public statement he would ever make in his life – on his involvement (and that of his closest collaborators, JM Synge and Lady Gregory) with the Abbey Theatre. It was not that he thought his theatre work more important than his poetry, he later observed; it was that poetry and prizes were of two completely different orders. "If I had been a lyric poet only, if I had not become the representative of a public movement, I doubt if the English committees would have placed my name upon that list from which the Swedish Academy selects its prize-winner," he later observed. "They would not have acknowledged a thought so irrelevant, but those dog-eared pages, those pressed violets, upon which the fame of a lyric poet depends at the last, might without it have found no strong voice."

For Yeats, his life as a public figure was the very antithesis of what happens in his poetry. And it was typical of him that a few years later he would make this into the basis of one of his great poems, Among School Children, from 1927.

One of the characteristics of Yeats’s poetry is an ability to shift perspective; triggered by a single word, he can move from one point of view to another, opposite way of seeing. This is what happens here. The poem starts in the first person - “I” - and it proceeds from the eyes of the “I”, as it were, in a kind of cinematic sequence, in which we peer through the visiting dignitary’s eyes at the “kind old nun”, and “the children”, and then on to the inspection of their accomplishments: “to study reading-books and history/ To cut and sew, be neat in everything”. However, in the fifth line, it is suddenly as if the camera is reversed, and we now find ourselves looking through the eyes of the schoolchildren “in momentary wonder” (a phrase with a certain element of self-deprecation) at something only passingly remarkable: “A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” If ever there was a phrase that captured so much of what presents itself, in all of its helpless inadequacy, at public commemorations, it is this: “a sixty-year-old smiling public man”. We can almost hear the children whisper to one another: “He looks shorter in real life…”

To cut, stitch, and put the world together in a "neat", rational order, is to be "modern", one of Yeats's key words. Just what might be on the other side of "modern" can be found in his reflections on winning the Nobel Prize a few years earlier. "I think as I speak these words", he writes in 1924, paying public tribute to those who worked with him in the Abbey Theatre, "of how deep down we have gone, below all that is individual, modern and restless, seeking foundations for an Ireland that can only come into existence in a Europe that is still but a dream". In Among School Children, the word "modern" triggers the same rupture, the same search for what he calls "the dream", and the next stanza opens in a completely different register: "I dream of a Ledaean body, bent/ Above a sinking fire, a tale that she/ Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event/ That changed some childish day to tragedy". Suddenly, the poem erupts into the kind of poetic fervour and complexity that the external face of the "sixty-year-old smiling public man" simply cannot accommodate. The poem then moves through a further five stanzas of this kind of impassioned "dream", culminating in its resonant final lines: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

If this is what poetry – indeed, art – ultimately comes down to: that moment when the dancer and the dance lose their individual identities, that moment of the “brightening glance”, how do we square that with the “sixty-year-old smiling public man”? How do we commemorate it? And, more importantly, how do we encompass it in public policy?

Earlier this year, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys announced that she would be putting in place a National Cultural Policy, and to initiate discussions the department published its Culture 2025 document. Earlier this year, I helped to draft the Royal Irish Academy's advice paper in response to Culture 2025. In a kind of silent tribute to Yeats, I decided to begin with a principle that, to my mind, is the foundation of all that Yeats did as a poet, and much that he did as a person: "Culture 2025 should be underpinned by a powerful statement recognising the intrinsic value of culture and heritage, in all its forms, and hence the need for it to be supported by the state."

The economic value of culture in an Irish context is well established. A 2012 Indecon Report, for instance, argued that “the total Wider Arts sector GVA [Gross Value Added] contribution to the Irish economy is estimated at €713.3 million”, and if we add in multipliers in related areas such as tourism, the net value to the Irish economy of the arts is much greater.

There are other arguments, beyond economic factors.The home page of the "Arts" section of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht website defines the value of the arts as "societal, economic, and reputational". In other words, the official view is that the arts make our society a better place to live; the arts can give citizens a voice; they can contribute directly to the economy, and they can factor into economic growth indirectly by growing "brand Ireland", and by creating the kind of creative community that attracts the creative individuals who drive a smart economy.

The problem with this is that all of these arguments locate the value of the arts elsewhere. To put it simply, whether we are arguing that the arts can provide citizens with a sense of value, or can produce tourism revenue, we are still saying that the arts only have value when they do something else, something that is not art.

Yeats tells us otherwise. Pulled out of the immediate context of his poems, the language sounds hopeless woolly: the “dream”, the “brightening glance”, the “pressed violets” of poetry. However, for Yeats it is not the poetry that is inadequate in the face of the “smiling public man”; it is the other way around. And it is this sense that Yeats defies commemoration. So it may be that the only way in which we can really commemorate Yeats is by taking up the challenge he lays down to us: to find a way in which the public face of culture - the policies, the smiling officials, the commemorations - can make possible that which they can never fully accommodate: the dream, the brightening glance.

As always, Yeats himself puts it best. There is a poem in The Wild Swans at Coole called Tom O'Roughley that may not be Yeats's best-known, or, indeed, his best: but it lays down a challenge to a national cultural policy that we cannot afford to ignore:

“ ‘Though logic-choppers rule the town,

And every man and maid and boy

Has marked a distant object down,

An aimless joy is a pure joy,’

Or so did Tom O’Roughley say

That saw the surges running by,

‘And wisdom is a butterfly

And not a gloomy bird of prey.’ ”

Chris Morash is the Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing in Trinity College Dublin, and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. This is an edited version of the lecture, Why Commemorate Yeats, delivered in the Long Room Hub on December 8th as part of the Yeats 150th anniversary commemorations