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When you are old: Yeats at 150 - A talk by the Ambassador at the Newbury Spring Festival

It is a real pleasure for me to be here this afternoon at the Newbury Spring Festival to talk about our national poet, William Butler Yeats, on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

We are living through a great era of major anniversaries at present – the outbreak of The First World War last year; Gallipoli and Waterloo this year; next year the Somme and in Ireland the Easter Rising. These are all highly significant occasions for national remembering and it is important that we afford them the attention these momentous events from our history deserve. There is no need to be burdened by our past, but it is vital for societies to engage intelligently with their histories.

Literary anniversaries are also worthy of commemoration and I am sure that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next year will be an important occasion for remembering Shakespeare’s extraordinary contribution to the evolution of English literature.

In Ireland, we are justly proud of our contribution to modern literature, through Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey, Wilde, Shaw and Beckett among others. Yeats has a special importance on account of his sustained engagement with the Ireland of his time, a time of profound change, a transformative era for modern Ireland.

I want to discuss Yeats's life and work under three headings - words, witness and wisdom.

Words Alone: In one of his early poems, Yeats wrote that 'words alone are certain good.' In an exuberant vein, he went on to suggest that:

The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.

Yeats stuck to this motto throughout his life and never lost the gift of combining words to the best effect. He once wrote that his formula for poetry was ‘music, the natural words in the natural order’. (Jeffares, p. 279) He did not always strictly adhere to this advice, but in the best of his poems, and there are very many of these, he certainly did.

I would like to look at Yeats's power as a wordsmith using three poems as examples. The first is 'When you are Old' a poem written in 1891, at the start of his life as a writer. Its subject is Maud Gonne, a woman he had met two years before and who became, as he later put it, ‘the troubling of my life.’ Daughter of a British Army officer, Gonne grew up in Ireland and became a fervent Irish nationalist. She features throughout Yeats’s life as a source of both personal attraction and frustration, and of poetic inspiration.

A great popular favourite, the poem has a musical lilt to it -'When you are old and grey and full of sleep.' It trips off the tongue and stays in the memory. The poem contains the language of everyday speech, but put together so as to achieve the desired impact. I especially like such word combinations as 'pilgrim soul', 'glad grace' and 'glowing bars'. The poem displays a kind of lyrical perfection. There is no word out of place and it is hard to envisage substitutes for any of the words or phrases used.

From the early years of the 20th century onwards, Yeats adopted a more vigorous tone in his writing. He often wrote out of personal or public disappointment. ‘No Second Troy’ is a good example of this type of writing. It expresses his frustration with Maud Gonne's strenuous commitment to political activity. He accuses her of having 'taught to ignorant men most violent ways'. At this time, Yeats was becoming anxious about the drift of Irish political life towards more radical options. He began to realise that his youthful ambitions for Ireland might be difficult to realise.

‘No Second Troy’ also displays his literary gift with phrases like - 'with beauty like a tightened bow'. And is there a better evocation of revolutionary agitation than the phrase 'hurled the little streets upon the great'? Gonne’s appearance conjured up for him the image of Helen of Troy. Yeats thought she resembled someone who had ‘lived in an ancient civilisation’, ‘her face like the face of some Greek statue’.

My third example comes from ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. This poem was written 25 years after 'When you are Old', but the same control of language is in evidence.
The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky.

Coole Park was the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, the widow of a former Governor of Ceylon, who became Yeats’s main confidante and artistic collaborator from the 1890s until her death in 1932. Yeats was a regular visitor there from the 1890s onwards. It was a refuge where he could pursue his writing in congenial surroundings. It deepened his appreciation of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which was to become a feature of his later years, when Swift, Burke, Berkeley and the culture of 18th century Ireland became a preoccupation for him.

‘The Wild Swans at Coole rolls along to its conclusion:
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?
The language of this poem is similar to that of his early lyrics, but the subject matter has become more complex – the passage of time and its effects on the poet.

Witness to history: What do I mean by referring to Yeats as a witness to history? Contrary to what might be expected from the man who wrote such romantic gems as ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, he was no dreamy romantic, or should I say he was far more than that. In one of his later poems, he described himself as 'a sixty year-old smiling public man', but he was also a public man when he was 30, 40 and 50 years old.

The poet TS Eliot once wrote of Yeats that:
'He was one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.'

Eliot was spot on - at least insofar as Irish history is concerned. During the 1890s, Yeats was deeply engaged in various literary/political activities and controversies. He wrote copious essays arguing the case for a distinctive Irish literature in the English language. He was a vocal opponent of the Boer War and opposed Queen Victoria's visit to Ireland in 1900. It is possible that he even briefly became a member of the oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In the opening decade of the 20th century, Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre, wrote a powerful nationalist play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, in which Maud Gonne played the title role, and became involved in successive public debates as he defended his version of Irish nationalism against his many critics who put forward alternative visions of Ireland's future. During the 1920s, he became a Senator, helped design our coinage, was a determined opponent of censorship and vehemently opposed those who sought to prohibit divorce in the new Irish State.

I have chosen two poems to highlight this public dimension of Yeats's achievement, ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War.’

‘The Second Coming’ must be one of the most oft-quoted poems of the 20th century. The poem, and much of Yeats's later work, is inspired by a grand unifying system of philosophy Yeats developed on the back of automatic writing engaged in by his wife, George, shortly after their marriage, in which she communicated wisdom from the spirit realm. One critic has called this ‘one of the strangest acts of imaginative collaboration in all literary history.’ (Brown, p. 252) Published later as A Vision, this system saw the vast sweep of history as being broken down into 2,000 year cycles, with the era that began with the birth of Christ drawing to its inevitable, tempestuous close.

