Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture 2021

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Ambassador Dan Mulhall, addressing the audience during his Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture at Éigse Michael Hartnett. Photo credit: Dermot Lynch

Rebel Acts: Patrick Kavanagh, John Montague and Michael Hartnett

The Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture, 2 October 2021

I have always been interested in the fact that Ireland’s era of supreme literary achievement – the time of Yeats and Joyce – coincided with its age of political transformation in the opening decades of the 20th century. This has given me an interest in what I call ‘history poems’, poetry that addresses issues of a political or societal nature.

Was this really a coincidence, or was the flowering of Irish literature in the first third of the 20th century somehow bound up with Ireland’s torrid escape from external rule in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Were Irish literature and early 20th century Irish history two sides of the same coin?

During my student days in Cork, I was friendly with a number of up-and-coming poets who emerged there under the guidance of John Montague, who taught English at UCC. I refer to Tom McCarthy, Sean Dunne, Theo Dorgan and Pat Crotty. Although I could never write a line of verse myself as I do not have the gift or the courage for self-revelation of the kind that good poetry requires, I had an interest in poetry. It was through that interest that I met Michael Hartnett briefly when he came to UCC to do a reading there in the mid-1970s.

That was about the time when ‘A Farewell to English’ was published and I was intrigued by his caustic evocation of the ‘paradise of files and paper clips’. That seemed especially pertinent to me as I was about to join the Irish civil service. At the time, I was writing an MA thesis which explored the borderlands between literature and history.  I made use of ‘A Farewell to English’ in that study in order to point out that our writers continued to have an awkward interface with Irish society and politics in the 1970s. Some of the lines from Hartnett’s poem have stayed in my mind throughout the intervening decades.

Hartnett’s poem reflected the disenchantment I had encountered elsewhere in Ireland’s literary canon.  It seemed as if our writers acted as a kind of informal opposition to the conventions, pieties if you will, of independent Ireland.

I have long detected similarities between ‘A Farewell to English’ and  Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ and John Montague’s ‘The Rough Field’, three public poems that address key themes from experience as an independent country. In this talk, I want to reflect on those three poems all of which exhibit a crusading tone.  Between them they offer a kind of potted history of 20th century Ireland, retold by three acute, articulate observers.

In ‘The Great Hunger’, Patrick Kavanagh excoriates the failings of rural Ireland.  John Montague’s ‘Rough Field’ explores the sectarian conflicts and tensions that abounded in his home place, Garvaghey in County Tyrone. In Hartnett’s case, disappointment with the Ireland he knew runs through his poem. Between them, the three poets raise dissenting voices, disaffected from aspects of the Ireland they knew. They tell us something about 20th century Ireland.  If journalism is the first draft of history as has been claimed, then literature is perhaps its second draft.  Literary evidence also lives on in the public imagination in ways that other parts of our documentary archive does not.

The three poems do not, of course, tell us everything about 20th century Ireland, just as ‘Easter 1916’ does not give a full picture of the 1916 Rising, but that poem does capture something of the essences of the Rising. For their part, Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett give us snatches of commentary on 20th century Irish life.  What do they tell us?

The Great Hunger:

Reading it again in recent weeks, it is hard not to be deeply impressed with  ‘The Great Hunger’(1942). It’s one hell of an achievement, even if the world it depicts has an antiquarian feel in the Ireland of Google, Starbuck’s and Amazon etc.

In a 1949 interview with The Bell, Kavanagh bragged that he was “the only man who has written in our time about rural Ireland from the inside” and that was fair comment. What I think he meant was that Yeats and other writers of the literary revival had spied rural Ireland from the outside, idealizing it in the process. Kavanagh had written about it at close quarters from his ungainly perch at Inniskeen in County Monaghan. Kavanagh certainly didn’t follow Yeats’s exhortation to ’sing the peasantry’ or to embrace the dream of ‘the noble and the beggarman’.

What we get in ‘The Great Hunger’ is a furiously gritty immersion in what the poet called

the apocalypse of clay

In every corner of this land.

This is what one critic has called an ‘anti-pastoral’ poem. The poet Brendan Kennelly has described ‘The Great Hunger’ as ‘a necessary realistic outburst from an essentially transcendental imagination.’ The tone is this poem is very different from Kavanagh’s better-known short poems, where his attitude to rural Ireland is more wistful.  Here it is fierce. He pulls no punches in his evocation of the sexual frustrations of ‘poor Paddy Maguire’ and his fellow potato gatherers who are like ‘mechanised scarecrows’ ‘broken-backed over the Book of Death’.

