WB Yeats in 1903
Recording date:

The Friends of the National Library of Australia and the Friends of Ireland, in association with the Embassy of Ireland, presented an afternoon of poetry and music celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Hosted by Professor Ronan McDonald, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of New South Wales, the event features performances by Dr Jeff Brownrigg, John Collard, Jenny Gall, Genevieve Jacobs, Margaret Naylor, Richard O’Brien, and Dr Richard Reid.

Celebrating 150 Years of W.B. Yeats

Sunday 2 August 2015

National Library of Australia

Speakers: Robyn Oates (O), Dr Richard Reid (RR), Dr Jenny Gall (JG), Professor Ronan McDonald (RM), Dr Jeff Brownrigg (JB), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Richard O’Brien (RO), Margaret Naylor (M), John Collard (JC)



O: ... Friends Committee for 2015 and it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to the National Library of Australia for this celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. May I extend a very special welcome to His Excellency Mr Noel White, the Ambassador of Ireland to Australia and New Zealand , and his wife, Ms Nessa Delaney. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home. And now may I introduce Dr Richard Reid, Co-President of the Friends of Ireland, who will begin our afternoon of poetry and song.

RR: Thank you for that, Robyn. Leave that for later, you might not want to do that at the end of the day. Now ladies and gentlemen, in terms of introducing this this afternoon I’m going to give all the thank yous at the beginning because I want us at the very end of the day to drift away in a kind of Yeatsian haze if you like after the last piece of music is played rather than put up the lights and come to a kind of well thank you and thank you that. So I’m going to do all that now and then you’ll know at the end that’s not going to happen. Just a few thank yous I want to give first of all to the Friends of the National Library for, you know, co-hosting this event with the Friends of Ireland, I’m really very, very pleased about that. I’d like to thank Sharyn O’Brien and all her helpers this afternoon for getting this event together. Adam up in the control room. The Embassy of Ireland, and I know I have to thank the Embassy of Ireland ‘cause the Embassy of Ireland have been very gracious to us in all sorts of ways for this exhibition. You might have noticed the beautiful ... yes and Noel is doing that to me ... coming as I do from the northern part of Ireland I know what that is. And outside there’s a lovely exhibition, again thank the Embassy for putting that up for us about the life of W B Yeats and you might like to look at that as we go up to afternoon tea. We also have Sarah Mangan with us, the First Secretary of the Embassy, and Sarah has been very busy on our behalf with this event too and I’d like to thank her, and I’d like to thank our readers for this afternoon for so generously giving of their time in coming along to this but you might not want to hold off your personal thank yous to the Embassy if they read well enough or not.

I’d also like to thank Ronan McDonald, Professor Ronan McDonald for coming down from Sydney to be our kind of ... I’ve called him our narrator for the afternoon. He suggested to me the word facilitator but I thought that was far too public service speak so I went with narrator which sounded a bit more Yeatsian at the end of the day. Couple of other things to mention, there are some books available especially through the shop this afternoon at a discount and I know the shop would want me to mention that. Two books, one celebrating Yeats, one When You Are Old, Early Poems and Fairytales which was $34.99 and is now only $31.50. So I think that’s very nice for the afternoon. And the other one ... I’ve put an image of it up here on the screen ... W B Yeats, Poems selected by Seamus Heaney was 16.99, now 15.30. The wonderful essay by Seamus Heaney introducing that selection of poems and very appropriate because of course Seamus Heaney is the other Irish awardee of the Nobel Prize for Poetry as was W B Yeats. Very interesting, we have the Irish northerner, the Catholic, Heaney with a northern accent and we have Yeats representing the rest of the country and there he is with his Anglo-Irish accent and everything else, very ... that’s a bit of Irishness, we’ll forget about that. And the other thing I want to mention is that for those of you really interested in this, the National Library has actually got a very wonderful collection called the Fitzhardinge Collection of Australian Books but within that there’s a collection of works from the Cuala Press and the Dun Emer Press which was a little press in Dublin run by Yeats’ sisters and the Cuala Press in particular used to publish Yeats’ poems in Ireland. He had an English publisher of course as well, but they’re beautifully illustrated and they’re beautiful little books and there’s a very nice collection here in the National Library, just go in and put in Fitzhardinge Collection, you’ll find it.

