WB Yeats, the Spanish flu and an experiment in quarantine
The elixir of love is potent medicine for all locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred
William Butler Yeats with his wife Georgie, who had life-threatening flu and pneumonia during the Spanish flu pandemic while expecting their first child. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
WB Yeats’s December 14th, 1918 letter to New York lawyer John Quinn alludes to the dramatic impact of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 on the Yeats family. He recounts that his wife George fainted upon receiving the telegraphed news that his father had been stricken with potentially fatal influenza and pneumonia. The poet’s initial impression that the fainting was caused by this news turned out to be wrong – in fact, George also had life-threatening flu and pneumonia.
The situation was especially dire because George was expecting their first child in February. The prospective parents were temporarily living in premises at 73 St Stephen’s Green that had been leased by Maud Gonne, the longtime elusive object of Yeats’s romantic pursuit and the subject of many of his poems.
The Yeatses had taken over Gonne’s lease for six months while she was imprisoned in England on suspicion of participating in a wartime conspiracy between Irish republicans and the Kaiser’s secret service. On November 24th, 1918, Gonne, who had been released on medical grounds, but barred from travelling to Ireland, suddenly appeared at the Yeatses’ door demanding entry. Given George’s condition, the potential for a police raid in search of Gonne, and the tight quarters occasioned by the presence of nurses attending George, Yeats refused entry to his erstwhile muse. A bitter quarrel ensued. Yeats eventually found new accommodationsdown the Green, his wife and father recovered, and Anne Butler Yeats was born on February 26th, 1919.
The month before Anne’s birth, her father was writing his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming, which famously declares:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned….
The first World War, the Russian revolution and incipient anarchy in Irish politics were part of the cauldron of disturbance out of which the poem emerged. Still, one wonders, following the lead of Ambassador Daniel Mulhall in The Irish Times on May 25th, 2020, whether the turmoil visited on the Yeats family by the 1918 pandemic was part of the mix. The Second Coming vividly captures a sense of the world spinning out of control.
Lessons to be discerned from this traumatic experiment in living were not articulated until three years later when the sequelae of 1918 merged with similar turmoil, troubling Yeats while he was isolated in his Galway tower amid the violence and uncertainty of civil war. The poem that emerged this time was The Stare’s Nest by My Window. It describes the circumstances of its origin in terms that resonate with the fear and anxiety we suffer while locked in, physically and psychologically, by Covid-19:
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty.
Yeats later explained that he responded to these pressures with “an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature”. He found the perfect metaphor for his reaction when he noticed that a “stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window”. Presently, “a strange thing happened. I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be…” He wrote the following lines “out of the feeling of the moment”:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Eavan Boland’s poem Yeats in Civil War beautifully celebrates the lesson of this Yeatsian experiment in living:
Somehow you arranged your escape
Aboard a spirit-ship which every day
Hoisted sail out of fire and rape,
And on that ship your mind was stowaway.
… Whatever we may learn
You are its sum, struggling to survive –
A fantasy of honey your reprieve.
WB Yeats maintained that “a poet’s life is an experiment in living and those that come after have a right to know it”. His declaration invites us to ask whether the experiment of his life can tell us anything about navigating the perils of pandemic and quarantine. His own experiment in living demonstrated that the elixir of love is potent medicine for anyone locked in by pandemic or the virus of hatred.
Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life by Joseph M Hassett is published by Lilliput Press