The road to immortality


WB Yeats was a man of many facets: a mystic, a profound thinker, a nationalist and a clever politician. Seventy years to the day after his death, he is firmly established as the national poet, and he continues to cast a huge shadow, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY.

IN A SMALL room in the south of France, a patient wife maintains a deathbed vigil. It is January 28th, 1939. While the world moves closer to war, the dying man struggles for breath. He is William Butler Yeats, a Nobel literature laureate and artist of defining stature. Shortly after 2pm, he will pass into eternity; his body will linger in a temporary grave in Roquebrune for more than nine years before making the final journey home to Ireland and a quiet churchyard in Co Sligo.

In life he was famous. In death he has become immortal, a national poet, an eccentric seer, whose love of country never deflected his rise as an international artist. His vision is romantic, heroic, epic. His art told his story while also shaping the identity of the nation he wanted Ireland to be. His legacy is so immense many Irish poets simply looked elsewhere. Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh had their own voice, leaving the young Thomas Kinsella to battle Yeats’s ghost alone. Yeats emulated Swift’s sense of being driven by a responsibility to his country, while the first Irish writer since to share this cohesively responsible approach is playwright Brian Friel, who openly confronted the conflict in Northern Ireland while exploring the competing national cultures within Ireland. Yeats, quoted by schoolchildren and statesmen, cast a huge shadow and continues to do so.

He established a national literature. Yeats was a modernist, influenced by an earlier visionary, William Blake, and was also initially drawn to French symbolism. Yeats was original; magisterial yet daring. His lyric, rhythmic verse possesses sophisticated, rhetorical power, yet he did not dismiss the voices that preceded him. Instead he embraced forebears such as James Clarence Mangan, Thomas Davis and most particularly, Samuel Ferguson, as “a company/That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong/Ballad and story, rann and song”. (From To Ireland in the Coming Times.) It was Yeats who supplanted Thomas Moore as the national poet. Whereas Moore’s romantic celebration of the folk memory lulled and seduced, Yeats would inspire through eloquently controlled rage.

In a career spanning more than half a century – and Yeats during his final days was still writing, still planning – he evolved dramatically as an artist, from the floppy-haired Victorian dreamer penning the beautiful lyric verse collections of Crossways (1889) featuring works such as Down by the Salley Gardensor The Rose(1893) with The Lake Isle of Innisfreeto the stern visionary observing the developing State with the intensity of an exasperated parent through his seminal quest volume, The Towercollection (1928) and Last Poems (1939), including masterpieces such as The Statues, Long-legged Flyand The Circus Animals’ Desertion. Whereas James Joyce glowered magnificently in exile, Yeats, a mystic by nature, remained in Ireland, aside from lengthy sojourns in England, Italy and France, and was to reveal ever-increasing layers of political consciousness – and pragmatism.

BORN INTO A bohemian and gifted family, Yeats was destined for a life in the arts. There was no early struggle, no years of hell in a boring office job. The son of a reluctant law student who wanted to become a portrait painter – and did – WB Yeats lived in an exciting household, never mind exciting times, which included the collapse of empires, rebellion and war. Childhood summers spent in Co Sligo with his mother’s family introduced him to myth and legend, the notion of stories, fairies and ghosts lurking in every stone. An imagination could not help but soar. His London years helped shape his awareness of being caught between cultures. He certainly saw the artist as an outcast.

Far from being the Anglo-Irish patrician he is often seen as, Yeats was a middle-class if lofty Dublin Protestant who, though rejecting violence, wanted the English out of Ireland and sought the dawning of a revival celebrating the Gaelic past. He attended art school and learnt that art and culture can, at least initially, substitute for life experience.

Artistic torment was correctly identified by him as an essential element in achieving artistic greatness. He needed an unattainable muse and found her when he was 21 in the volatile radical Maud Gonne, who would play the title role in his subversive play Cathleen Ní Houlihanin 1902, inspire his finest poetry and, having spent some 14 years rejecting his offers of marriage, remain a presence until his death. While Gonne, who lived on until 1953, is considered the possible cause for his turning to politics, the young Yeats had already been touched by the fire of the old Fenian, John O’Leary. By the late 1890s onwards, Yeats’s involvement with the cultural ambitions of the Irish Literary Theatre, soon to become the Abbey Theatre, had placed him within the context of cultural politics. National politics was only a step away.

Public reaction to The Playboy of the Western Worldfamously offered Yeats a masterclass in how culture and society interact. It also placed him firmly within the nationalist political lobby. The Literary Revival had in itself given Yeats a political role. Through it he was actively participating in shaping a national consciousness. The detached artist was, by drawing on aspects of Celtic myth, legend and story, devising a plan for what the New Ireland was to become. Small wonder that Joyce disapproved as Yeats’s “theatre business, management of men” acquired a national purpose. It is interesting that whereas Parnell was so valid a presence for Joyce the Catholic, Yeats became drawn to him much later – it took the abrupt fall and early death of Parnell to alert Yeats to the dead leader’s tragic, and therefore, romantic potential: “he might have brought the imagination of Ireland nearer the Image and the honeycomb” (From Autobiographies). For Yeats, O’Leary was far more immediately inspirational, a quasi-paternal presence.

