Yeats Now: How WB’s poetry still echoes in our lives
Book Review: Joseph M Hassett makes a compelling case for Yeats’s human insights
William Butler Yeats in September 1935. He continues to be one of our most topical poets
Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life
Joseph M. Hassett
“No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy,” declares a character in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, quoted somewhat tongue-in-cheek by Joseph Hassett in this subtle and often illuminating study of what we can learn from Yeats – including about human intimacy – and how we can let his words echo in our own lives.
Examining a poet’s works for a vade mecum, or guide to life, as this book does, is always going to be a problematic business, as most poets do not in general set out to provide such a thing, and, if it happens, it is by definition a byproduct. Having said that, Hassett’s lively gleanings of Yeats’s wisdom, arranged in categories such as Marrying, Working, Making Your Soul and Facing Death, are a delight to read, reminding us once again, as if needed, of Yeats’s hard-won and lapidary insights into the nature of life, death, love and friendship.
The fundamental problem with this approach, which is that poetic utterance embodies a very particular kind of truth, has been nicely set up by Yeats himself, when he says in a letter to Elizabeth Pelham a few weeks before his death that “you can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence”. Things which are true within the word map of the poem are not necessarily able to withstand the truth value test. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote Auden, in his great elegy for Yeats. Sorry, Wystan, but the opposite has not been proven to be false.
Similarly, we are all familiar with Yeats’s line, “Humankind must choose perfection of the life or of the art.” Hassett quotes Zadie Smith on this: “Why must either life or work be perfect?” To which you might add the logical question: why can’t both be perfect? Yeats’s postulated contradiction between life and words which “alone are certain good” is not something you have to agree with to enjoy his poetry.
He hones in on how Yeats’s words echo through many of the poems of his successors, from Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop to Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith
However, there is also the widely shared view that poets can often express ideas and emotions that all of us feel, but are unable to articulate, “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”. Few poets have delivered as many memorable lines and phrases as Yeats, which, as well as expressing an emotion we feel, can also seem to reveal to us an emotion within ourselves which we didn’t know existed. Hassett gives the example of the young James Joyce, at the deathbed of his younger brother, for once lost for words, singing his own setting of Yeats’s poem Who goes with Fergus?’
And there is the vignette of Samuel Beckett, reeling away from the cremation of his friend Con Leventhal in Paris in 1979, who leans against a wall, wine glass in hand and recites the lines from The Tower: “Now shall I make my soul/ Compelling it to study/ In a learned school/ Till the wreck of body,/ Slow decay of blood,/ Testy delirium/ Or dull decrepitude,/ Or what worse evil come –”
This richly illustrated book reproduces a dedicatory page inscribed by Seamus Heaney to the author, describing him as “hearer and heartener”, and Hassett is an uncommonly acute and insightful reader of poetry, highly attuned to the noise made by the poem. He hones in on how Yeats’s words echo through many of the poems of his successors, from Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop to Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath and Patti Smith. Rare is the Irish poet whose poems do not include on some level, willingly or not, some echo of the master’s talismanic voice.
Yeats’s great gift, and one which poets are still learning from, would seem to be his ability, acquired “labouring in ecstasy”, to achieve maximum intensity with minimal means, using simple nouns and verbs as well as basic metres, turbocharging rhetoric to make some of the most memorable – and most-often quoted – lines in the English language.
Hassett cites Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole, who calculated that after the shock vote of the UK electorate to leave the EU, the phrase “the centre cannot hold” from The Second Coming, so beloved of politicians and journalists, was tweeted or retweeted 499 times – not to mention its ubiquity in the recent global health emergency. For this reason, it has been suggested that the rough beast should be put out to pasture for at least a couple of turns of the gyre. Hassett disagrees, pointing out that the poem’s currency is testament to Yeats’s success in creating poems that meet Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry as “news which stays news”.
Yeats, therefore, continues to be one of our most topical poets. Romantic Ireland is always dying and going, and the Dublin grocer class is still fumbling in a greasy – albeit digital – till.