In Chapter 3 of his novel Tarry Flynn, Kavanagh describes a summer sunset and, though sunsets have often been written about, when Kavanagh does it, like all true artists, he makes it his own:
‘The summer sun was going down in a most wonderful yellow ball behind the hills of Drumnay. It turned the dirty upstairs windows of Cassidy’s house into stained glass.’
Here the beauty of the evening sun is captured with all the simplicity of a child’s painting: the sun is ‘a most wonderful yellow ball’; the local place and people are named and the ordinariness of dirty windows is put before us. But Kavanagh’s way of setting the world has transformed those windows into beautiful things of praise.
It is important to note that almost all the poems by Kavanagh on the Leaving Cert Syllabus contain references to place and the people who make those places special. As Michael Schmidt puts it, in Kavanagh’s poetry, ‘Naming of places and things is of almost magical significance’. He writes in praise and celebration, for the most part, but in the extract from ‘The Great Hunger’, a darker relationship with place is explored. In Sean O’Brien’s words, ‘The Great Hunger’ depicts farming as, ‘hard labour and the bachelor male condition as sexually frustrated’. By contrast, in ‘Epic’ and ‘Advent’ the countryside is written about with affection and the rural images in his city poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, are happy, summery images of grass, trees, breezes and birds. Harry Clifton thinks that ‘In Kavanagh’s finest work, it is almost always high summer’ – for example ‘Inniskeen Road’ and the Canal Bank Sonnets are gloriously set in mid-July.
In many of Kavanagh’s poems, he is the outsider and the speaker in the poem is aware that this has advantages and disadvantages. He himself felt that:
‘A poet is never one of the people. He is detached, remote, and the life of small-time dances and talk about football would not be for him. He might take part but could not belong.’
‘Inniskeen Road’ and ‘Epic’ are poems which highlight the position of the poet; he feels cut off, at a remove from his neighbours, and yet the poems hint at how he is also content with his lot. In ‘Raglan Road’, the painful memories of unrequited love give way to the poet’s own belief in himself and yet, in ‘Lines Written…’, he chooses what has been described by Antoinette Quinn as, ‘an unegotistical tomb, a monument to his poetics rather than to his person’ where, ‘future visitors are asked to sit with their backs to the memorial description, reading instead the scene before them’.
Kavanagh’s own experience of life is at the heart of a Kavanagh poem. He writes directly out of his own experience – rural life, farming, childhood memories, unrequited love, illness and convalescence, his love of nature, his gratitude to God. When he writes ‘I’, he is almost always writing in his own voice and, even when he writes in the third person, as when he writes about Patrick Maguire and what Kavanagh called ‘the prison of a farmer’s life’ in ‘The Great Hunger’, he also includes the voice of a concerned, involved narrator which creates a closer link between the harsh, bleak world of the poem and the reader.
But the world of Kavanagh’s poetry is above all celebratory. Poems such as ‘Advent’, ‘The Hospital’ and the Canal Bank sonnets are all love poems to place. Here when Kavanagh looks, he sees ‘the newness that was in every stale thing’ and he delights in the ordinary, the natural, the physical world ‘of bog-holes, cart tracks, old stables’, ‘dreeping hedges’, ‘square cubicles in a row’, ‘The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry, / The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap’, the trapped stick, the grass, canal water ‘stilly / Greeny at the heart of summer’. In a lecture entitled ‘Man and Poet’, Kavanagh said:
‘We are in too great a hurry. We want a person or thing to yield their pleasures and their secrets to us quickly for we have other commitments. But it is the days when we are idle, when nothing appears to be happening, which provide us when no one is looking with all that is memorable’.
The Canal Bank sonnets are unhurried poems in which Kavanagh’s idleness yields precious, unforgettable experiences.
Anthony Cronin has described Patrick Kavanagh as an intensely private man who lived his life in public places, a man who thought mediocrity the enemy of genius, the enemy of life. He did live a public life as journalist and man about town but Kavanagh also claimed that ‘the only subject that is of any great importance – Man-in-this-world-and-why’. He also believed that, ‘Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals’ and that great beauty and profound truths can be discovered in apparently ordinary places.
John McGahern tells of how the forty-one-year-old Patrick Kavanagh once pointed out a particular grass and said: ‘I love that grass. I’ve known it since I was a child. I’ve often wondered if I’d be different if I had been brought up to love better things’. In the end, though, he did believe in Ballyrush and Gortin, in ordinary things, for it was in the ordinary that not only meaning could be found but that Kavanagh discovered the extraordinary. He had, in the end, come to the discovery that, ‘The material itself has no special value; it is what our imagination and our love does to it’.