Maguire is a man whose spirit:

Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.

He is not the ‘wise and simple man’ with the ‘sun freckled face’ as in Yeats’s dream of the ideal Irish countryman in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’. This is reality as Kavanagh saw it, a man bound to his fields,

Lost in a passion that never needs a wife.

Now that he is in his sixties and senses that life has passed him by, Maguire is:

not so sure if his mother was right

When she praised a man who made a field his bride.

Kavanagh’s insider’s account of rural Ireland is a stern antidote to notions of a rural idyll. There are those who see Kavanagh’s poem as a counterpoint to de Valera’s famous 1943 speech dreaming of rural Ireland ‘joyous with the sounds of laughter, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.’  There is nothing serene about the anti-hero of ‘The Great Hunger’ who seems achingly aware of his dismal fate,

In Kavanagh’s version of rural Ireland, ‘life is more lousy than savage’ and those who live there are in ‘the grip of irregular fields’ from which ‘No man escapes.’ For the poet acting as sociologist, at the root of Paddy Maguire’s (and rural Ireland’s) frustrated unhappiness is a socially-enforced suppression of sexuality. In Kavanagh’s view, this is something that Maguire and the people around him bring on themselves.

Later in his life, Patrick Kavanagh sought to disown ‘The Great Hunger’ and its hectoring tone. He insisted that ‘A poet merely states the position and does not care whether his words change anything or not.’ I am not saying that ‘The Great Hunger’ was a harbinger of change, but it was part of a critique of the ‘dreary Eden’ carried out in the 1940s and 1950s through the pages of The Bell edited by Seán O’Faoláin, to which Kavanagh was a contributor.

As a public servant, I tend to trace the roots of modern Ireland to the publication of Economic Development in 1958, which, driven by a desire to stem the flight from rural Ireland that had reached epidemic proportions in mid-1950s, resolved to open up our economy in what turned out to be a game-change for Ireland. ‘The Great Hunger’ helps us to understand the social roots of rural Ireland’s depopulation.

The Rough Field:

The Rough Field was published in 1972, the year I began studying literature at UCC with John Montague as one of my lecturers, but the poems it incorporates were written during the preceding ten years. It has something in common with Kavanagh’s long poem (Montague was an admirer of Kavanagh’s poetry and an advocate for it) in that it explores Ireland’s rural world, in Montague’s case Garvaghey in County Tyrone. It is interesting that Kavanagh, Montague and Hartnett all hail from rural or small-town Ireland, quite different from the urban, and ultimately cosmopolitan backgrounds of Yeats and Joyce, modulated in Yeats’s case by his engagement with Sligo and Coole Park in Galway.

‘The Rough Field’ is a poem of exile and return. Montague, the boy from Garvaghey, having spent years in Dublin, Berkeley and Paris, re-engages with his home place and ‘the unhappiness of its historical destiny’. Like Kavanagh, he doesn’t go all pastoral on us. As he puts it,

No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here ..

But merging low hills and gravel streams,

Oozy blackness of bog-banks, pale upland grass; ..

Harsh landscape that hunts me,

Well and stone, in the bleak moors of dream.

Like ‘The Great Hunger’, ‘The Rough Field’ can be lyrical as remembrance of boyhood wells up:

Those were my first mornings

Fresh as Eden, with dew on the face,

Like first kiss, the damp air:

On dismantled flagstones,

From ash-smoored embers

Hands now strive to rekindle

That once leaping fire.

But the prevailing tone is stark, grim and, as in Kavanagh and indeed Hartnett, there is a side swipe at Yeats, this time his insistence that ‘Ancient Ireland knew it all.’:

Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside,

Then rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head,

Formorian fierceness of family and local feud.

Perhaps the key line in this collection is when the poet, having brought to light the elemental unpleasantness of sectarian animosities in rural Tyrone, frees himself from the ‘dolmens round my childhood’ that had trespassed on his dreams:

Until once, in a standing circle of stones,

I felt their shadows pass

Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.