Intended as a grand gesture rather than a serious bid for independence, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 took all but the participants by surprise. Most commentators, Yeats included (who was then living in England), disapproved of the rebellion. His friend Ezra Pound greeted it as merely something “to give that country another set of anecdotes to keep it going another hundred years”. Yeats had publicly disassociated himself from Pearse’s politics and had also attacked Eoin Mac Neill. This attitude would change as the leaders were executed and suddenly became martyrs. When Yeats presented Easter, 1916, it was Gonne who correctly detected the ambivalence at its heart.

Early in life, Yeats had discovered the supernatural. Spirituality and symbols were to preoccupy him and he was drawn to the occult. His excursions into this as a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn has helped consolidate theories that Yeats was at best eccentric and at worst mildly crazy. It is far more complex than that: Yeats was a magician confident of an existence beyond death that bypassed conventional religion.

Time and again when exploring the life and work of Yeats, the reader is struck by the depth of his thought. He was a profound thinker, and for a man who lived and loved so much in the real world, he was fascinated by death and the spirit world. It is as if Yeats, no matter how engaged in life around him – and he was an organiser and an embracer of causes, many of them lost – always lived at a remove. Admittedly, he did things differently, even finally getting married at the relatively late age of 52 to the heroically supportive George Hyde Lees, of whom he wrote “comely joyous aged but 24. She is a great student of my subjects has enough money to put us above anxiety” and fathering his two children at an age at which most people are welcoming their grandchildren.

In 1919, looking back on the 1890s, Yeats, as Shirley Neuman records, describes himself as having “three interests: interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality”. By 1904, Yeats, when writing to Æ (George Russell), is condemning the “exaggeration of sentiment and sentimental beauty” of his own early poems. Yeats’s reasons are obvious. He has discovered politics, a new deliberation is about to enter his work. The autobiographical as used by Yeats is informative, never confessional. He places his experience within the context of history and approaches his idea of a unity of being as symbolised by a tree, his image of Ireland. It was Yeats who grasped Ireland’s political and cultural hatreds and balanced this awareness against his nationalist aspirations and his vision for the Abbey Theatre.

CONSIDERING THE WEIGHT of his poetic achievement – only his elegist, the great WH Auden challenges Yeats as the finest English-language poet of the 20th century – it is easy to see why the range of Yeats’s prose writing is so often missed.

This may, of course, be compounded by the divided reactions to his plays. Yeats was an obsessive writer – he not only wrote more than 7,000 letters, he published volumes of prose on a range of subjects, including philosophy. There is also Yeats the speech-maker. On entering the Senate in 1922, he proved an active member during his six-year term, which would be dominated by his spirited speech on divorce in 1925, defending the Protestant right to a civil freedom that was being threatened by the new State’s ban. “We are no petty people,” Yeats argued, summoning Swift, Grattan and Berkeley and Parnell in a powerful defence of his own culture. But there was more to it than this. Having spent years supporting the establishment of an Irish State and having articulated a heroic conception of the role of the Anglo-Irish, Yeats the clever politician was capable of magnificently turning this against the pieties of the new State. A convert to nationalism, Yeats then discovered that once this culture was consolidated he had to defend his own.

THE POEMS OF The Green Helmet and Other Poems(1910) and increasingly, Responsibilities(1914) and The Wild Swans at Coole(1919) reveal the singular clarity that marks the best of his work. They are also poems in which Yeats is not only serving art, he is responding to his changing country by chronicling those changes. Yeats always conceded that he was a mystic, but he liked to remind people he was also practical. For all the dreaminess and the theatricality, throughout his life he favoured touches of flamboyance in his dress; he had impressive presence of mind.

On route to thunder abuse at the dissenting Abbey opening-night audience at O’Casey’s The Plough and the Starsin 1926 – “You have disgraced yourselves, again” – he was sufficiently prepared to deliver a copy of his speech to The Irish Timesoffice before arriving at the theatre. Conor Cruise O’Brien was correct in noting the particular opportunistic blend of “passion and cunning” – from the famous, often discussed essay of the same title that was published in 1965 – that sustained Yeats throughout a remarkable public career. Here was a dreamer who became a political player and whose astute political consciousness was to influence, however obliquely, poets such as Heaney, Mahon and Longley.

Yeats was self-absorbed, yet he was also aware of everything, aware even to fascism, which briefly attracted him. This has been gleefully pounced upon by his detractors, who saw him as a supporter of Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. There were also those who disputed his Irishness because he made no effort to learn the Irish language.

Yet the wonderful difficulty about Yeats is that even those who deplore his elitism and alleged snobbery – he appears to have been terrific company even if he did have a somewhat unsettling habit of declaiming his poetry in bizarrely surreal tones that contrast with his Edwardian Irish accent – is that it is impossible not to admire him. Yeats in old age battled against time with a desperate creative urgency akin to that of Picasso. Indeed, Yeats is to poetry what Picasso is to 20th-century art and Stravinsky to the music of the same epoch.

There are many faces to Yeats: the poet, the young romantic, the frustrated lover pursuing a wilful woman and later her daughter, the lyric poet, the public poet, the speech-maker, the commentator, the visionary, the large man in the wide hat complete with monocle, the openly unfaithful but indulged husband, the legend, the international literary giant. He was all these things as well as a prevailing influence in the making of modern Ireland.

Footage of the return of his body to Ireland in September 1948 evokes images of a warrior restored to his people. It is a theatrical pilgrimage of which Yeats would have approved. Above all he believed in Ireland. The question remains has the Ireland he helped shape justified that belief?