Kavanagh is capable of great lyrical intensity. There is great lyrical, gentle but impassioned quality in lines such as ‘O unworn world enrapture me’ or ‘Feed the gaping need of my senses’ and a sense of being totally at ease. Kavanagh’s language can be what Patrick Crotty calls ‘grittily realistic’ (especially in ‘The Great Hunger’) but there is also a colloquial rhythm in such lines as ‘There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight’ or ‘That was the year of the Munich bother’ and there is also a great lyrical quality in ‘Canal Bank Walk’ where ‘pouring’ and ‘overflowing’ seem to describe the poem’s rhythm and mood:
‘For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.’
Kavanagh has an extraordinary ability to create fresh, surprising images
‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’;
‘a footfall tapping secrecies of stone’;
‘I am king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’;
‘The sleety winds fondle the rushy beards of Shancoduff’;
‘Mass-going feet / Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes’;
‘The wind leans from Brady’s, and the coltsfoot leaves are holed with rust’;
‘And Christ comes with a January flower’;
‘we tripped lightly along the ledge / Of the deep ravine’;
‘Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind’; ‘the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard’;
‘a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word’;
‘A swan goes by head low with many apologies’.
Kavanagh’s poetry is a record of a journey that brought him from Monaghan to the banks of the Grand Canal, a journey of discovery and exploration in which he reveals himself as one who found the ordinary, extraordinary, and that ‘the things that really matter as casual, insignificant little things’. He offers us a version of himself in his poem ‘If Ever You Go To Dublin Town’: ‘If ever you go to Dublin town / In a hundred years or so’ he says, ‘Inquire for me in Baggot Street / And what I was like to know’ and he goes on to tell us that he was ‘a queer one’, ‘dangerous’, ‘a nice man’, ‘eccentric’, ‘a proud one’, ‘a vain one’, ‘slothful’ and it ends:
Mahon’s poetry does not flinch from exposing human inadequacy, especially, but not exclusively, the pathology of the Northern Protestant people. Oates’s heroic gesture in ‘Antarctica’, the naked aggression in ‘As It Should Be’, the narrow bigotry in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and Bruce Ismay’s self-absorption in ‘After the Titanic’ – all are testament to human shortcomings. However, while Mahon deplores the ‘stiff rhetorical intransigence’ of his people (as Seamus Deane puts it), he also sympathises with them in their isolation and fading presence.
For Mahon poetry is essentially an artistic activity: it is more concerned with shape and form than with content or politics. Like the great modernist poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, he takes pleasure in and is consoled by the order and formality of poetry – an order that is notably absent from many of the livers he describes. This might suggest that his poetry is removed from everyday concerns, and indeed he sometimes yearns for what he calls poetry’s ‘palace and porcelain’ – a place or state that is elegant, decorative, and decorous.
However, this desire is only one of the warring instincts within him. Mahon has also suggested that poetry is capable of improving humankind. He has invoked Shelley’s claim that poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination, which is ‘the great instrument of moral good.’ Looked at in this way, poetry is an unacknowledged legislator of the world, not isolated from it.
In the opinion of one critic, Gerald Dawe, Mahon’s primary concern is to understand the imagination and find a place for it in the modern world. Mahon himself maintains that poetry can contribute to the creation of a life that is nearer the ideal. ‘A good poem is a paradigm (model or example) of good politics,’ he has written – ‘of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness.’
Seamus Deane remarks that Mahon’s poetry ‘expresses a longing to be free from history’; but his poems on civility and barbarity (the greatest of which is probably ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’) contradict that longing. He has had good reason to yearn to be ‘through with history,’ since he belongs to a country that has violently enacted its versions of history, with deadly effect. However, history is not his only preoccupation. His themes also include the age-old conflict between the individual and his community. In Mahon’s case, poetry is also especially a statement about what it means to be a poet today, distanced from, but implicated in, the historical world. So he does not escape from history; instead it is incorporated or woven into the oasis of peace and aesthetic order that is each poem.
What are the main characteristics of his style? He displays a combination of brevity and detail, and this is achieved with a cadenced precision. How effective and economical a description is ‘a writhing glimmer of fish’ in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, for example! In addition, his elegant and playful rhymes and adroit control of assonance are impressive. He endorses traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, and yet subverts them. His pared-down vernacular idiom is combined with a prodigious learning, which Mahon wears lightly and which makes an oblique and understated appearance in the poems.
