On the podcast this week I did the second of my series on the Nobel Prize, and featured the winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature, William Butler (W.B.) Yeats.
I summarised one list of poems by W.B. Yeats that are commemorated most today in Ireland. This list was:
1. The Stolen Child (1886) the loss of innocence in a life which is “more full of weeping than he can understand”
2. Sailing to Byzantium (1928) the spiritual symbolism of Byzantium
3. Lake Isle of Innisfree – inspired by Ireland’s landscape
4. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – a poignant war poem “I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above; / Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.”
5. Among School Children (1928) inspired by a visit to a Waterford school
6. These are the Clouds (1910) expressing fear of modern life
7. Leda and the Swan based on Irish and Greek mythology
8. Easter 1916 “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
9. The Second Coming (1920)
10. Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – a love poem for Maud Gonne
I read The Second Coming and parts of Sailing to Byzantium on the podcast, and you can listen to some quality actors, including Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons, read Yeats here.
I have long loved some Yeats poems and yet I learned three surprising new things in preparing this episode.
First, there was the turmoil and complexity of Yeats’ complex emotional life. He had a long unrequited love with a major cultural figure, Maud Gonne, which he later transferred to her daughter. Denied that relationship, he married another spiritualist, Georgie Hyde Lees, who took the name George after their marriage.
Maud Gonne MacBride however is important in Irish history, not just because of Yeats’ obsession. She was a wealthy Irish republican revolutionary, suffragette and actress, and advocate for Irish Home Rule and then for the republic declared in 1916. During the 1930s, as a founding member of the Social Credit Party, she promoted the distributive programme of C. H. Douglas. Her political views differed from Yeats, even if they shared an attachment to the Irish nation.
Here was the second great surprise, the complexity of Yeats’ political and social views. He was an ardent nationalist, but also reeled from some manifestations of extremism and violence. In the 1920s and 1930s, Yeats was drawn to authoritarian, anti-democratic, nationalist movements of Europe. He opposed individualism and political liberalism and saw the fascist movements as a triumph of public order and the needs of the national collective over petty individualism. In context, I see Yeats as wrestling with the mixed legacy of Anglo-Protestant empire in Ireland, and the great traumas of newly liberal democratic societies during World War One, the 1920s and 1930s.
On the other hand he was a mystic, who arguably was ill-suited to politics. In 1923 St John Ervine (another Irish writer and playwright) claimed, with some personal knowledge of Yeats, that he was isolated from the “common life of his time”, and that he “had never met anyone who seems so unaware of contemporary affairs… due not to affectation, but sheer lack of interest. He probably would not have known of the War at all had not the Germans dropped a bomb near his lodgings off the Euston Road.”
The third great surprise was the role of spiritualist practices, automatic writing and Yeats’ spouse, George Yeats (born Georgie Hyde Lees), in writing the book of occult philosophy, The Vision, that is at the centre of the great poem, The Second Coming.