150 Years Since the Birth of Ireland’s Greatest Poet: William Butler Yeats

 

tumblr_m5k6ewFps81r6xvfko1_1280Modern poetry generally sucks. Let’s be honest about it. It’s not alone, either, to be fair. Modern civilisation cut off from the transcendent is not capable of works of the divine or greatness. The music, the art, the culture, the architecture, and the writing (keep in mind that the two most successful authors of the last decade were borderline illiterates – Ms. Grey and Mr. Brown) all share and embody this tragic loss of the divine. Alas, we were born in a technological age, but not a great one — at least when it comes to the imagination or knowledge of the divine.

So permit me to re-introduce perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century: W.B. Yeats. Yeats in many ways was both embodied and contradicted the stereotypical image of Ireland. He was born in 1865 into the very elite of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and a member of the church of Ireland. But he found himself standing with all the groups this very order rejected, in part out of disdain, in part due to bare necessity: the Irish language movements, the Irish history regeneration movements, and most importantly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army), which was dedicated to expulsion of British rule in Ireland.

He supported violence when he was younger, yet later seemed to reject it when he saw the consequences of the Easter Rising – the greatest (in significance) event in Irish 20th-century history. He was intensely spiritual, but rejected organised religion, although he never formally left his Protestant heritage. He sought the rejection of British rule, but seethed with anger at Ireland when he realised such independence would mean little but church domination. He loved Ireland’s natural beauty and history, but often seemed ill at ease with its very people.

But no matter his divisiveness, he was in life and after his death always seen as a genius by all Irishmen – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter. The images, words, the language, the history, the alliteration, and the emotion moves all but the hard of hearts. Every year in Ireland, Yeats is standard reading for all students. So his influence is still felt, even in this uncivilized age.

Two poems stick out for me as a history teacher: Easter 1916 and The Second Coming. Easter 1916 evokes the violence of the 1916 uprising by the IRB, the deaths of its leaders, and the poet’s fear that his own poetry — which glorified those who die for country — had led many Irishmen to their deaths. He also realised in the repeated last lines, A terrible beauty is born,” that the events in Dublin in 1916 marked a turning point in Irish history: the re-emergence of a new Ireland, but with Irish militarism and its violence reborn, too.

The Second Coming and its imagery depict the birth of the forces that stand against Christendom. It stands outside the time it was written. (Yeats was writing about the fear of communism in post-revolution Russia). Its images, its words, its emotions, and its use of biblical Apocalyptic imagery haunt me, particularly this line: The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Look around today and tell me that that phrase isn’t true. We all know it is. That’s what so sad. That’s whats so frightening.

P.S. Is Peter Robinson a relation of Yeats?

  

 

 

 

 

Published in General, Literature
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  1. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    Here are two early poems of his that I enjoy. Yeats was more inclined to writing of his own emotions than to dramatic monologue, but these two brief poems are excellent depictions of internal states.

    Song of the Old Mother

    I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow

    Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;

    And then I must scrub and bake and sweep

    Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;

    And the young lie long and dream in their bed

    Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,

    And their days go over in idleness,

    And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:

    While I must work because I am old,

    And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

    And here is a very skillful depiction of the mind of an old man. I like that Yeats manages to give him three different attitudes towards his circumstances.

    THE LAMENTATION OF THE OLD PENSIONER

    Although I shelter from the rain

    Under a broken tree

    My chair was nearest to the fire

    In every company

    That talked of love or politics,

    Ere Time transfigured me.

    Though lads are making pikes again

    For some conspiracy,

    And crazy rascals rage their fill

    At human tyranny,

    My contemplations are of Time

    That has transfigured me.

    There’s not a woman turns her face

    Upon a broken tree,

    And yet the beauties that I loved

    Are in my memory;

    I spit into the face of Time

    That has transfigured me.

    • #1
  2. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    And PS, thanks for that excellent write-up.

    • #2
  3. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @DougWatt

    Thanks Paddy. WB Yeats is one of my favorite poets and one of my favorites is The Stolen Child.

    The Waterboys did a nice version of the poem in their song The Stolen Child.