Alright then very quickly we’ll get on with it but the format for the afternoon is this - we’re going to open up with a little bit of music from Jenny Gall from the National Film and Sound Archive, Dr Jenny Gall. Then Ronan is going to introduce Yeats to us, take us through a little bit of an overview about the poems that you’re going to hear read. You've got the poems on your program. They’ll also be on the screen by the way, they ... we’ll tell you the poem that’s being read but each reader will int ... will also tell you the poem that’s being read. And then we’ll just go straight through the poems of the first half of the afternoon and then we’ll have a break and we’ll have afternoon tea and we’ll come back and we’ll do the second segment. And we’ll end up with a very interesting little recording of W H Auden which I’ll leave the end, reading a poem, very beautiful poem about Yeats and then Jenny will play us out at the end of the afternoon. And that’s why I want us just to kind of drift away after that rather than actually come back into all these thank yous so that’s why I’ve done all of this upfront now. Okay. Let us begin our celebration of 150 years’ anniversary of the birth of W B Yeats. Thank you, Jenny.


JG: This is a vision air called Táimse im' chodhladh - I’m asleep, do not wake me. There are several meanings for this like all good traditional music, it’s said that it’s a call to sleeping Irish to rise up against the enemy invading and you can interpret that any way you like. and it’s often played at funerals because it’s looking beyond the sorrow that people are experiencing now to a better time.

Tune: Táimse im' chodhladh


RM: Wow, what beautiful music, thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, Your Excellency, it’s a great pleasure for me to be here and act as narrator, facilitator. Congratulations to Richard Reid for organising today’s event, it’s wonderful to be honouring Yeats here in Canberra. Richard has organised lots of wonderful slides to accompany all the poems which in part do my work for me insofar as each slide indicates something of what the poem is about, including, and there was no conversation between Richard and myself, happily the first slide which is going to accompany my introductory remarks because really what I wanted to emphasise in talking about Yeats before you hear all these poems spread out over the duration of his career is that he ... there is ... really we should be talking about Yeats plural because he had a long life, a long active life with many phases. So there are if you like multiple Yeatses. There’s the young Yeats of the 1890s living in London, fraternising with the so-called Rhymers’ Club, influenced by people like Arthur Simmons who brought French symbolism into the English language. There’s the nationalist Yeats of the earliest 20th century, writing poems such as September 1913, bemoaning the lack of vigour amongst the Irish middle classes, and then its companion piece, the more famous Easter 1916, his profoundly ambivalent response to the rising. But of those poems we’ll be hearing more about in a moment.

There’s the modernist Yeats, there’s the Yeats who’s friendly with Ezra Pound, whose poetry changes and mutates from that dreamy 1890s heavy decadent tone to something harder and more flinty. Then there’s the late Yeats of the famous ... really wonderful collections, The Tower and The Winding Stair, which he wrote in the 19 ... late 1920s and ‘30s, these extraordinary masterpieces that we’ll be hearing in the second phase, poets full of mythics ... full of symbolism and full of mythic reach informed by his own idiosyncratic work of the occult published in 1925 called A Vision. And then there’s the Yeats of old age that we’ll be hearing again in the second half towards the end, such poems like Circus Animals’ Desertion and Cuchulain Comforted. So all these involve really different figures and of course Yeats himself is very much involved in the business of self-invention and self-discovery, both of his own self and of Ireland that he lived in. But the Ireland he sought to invent or construct or revive ... he was after all a key figure in the Irish revival ... should not be seen simply as reviving something that was ... that is gone or remembering something, it’s also an act of imaginative creation, something of the future, as well as something of the past. In his autobiography he looked back at the 1890s and remembered the feeling that Irish culture was soft wax that could be moulded. It could be moulded culturally during the Irish revival, this extraordinarily fertile period of creativity, and also politically when it ... during ... when Irish politics started to gain traction again. It went into abeyance in the 1890s following the death of Charles Stewart Parnell and in the early 20th century took on more energy. Ultimately the home rule movement yielding space to a more militant sort of nationalism in the Easter rising of 1916.