Here we have the poet seeking to put his past, and that of his home place, behind him, but can any society ever do that? Creating a kind of ‘permanence’ of historical memory in the public mind, hopefully not a dark one, may be one of the outputs from our Decade of Centenaries, putting our history in a settled place where it can be analysed and debated, but not fought over

Like Michael Hartnett in ‘A Farewell to English’, Montague muses on the ‘shards of a lost tradition’ and reflects on his father’s experience as an exile, one that was all too common to Irish people in the 20th century. He was:

the least happy

man I have known. His face

retained the pallor

of those who work underground:

the lost years in Brooklyn

listening to a subway

shudder the earth.

In the part of ‘The Rough Field’ known as ‘Patriotic Suite’, the poet turns his attention to independent Ireland and its discontents – ‘the gloomy images of a provincial  catholicism’. Once at UCC in the mid-1970s, I heard Montague deliver an excoriating putdown of the deficiencies of the Ireland of that time and, drawing on Swift to fillet the ‘yahoos’ he believed were in the ascendant. In this poem he writes that:

All revolutions are interior

The displacement of spirit

By the arrival of fact,

Ceaseless as cloud across sky,

Sudden as sun.

Cheekily, he asks:

Does fate at last relent

With a trade expansion of 5 per cent?

His question is does prosperity help us deal with our demons, a puzzle that is still with us. I celebrate our material advancement as a people since the 1970s, but I accept that things of value can get lost in the process and that economic advancement does not guarantee wellbeing, which is more difficult to measure.

Then Montague brings us into the 1960s, where at ‘the Fleadh Cheoil in Mullingar:

There were two sounds, the breaking

Of glass, and the background pulse

Of music. Young girls roamed

The streets with eager faces,

Pushing for men. Bottles in

Hand, they rowed out for a song.

Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone ,

A myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain.

Montague’s final take on rural Ireland is ambivalent. He acknowledges that:

Only a sentimentalist would wish

to see such degradation again.

..

Yet something mourns.

It is the loss

of a world where action had been wrung

through painstaking years to ritual.

What, in Montague’s view has gone is:

Our finally lost dream of man at home

in a rural setting!

I recognise the issue of rural Ireland’s viability and equilibrium as a continuing priority for us in this century. What, I wonder, will our experience of the pandemic do to the urban/rural balance of our country?

A Farewell to English

 This is by far the shortest of three works I discuss in this talk. It starts with a flourish.

Her eyes were coins of porter and her West

Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:

her hair black as the glossy fireplace

wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best.

She cut the froth from glasses with a knife

and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.

Now I know this is not a literary term, but that’s what I call ‘great stuff’. It’s a strong opening pitch. It reminds me of Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’. But the poet’s unease emerges early on as he sinks his hands into tradition, ‘sifting centuries for words’, but the words he reaches for with ‘excitement’ and ‘emotion’ are Irish words.

It is clear to me that the poet’s turning away from the English language, ‘the gravel of Anglo-Saxon’ is a reflection of a more generalized disenchantment with the realities of what he calls ‘the clergy cluttered south’.  He conjures up an image of Ireland’s leaders queueing up at Dublin Castle in 1922

to make our Gaelic

or our Irish dream come true.

But this ends up with us choosing

to learn the noble art

of writing forms in triplicate.

As it happens, when I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978, it was common to make 4 or 5 carbon copies of a letter, while ‘cut and paste’ meant using scissors and gum to cut up old documents and rearrange them!

In Hartnett’s vision, modern Ireland is the offspring of a ‘brimming Irish sow’ and ‘an English boar’.  He concludes that

We knew we had been robbed

but we were not sure that we lost

the right to have a language

or the right to be the boss.

The image here is of unrealised national ambition and of materialism eclipsing identity.

In another echo of Yeats (‘Irish poets learn your trade’), he insists that

Poets with progress

make no peace or pact.

The act of poetry

is a rebel act.

Justifying his decision to abandon English, he takes the view that

Gaelic is our final sign that

we are human, therefore not a herd.

For Hartnett, therefore, the Irish language was a precious antidote to the stifling conditions he saw around him.

He concludes with a resounding broadside:

I have made my choice

and leave with little weeping:

I have come with meagre voice

to court the language of my people.

Hartnett’s poem confronts one of the unredeemed aspirations of 20th century Ireland, the effort to revive the Irish language. The Gaelic League helped radicalize a generation of Irish people at the turn of the century and became a driver of revolutionary activity. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Eamon de Valera entered the world of Irish nationalism through the door of the Gaelic League.   But the language revival stalled with independence. It flourished in the pronouncements of the State but not in the practice of the people. For Hartnett, I think it was the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality that spurred him to make the radical stop of abandoning English, the language of the head – ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in’ – in favour of Irish, the language of the heart. The language question continues to be an important issue in discussions about Irish identity, in answering the ‘who are we’ question.