Yeats was, of course, also influenced by the turbulence he experienced around him. He lived through the First World War although it did not excite his imagination the way that might have been expected. Indeed he was generally dismissive of war poetry:
'I think it better in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right.'

This did not stop him from composing one of the finest poems to come out of the First World War, ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death’, containing such delightful phrases as ‘a lonely impulse of delight.’

He certainly did not observe his rule of silence on political developments when it came to what was happening in Ireland during the second decade of the 20th century, which he viewed with sustained fascination. The years of upheaval in Ireland, 1916-1922, clearly sparked his creative spirit.

Yeats wrote a series of major poems based on events in Ireland, the most powerful of these being 'Easter 1916' in which he reflected on the Easter Rising of 1916. His elegy for the leaders of the Rising contains the powerful refrain - 'all changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.'

What was happening in Ireland moved him deeply, but also filled him with apprehension, as did the wider international situation in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. He fretted about what he perceived as 'the growing murderousness of the world' (A, p.192). ‘The Second Coming’ was written in January 1919 when the Irish War of Independence was getting underway and Yeats worried that Ireland might succumb to Marxist revolution which he saw as 'the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder.' (CL, p. 656)
The greatness of ‘The Second Coming’ is that it universalises the foreboding that Yeats felt about a world seemingly losing its bearings - 'the falcon cannot hear the falconer.' Every phrase in the opening stanza is highly quotable.
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.

The second verse is more enigmatic, drawing as it does on the chronology of A Vision, but here again there are lines of strange power - 'a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun', 'all about it reel shadows of the indignant desert birds' and, of course, the 'rough beast' that 'slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.'

'Meditations in time of Civil War', consists of a suite of seven poems in which Yeats reflects on the Irish Civil War, a conflict that broke out in 1922 between those who accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and those who opposed it as a betrayal of republican ideals.

The poems arise out of Yeats's personal experience of the Civil War. In 1922, he lived at Thoor Ballylee in County Galway, a 15th century tower house he had acquired in 1917 and which became a powerful symbol in his later works. The opposing forces in the Civil War were active in the area around Yeats's home and Republicans (also known as Irregulars) blew up a nearby bridge and forbade the Yeats family from leaving the building, but were otherwise polite. They get a mention in his Civil War poem.
An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.

He also encounters a Lieutenant and his men 'Half dressed in national uniform.' These casual images of conflict prompt Yeats to reflect on the civil war and he finds himself 'caught in the cold snows of a dream.'

These observations lead to the most memorable part of 'Meditations', 'The Stare's Nest by the Window' (‘Stare’ being a west of Ireland word for a starling.) He finds himself closed in and the key turned on his 'uncertainty' which leads him to the kind of magisterial pronouncement that elevates Yeats's later works and makes them an indispensable part of 20th century literature.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A master sage: There is a remarkable air of progression in Yeats's work. His best-known poems were written during the late 19th century. Their charm lies in their beautiful simplicity and accessibility.

Yeats's later work is of a very different character. The language is more authoritative and the subject matter far more complex. They have about them the distinctive voice of a master sage, communicating wisdom distilled from a lifetime’s experience.

An outstanding example of the qualities of the mature Yeats is ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Written in the autumn of 1926, it is a meditation on old age, although he was only 61 at the time, but already in declining health.

Yeats once wrote that, if he could be given a month in antiquity, he would choose to go to Byzantium 'a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia' and find 'in some little wine shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus.' Here we encounter Yeats as a 'pilgrim soul' forever seeking answers to life's mysteries and challenges.

The poem's language is sharp and direct:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song.

He sees himself as 'a tattered coat on a stick', but his solution to bodily decay is not to resign himself to it but to have his soul 'clap its hands, and sing and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress.' He wants the 'sages standing in God's holy fire' to be 'the singing-masters of his soul.'

The final poem I want to read from as an illustration of Yeats's sage-like qualities is ‘Among School Children’. This poem was written in June 1926 following a visit he paid to a girls' Montessori school in my hometown of Waterford. In one of his notebooks, he described the theme of the poem as the idea that 'life prepares for what never happens'. Elsewhere he described it as 'my last curse on old age'. There were to be many more such curses before the end of his life.

In typical Yeats fashion, the poem begins with a matter-of-fact description of a workaday event.
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies
... the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

He then embarks on a rhapsody in which his heart is 'driven wild'. Inevitably, the image of Maud Gonne is conjured up and she stands before him 'as a living child'.

Yeats then goes on to reflect on how a youthful mother might feel if she could see her son's shape 'With sixty or more winters on its head.' The poem reaches its crescendo with some marvellous lines:
O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Yeats’s great capacity, in youth and in age, was to find resounding phrases in which to capture his thoughts, whether they be straightforward (as in his early works) or deeply complex as they later became.

Conclusion: WB Yeats deserves to be commemorated on this the 150th anniversary of his birth. He was in my opinion the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century. Others will rightly have different favourites, but I believe that a strong case can be made for him, based on the strength of the many wonderful lines he wrote, on his value as a seer of the troubled, changing times through which he lived and as a modern sage, grappling with the complexities of modern living.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London.