Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1933 – The Winding Stair, by WB Yeats

William Butler Yeats: inventing traditions. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

William Butler Yeats: inventing traditions. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

 

In Remorse for Intemperate Speech, one of the most often quoted poems from his 1933 volume The Winding Stair, William Butler Yeats accuses himself and his country of an inescapable inability to be civil:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.

Yeats was now 68, a Nobel laureate and a grand figure in world literature. Yet he remained in the best sense a fanatic. Much as he seeks in this long volume, bringing together 64 poems written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, images of order and serenity, he is still drawn to the wild, the dark and the passionate. There is no sense in this volume of a great artist in repose. Many of the poems come from a period when Yeats was suffering from a “nervous illness” and beset by fears of death, and they have within them a rage against the threatened dying of the light. The collection’s title refers literally to the stairs in Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’s Norman tower in Co Galway, and figuratively to the path towards death on which the poet twists and turns.

The energy of these poems still lies in Yeats’s long struggle between the desire for transcendence and the lust for transgression. His remorse for intemperate speech is only partial: Yeats’s method might be best described as intemperate speech tempered into artistic mastery. “Between extremities,” begins Vacillation, “man runs his course.” One of those extremes is Yeats’s vision of a world made whole; we read, in A Dialogue of Self and Soul:

We are blest by everything
Everything we look upon is blest.

The other is the awareness that this may not be so in “this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world” (Blood and the Moon). Both impulses are superbly gathered in the opening poem of the volume, In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz. Its first lines rapturously recall the youthful sisters in their house at Lissadell:

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Here everything is blest. And immediately the vision dissolves into rancourous, intemperate evocation of this “pig of a world”, filtered through Yeats’s conservative politics and his hatred of the sisters’ later radicalism. Markiewicz declines into “Conspiring among the ignorant”, Gore-Booth’s “skeleton-gaunt” face the mirror of her bad opinions. The power of the poem lies in neither of these extremes but in the tension between them.

The book as a whole is like that. On the one hand Yeats is self-consciously inventing new traditions. The “Romantic Ireland” that he once associated with the old Fenian John O’Leary is now located firmly in Coole Park, the home of his friend Augusta Gregory, which is repeatedly used in the volume as the location of an imagined ascendancy.

There is an insistence on placing himself ever more firmly in an Irish Protestant tradition, invoking a kind of intellectual genealogy in Edmund Burke, Bishop Berkeley and Jonathan Swift.

But on the other hand there is Crazy Jane, based on an old woman who lived in a cottage near Gort, through whom Yeats speaks in a series of seven poems. She is wild, earthy, reckless, fizzing with the energy of sex and defiance. She reminds Yeats and his readers that Ireland’s greatest poet is not yet ready for the sanctity of an honoured grave.

You can read more about WB Yeats in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; see ria.ie

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