WB Yeats: looming larger through the mists of time

It is 75 years since Yeats died, but in Ireland his poetry is still part of our mental furniture

Seventy-five years after the death of William Butler Yeats, his brooding form still towers among the giants of world literature. The first of only four Irish Nobel literature laureates, he was more than just a great poet, he was a man of letters, a spiritual seeker, political activist, philosopher, senator … and more and more.

Here in Ireland, Yeats looms even larger. Yet somehow the old fellow is not nearly as distant or imposing as he seems to those on other shores. Even though he was part of the Anglo-Irish upper-crust, Yeats was never as forbidding to me as, say, Joyce or Beckett.

They're cold, abrasive, at times incomprehensible. Yeats, for all his clipped delivery and grandiose notions, seems quite avuncular. A brilliant, slightly flaky man, indulging his naive but harmless obsessions, ignoring the country pile crumbling around him.

Going through the Irish education system, you couldn't avoid Yeats. He dominated English, he was its heart. For Leaving Certificate English, Yeats was an automatic choice as one of two poetry questions.

I went on to take a module in Yeats for my degree – everyone did, at third-level. A great course, broadening out the life and works from the Leaving's more forensic focus on textual themes and tones, to Yeats' role with the Celtic revival, cultural nationalism, the Abbey theatre, and most intriguingly for me, his mysticism.

Daft old rubbish really, the Golden Dawn, cycles of time and all the rest; but it made Yeats even more endearing. We'd nod and smile to ourselves at yet another idiocy: "Uncle Willie's really lost it this time … !"

His work is part of the mental furniture here now. And no, I'm not playing up the myth of the lyric-quoting, "artistic" Irish soul, it's just that virtually anyone could quote Yeats at the drop of a hat.

Indeed, we do, sometimes without realising it. Dozens of his lines have become woven into the fabric of Hiberno-English; they're referenced in articles, used in casual conversation, almost to the point of cliche.

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave. I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? That is no country for old men. An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. Was there another Troy for her to burn? Fumble in a greasy till and add the half-pence to the pence, and prayer to shivering prayer …

Out they tumble, one after the other, with no need for any messing about with search engines – and I speak as a man who struggles with his memory. Half the time you're not even sure which poem the line came from; you just know it's Yeats, it's good, it's right for the moment.

This isn't to take from the brilliance of his poetry: intellectual, ambitious, honest – God, painfully so at times – and, above all, that language, swooning and swooping through the brightest skies.

But Yeats is comfortable, familiar; he's part of the landscape, literally in my case. I live about 10 miles from Coole Park, former estate of Lady Gregory, Yeats' patron and Celtic twilight partner-in-crime.

He often visited, was inspired by Coole, wrote poems about it. His name is among several carved into the famous Autograph Tree (Shaw, Synge, others). About three miles east is Thoor Ballylee, a Norman castle owned by Yeats as a summer-home.

The state runs both places now. Thoor Ballylee is little more than a stone monolith, but Coole is beautiful. They've even dotted the woodland walks with plaques bearing Yeats lines.

I'll go there later on, raise a hat to Uncle Willie, admire the "trees in their autumn beauty". If I'm lucky, I may even spy, "upon the brimming water", a couple of swans, if not the full Yeatsian "nine-and-fifty".


Darragh McManus

The GuardianTramp

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