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Thank you. Several of his poems were shared in my thread on poetry.

    We need more threads like this.

    • #4
  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Paddy, quick question. You write that Yeats specifically had post-revolutionary Russia in mind. I’m wondering whether that’s your judgment (based on the text) or his own explanation, or that of his critics, or contemporaries, or based on original drafts? Because as I understood it and I think still understand it, the poem takes a much longer historical view — (as you also say: it stands outside the time it was written) — and to the extent that it’s also very obviously also standing inside its time, it seems implausible to me that his sole focus would have been the Russian revolution. I just can’t imagine that any poem Yeats (especially) wrote in the immediate aftermath of World War I would be more specifically addressed to Russian events than to the catastrophe that had befallen all of Europe. What do you think?

    • #5
  6. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    His poems seem more to speak to the falleness of the world to me.

    • #6
  7. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Doug Watt:Thanks Paddy. WB Yeats is one of my favorite poets and one of my favorites is The Stolen Child.

    The Waterboys did a nice version of the poem in their song The Stolen Child.

    Doug, thanks so much for this. It’s really superb and transcendent. I bought a copy on Amazon.

    • #7
  8. user_1100855 Member
    user_1100855
    @PaddySiochain

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:Paddy, quick question. You write that

    From what I remember Claire – this was what was on the interpretations of the poem which followed his poem in our English Leaving Cert books. He was hostile to Russian revolution but also (keep in mind) in 1919 the Irish War of Independence began as well which was to last for the next few years.

    But like you I agree the interpretation could well work into the future. It is open for many political scenarios. Like the last book of the New Testament multiple interpretations are possible. The apocalyptic visions of the Evil One’s return foreshading the footsteps of Christ are troubling. But the last words haunt me like above: the best lack all conviction, the worst… are filled with passionate intensity.

    Scary.

    • #8
  9. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    Yes, “The Second Coming” bursts frequently into my consciousness as events continue to unfold (read, as “progress” proceeds backwards, at least in regard to individual liberty and the value of each individual in the eyes of the state). It is eerily prescient and contributes more than any other words to my eschatological inklings.

    • #9
  10. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    One of the great powers of poetry is to get at a vague This while pointing at a specific That. We can’t be sure what rough beast is slouching its way towards Bethlehem and perhaps it wasn’t quite clear in Yeats’ mind when he composed the poem. Communism? Fascism? Rampant Consumerism? Perhaps.

    The lines that haunt me come in the middle of the poem:

    somewhere in sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun/Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it/Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    They echo the unsettling lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

    But out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste to the world.

    Yeats probably did not have radical Islam in mind when he dreamt of his “vast image” but sometimes events have a way of drawing parallels that would surprise even the poet.

    • #10
  11. user_278007 Inactive
    user_278007
    @RichardFulmer

    150?  Wow, he doesn’t look a day over 65.  Wonder what he eats for breakfast.

    • #11
  12. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Love Yeats and all of his work mentioned here, and the song.  Here are my favorites. Perhaps the first one should be on Claire’s thread.

    A Cradle Song

    THE angels are stooping

    Above your bed;

    They weary of trooping

    With the whimpering dead.

    God’s laughing in Heaven

    To see you so good;

    The Sailing Seven

    Are gay with His mood.

    I sigh that kiss you,

    For I must own

    That I shall miss you

    When you have grown.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree

    BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

    Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

    There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

    I will arise and go now, for always night and day

    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Franz Drumlin:The lines that haunt me come in the middle of the poem:

    somewhere in sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun/Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it/Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    There is a sphinx there. The sphinx only asks questions. That somehow is enough to cause destruction. Then there is the suggestion about sex–the thighs. Then, birds–well, a darkness, bird-like–sort of like the birds in the beginning.

    • #13
  14. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Titus Techera:

    Franz Drumlin:The lines that haunt me come in the middle of the poem:

    somewhere in sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun/Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it/Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    There is a sphinx there. The sphinx only asks questions. That somehow is enough to cause destruction. Then there is the suggestion about sex–the thighs. Then, birds–well, a darkness, bird-like–sort of like the birds in the beginning.

