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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

W.B. Yeats

Growing up as I did in Sligo, in the north west of Ireland, it was impossible not to come into contact with W.B. Yeats. Although Yeats was not born in Sligo, he always regarded it as his real, spiritual home, his “country of the heart” as he called it. Sligo has proudly described itself since the poet’s death as “the Yeats country” and as boy I was constantly reminded of him. I know where Wandering Aengus’s Hazel Wood is and have played in the Sally Gardens, I have visited Dooney Rock, where the fiddler played, and looked out at the wooded islands in Lough Gill and wondered which one he decided to call Inishfree. I know Glencar Waterfall, that place of “the waters and the wild” where you can find a refuge from a world “more full of weeping than you can understand.” And towering above everything, as spectacular in its own way as Table Mountain over Cape Town, “bare Benbulben’s head,” on whose slopes in Drumcliffe Churchyard the poet’s remains now peacefully “cast a cold eye on life, on death,” dominates the skyline.

File:Benbulben4.jpg

Benbulben

Give the starting phrase, “I will arise and go now …” to anyone from Sligo and they will go on to recite “The Lake Isle of Innishfree,” although some, depending perhaps on the amount of alcohol they have consumed, may give you versions you have never heard before – the most common continuing, “… and go to feed the ducks…,” the rhyming couplet ending with a common, if somewhat coarse expression of indifference. Despite the genuine deep love and pride (after all, his Nobel medal can be seen in the local museum) that Sligonians have for Yeats, he was never truly one of them, being a member of the “quality,” that strange tribe of protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy who dominated Ireland up to the middle of the 19th Century and who have almost disappeared today, finally fading away in ostentatiously Catholic (parochial) independent Ireland. An inevitable extinction in the Ireland’s post-colonial aftermath perhaps, given all the enmity that had gone before but, in another sense, a loss of a group which gave Ireland culturally so much, from Swift, Goldsmith and Wilde to Shaw and Beckett (the last two also Nobel laureates). Yet Yeats always regarded himself as Irish and served two terms in the Senate of the new independent Irish Free State in the 1920s.

Because of (perhaps even despite) my Sligo background, I have always had a deep respect and wonder for Yeats’ poetry; a sublime distillation of aesthetic beauty, contemporary comment and intellectual depth. He is a writer whose work, always good, continually improved and developed as he grew older. He has the ability to continually grab you with a phrase or a couplet, leaving the image resonating deeply in your mind. Here are some of the greatest:

“…But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

(He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, 1899)

“…Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;…”

(An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, 1917)

“…All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

(Easter 1916, 1921)

Sailing to Byzantium (1928) can lay claim, in my view, along with Eliot’s Prufrock and Ginsberg’s Howl!, to be one of the greatest poems in the English language in the 20th Century. It is a deep meditation on ageing and maturing, written when Yeats was 63, on the progress from action and doing in youth to introspection and spiritual searching as one grows older; a reflection on the possibility and meaning of mortality and immortality. Its centre is the appeal for liberation from an ageing body:

“…Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.”

Although one can perhaps note that ten years later, his last poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion, (1938) expresses a more pessimistic, less hopeful view,

“…Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Sailing to Byzantium is a poem which culturally resonates today as deeply as ever. Its opening phrase, “That is no country for old men …” was taken by Cormac McCarthy as a title for his 2005 novel, filmed by the Coen brothers in 2007.

But Byzantium is not the only poem which still speaks powerfully nearly a hundred years later now. One other above all serves as a seer’s vision of the horrors which the 20th Century would bring. The Second Coming (1919) is a masterpiece of brooding, prophetic apprehension:

“…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

No wonder that this poem, with its final couplet, a packed image which could serve to inspire a Stephen King novel (and King, in fact, quotes the poem in his apocalyptic The Stand, 1978), was frequently quoted in the aftermath to 9/11.

“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

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