The voices of his poems – and they are many – are sophisticated yet possessed of a heartfelt, if weary, empathy with their subjects. They are often still, small voices, educated but understated, learned but not pedantic, always self-aware and often self-mocking. They are the voices of men of conscience who are implicated in the guilt of being human beings. (Women figure only in a small, marginal way in the selection of poems by Mahon on the modern Leaving Cert course, for example.) Their agonised intelligence is often close to despair, but they still go on. The critic Terence Brown uses the phrase ‘terminal pathos’ to describe this distinctive note in Mahon’s poetry, which can also be found, incidentally, in the work of Samuel Beckett. Brown is referring to that quality of poetic speech that can excite in the reader extreme pity or sorrow.
However, the poems are not all delivered in a tone of mortal sadness. Central to Mahon’s poetry is the use of irony. Often his meanings have a different or opposite tendency to that expressed by the words used. When he rails against bigotry and hatred in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and against violence in ‘Rathlin’, he is severely critical, but his gentle mockery in ‘Grandfather’ is impish and mischievous. He tempers the cruel precision of his observations with compassion, amusement, and pain. Witty and darkly humorous, he relishes the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously, as this extract from ‘After the Titanic’ illustrates:
a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers, bursting and shredded ragtime.
The settings for his poems range from the readily identifiable Portrush and Belfast to the metaphorical sites of past political failures and violence, like Kinsale and Rathlin Island, and the psychic wasteland of Antarctica. Harshness predominates. Surfaces are unyielding, climates are bracing. Even cities may be empty, as in ‘Ecclesiastes’, or their citizens voluntarily withdraw into isolation, as in ‘Grandfather’. We sense that, although the poems are set ‘in one place only’, the feelings they evoke are universal. Always there is a consciousness of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of human struggle. The reader is aware that, whatever the setting of a particular poem, it engages in dialogue with or provides a foil to, that desperate, barren place, Belfast, which so informs Mahon’s imagination.
Frequently places are viewed from elsewhere, from a distance that may be historical, geographical, or ironic. The titles of the first and last books from which the poems on the Leaving Cert course are taken, Night-Crossing and Antarctica testify to his shifting ground. Frequently too the speaker is a traveller, a tourist or a reporter, traversing difficult country. The unyielding terrain becomes a metaphor for the existential, regional or global anxieties from which he suffers.
In certain poems there is an inkling of an ‘elsewhere’ that is nearer the ideal state than that now inhabited. That place or state is suggested by, for example, post-historical Rathlin Island, now a bird sanctuary, or by the glimpse of Co. Donegal beyond the shores from Portrush, or by those faraway places where a thought might grow. It is beyond reach, and the speaker is often aware of its fictional nature, as he is in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’.
Estranged loners crowd the poems. In works such as ‘After the Titanic’ and ‘Rathlin’ their distance from other humans, whether temporal or spatial, gives some idea of the extent of their isolation. Sometimes, as in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ and ‘A Disused Shed’, their alienation is suggested by his comparing them to fish or fungi.
Mahon holds a special affection for scapegoats and failures, such as the murdered dreamer in ‘As It Should Be’, or Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’, seeing in their particular brand of failure a kind of successful avoidance of the mundane. As he writes in a 1997 poem, ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’
A distinctively Mahon outsider is the detached observer, at one remove from reality yet part of it. He is to be found, for instance, in ‘A Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, and ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’. His role is to interpret and comment on the poem’s action, as would the chorus of a classic Greek play, or to lament man’s inhumanity, as did Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah. Unlike a Greek chorus, however, Mahon’s outsider is implicated in the conditions and predicaments the poems express. His watchful presence also ignites an inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the historical world around him.
Mahon has a special gift for selecting telling images of the commonplace, material world and investing them with resonance. Tied-up swings, Peruvian mines, burnt-out hotels, a red bandana – the images are acutely visual and activate a series of associations in our minds. Mahon is at pains to catch the quality of light that falls on his landscapes and has a visual artist’s awareness of shape and colour. ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, for example, is replete with precise visual detail – such as open doors, the girl swinging her bag, the chow mein, the photograph of Hongkong, the yacht – which he then invests with significance.
Derek Mahon is one of the most important poets writing in Ireland today. His poetry is memorable because his technical excellence, contemporary idiom and serious subject matter combine with an urbane yet passionate sensitivity.
DEREK MAHON – A MODERN DAY ENIGMA?