So Elliott famously described Yeats as one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, and one of the reasons why Yeats is such a remarkable poet is that he has written poems which fully express the sense of crisis and the sense of change happening in Ireland in the early 20th century. And we’ll be hearing ... and when we’re talking about Yeatses we need to think about the Yeats of the public poems such as Easter 1916, but before then we’ll be hearing the more private Yeats. Yeats the love poet. Yeats in negotiation with his own creativity. So he hinges between private and public, between myth and history, between national concerns and international concerns. This makes Yeats a very hard figure to pin down. We should also bear in mind on this team of Yeatses, that not only is he a poet, he’s also as his career moves forward, a theatre director, the fou ... one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Presario, polemicist, essayist and novelist - he wrote a novel, The Speckled Bird - engaged in public affairs and when the Irish Free State is founded he becomes a senator, what he describes as a smiling public man in Among School Children.

Unusually many writers you know have something to say and they say it early in their career or in their ... as they find their voice 10, 15 years into their career. Remarkably and encouragingly Yeats’ standard endures, indeed for many commentators and many critics the really important work, the work which makes Yeats perhaps the greatest lyric poet ever ... certainly in the top two or three ... is the work he did in middle and old age, late middle age, and engaging with that process of going old and the existential questions that raises, which again he hinges both in private preoccupations and in public expression.

What then emits these variety of Yeatses can we say are continuous themes? I was ... what… there are huge differences as I say between the Yeats of the 1890s, the Yeats who wrote Down By the Sally Gardens, and there are Yeats who wrote Lapis Lazuli or The Circus Animal’s Desertions. What are the continuities? Well, I think one thing we can see, a theme that he returns to again and again, is poetry of escape, or more often ambiguousness escape. Perhaps one of the most famous poems that we’ll be hearing from his early phase is The Lake Isle of Innisfree, when the poet, and he records in his autobiography the inspiration, he’s walking along The Strand and he hears ... sees a fountain ... The Strand in London, so an urban setting and he sees a fountain in a shop and it inspires thoughts of Sligo and he dreams I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree.

Fast-forward several decades and he’s writing Sailing to Byzantium, another poem which poeticises this urge to go to another place. But these journeys, these imaginary journeys are never simple, they’re always ambivalent and they always set up a conflict between ... I’ve mentioned earlier history and myth, and he’s very aware of that conflict and that tension between myth and pulls back typically from the allure of escaping from history, escaping from change, escaping from transience. But the important thing is that he poeticises that conflict, that allure between the poles.

Later in his life Yeats says that the quarrel with others gives us rhetoric, the quarrel with ourselves poetry. And one of the reasons ... one of I think of the factors, again that bridges across Yeats’ career, is this preoccupation with conflict, with different poles working out and there is no resolution. This is why it’s wrong to look to Yeats for a tract or a message. Poetry is not about answers or about products, it’s about processes, it’s about the quarrel with oneself. An interesting feature of Yeats is how often his poetry ends on the question mark, how often his poems conclude with a resounding question mark, did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beat could let her drop? The last couplet of Leda and the Swan. How can we tell the dancer from the dance? The last line of Amongst Schoolchildren. These ... this sort of motif of the question mark po ... in some way incarnates that sense of struggle. It also I think assuages us, some of the later poems are very difficult but ... as indeed is a lot ... are a lot of modern poetry, lot of modernist poetry, that which Yeats is a part, every bit as much as he’s a part of an Irish national poetic movement. It doesn’t yield up its meanings easily, it’s quite erudite, it’s quite elusive, but that’s alright and you sh ... in listening to Yeats’ poetry we listened to its effect rather than always try and solve it, rather than always get the meaning or the message because this ... these are poetries which ... these are poems which poeticise the process of questioning rather than trying to give us philosophical answers.