 Conclusion:

When Michael Hartnett described poetry as ‘a rebel act’, he was not referring to the kind of rebellion that was the subject of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’.  What his words suggest is that a poet’s default posture is dissatisfaction and disenchantment. 20th century Ireland has had a fraught relationship with its writers, Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Sean O’Faolain, Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien and many others who strained against the nets of conformity.

What can we derive about 20th century Ireland from these three long poems?  Three things strike me:

The first is the aura of disappointment surrounding the actual fruits of independence. For Kavanagh, this revolved around the stunted condition of rural Ireland. For Montague, it was the failure to resolve sectarian tensions in Ulster and the dullness of life in Ireland compared with the expansiveness he had encountered elsewhere. And for Hartnett, it was the bureaucratization of Irish life and the abandonment of a vital part of our cultural patrimony.

The second is that rural Ireland is the laboratory in which the poets test what they saw as our national failings. The problems of rural Ireland and attempts to remedy them was the mainstay of the nationalist project throughout the 19th century. If independence was the solution to Ireland’s ills, then that ought to have been in evidence in rural society. In the three poems explored in this talk, all with rural settings, Monaghan, Tyrone and West Limerick, disappointment and disenchantment is the prevailing mood.

My third take away is that are shards of light visible in each poem. In Kavanagh whatever sense of hope the poem contains comes from its the celebration of the natural world despite all its harshness. Take for example his image of ‘October playing a symphony on a slack wire’. In one passage, Kavanagh reflects on the fact that

..sometimes when sun comes through a gap

These men know God the Father in a tree:’

In Montague’s poem, it’s the social loosening of the 1960s epitomised by the Fleadh in Mullingar that gives him hope that ‘puritan Ireland’ is on its last legs. For  Hartnett it is the protective glow of Ireland’s language and traditions.  Hartnett once referred to Irish as both ‘the soul’s music’ and ‘the bad talk you hear in the pub’. It is ‘a ribald language/anti-Irish’, by which I am sure he meant that its reality confounds traditional images of Irishness.

Given that the default position for these writers is critical, how will Irish literature fare in the more self-satisfied Ireland we now live in? What will the target be of the history poems of our 21st century? Will the present pandemic inspire meditations in verse on the subject of our national condition?

Not all Irish poetry revolves around the ‘bugbear Mr Yeats’, as Michael Hartnett described his eminent predecessor. Far from being an island of bad verse, today’s Ireland continues to produce a good fistful of poetic talent that can shine the light of imagination on our affairs.

Finally, to come back to literature and history, I want to mention a book I will publish in January entitled, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey. I wrote it to mark the centenary of the publication of Joyce’s great novel and to record my own journey with, and through, Ulysses this past forty years. As a historian, I also see Ulysses as an invaluable portrait of an Ireland on the cusp of dramatic political change, an enduring monument in words to our country as it was a century and more ago.  We are lucky to have so many wordsmiths, past and present, delving into our national life for, as Yeats once wrote, ‘words alone are certain good’.

Daniel Mulhall

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About the Author…..

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Ambassador Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s current Ambassador to the United States delivered this year’s Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during the Éigse Michael Hartnett Literary and Arts Festival which took place from September 30th to October 2nd in Newcastle West, County Limerick.

The Ambassador was following in a long line of illustrious speakers who had previously delivered this prestigious lecture, including Donal Ryan, Theo Dorgan, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Durban, Fintan O’Toole, Declan Kiberd and President Michael D. Higgins. 

Daniel Mulhall was born and brought up in Waterford. He pursued his graduate and post-graduate studies at University College Cork where he specialised in modern Irish history and literature. He took up duty as Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States in August 2017.

He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and had his early diplomatic assignments in New Delhi, Vienna (OSCE), Brussels (European Union) and Edinburgh where he was Ireland’s first Consul General, 1998-2001. He served as Ireland’s Ambassador to Malaysia (2001-05), where he was also accredited to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. From 2009 to 2013, he was Ireland’s Ambassador to Germany. Before arriving in Washington, he served as Ireland’s Ambassador in London (2013-17).

