Political uses of poet's language highlighted


Differences in the use of quotations from the poetry of W.B. Yeats gave an insight into the contrast between the nationalist and unionist perspectives on the current Northern Ireland peace process, it was claimed at the 42nd annual Yeats International Summer School in Sligo yesterday.

Prof Geraldine Higgins, associate director of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, said the use of Yeats's poetry in key speeches by the leaders of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party showed a contrast in tone, range and reference.

In an article by UUP leader Mr David Trimble in the Observer following the announcement that he had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Mr John Hume in 1998, Mr Trimble quoted Yeats, stressing that "peace came dropping slow".

But Prof Higgins claimed Mr Trimble had read the poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, against the grain. He used the article to stress the need for decommissioning and to criticise begrudgers in unionism. His use of the line, "nine bean rows" with reference to promised US investment for Northern Ireland, if peace was achieved, had dismissed the line to "a hill of beans".

Prof Higgins pointed out that in Mr Hume's acceptance speech at the Nobel prize-giving ceremony, he also quoted Yeats, stating "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart". Mr Hume, she claimed, has stressed the possibilities of the Belfast Agreement. "His use of Yeats was idealistic, aspirational, and visionary," she said.

In her discussion on "quotable Yeats", Prof Higgins said politicians who liked to quote Yeats included Mr Bill Clinton, Mr Gerry Adams, Mr Albert Reynolds and Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator McCarthy, she claimed, "was known to quote The Wanderings of Oisin' for 25 minutes, saying it was a good way to put an end to an evening that had gone on too long".

Mr Clinton considered Yeats one of his favourite poets, and quoted him on a number of occasions, she added. During his visit to Belfast in 1998, in a keynote address, he said "the centre can hold", while emphasising his apologies to the poet.

However, Prof Higgins warned that the sound-biting of Yeats's poetry was not always advisable.

"Too often, the quotable Yeats becomes the misquoted Yeats, and quoting his poetry doesn't always meet Yeats's cyclical system of thought."

Earlier, Prof Bernard O'Donoghue, the director of this year's school, said even those who have expressed reservations about Yeats's poetry nearly always ended by coming back to a liking for Yeats.

"I think that Yeats is a likeable personality; the personality that comes through the poems is a positive and generous-spirited one," he told the gathering. "For example, he said that he was never interrupted in his work without being grateful to hear the knock at the door. He liked friends, he liked people."

Prof O'Donoghue referred to the poem, Broken Dreams, which he described as evocative in its use of the rhythms of Irish speech. He said it was beautifully constructed poetry, in touch with the living language.

He added that the secret of the school's success was it hadn't lost touch with the grassroots of the place Yeats loved so much.

He expressed his delight that more than 100 students had signed up for the school, despite fears over the foot-and-mouth scare.