The poetry that has been laid out for us is ... covers the whole of Yeats’ career starting with the early with the poems of ... very early poem like from 1886, and goes all the way through to the last poems. The first half covers some of these poems of Irish mythology such as Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland which refers to Cathleen Houlihan, the figure who embodies Ireland, the female figure about whom Yeats also wrote a play. Or The Song of Wandering Aengus. We can see Yeats’ early influence of Irish mythology which again continues across his career insofar as he’s still writing about Cuchulain, the ancient Irish mythic and military hero at the very end of his career, but they tend to ebb off a little bit, those poems of ... those revivalist poems from the early period. But that poem, like the 18 ... of the 1890s marked by a misty ethereal atmosphere, often a poem of longing, a poetry of enchantment, such as we find in The Song of Wandering Aengus.

Often poems at this period treating the theme of thwarted love. And another continuity from the early to the late is the figure who embodies thwarted love for Yeats in biographical terms and that’s Maud Gonne, his muse who he met in 1899 and said in his autobiography then, the troubling of my life began. This fiery Irish nationalist who becomes an inspiration for his verse and is the figure behind poems of lust, love such as No Second Troy. A little bit later he’s ... she’s still figuring in Broken Dreams that ... where the tone becomes somewhat more wistful and middle-aged and po ... Yeats is of ... is one of the great poets of middle age, of disappointment, of life turning into something different from early expectation and one of the great poets of old age. So that again is something that crosses the whole career. We also hear Maud Gonne referred to in Amongst School Children when he imagines her as a little girl, he in old age, she in old age, he imagines her as a little girl. So that ... she figures very, very heavily in some of the songs we are about to hear, but also in this first section we find Yeats somewhat reluctantly moving from this mythic sphere into commentary and Irish public affairs. We find the birth of the public poet. Initially it’s railing against the middle classes in September 1913 who he sees as letting down the spirit of the great Fenian, John O’Leary. This is ... I won’t go too much into the context but September 1913 is inspired by anger over the Irish corporations’ failure to fund an art gallery, and therefore he sees the middle class as more concerned with mealy-mouthed acquisition of the ... adding pence to pence rather than idealism, poetry, visionary truth, the imagination. Which are those things he puts against the forces of modernity, the debased forces of modernity such as ... including science and empiricism which he associates with England and which he puts Ireland against but he also associates with the middle classes, people who believe in surfaces rather than visions and imaginary truth.

Yeats has got an abiding interest in the occult from early in his life. In some ways it might seem ... in some ways Yeats is a very religious poet. He’s not religious in a conventionally Christian sense but he’s looking for truth in meaning outside simple surface and he finds it initially in Irish ... in Irish mythology, but also in the occult and he’s drawn to spiritualism and theosophy early in his life. This is something which later in particular becomes the girding for some of the great modernist poems that we’re going to hear such as The Second Coming and Leda and the Swan. I’ll say a little bit more about that in the second half. And there’s an aspect of Yeats, his interest in séances, in fairies which some critics have struggled with including Auden who we’ll hear at the end. The old figure of Silly Willy who believes ... who believes everything. It’s what one critic said is the southern Californian side to Yeats. Which we still ... which critics still conjure with, I think the point to remember is that these images are sources for poetry, to provide metaphors for his poetry.

Right, I th ... another ... just one ... just finally before we start getting on with the actual reading. I’ve a little bet with myself ... Richard doesn’t know this, but I have a little bet with myself that Richard might have underestimated the amount of time we’ll take so I’ll try and be brief. Other poems I’d like to look at or just mention just by way of gloss, Three Friends ... Friends which we’re going to hear Genevieve read shor ... read halfway through refers to Maud Gonne, Olivia Shakespear who became a friend who was very akin to him who ... who took Yeats’ virginity and he refers to that in this poem. And Lady Gregory who becomes a collaborator in theatrical matters and who owns Coole Park which is a big house in the west of Ireland which ... where he used to go and spend a lot of time and this is immortalised in The Wild Swans at Coole.

