Happy (Belated) Birthday, William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born yesterday, in 1865. Yeats is a great poet and all that, but I grew up pretty much “over” him because he was kind of omnipresent in our household. We were made to memorize his epitaph in order to receive 25 cents for our allowance. (“Cast a cold eye / On life on death / Horseman pass by”). We knew his “Host of the Air” by heart, because it was on the Clancy Brothers at Carnegie Hall album. He was everywhere. It’s not that we had a reverence for him – just the opposite. I knew what he looked like, in the same way I knew what George Washington looked like, because he was on our currency. Yeats? Oh, HIM again? Cast a cold eye … yeah, I know, I know.

Yeats makes me think of my father. My first published piece in The Sewanee Review was about the Yeats-dad continuum.

From memory now!


O’Driscoll drove with a song
The wild duck and the drake
From the tall and the tufted reeds
Of the drear Heart Lake.

And he saw how the reeds grew dark
At the coming of night-tide,
And dreamed of the long dim hair
Of Bridget his bride.

He heard while he sang and dreamed
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.

And he saw young men and young girls
Who danced on a level place,
And Bridget his bride among them,
With a sad and a gay face.

The dancers crowded about him
And many a sweet thing said,
And a young man brought him red wine
And a young girl white bread.

But Bridget drew him by the sleeve
Away from the merry bands,
To old men playing at cards
With a twinkling of ancient hands.

The bread and the wine had a doom,
For these were the host of the air;
He sat and played in a dream
Of her long dim hair.

He played with the merry old men
And thought not of evil chance,
Until one bore Bridget his bride
Away from the merry dance.

He bore her away in his arms,
The handsomest young man there,
And his neck and his breast and his arms
Were drowned in her long dim hair.

O’Driscoll scattered the cards
And out of his dream awoke:
Old men and young men and young girls
Were gone like a drifting smoke;

But he heard high up in the air
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.

To those of you who know that Clancy Brothers album – you’ll know the special-ness of that recording.

When we visited his grave in Ireland, as kids, we all felt kind of amazed that … it was REAL. That the epitaph we had been rattling off since we were toddlers actually existed out in the world, and had some meaning beyond the 25 cents in our pockets.

A couple years ago, I read his complete works in chronological order. It was a fascinating experience – I know many of his big poems almost by heart, the famous ones – but it’s nothing compared to reading his work – from beginning to end. You watch an artist burst forth at a certain point – almost fully formed. You’ve read his younger work, you’ve seen its beauty (but also its sentimentality – its Celtic twilight “twee” lament … it’s actually quite awful in a way… and so nothing – NOTHING – can prepare you for the poet who would eventually write “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Among Schoolchildren” Where the hell did THAT come from?)

Yeats, as a poet, has always been one of my favorites (even with the “cloud-pale eyelids” balderdash of his early stuff), but what really inspires me is his work in Irish theatre, and the creation of the Abbey. An amazing story. His Nobel lecture was on the Irish Dramatic Movement. I wrote a big long post about his nurturing of John Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World. Synge, as a young man, was a floundering artist bohemian type – until Yeats got a hold of him, and told him to go stay on the Aran Islands for a while, to discover the real Irish people. The result? A revolution in Irish theatre.

Gabriel Fallon, an actor at the Abbey, describes the dress rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock in his book Sean O’Casey The Man I Knew – a wonderful theatrical anecdote, I love how Lady Gregory talks to Yeats here:

We could make nothing of the reading of Juno and the Paycock as it was called. It seemed to be a strange baffling mixture of comedy and tragedy; and none of us could say, with any certainty, whether or not it would stand up on the stage.

The dress rehearsal would be held at 5 p.m. on March 2, Sunday. I arrived at the theatre at 4:30 p.m., and found the author there before me looking rather glum and wondering if a rehearsal would take place … Gradually the players filed in and went to their dressing-rooms. Lennox Robinson arrived shortly before 5 o’clock and was followed by Yeats and Lady Gregory. The curtain rose about 5:36 p.m. so far as I could see and hear while waiting for my cue in the wings the rehearsal seemed to be proceeding smoothly. As soon as I had finished my part of Bentham at the end of the second act I went down into the stalls and sat two seats behind the author. Here for the first time I had an opportunity of seeing something of the play from an objective point of view. I was stunned by the tragic quality of the third act which the magnificent playing of Sara Allgood made almost unbearable. But it was the blistering irony of the final scene which convinced me that this man sitting two seats in front of me was a dramatist of genius, one destined to be spoken of far beyond the confines of the Abbey Theatre …