    Yes, interesting. I mentioned before that the Sphinx might have had a lion’s head originally. The present head is both a man and a bit small for the body. The moving of the thighs? What an amateur like me is given to think about is how a lion shifts its legs as it gets ready to pounce.

    • #14
  15. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    Beautiful post, Paddy, wonderful subject.  Thank you.

    • #15
  16. Michael Collins Member
    Michael Collins
    @MichaelCollins

    Paddy, I also like his play Cathleen ni Houlihan.  

    • #16
  17. Ricochet Coolidge
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Paddy, quick question. You write that Yeats specifically had post-revolutionary Russia in mind. I’m wondering whether that’s your judgment (based on the text) or his own explanation, or that of his critics, or contemporaries, or based on original drafts? Because as I understood it and I think still understand it, the poem takes a much longer historical view — (as you also say: it stands outside the time it was written) — and to the extent that it’s also very obviously also standing inside its time, it seems implausible to me that his sole focus would have been the Russian revolution. I just can’t imagine that any poem Yeats (especially) wrote in the immediate aftermath of World War I would be more specifically addressed to Russian events than to the catastrophe that had befallen all of Europe. What do you think?

    If I recall correctly, my Norton’s Anthology of that poem specifically mentions the Bolshevik revolution as the germ for that poem.  I don’t have the anthology handy at the moment.

    • #17
  18. Ricochet Coolidge
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    Is it his 15oth?  Oh I have to post one of the many Yeats poems I love.

    The Circus Animals’ Desertion

    I

    I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
    I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
    Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
    I must be satisfied with my heart, although
    Winter and summer till old age began
    My circus animals were all on show,
    Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
    Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

    II

    What can I but enumerate old themes,
    First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
    Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
    Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
    Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
    That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
    But what cared I that set him on to ride,
    I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

    And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
    ‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
    She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
    But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
    I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
    So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
    And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
    This dream itself had all my thought and love.

    continued due to word limit….

    • #18
  19. Ricochet Coolidge
    Ricochet
    @Manny

    …continued

    And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
    Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
    Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
    It was the dream itself enchanted me:
    Character isolated by a deed
    To engross the present and dominate memory.
    Players and painted stage took all my love,
    And not those things that they were emblems of.

    III

    Those masterful images because complete
    Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
    A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
    Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
    Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
    Who keeps the till. 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.

    “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” – what a great line from one of the greatest of poets.

    • #19
  20. user_1100855 Member
    user_1100855
    @PaddySiochain

    Claire asked that I post this up lads and girls: The deliberately ambiguous imagery of the poem from what I’ve read seems to suit multiple interpretations; but there is no doubt that the self immolation that occurred on the continent and its terrible results – the rise of USSR and fascism (which Yeats it must be said was not unsympathetic too) share a part in it.

    From my own eyes, I also see the Irish Revolutions’ role in this. The anarchy created by Irish War of independence – which was first urban guerilla war of the 20th century – and the fears (mostly unfounded) it generated amongst the Ascendancy class must have played a role in his mind; even as he lived in London at the time.

    More will probably come out given the events of the Irish revolution (Easter 1916, War of independence and Civil War) are reaching its centenary over the next seven years, starting with 1916. Its a fascinating period by the way.

    P.S. It was kept relatively secret here in Ireland, that after Iraq war went south post 2004 quite a number of Pentagon ”officials” began coming to Dublin to have a look at the military records for this period.

    • #20
  21. ShellGamer Member
    ShellGamer
    @ShellGamer

    Should you ever be in Dublin, I recommend going downstairs at the National Library to see the exhibit dedicate to the life and poems of Yeats. (I hope it will always be there.) There is a nice area where you can listen to various actors and musicians reciting various Yeat’s poems. Most poets improve on being read aloud, but I don’t think any more so than Yeats. I still cherish hearing a live reading by Gregory Peck back in the 90’s.

    As my cloak grows ever more tattered, my love of Sailing to Byzantium continues to grow.

    But wasn’t he really a 19th century poet who outlived his time?

    • #21
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