Monday, March 16, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
YEATS – THE ART OF BEING A FOOL
Speaking of Anglo-Irish perspectives, this year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and thereby hang a lot of tales. Let me make it clear what incredibly mixed feelings I have about this titan of 20th century English language poetry.
He is one of the few poets whose every published poetic and dramatic work I have taken the trouble to read – and in many cases re-read. From teenagerdom to my mid-twenties I went back repeatedly to the Collected Poems, starting once again at “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” and finishing only when I got to the end of the volume.
What wonderful lyrical gifts he had, even in his early “Celtic twilight” phase where he tended to go all dreamy and pretty on us. How much more muscular his imagery became as he grew. By the middle years he was producing those rich political and social poems, direct in statement but subtle in meaning. How many have read his “Easter 1916” and assumed it is a celebration of the insurgents? How many have looked closer and realised that the “terrible beauty” is as much deplored as admired, and that the “stone” could be read as fanaticism? Then there was a paradox that, unlike most poets, he got better and better as he got old. The fruitful complexities of the Byzantium poems in the 1920s. The whiplash of his Crazy Jane poems written when he was in his seventies. Undoubtedly and indisputably a very great poet then.
And yet what a complete, utter and embarrassing chump the man was.
The spiritualism and the table-rapping and the elite Golden Dawn stuff, fully suited to make an Anglo-Irish would-be gentryman feel superior to that rabble of Irishry circulating outside his door. Note all that Freemasonic tosh in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”. The man who wrote the disgusting pamphlet On the Boiler about how those Irish peasants should return to being the servants of superior classes such as his own. The limp mooning after Maude Gonne when she’d clearly Gonne off him. The chap who, having had a vasectomy in late middle age, didn’t realise that one of his sexual partners saw him as a silly old geezer whose every lovemaking technique she reported to a sexologist. The twit who (like others of his generation) dabbled in Fascism with his marching songs for O’Duffy’s Blueshirts – no more foolish than those who dabbled in Communism at the same time, of course, but foolish all the same.
So, with one of my habitual theme songs again rising, I thank God that the real voice of poetic Irishry at last arose (Patrick Kavanagh; Seamus Heaney) and I enrol Yeats in the ranks of those who illustrate my thesis that the man is not the work. Yeats was a great poet. Yeats was a very silly and snobbish human being.
Oh well. With all this in mind, I wrote the following poem which appears in my collection The Little Enemy. I already posted it on this blog once before, but what the heck?
AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN
Too easy for good parody, a man
in late middle age, thinking himself old
and venerable, walks in a classroom
bored with the lessons and pedagogy
imagining that a little girl, who doesn’t give
a split and raw fig for him, is Leda.
And his head fills with Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato’s ideal
or anything to keep his haughty spirit off the real.
He’s not all first principles, of course.
He knows where he is enough to note
the nun, and get in a good Anglo-Irish
Protestant dig (“nuns worship images” tee hee).
They spell and cipher, but only in “the best
modern way”, not like our Golden Age.
Flashes of old loves and Quattrocento art
serve to keep his insulated soul apart.
So Kate and Bridget, Brendan and Pat
don’t stand a chance when he comes probing.
Their parents are shopkeepers and navvies
and they probably labour for a living
while he, in assumed aristocratic ease
grows like a tree and weaves carelessly as dancers.
Fine art and status serve to keep him pure
and preserve effortless grace in the lordly amateur.
Odd to be lectured in contrived crossed rhymes
on the pointlessness of effort, a way of saying
some of us are born superior, it’s all eugenics
and theosophy, while the rest of you should keep
your distance, know your place (especially Catholics)
don’t struggle, but serve me those iced buns I like.
What of the leaf, the blossom and the bole?
Platonic fizz distracting from the social whole.