Saving grace: how WB Yeats helped Eavan Boland to become a poet
As a teenager I escaped to a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and of heroic legends. Then I started out on my own struggle to write a poem in which I could hear my own voice
The poet’s hand: a manuscript of The Stolen Child, which appeared in WB Yeats’s early collection The Wandering of Oisin and Other Poems. Photograph: National Library of Ireland
New chapter: WB Yeats, whose poetry Eavan Boland first read as a teenager. Photograph: Bain/Library of Congress
I read WB Yeats first when I was a teenager. In boarding school, after dark, I took out the sturdy book with its burgundy covers and turned over page after page. In winter I used a torch. In summer I read by the late light. I got to know lines, then stanzas, then whole poems.
Later I would look back at those times not with wonder but with something more like puzzlement. I wasn’t particularly bookish in school. I wasn’t even studious. But I turned to that book, and then to some others he wrote, with a sense of adventure and intensity that I would rarely replicate later in my life.
But why? If poets have tribes, and many do, I had nothing at all to do with his. By the time I was reading him he had gathered the sort of adherents for whom I felt little sympathy. Ardent modernists, canonical close readers, high-caste theorists. Why was I adding myself to this readership?
There is a mystery and poignance to the way poets find one another. The process can never be mutual. It is always the younger poet in a later generation who does the finding. It is always left to the younger poet to work out a process built on artifice and illusion: to make a connection across time and distance that is part scrutiny and all invention. At the end of the process, after all the memorising and inscribing, the older poet remains intact in both meaning and achievement. It is the younger one who is revealed.
What was revealed to me was how willing I was in this initial encounter to enter a Yeatsian world of lakes, of spirits hidden inside mountain winds and heroic legends. How easily I passed into all this, like an unchallenged ghost. Now I look back, I know the key to my first response was not the truth of his representation but the depth of my own displacement.
I had returned to Ireland at the age of 14 having lived for years outside the country. I knew instinctively that I lacked a secret language of location that turns a child into an adult who fits in. I missed the sense of belonging that both reveals and restricts the meaning of place. Without those signals of self I was able to accept without questioning Yeats’s artifice and invention: his landscapes filled with improbable spirits and perfect language needed no standard of proof for me. There was no other place waiting for me. I adopted his and made it my own.
So began my late teenage years and the beginning of my 20s, when I knew many of his poems by heart. Stanzas, epigrams, exclamations guided some inner space whenever I summoned them. His words entered my mind the way melody enters the mind of someone who loves songs: a framing device well beyond the subject matter of what’s remembered. It seemed back then that I had acquired not just a possession but also a comfort zone. And I might have remained there. I might have stayed grateful for the Virgilian companionship of a poet whose well-phrased dramas and dramatic phrases brought more dignity to my everyday life than I could have provided.
But my life changed. I married. I went to live in a suburb. I had small daughters and daily tasks. I began to lose track of the city I once allowed him to imagine for me. I now lived among school runs and suburban expansion. And yet I could still remember how I had once thrilled to his bitter, eloquent tract The Death of Synge. How his inventory of Synge’s qualities had once seemed a small autobiographical snapshot of his own: “He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy.”
Yet something had shifted. And this, I’m sure, is always the turning point between poets of different generations: the perpetual pivot. When the younger one can no longer allow the older one to imagine his or her life. I was still reading Yeats. But I no longer turned to his poems to map a location I couldn’t map for myself. I had my own city now. My own life. I had started out on my own struggle to write a poem in which I could hear my own voice.
And this could have been the moment I lost my connection with William Butler Yeats. Just the realisation that I lived in a different country, at a different time, with different values and a sense of the poet’s life at odds with his might have been done it. Often enough that is how one poet stops reading another. How early influence becomes grateful forgetfulness. It could have been that for me except for one thing: my point of contact with Yeats was no longer reading his poems. It was trying to write my own.
It was through this that I began to see that the issue for me with Yeats was not a horizon or a suburb. Not a century’s distance or a type of landscape. It was a slip of linguistic real estate that he owned and I longed for. It was the lyric poem. A poem that had languished at the end of the 19th century, adorned with too many words and safe sentiments. A poem he had found and restored.
The promise of that restoration comes in a passage from his early memoirs: “Some one at the Young Ireland Society gave me a newspaper that I might read some article or letter. I began idly reading verses describing the shore of Ireland as seen by a returning, dying emigrant. My eyes filled with tears and yet I knew the verses were badly written – vague, abstract words such as one finds in a newspaper. I looked at the end and saw the name of some political exile who had died but a few days after his return to Ireland. They had moved me because they contained the actual thoughts of a man at a passionate moment of life.”
I began to see Yeats’s faith in personal utterance as a blueprint, an escape route for the modern poet. His choice of the lyric showed the possibility of building a form that was an ecosystem for the weather of changes and sorrows.
Now when I took down his book I was no longer looking at the stylised and abstract landscapes he invented nor at the rhetoric he used to commend them. I was seeing with surprise and admiration his unerring progress towards a stronger lyric always being made ready for a more vulnerable humanity.
His fear of ageing, his humiliation in memory, his loss of strength – for these dark themes he made a light skiff of language.
The stanzaic control of Sailing to Byzantium, the gruff music of Cuchulain Comforted and the power of The Circus Animals’ Desertion all show this. And all can be connected back to the moment on shipboard, when the emigrant’s inexpert words made his eyes fill with tears.
For someone like myself, trying in those earlier years to make both language and structure from unlikely everyday materials, his involvement with the lyric was critical. It was also a complex problem-solving example for any poet who wanted to look more closely.
The time-wasting debates in contemporary poetry, which would crop up in almost every decade in the 20th century, about autobiography and disclosure, about the persona versus the self, are set in context by Yeats’s later work. For his purpose there was no difference between the invented self and the revealed one. They are indistinguishable, both linked to his project of finding the most powerful medium to express the most powerless human state: ageing, mortality and loss.
I still remember those evenings reading Yeats in a new way. Opening the same book in a different light. Looking at those cadences of power and music in a house beneath the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, where every car headlight, every lamp in every suburban living room signalled an Ireland he would have raged against. I remember thinking how he would have lamented this new world, how little the poet of those Sligo reflections would have found to console himself with in the busy streets and crowded supermarkets.
And yet, for me as a poet who lived in that world, who wanted to find a language for it and for the life I lived there, his example was, ironically, a saving grace. His mapping of the relation between a durable lyric form and a vulnerable human experience remains one of the great formal achievements of poetry. And it still seems to me one of the most moving parts of Yeats’s legacy that this poet, who had such a complex and troubled relation to democracy, in the end left his great invention there open and available, for anyone to find.
Eavan Boland’s latest volume of poetry is A Woman Without a Country (Carcanet Press). She is a professor of English and director of the creative-writing programme at Stanford University, in California