There are a number of poems Yeats writes about Coole Park. A Prayer for My Daughter which Richard’s going to read at the end of this section really incarnates many of the themes of the conservative Yeats, the later Yeats, who tries to look towards tradition and continuity, looks nostalgic back to 18th century Ireland, as he puts it, “How but in custom and in ceremony, / Are innocence and beauty born?” We can see the middle period Yeats emerging there quite strongly. And An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, a poem with the ... a poem about ... in honour of Lady Gregory’s son who was killed over Italy during the first world war. I mentioned Yeats as a public poet. One area which he treats very gingerly for a lot of reasons ... I don’t really have time to go into ... is world war one and this is his response to world war one, he makes it a very, very individualistic poem, a beautiful poem of balance in its words and chiasmas. Everything is balanced including the plane but also diversification. So I’ll leave it there and I will join you ... well I’ll be reading one poem in the middle but then I’ll be able to gloss the second half after our break, but for now I will pass over to Richard again who’s going to read The Stolen Child.


RR: The Stolen Child.

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, oh human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
‘Til the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, oh human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, oh human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.


JB: Normally I’d sing this without a book but you know that people who sing often make improvements and I suspect that this afternoon’s not a time to be improving on Yeats.

Song: Down by the Sally Gardens


JB: Thank you, Jenny.

G: Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.


RO: Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland

The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,
Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;
Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies,
But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes
Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.
The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knock-narea,
And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.
Angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat;
But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet
Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.
The yellow pool has overflowed high up on Clooth-na-Bare,
For the west winds are blowing out of the clinging air;
Like heavy flooded waters our bodies and our blood;
But purer than a tall candle before the Holy Rood
Is Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.


JG: The Song of the Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in the stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck ‘til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.


RM: He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.


M: No Second Troy

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?


G: Friends

Now must I these three praise --
Three women that have wrought
What joy is in my days:
One because no thought,
Nor those unpassing cares,
No, not in these fifteen
Many-times-troubled years,
Could ever come between
Mind and delighted mind;
And one because her hand
Had strength that could unbind
What none can understand,
What none can have and thrive,
Youth's dreamy load, till she
So changed me that I live
Labouring in ecstasy.
And what of her that took
All till my youth was gone
With scarce a pitying look?
How could I praise that one?
When day begins to break
I count my good and bad,
Being wakeful for her sake,
Remembering what she had,
What eagle look still shows,
While up from my heart's root
So great a sweetness flows
I shake from head to foot.


JC: September 1913

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all the blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly that they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.


JG: Broken Dreams

There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.
For your sole sake -- that all heart's ache have known,
And given to others all heart's ache,
From meagre girlhood's putting on
Burdensome beauty -- for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.
Your beauty can but leave among us
Vague memories, nothing but memories.
A young man when the old men are done talking
Will say to an old man, 'Tell me of that lady
The poet stubborn with his passion sang us
When age might well have chilled his blood.'
Vague memories, nothing but memories,
But in the grave all, all, shall be renewed.
The certainty that I shall see that lady
Leaning or standing or walking
In the first loveliness of womanhood,
And with the fervour of my youthful eyes,
Has set me muttering like a fool.
You are more beautiful than any one,
And yet your body had a flaw:
Your small hands were not beautiful,
And I am afraid that you will run
And paddle to the wrist
In that mysterious, always brimming lake
Where those that have obeyed the holy law
paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged
The hands that I have kissed,
For old sake's sake.
The last stroke of midnight dies.
All day in the one chair
From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories.


RO: Easter 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I’ve passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had died ... I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Round the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has chan ... been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that have run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them ‘til they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

JC: The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon these brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?


M: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

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;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.


RR: A prayer for my daughter

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory's Wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour,
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come
Dancing to a frenzied drum
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty, and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass; for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness, and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
Helen, being chosen, found life flat and dull,
And later had much trouble from a fool;
While that great Queen that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless, could have her way,
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It is certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful.
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise;
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree,
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound;
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
Oh, may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is heaven's will,
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.




