How I’ve used WB Yeats in my role as an Irish Ambassador
Ireland’s representative in London on using the poet to introduce Ireland around the world
Poetic ties: former South African presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki; Mbeki based a keynote speech almost entirely on WB Yeats’s poem The Second Coming. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty
Poetic ties: Jawaharlal Nehru with his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post and the first woman president of the United Nations general assembly (as well as a former ambassador to Ireland). She said how important WB Yeats’s work had been to her family during the struggle for Indian independence. Photograph: Central Press/Getty
I can clearly recall the day when the unique literary standing of WB Yeats was brought home to me. It was in Kuala Lumpur in February 2003, and the 13th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was being held in the city. I was invited to the opening session, where I heard the movement’s outgoing chairman, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa – successor to Nelson Mandela – base his keynote speech almost entirely on Yeats’s The Second Coming.
The poem’s adamantine phrases peppered the president’s speech: “things fall apart”; “the centre cannot hold”; “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. Yeats’s lines tapped into the concerns of the assembled leaders at a time when, many of them probably felt, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”.
Yeats’s collected poems came into my possession in 1976, and I have been carrying this book around the world with me ever since. It is showing the effects of wear and tear, for I have dipped into it quite frequently in faraway places.
The poet’s work has served me well. It has opened doors in the countries where I have served. I have used it in my travels as a primer on Ireland and Irish identity. It has contributed to my own understanding of the Ireland in which Yeats lived, a defining era for the country I have been proud to represent internationally for more than three decades.
In India in 1980 I discovered that Yeats’s work provided us with a connection to the world’s largest democracy. On one occasion I met Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post and the first woman president of the United Nations general assembly (as well as being a former ambassador to Ireland). She recited a couple of Yeats poems and told me how important his work had been to her family during the struggle for Indian independence. Around the same time I shared a conference platform with a prominent Indian politician, Karan Singh, son of the last maharaja of Kashmir, who astonished me with his seemingly boundless ability to recite by heart large chunks of Yeats’s verse.
Much later, during my time in Berlin, I noticed that German visitors during Embassy open days would gaze in surprise at an old poster featuring our leading writers. I subsequently toured a Yeats exhibition around some of the major German universities, and, at a time when Ireland was in the news in Germany mainly on account of our economic travails, it was refreshing to find audiences who were eager to commune with our rich literary heritage.
Community of nationsAll countries aspire to gain the esteem of the community of nations, but this poses a constant challenge for smaller states like ours. There are various ways in which we present ourselves to the world, through our sustained contribution to UN peacekeeping and through the programmes run by Irish Aid, to give just two examples.
Our writers and other artists form an important part of what makes Ireland attractive to so many people around the world who might otherwise have far less interest in us. I probably shouldn’t put it this way, but I have employed Yeats over the years as an instrument of public diplomacy.
This brings me to my present role, in London, at a time of unprecedented amity between our two countries. It also coincides with the centenary of momentous events in Dublin and on the Western Front that changed both countries and remade relations between us.
William Butler Yeats was coming to the top of his game as war and revolution raged around him in the years between 1913 and 1923. Throughout his life he kept a close if often disdainful eye on public affairs in Ireland. Indeed, those troubled times sparked new life into his work. There is a sour, unpleasant tone to his 1914 collection, Responsibilities, with his jibes at “Paudeen”, “Biddy” and “the blind and ignorant town”, but this is replaced by the majestic sweep of his later poems, impressive meditations on his own life and the life of Ireland.
Yeats had it out with Ireland in September 1913, when he pronounced the death of “Romantic Ireland”, but Easter, 1916 signalled a resurrection of his engagement with the country of his birth and lifelong affiliation. With acute antennae, he quickly pinpointed the change wrought by the Easter Rising. Ireland had been “transformed utterly”.
In the years that followed he mulled over the War of Independence and the general disorder of the world, in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and The Second Coming. A little later he observed the Civil War from close range from Thoor Ballylee, his tower house in Co Galway, which drew from him a suite of fine meditative poems.
In each case memories of specific people or incidents triggered magisterial reflections: “a terrible beauty is born”; “man is in love and loves what vanishes”; “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; and “more substance in our enmities than in our love”.
Heaven’s embroidered clothsWhile images of Innisfree and “heaven’s embroidered cloths” sustain Yeats’s popularity, it is his more complex, later works that justify his claim to be regarded as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century.
The present set of centenaries offers an opportunity for us to deepen appreciation of that vital slice of our past. For Ireland and Britain this is a time for recognising the interlocking complexities of our histories – their separate dynamics as well as the overlaps between them.
I see Yeats as a worthy witness, particularly because he was from the start fretful and uncertain about the great changes unfolding around him. He is neither a cheerleader for the Easter Rising and its aftermath nor an opponent of what was happening in Ireland. What we have in Yeats is an engaged observer – both “cold and passionate”, as he might have put it – seeking to make sense of it all. That is why it is so rewarding to follow his path through those years of change.
For me it is difficult to engage with the events of 1916 without chewing on Yeats’s lines: “He too has resigned his part in the casual comedy”; “Hearts with one purpose alone . . . seem enchanted to a stone”; ‘We know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead; And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?’; “now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn”.
These eloquent witness statements will be especially relevant in the year ahead. I plan to call them in evidence in efforts to deepen understanding of events in Ireland that troubled “the living stream” a century ago.
Daniel Mulhall posts a daily #YeatsQuote on Twitter: @DanMulhall