Why we still love WB Yeats after 150 years
A century and a half to the day since William Butler Yeats was born, Edna O’Brien, Paula Meehan, Philip King, Caitriona Yeats and Cathal Coughlan say why his work still matters
Old favourite: WB Yeats. Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress
I love Yeats’s work, and I think the range is phenomenal. As we know, but which we have to keep remembering, his interests were poetry, philosophy, mysticism and politics. That’s a big haul, and he encompassed all those qualities in the range of poetry. He said himself that his first poems were all foam and cloud; that is partly true – there is some cloud – but there was also an enormous mythic depth.
His obsession with ancient history, which wasn’t anything to do with the foolish idea of folklore, was about ancestral legacies. He talks about Cú Chulainn battling with the bitter tide, and I would say if Yeats were on earth today, and he was asked the question, he himself would say that he had to battle with the bitter tide of writing not only great poetry – and it is excruciating to write anything great – but also to battle with those who did not appreciate him.
My favourite poem of his – although I don’t understand it – is his last poem, The Black Tower. To go from the early poems to this is a huge lifetime of work, thought and dedication. And he was right when he said, “Irish poets, learn your trade.” I think he would have said it to himself, also, and I wish more contemporary writers of prose and poetry would take it in. He kept on learning and perfecting his trade, and I admire somebody who stays the course and improves with time.
But back to me saying that I didn’t understand The Black Tower. What I get from it is a fierceness that could be political or patriotic, or even one layer deeper into the human necessity of maintaining belief, loyalty, heroism and whatever that heroism is towards. What makes the poem so extraordinary is that on the many rereadings – and I have often read it – the mystery of it, and the wildness in it, and the honour of it are all in there.
And, like any great work, there is something else in there, also, which is why I can’t really explain it. He probed right through his life, constantly and ceaselessly – whether it was Maud Gonne’s hair, the cliffs of Sligo, Cú Chulainn or whatever. The Black Tower fulfils that probing, and as readers we probe our different interpretations of it.
Yeats has given us – and I think he would like the description – an argosy of great poetry to read, learn, apply ourselves to, reread, never forget, and be made larger for it. When I say the word “aristocratic” I’m not talking of class, but he had a huge aristocracy of mind. His standards were very high, and he didn’t fall from that.
Musician and songwriter
I appreciated the work I knew when I was at secondary school, and I appreciate it more now, though differently. Poems such as September 1913, The Second Coming and, most of all, Sailing to Byzantium (which we studied) were unforgettable.
From then, however, until the past decade my disregard for Yeats and the poetry was the product of some awareness of his eccentricities, of recollections of his occasional ill-advised political associations, and of a disdain for the ascendancy Ireland of which he was, of course, a (complex and patriotic) product. This was a mistake. To a long-term exile such as myself, still much in thrall to his land of birth, Yeats’s poetry has much to say – much that is surprising, rigorous and challenging, especially in the later work.
The most striking aspect of his work is the use of vernacular language – barring the occasional pivotal “gyre”, the intermittent high-classical references and the recourse to classical syntax – to construct images which are at once explosive and resistant to easy explanation.
It’s probably fatuous to note the urge to transcendence which is everywhere in his work, but, as time went on – particularly in the very angular and strange work of his final decade – this goes from being a facet which is merely beautiful and touching in itself (as in an earlier work such as The Song of Wandering Aengus) to being a vehicle or backdrop for conveying complex feelings which are beyond easy verbal announcement (as in Cuchulain Comforted, for example).
I can’t say that he’s had any influence on my work that I’m aware of. Beyond that, however, the courageous, hard and unceasing work, and the life of Yeats himself, give me lasting cause to reflect differently on what I do, and on why it might be that I do it.
Cathal Coughlan performs in Blood & the Moon: A Provocation on Yeats at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on September 13th and 14th, 2015
Film-maker and producer
Yeats’s work has always had some purchase for me. Poems like The Fiddler of Dooney, a simple poem, and Down by the Salley Gardens, those touched me. And, a little later on, someone recorded a version of The Song of Wandering Aengus; there was romance shot through it, and something intensely musical in the way it was written that I found incredibly attractive. And then, as we were at school, reading poems, Yeats shone very largely because I was reading a lot of history at the same time. And so running in parallel with Yeats the poet was a voice of Ireland post-Famine, the Fenian brotherhood, the IRB and, as Yeats called them, the vivid faces, the people who were beginning a cultural movement: the Conradh na Gaeilge, the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, and his relationship with all of that part of society that led us to Easter 1916. And here we are, 100 years later, looking back on Yeats and also looking back to that centenary; they may not all have been looking for the same outcome, but there was a sensation of Irishness, Ireland, language, literature and difference that was certainly rolled up in much of Yeats’s work.