In 2017, he was made a Freeman of the City of London in recognition of his work as Ambassador. In December 2017, he was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Liverpool. In 2019, he was honoured with the Freedom of the City and County of Waterford. In November 2019, Ambassador Mulhall was named Honorary President of the Yeats Society in Ireland.

During his diplomatic career, Ambassador Mulhall has also held a number of positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including as Director-General for European Affairs, 2005- 2009. He also served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (1994- 95). From 1995-98, he was the Department’s Press Counsellor and in that capacity was part of the Irish Government’s delegation at the time of the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

Ambassador Mulhall brings his deep interest in Irish history and literature to the work of diplomatic service in the U.S., describing the strong, historic ties and kinship between the countries as the basis for a vibrant economic and cultural relationship. He has lectured widely on the works of W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. His new book, Ulysses: A Reader’s Odyssey, is due for publication in January 2022. He is also the author of A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Cork, 1999) and co-editor of The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment (Dublin, 2016).

A keen advocate of public diplomacy, Ambassador Mulhall makes regular use of social media in order to provide insights into the work of the Embassy, to promote all things Irish and to engage with Irish people and those of Irish descent around the world. He provides daily updates on his Twitter account @DanMulhall and posts regular blogs on the Embassy’s website.

COMMENTS AND DISCUSSION WELCOME!

Study Notes on the Poetry of W.B. Yeats

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THIS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES WHICH FEATURE IN THE POETRY OF W.B. YEATS. YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

 THE FOLLOWING SELECTION IS SUGGESTED BECAUSE THEY DEAL WITH THE MAJOR THEMES WHICH RECUR IN YEATS’ POETRY: ‘SEPTEMBER 1913’, ‘EASTER 1916’, ‘SAILING TO BYZANTIUM’, ‘THE SECOND COMING’, ‘IN MEMORY OF EVA GORE-BOOTH AND CON MARKIEWICZ’, ‘THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE’, ‘A STARE’S NEST BY MY WINDOW’, ‘THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE’.

HE SAID HIMSELF THAT HIS POETRY WAS ‘BUT THE CONSTANT STITCHING AND RESTITCHING OF OLD THEMES’.  CHECK THIS OUT FOR YOURSELF!  

 YOUR AIM SHOULD BE TO PICK YOUR OWN FAVOURITES FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL. 

YEATS AND THE NATIONAL QUESTION

Among the issues explored by the poet are:

  •    The heroic past; patriots are risk-takers, rebels, self-sacrificing idealists who are capable of all that ‘delirium of the brave’ (see ‘September 1913’).
  •    How heroes are created, how ordinary people are changed (‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of violence in the process of political change; the paradox of the ‘terrible beauty’ (see ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  •    The place of ‘fanaticism’ and the human effects of it – the ‘stone of the heart’ (see ‘Easter 1916’, ‘September 1913’).
  •    The force of political passion (see ‘Easter 1916’).

YEATS’S NOTIONS OF THE IDEAL SOCIETY 

  • The vital contribution that both the aristocracy and artists make to society; the importance of the Anglo-Irish tradition in Irish society (see ‘September 1913’, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’).
  • His contempt for the new middle class and the new materialism (see ‘September 1913’).
  • Aesthetic values and the place of art in society (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)
  • The yearnings for order and the fear of anarchy (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  • His views on the proper contribution of women to society (see ‘Easter 1916’).

THEORIES OF HISTORY, TIME AND CHANGE

  •  His notion of thousand-year eras, ‘gyres’, etc. (see ‘The Second Coming’).
  •  The world and its people in constant change and flux (see ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Easter 1916’).
  • Personal ageing, the transience of humanity (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The yearning for changelessness and immortality (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
  • The timelessness of art, or the possibility of it (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

 CONFLICTS AT THE CENTRE OF THE HUMAN BEING

  • The conflict between physical desires and spiritual aspirations (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The quest for aesthetic satisfaction (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).

  • The search for wisdom and peace, which is not satisfied here (see ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’).
  • A persistent sense of loss or failure; loss of youth and passion (see ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’); the loss of poetic vision and insight (see ‘An Acre of Grass’).

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W. B. YEATS – AN OVERVIEW OF HIS POETRY

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 and others) 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 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 to us, 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’.

Poets frequently write on similar themes.  (Need I mention David Gray?  Morrissey? Eva Cassidy even?).  When he 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.

