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Thursday, 17 April 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #16: WB Yeats


WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, 1932





POLITICS 

 'In our time the destiny of man presents 
its meaning in political terms.' 
THOMAS MANN 


How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
on Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

(1939)






The Poet:  William Butler Yeats (pronounced 'Yates' to rhyme with 'gates') has been described as the most Irish of all Irish poets, one whose quest for a truly 'Irish' voice and identity led him to reject the Victorian models of his childhood and seek  inspiration in the richness of traditional Gaelic and Celtic myth.  After 1900 –– and increasingly after 1923, when he became the first Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – this 'mythic' voice was replaced by one more firmly rooted in the political and social reality that was twentieth century Ireland and its long and violent struggle for political independence.  An aristocrat who supported Nationalism but despised the Catholic Church, Yeats in later years favoured the idea that totalitarianism might represent a possible 'solution' for humanity, speaking out in support of Mussolini as his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound did throughout the Depression-ravaged 1930s.

Yeats was born in Dublin on 13 June 1865, the son of a lawyer and well-known society painter.  He was educated in London and Dublin but it was in the west of Ireland –– in Connaught, where his family owned a house and spent its summer holidays –– that he was first exposed to the supernatural element of Irish life that would inspire much of his early work as both poet and playwright.  Although he published his first volume of verse in 1887, it was as a playwright that he first made his literary mark, going on to produce such famous dramas as Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and become a founding member, along with fellow 'modernist' playwrights JM Synge and Sean O'Casey, of Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre.  Their work, along with that of the translators and scholars who were helping Irish intellectuals rediscover their country's native language and its long-forgotten legends, formed the cornerstones of what came to be known as the Irish Literary Revival. 

Even at the height of his success as a playwright, Yeats continued to publish poetry – much of it in the form of laments for his country's political situation and, after the Easter Rising of 1916, condemning the violence of Catholic Nationalists.  Yeats himself had strong connections to the cause of Irish Nationalism via his longstanding relationship with Maud Gonne, an English heiress who devoted her life to the cause of freeing Ireland from its aristocratic English oppressors.  He also had a long and unhappy romantic relationship with Gonne, who rejected every proposal of marriage he made to her between 1899 and 1916.  In September 1916 he married Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman twenty-five years his junior who bore him two children, Anne and Michael, and brought a kind of stability to his life a life which had, up till then, been lived mostly outside Ireland it had previously lacked.  It was with his wife that Yeats experimented with the 'automatic writing' an outgrowth of his interest in the occult and Theosophy that led to the writing of A Vision (1925).  This book, along with his Nobel Prize and the granting of Irish independence in 1922, secured his international reputation as a poet of passion, commitment and indisputable genius.

Yeats served two terms as a Senator in the newly-formed Irish Senate, famously warning his fellow politicians that 'If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North…You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation.'  He retired from politics in 1928 due to ill health but was 'rejuvenated,' in his own words, by the Steinach procedure he underwent at the age of sixty-nine.  (The procedure was a type of vasectomy, which its inventor theorized –– erroneously, as it turned out –– would shift the body's balance from sperm production toward increased hormone production in middle-aged men, thereby reviving and increasing their sexual potency.)  In addition to pursuing affairs with a number of younger women, Yeats continued to produce poetry, drama and essays at an astonishing rate, describing himself as having entered 'a strange second puberty' following his operation.  

The procedure did not, however, make him immortal.  Yeats died in Menton in the south of France on 28 January 1939 and was privately buried in the nearby village of Roquebrun-Cap-Martin, where his body remained for a year before being brought back to Ireland under the auspices of Sean MacBride, the son of Maud Gonne and Major John MacBride, the man she had originally rejected him to marry in 1903.  Yeats' remains are now buried in the village of Drumcliff, Country Sligo, only a stone's throw away from where he spent so many idyllic childhood summers.

 
Click HERE to read more poetry by WB YEATS at Poets.org.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #4: Ford Madox Ford
POET OF THE MONTH #6: Henry Lawson
BRIAN MOORE The Feast of Lupercal (1958)

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