With regards to familiarity with his work, it is comings and goings. You know the way you’d ask a traditional singer how many songs are they singing, and they’d reply, ‘I know 100, but I’m singing 10 of them at the minute’? I probably have a lot of Yeats’s poems in my head’s hard drive, and some of them come out at different times.
One poem that is consistently with me is The Second Coming – those beautiful lines “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. Poets get to the heart of the matter, and Yeats, certainly in some of his work, did just that.
Harpist, the poet’s granddaughter
I don’t see what I do with regard to the work or legacy of my grandfather as a duty. It isn’t something I find difficult. Duty suggests that you do something you don’t really want to, but my feeling is to try as best I can to look after the family legacy.
I own the copyright to WB and Jack Yeats. My father left them to me, but I feel I own them in the name of my family. I maintain the legacy in the public eye, so that it isn’t forgotten, but I don’t do it in an aggressive manner; I will support other people doing the work, but I don’t personally feel in any way qualified, in that I’m not an academic.
When I was growing up I was aware of him, of course – we knew we had a famous poet in our family background – and, indeed, a famous painter, Uncle Jack, who was also my godfather. I think when you’re young the most important thing is that you get your own identity and do your own thing. You have the security of feeling that you have your own distinct personality and career, if you like. We’ve all done that, and once I established myself as Caitriona Yeats, harpist, then it became much easier to acknowledge that you have a famous man in your background.
I have to say that I don’t read his poems on a regular basis, but when I do read and think about them, what I enjoy depends on where I am in my life. I couldn’t really say that I have a favourite, and some I understand better than others. Not being an academic, I wouldn’t necessarily understand all the hidden depths of anyone’s poems, but I very much enjoy hearing people discuss my grandfather’s poetry. I love the music in his poetry, the flow and beauty of the language, so it’s always interesting to hear the viewpoints of people who have studied it, who see hidden depths in it that I might not see. It’s very interesting, and shows another side of it.
Ireland professor of poetry
I grew up with, through and in Yeats, firstly in Miss Shannon’s class in the Central Model girls’ school in Gardiner Street, in Dublin, where she beat out the metre with her stick.
By 1966, and the 50th anniversary of the Rising, she had us learn Easter 1916 off by heart – that lovely phrase – and I wanted to die for Ireland with an excess of bewildering love myself. I was 11 years old.
In Finglas, as a teenager both in and out of school, and later, at university, Yeats was a central if problematic figure. In an early poem I wrote, called The Apprentice, I wondered why “I walked on new made roads / conjuring a hazelwood”, and I wrestled with his ghost.
My critical attitude reached its zenith when I looked at his treatment of Seán O’Casey, precipitating that wonderful playwright’s exile: professional jealousy seemed to be at the heart of it.
Nevertheless, I took his injunction “Irish poets, learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well made” literally, while scorning his notions of an indomitable Irishry and all that pseudo-aristocratic ballyhoo.
This birthday year has offered an opportunity to read him again, and I find now it is Yeats the dreamer I am most drawn to. His lifelong belief in magic, his trust in the intuitive, and his relentless hard work to realise his vision simply inspire me to keep making poems.
I walk the peninsula of Howth, near where I live in Baldoyle, and I feel very close to the spirit of the 17-year-old young fellow who took the window out of his attic room on Balscadden Road the better to let the wind blow through him, who slept in sea caves in the cliffs to commune with the spirits of Mother Nature, and who began there the long devotion to muse, tradecraft and magic.
In my experience a generation raised on Harry Potter should have no problem understanding a man who, when many of his contemporaries were arming up to fight a war of independence against the forces of empire, was most concerned with the design of his wizard robes, having reached the pinnacle of regard within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – to wit chief wizard!