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’.

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SAMPLE ANSWER

 ‘Yeats’s poetry examines a powerful series of tensions between youth and age, and order and chaos.’  Discuss this statement and use a selection of poems from your course to support your answer.

I fully agree with this assessment of Yeats’s work.  Indeed, it is easy to find evidence for the opinion that he is ‘a poet of opposites’.  His poetry explores many diverse conflicts at both a personal and national level.  One of the strongest impressions created by his poetry is that of searching.  Sometimes he searches for a means of escape, sometimes for a solution, but the presence of numerous rhetorical questions throughout his poetry reveals a man who was sensitive to the world around him, encountered it with intellectual vigour while remaining true to his heart.

One of the major conflicts in his work is that of youth and age.  Yeats can become melancholic in his awareness of life’s brevity as we see in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ where he reflects rather dolefully that ‘The nineteenth autumn has come upon me’.  Time refuses to stand still for a poet who realises that ‘All’s changed since ….  Trod with a lighter tread’ along the autumnal shores of the lake at Coole Park.  A similar acceptance of time’s inexorable progress occurs in ‘Easter 1916’ where horses, birds, clouds and streams ‘Minute by minute they change.’  In the opening stanza of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats presents a dramatic affirmation of youth where the young are ‘in one another’s arms’ mesmerised by the ‘sensual music’ of love.  This poem establishes powerful conflicting claims between the younger generations who live in the sensual world and the more sedate singing of the old scarecrow, reincarnated into an eternal art form of the golden bird.  The bird has transcended the decay and infirmities of the transitory world; it may claim to be superior to the ‘Fish, flesh, or fowl’ who have been ‘begotten, born’ but must also die.  However, the rather cold, mechanical song of the golden, immortal bird does not quite match the passionate, vibrant music of the young.  And yet, they too are the ‘dying generations’.  In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the old poet, a figure of fun in his own country, leaves the sensual world for the changeless world of Byzantium that is beyond time and passion.  His appeal is to be reincarnated.

A second significant conflict in Yeats’s work is that between order and chaos.  Yeats admired the aristocratic tradition in eighteenth-century Ireland.  The world of the Great House was aligned to his own sense of identity with that particular class.  He felt at home in Lady Gregory’s house at Coole Park and in his poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ he remembers in the opening stanza the tranquil, serene and orderly world of that eighteenth-century estate.  The graceful living of Lisadell is beautifully evoked in the opening images of ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’ as he describes ‘The light of evening, Lisadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both /Beautiful, one a gazelle’.  Using an image of nature, Yeats makes the transition from the refined, elegant youth of the girls to their turbulent adult lives when he says ‘a raving autumn shears / Blossoms from the summer’s wreath’.  The remainder of the poem seems to lament the passing of such an ideal world of youth in the women’s futile attempt to find ‘Some vague Utopia’ that aged their beauty until it was ‘skeleton-gaunt’.  The references to conflagration at the end of the poem point to the destruction of the traditional values that were cradled in places such as Lisadell.

In place of such values Yeats presents the birth of ‘mere anarchy’ in the poem ‘The Second Coming’.  This poem is a stark and terrifying vision of disintegrating social order and ominous evil that has been born and ‘loosed upon the world’.  Images of the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ and a ‘rough beast’ slouching towards Bethlehem show how troubled the poet is by the increasing violence and the annihilation of cultural and aristocratic values.  The conflict between order and chaos is the focus of more local manifestations of violence and murder in ‘A Stare’s nest by my Window’.  In the poem, which details the negative impact of civil war, the poet fights his own inner battle against chaos in calling for renewal, rebirth and regeneration in ‘the empty house of the stare’.  However, the hope of a return to some order is filled with ‘uncertainty’; the predominant images in the poem are of destruction where ‘A man is killed, or a house burned’.  The house could well have been a Lisadell or a Coole Park.

Yeats did attempt to resolve some conflicts in his poems but in many cases he had to accept that such a synthesis was not always possible let alone probable.  But he did remain in contact with the world, however imperfect it seemed, and encountered it with his complex temperament that could whisper of grace, youth and beauty or clamour against injustice, old-age and decay.  Perhaps we should be grateful that many conflicts were never resolved, for it was they that evoked his most difficult struggles and his most poignant poetry in granting him ‘an old man’s frenzy’.

 

An Overview of Yeats’s Poetry

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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’.

 

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