‘There must be three things in combination, I suggest, before the poetry can happen: soul, song and formal necessity’ writes Mahon, and his own work most surely meets these requirements. Mahon’s poetry has the sensibility of a thinking, feeling self, a music and a mastery of construction; ‘Grandfather’ is a sonnet, ‘Antarctica’ a villanelle and, in general, his organisation of his stanzas, his line length and rhyme are very impressive. He is a formalist, he believes in pattern and structure and has said: ‘Look at rap – that’s the best poetry being written in America at the moment; at least it rhymes.’
Derek Mahon writes about landscape, seascape; he writes about what Edna Longley calls the ‘conflict between poetry and the ethos of Protestant Ulster’ (this is very evident in ‘Ecclesiastes’). He is very much a poet of place (Donegal, Co. Wexford, Portrush, Rathlin, Antarctica, Kinsale), he is also a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas and a poet with a broad literary background. The literary, philosophical aspect of his work can be seen in his poem ‘Heraclitus on Rivers’, when he writes:
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these will pass away in time.
‘For Mahon, the past is significantly present’ says Thomas Kinsella and this can be seen particularly in ‘Rathlin’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co, Wexford’. His sympathetic nature is evident in ‘After the Titanic’, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, and ‘Antarctica’. In these three poems Mahon demonstrates his ability to enter into the lives of others. In one he speaks in the voice of Bruce Ismay; in another he imagines what the owner of the restaurant is thinking, feeling, dreaming and in ‘Antarctica’ he recreates a scene from an Antarctic expedition where an individual makes an extraordinary choice for the benefit of others. He is drawn to solitary, forgotten figures and in his poetry Mahon often reveals himself to be a solitary, observing figure.
Sean O’Brien points out that, ‘For the most part Mahon’s world exists outdoors’ and the, ‘wide-open spaces are, naturally enough, rather thinly populated, but even when Mahon writes about the city … it is somewhere whose population is hardly to be seen.’ Belfast, for example, in ‘Ecclesiastes’, is ‘the / dank churches, the empty streets, / the shipyard silence. The tied-up swings’. There is also, however, a sense of beauty and celebration in Mahon’s response to the physical world, as in his description of Donegal, (‘the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world’) or Kinsale (‘sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun’).
He is a very visual poet, as captured in such details as
‘the grave / Grey of the sea’,
‘the empty streets, / The shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’,
‘a pandemonium of /Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches / Boilers bursting’,
‘Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator’,
‘a flutter / Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft’,
‘one / By one the gulls go window shopping’,
‘The whole island a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’,
‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime’,
‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay’.
‘The strongest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon’ says Eamon Grennan, ‘is the sense that I have been spoken to; that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech … What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to speech itself, to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft’. The poems on our course speak to us in a voice that is calm, reflective, self-aware and never self-important. The speaker sometimes uses ‘I’, sometimes ‘we’ or ‘us’, and all the time the reader is invited into the poem. Mahon’s poems ask us to reflect on a range of themes:
the dispossessed and neglected in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’,
loneliness and longing in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’,
history’s legacy in ‘Rathlin’,
the solitary selflessness in ‘Antarctica’,
changing times viewed optimistically in ‘Kinsale’,
from an individual’s mystery and elusiveness in ‘Grandfather’,
uncertainty and failure in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’,
guilt and suffering in ‘After the Titanic’,
cultural inheritance and community in ‘Ecclesiastes’,
threat and violence in ‘As it Should Be’.
His best known poem, seen by many as his greatest masterpiece, is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. There the mushrooms become a symbol of lost voices struggling to be saved and the poems references to Peru, India, Treblinka and Pompeii allow the poem a huge historical and cultural framework and create what Hugh Haughton calls ‘a wonderful long perspective of historical time’. When Declan Kiberd says that Mahon ‘has the mind of a conscience-stricken anthropologist’, we can see what he means when we read this particular poem.
In his recent poetry (not on the course!), especially in The Yellow Book, Mahon casts a cold eye on our consumer driven society and our image-obsessed world. He writes of how now ‘Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / the whole noise of late-century consumerism’ and of how our lives are affected by ‘road rage / spy cameras, radio heads, McDonalds, rowdytum, / laser louts and bouncers, chat shows, paparazzi, / stand up comedians and thug journalists’. But the same poet can also write a poem called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ where he offers the following heartening lines:
The sun rises in spite of everything
And the far cities are beautiful and bright.
In the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Declan Kiberd describes Derek Mahon as ‘the most underrated Irish poet of the century’ and Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Mahon’s work has been ‘consistently undervalued for fifty years, not that neglect has seemed to bother or inhibit him.’ Derek Mahon is more interested in his poetry than in his reputation. He knows that,
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
And the hidden source is the watchful heart.