We watched the act move on, the furniture removers come and go, the ominous entry of the IRA men, the dragging of Johnny to summary execution, the stilted scene between Jerry Devine and Mary Boyle, and then as with the ensnaring slow impetus of a ninth great wave Allgood’s tragic genius rose to an unforgettable climax and drowned the stage in sorrow. How surely was the very butt and sea-mark of tragedy! But suddenly the curtain rises again: are Fitzgerald and McCormick fooling, letting off steam after the strain of rehearsal? Nothing of the kind; for we in the stalls are suddenly made to freeze in our seats as a note beyond tragedy, a blistering flannel-mouthed irony sears its maudlin way across the stage and slowly drops an exhausted curtain on a world disintegrating in ‘chassis’.

I sat there stunned. So, indeed, as far as I could see, did Robinson, Yeats, and Lady Gregory. Then Yeats ventured an opinion. He said that the play, particularly in the final scene, reminded him of a Dostoevsky novel. Lady Gregory turned to him and said, “You know, Willie, you never read a novel by Dostoevsky.” And she promised to amend this deficiency by sending him a copy of The Idiot. I turned to O’Casey and found I could only say to him, “Magnificent, Sean, magnificent.”

“The Second Coming” is quoted (and mis-appropriated, more often than not) and quoted again … by people who want to use it for their own ends. It’s a dark ominous crystal ball. The best “use” of it, to my mind, is in the deleted scene in Nixon, with Sam Waterston playing Dick Helms, director of the CIA. Written in 1919 – when the world had already become familiar with horror – a horror of a kind never before seen on earth – the poem predicts the chaos of the 20th century. Try to disentangle it from all of the movies (and Sopranos episodes) that has used it … and just read it, clear and simple, as a poem. On its own. It’s one of the greatest poems of the 20th century.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: 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.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Seamus Heaney wrote a marvelous essay on Yeats a while back (the link no longer works, but I have the hard copy) – in which he wrote:

Conquest, difficulty, labour: these terms indicate the nature of Yeats’s creative disposition. From the start, he was enamoured of Blake’s conviction that energy is eternal delight, yet the development of his own thought brought him more and more to the conclusion that conflict was the inescapable condition of being human. So, as his art matured and the articulation of his beliefs became more clarified and forceful, Yeats’s poems typically conveyed a sensation of certitude achieved by great effort and of contradictions quelled. Poems in which the defiant self is pitted against hostile or disabling conditions – “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, “September 1913”, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”- are complemented by poems that read like discharges of pure, self-possessed energy, poems from which the accidental circumstances have been excluded so that all that remains is the melody and stamina of resurgent spirit – “The Cold Heaven”, “Byzantium”, “Long-legged Fly”.

Of course, there is also the Maud Gonne factor that must be considered. Here’s a post I wrote about her. What do you wanta bet that Maud Gonne had “cloud-pale eyelids”? Anne wrote a wonderful post about Maud Gonne MacBride. Fascinating woman. Poor Yeats. But at least she was his muse, and he got 100s of poems out of his unrequited love for her.

Never give all the heart

Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy. Kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

Heaney writes, in that same essay:

And all the while, of course, there was Maud Gonne, “high and solitary and most stern” according to one of the poems about her, “foremost among those I would hear praised” according to another, and “the troubling of my life” according to a famous sentence in his Autobiographies. The passion she inspired – and as readers we experience it more as creative power than erotic need – made her a figure of primary poetic radiance, a Dublin Beatrice, an archetype as much as a daily presence. Nevertheless, Yeats’s poetry, his politics and his involvement with the occult received an extra charge of intensity from her day to day reality in his life, and when she appeared in the title role of his subversive play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), another kind of maturity was achieved.