‘Derek Mahon’s imagery is vivid, evocative and striking.’
Discuss this statement using some of the poetry you have studied to support or refute this viewpoint.
In his poetry, Derek Mahon engages with the ordinary, sometimes the unique, always the actual experiences of life. His observations are of real places and real people; he refers to real events in an outdoor world of shorelines, rocks, hills, moorland, and island.
Mahon is a very imaginative and perceptive poet. He responds to objects and landscapes in ways that are surprising and at times remarkable. Usually he communicates his very personal observations in imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. In his poems, however, the use of landscape transcends the mere descriptive. Landscape and seascape frequently reflect the poet’s insight, his hope, his frustration and his despair. Much of this deeper resonance is achieved through imagery.
Mahon is a very visual writer. His images vary from the domestic, where his grandfather bangs ‘around the house like a four-year old’, to the sublime where ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole. / This is the one star in their firmament’. One of the principal functions of his imagery is to evoke moments of private and public suffering that have been ignored or forgotten. On of the most striking images in his poems is that in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ where mushrooms wait ‘in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil war days’. For those who have not yet shed their ‘pale flesh’ into the earth, their long, tortuous existence, has almost destroyed their hope of ever being heard, ‘so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture’. The extended image encompasses words such as ‘nightmares’, ‘prisoners’, ‘rached by drought’, to portray the chilling misery and despair of thousands who have died or survived in squalor. These vivid images also evoke the terrible realisation that the poet is speaking of human suffering and torment, displacing their lives and their hurt on to the mushrooms in a striking association of men and object. The power of the image is unquestionable, for it leaves us with diverse feelings of revulsion and of guilt for what has occurred in our history, the history of humankind, and for the unforgivable way in which the plight of the innocents has been forgotten.
This ability to use natural objects, such as mushrooms, to represent the human experiences and the poet’s own feelings and perspectives on those experiences, is also evident where Mahon evokes the elements of the Irish landscape. In ‘Rathlin’, the poet once again recalls historical violence on an island that is now a ‘sanctuary’ of peace and ‘through with history’. However, this refuge also witnessed ‘unspeakable violence’ and ‘screams of the Rathlin women’ when blood was shed in territorial battles. Mahon connects the past with the present, and Rathlin with Belfast in the image of the bombs that ‘doze in the housing estates’. It is a chilling reminder that violence has shattered the ‘dream-time’, the lives of men, women and children.
Mahon’s concern for the future helps us to understand his frustration in ‘Ecclesiastes’ when he witnesses ‘tied-up swings’, and listens to Godspeak from people who ‘love the January rains’ when people ‘darken the dark doors’ of ‘dank churches’. Mahon deplores those who can ‘promise nothing under the sun’. These vivid images of a bleak, oppressive urban landscape reflect the poet’s desolation, and his anger that ‘people still await’ understanding, forgiveness, and encouragement to embrace the ‘heat of the world’. Sadly, the elemental rain beats down relentlessly.
Or does it? In one of his later poems, ‘Kinsale’, there is a welcome and long-awaited moment of light and hope. The poet himself seems to savour the parting of clouds in the opening lines when he says, ‘The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past – / Deep-delving, dark, deliberate.’ The image of the yachts ‘tinkling and dancing’ is not only striking in its beauty but it is also positively uplifting. There is a renewal of energy, of possibility. It has come as a welcome respite, and not just to the reader, for the poet too utters his relief in the phrase ‘at last’. The sun, that eternal image of hope, promises ‘a future forbidden to no-one’.
Derek Mahon is, therefore, a poet with a precise and imaginative eye. He is capable of creating imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. His images reveal for us the bleak condition of society and of man yet the final note is more hopeful. Like his mushrooms, perhaps, Mahon’s poems ‘have come so far in darkness’; but ‘contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no one’.
FINAL WORDS ON MAHON’S POETRY
His Themes include the darker side of life where Mahon reveals private and public suffering, pain, and violence. He also examines landscapes and seascapes and the way people interact with such places. Alienation is another recurring theme. Some poems also explore the area of personal sacrifice while in ‘Kinsale’ a belief in the future concludes the selection on a more hopeful note.
Mahon can explore subjects that are not usually considered material for poetry, such as mushrooms, a derelict shed and a Chinese restaurant. His observations are very precise without being pretentious. He also delves into the mindset of those who suffer, those who fail, and those who are fanatical in their politics or their religion.
Mahon employs a range of poetic forms. He can create very precise short stanza forms or longer, quite formal stanzas. In the poems on our course he uses the couplet, tercet, quatrain, sonnet and villanelle. Many of his longer stanzas are written in blank verse.
Rhyme is often internal although end-rhyme is also used. Mahon can make very effective use of alliteration and assonance.
The atmosphere that emerges from his poems is threatening, violent, and intimidating but there is also a definite feeling of love, sincerity and hope in other poems.
Mahon’s imagery shows his precise observations and gives a painterly quality to his poetry. Images are frequently related to the poet’s own experiences. Colloquial language is another feature of his style.
Two poets, one American, one Irish, dominated English Literature during the first half of the twentieth-century: T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. So powerful is Yeats’s distinctive poetic voice that his poetry has been described as ‘magisterial’, ‘authoritative’, ‘commanding’, ‘formidable’, ‘compelling’, ‘direct’, ‘exhilarating’, and even ‘overbearing’. Before he died Yeats arranged for an epitaph to be cut in stone ‘by his command’ – and as Seamus Heaney has pointed out ‘command’ is the operative word here! But there is also in Yeats the voice of the dreamer, the idealist. We see it in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, which he began when he was twenty-three. The life imagined on Innisfree is simple, beautiful and unrealistic and this longing for the ideal is also found in the sixty-one year old Yeats when he sails in his imagination, to Byzantium.
Yeats (like Joyce) lived in a time of extraordinary change. A world war was fought and Ireland fought for and attained its Independence and went through the scourge of the Civil War; his poetry charts the political turmoil of those times. Yeats writes about aspects of his private and his public life and sometimes those two aspects of his life overlap. He is a public poet in a poem such as ‘September 1913’, where he becomes a self-elected spokesman in his condemnation of small-mindedness and the absence of vision. He played a public role, was committed to Ireland (he refused a knighthood in 1915) and was made a Senator in 1922; one of his early ambitions says Michael Schmidt, was, ‘to reconcile the courteous Protestant heritage with the martyred, unmannerly Roman Catholic tradition in Ireland towards a political end’. In ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ he touches on these themes. ‘All his life’, writes Augustine Martin, ‘Yeats sought for a harmonious way of life as well as a perfect form of art and he re-invents himself several times during the course of his life and work’.
While it is obvious, having studied a selection of his poems, that many similar themes recur in his poetry, it is also evident that he rarely repeated himself. In Irish Classics, Professor Declan Kiberd identifies this aspect of Yeats’s poetry and comments:
‘The greatness of Yeats lay in his constant capacity to adjust to ever-changing conditions….As the years passed, he grew simpler in expression, using shorter lines dominated by monosyllables, with more nouns and fewer adjectives. He said himself that a poet should think like a wise man, but express himself as one of the common people’.
Our poets and songwriters frequently write repeating similar themes and styles. (Need I mention David Gray? Eva Cassidy? Morrissey even!). When Yeats writes about nationalism, his preoccupation with the passing of time and the reality of growing old, his belief in the extraordinary power of art, it could be said that these themes are not startlingly unusual, but it is the way he writes on such topics that makes him unique. He once described this process memorably as, ‘the stitching and unsticthing’ of old themes.
Imagery, especially his use of symbol, is another striking aspect of his work. Powerful, memorable images remain with the reader, such as the ‘purple glow’ of noon; the fumbling in ‘a greasy till’; ‘the hangman’s rope’; the nine-and-fifty swans ‘Upon the brimming water’ and the ‘bell-beat of their wings’; the stone in the midst of ‘the living stream’; a creature ‘somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man’; ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire’; ‘the bees build in the crevices / Of loosening masonry’; ‘Two girls in silk kimonos’, etc., etc.
In ‘Under Ben Bulben’, written five months before he died, he praised the well-made poem and scorned and condemned the shapeless, badly made one. All his life he valued form and his mastery of rhythm, rhyme and the stanza are testimony to this. Yeats is intensely personal: he names names and writes about events and happenings that are recorded in newspapers and history books, but he knew that ‘all that is personal soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt’. His poems speak to us with great immediacy and directness but they do so in elaborate and musical forms.
‘My poetry is generally written out of despair’ says Yeats. As he grew older, he searched for ways to overcome his weakening body. He raged against old age, wrote about it with great honesty and accepted the inevitability of death. His poetry reminds us of the immortality of art, that ‘Man can embody truth but cannot know it’ and that ‘we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy’.