Yeats is one of those poets who was not a solitary creature, writing in isolation. He wanted to start a “movement”, and he did. He helped a young James Joyce in the beginning of HIS career. He advised Synge. He headed up the Abbey Theatre. He really looked at his own country – an insular priest-ridden culture at that time – and sensed a need, tried to create something different. It’s hard to look with clear eyes on your own home, your own nation. Joyce did it, but that’s only because he LEFT. Yeats, at first, went back into the Irish past in his work – and some of his early stuff is so quaint that it might as well be cross-stitched and hanging on the door of some Kountry Kraft Shoppe. I suppose it was his way of re-claiming the Irish past, its true inheritance. It was a phase, his beginning phase as a writer – how he found his “voice”. And he was concerned about the rest of his countrymen, calling out to them:

“Irish poets, learn your trade, sing whatever is well made, scorn the sort now growing up all out of shape from toe to top.”

Yeats was Anglo-Irish, but his feelings were that Irish-ness was a cultural thing, not a religious thing (forgive me for boiling it down so awkwardly) – and that the Irish could be united, regardless of religion – through writing, myths, poetry. He was a true nationalist.

I also love love LOVE his poem to fellow Irishman Jonathan Swift where he writes: “Imitate him if you dare.”

Swift’s Epitaph

Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

WH Auden wrote, in his unbelievable poem to Yeats:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

And lastly, a poem that has great personal meaning for me:

The wild swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


“My poetry is generally written out of despair. Like Balzac, I see increasing commonness everywhere, and like Balzac I know no one who shares the premises from which I work.” — Yeats

“On the third night Yeats addressed the audience before the curtain rose. If anyone had anything to say against the piece they would be welcomed at a debate which he would be glad to arrange in the theatre at some other time. He was interrupted several times. He asked the interrupters to at least listen to the play so that they would know what it was they were objecting to.” — Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh’s description of Yeats trying to handle the riots that were happening in response to Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World” – a play being put on at the Abbey Theatre

“In 1875 Yeats entered the Godolphin School in Hammersmith and visited Ireland during the longer school vacations, when he stayed with the Pollexfens in County Sligo. An early poetic impulse was to change the name of his toy yacht from Sunbeam to Moonbeam. It was a decisive act.” — Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets

“I thought we might bring the halves together if we had a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the memory, and yet had been freed of provincialism by an exacting criticism, a European pose.” — Yeats

“This is not the huge competence of Auden, at play in the toy shop of poetic form, but mastery, the possession of a unique rhetoric for use on a real but limited range of themes. It is a mastery so complete that it can occlude the genuinely problematic, ride over the potholes of nonsense without even sensing them. Late in life he recognizes the evasiveness of his symbols, the tendency of his verse to turn away or inward, and in the concentrated intensity of the late poems he tries to remedy this. But he has an imperfect sense of generality; he is willing to plump out a truism as truth. As his mastery increases, his art becomes less truthful. But his main concern is not – until the later poems, and even there in an attenuated spirit – truth, but the house of myth and legend, where he can become a principal tenant, where it is his voice we hear casting the spell, and where real men are reduced – or, in his mind, enlarged – to masks, figures and types useful to myth, regardless of the human reality they had.” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets

“All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run crates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics. Dante is said to have unified Italy. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful.” — Yeats

“Sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” — Yeats

“His mastery seems almost excessive.” — Richard Ellmann

“… a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock in the sea (how did they get there? what did they eat? and so on; people think such criticisms very prosaic, but common-sense is never out of place anywhere …) but still containing fine lines and vivid imagery.” – Gerard Manley Hopkins, after reading some of Yeats’ first published verses

“Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has gained in prophetic power with each decade of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, from the rise of fascism and nuclear warfare to the proliferation of international terrorism. It expresses the melancholy realizatino that man, yearningly drawn to the divine, will never fully escape his bestial ancestry. The poem is modernistically unrhymed, though the first stanza plays with shadowy off-rhymes: ‘gyre’ / ‘falconer’ / ‘everywhere’; ‘hold’ / ‘world’ / ‘drowned’. It is structured instead by dramatic visuals and emblematic choreography. There are two main movements: a huge, expanding circle (the ascending falcon) and an arrowlike, linear track (the beast bound for Bethlehem). Then two smaller ones: a pendulum arc (the rocking cradle) and an exploding pinwheel (the reeling desert birds). Ideas have become design, starkly juxtaposed with the murky turbulence of elemental forces – storm, flood, drought. Hence the poem, with its horror movie finale, is as hybrid as the sphinx, who represents our buried impulses, vestiges of a past that keeps turning into the future.” — Camille Paglia, “Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems

“The heavy voluptuous splendour of much of his work has yet a ghostliness as of the palace made magically of leaves. Even his heroes and beautiful women are aware of this … He never leaves us, any more than Crashaw, content with the glory alone. It calls our attention to a spirit behind and beyond, heaping high lovely, invisible things that it may show the greater beauty that can survive their crumbling into dust.” — Edward Thomas, 1909

“The worst thing about some men is that when they are not drunk they are sober.” — Yeats

“In London he was active in literature and politics. One particular event in 1889 proved crucial: he met and fell in love with the fiery Republican who haunted him for the rest of his days, Maud Gonne. His biography, from 1889 until Maud Gonne’s marriage, is punctuated by the statement, ‘Yeats proposed to Maud Gonne.'” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets

“Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses.” — Yeats

” ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity’: these famous lines are Yeats’s anguished formulation of what seems to be an eternal principle of politics (7-8). When ‘the center cannot hold,’ neither consensus nor compromise is possible. Public debate shifts to the extremes or is overtaken by violence, which blocks incremental movement toward reciprocity and conciliation. Moderate views are ‘drowned’ out (as by the bloody tide) in strident partisanship or fanaticism. The phrase ‘passionate intensity’ suggests that, for the late Romantic Yeats, eros diverted from the personal to the political turns into a distorted lust for power. The second stanza opens in doubt and confusion: ‘Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand. / The Second Coming!” (9-11). We are hearing either one voice echoing its own shocked phrases or many voices in public tumult. The book of Revelation lists the dreadful omens heralding doomsday, when Jesus will return and unlock the secrets of history. But in Yeats’s poem, Christ’s promised glory is overshadowed by a monstrous apparition from antiquity. The poet is seized by an electrifying vision: ‘a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight’. It’s a collective memory, crystallizing from the repository of world myths (12-13). (“Spiritus Mundi” is Yeats’s mystical term for “soul of the universe”.) We witness the resurrection of the pagan era, whose barbarism mirrors that of the war-torn twentieth century. Yeats sees no evidence of moral evolution over two millennia of Christianity.” — Camille Paglia, “Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems

“I once got Yeats down to bed-rock on these subjects and we talked for hours. He had been talking rather wildly about the after life. Finally I asked him: ‘What do you believe happens to us immediately after death?’ He replied, ‘After a person dies, he does not realize that he is dead.’ I: ‘In what state is he?’ W.B.Y.: ‘In some half-conscious state.’ I said: ‘Like the period between waking and sleeping?’ W.B.Y.: ‘Yes.’ I: ‘How long does this state last?’ W.B.Y.: ‘Perhaps some twenty years.’ ‘And after that,’ I asked, ‘what happens next?’ He replied, ‘Again a period which is Purgaotry. The length of that period depends upon the sins of the man when he was upon this earth.’ And then again I asked: ‘And after that?’ I do not remember his actual words, but he spoke of the return of the soul to God. I said, ‘Well, it seems to me that you are hurrying us back into the great arms of the Roman Catholic Church.’ He was of course an Irish Protestant. I was bold to ask him, but his only retort was his splendid laugh.” — Lady Dorothy Wellesley

“It is an entirely new thing — neither what they eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.” — Yeats on James Joyce’s “Ulysses

“For Yeats, there was something both enviable and exemplary about the enlargement of vision and the consequent histrionic equanimity which Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines attain at the moment of their death, ‘carried beyond feeling into the aboriginal ice.’ He wanted people in real life to emulate or at least to internalize the fortitude and defiance thus manifested in tragic art.” — Seamus Heaney, 1990

“Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” — Yeats’s advice to John Synge

Cast a cold eye
On life on death
Horseman pass by
Yeats’s epitaph

Imitate him if you dare.

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2 Responses to Happy (Belated) Birthday, William Butler Yeats

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Gabriel Fallon’s anecdote, where he refers to Sara Allgood’s ‘tragic genius’, makes me burn to borrow your time machine and witness it. I only know the wonderful Sara Allgood from movies such as ‘How Green was my Valley’. Similarly, I burn to see Peggy Ashcroft, the ‘Juliet of the 20th century’, whenever I watch her as the crofter’s wife in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’.

  2. red says:

    Doc – I know, right?? It sounds like just a phenomenal moment … thank goodness someone at least wrote it down so people like you and me can at least try to live it vicariously!

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