JG: I’d like to play for you a tune that is about a modern great love in Ireland which is a tune written by Mirade Moonie for her husband, Frankie Kennedy who died tragically young. She’s a fiddle player, he was a flute player and they started the band, Alton, together. This is Song for Frankie.

Tune: Song for Frankie


RM: Welcome back, everyone. And now we’re moving on, it’s almost ... we’re going to have just the next four or five poems, all extraordinary and very difficult. I could spend a long time speaking about any individual one of them, but Ricard has told me I can’t speak for more than 10 minutes so I will try to restrain myself. Just to give a little bit of biographical detail.

In 1917, and now we jumped ahead a little bit from ... in the last section ‘cause we read A Prayer for My Daughter. Now Yeats had a daughter, so where did he get a daughter? Well he did marry. He married that year. Who did he marry? Well he married a woman called Georgie Hyde-Lees and even though we sort of heard a lot about the women in Yeats’ life and women biographically as well as poetry played a huge role and we heard about Olivia Shakespear, his close friend, and friends and Lady Gregory, another ... another ... he saw Olivia Shakespear as of his kindred of his soul and Maud Gonne as the opposite, so Maud Gonne was the one who created a huge passion, though he did have a brief affair with Olivia Shakespear. Lady Gregory, his extraordinary collaborator and supporter who used to give him cocoa and hot water bottles in Coole Park every year, we saw her friendship, but I think we also need to give our due recognition to George, his wife, Georgina Hyde-Lees, we call George.

How did he get to the position where he married George? Well Richard read Easter 1916, Yeats’ famous poem about Easter rising. There’s a line there about “A drunken, vainglorious lout … but he too I will number in my song”, that drunken vainglorious lout was John McBride who married Maud Gonne much to Yeats’ terrible disappointment and it wasn’t a happy marriage, they separated. He did have a daughter ... she did have a daughter with him and in 1916 McBride was killed ... executed... so that’s why he gets the mention and the elogy in the poem. And this frees up Maud Gonne, so in 1916 Yeats duly goes and proposes to Maud again, gets rejected so then he moves his attention to her daughter, Iseult Gonne, who ... to whom he proposes. Iseult also rejects Yeats. So this is an era before Tinder so what’s he to do? He finally ... he’s aware at this stage in his life that he needs a wife, he wants ... he wants to marry, he wants to settle. This is an urge that’s reaching on him. At the start of his collection, the first poem of his collection, Responsibilities, he asks pardon from his old fathers, that he has not produced a child, he’s only produced a book at the age of 49 and he says, rather grandly, my blood that has not that you’ve given me that has not passed through any huxter’s loins. Grandly and inaccurately from his own point of view Yeats liked to elevate his genealogy but he ... so anyway he proposes to a colleague, a young woman in ... whose in ... shares his interest in the occult and is accepted.

And they go on honeymoon and something really extraordinary and career-changing happens on this honeymoon in the south of England. At the start he’s very unhappy and he writes to Lady Gregory about how unhappy he is, he feels guilty, he feels he might have made the wrong marriage, he feels that ... he’s very ... still very tied up with his passion for Iseult and Maud, and he’s feeling very despondent. But about three or four days into the honeymoon Iseult ... or George starts doing something that completely compels him and that something is automatic writing. She starts tr ... she doesn’t think she’s any gift for it, she’s going to pretend to do it. Automatic writing means she’s a cipher for spirit world or for med ... for species of med ... she acts as a medium. The idea of automatic writing is you let your pen move across the page and without your consciousness obtruding, and certain occult knowledge comes out. Right up WB’s street, he loves this.

So his attention lifts from his despondency and thus, rather against the odds, begins not just a very successful marriage which endures to the end of his life but also a new font of images for his poetry. This results eventually in the 1925 publication, A Vision. I don’t recommend it, it is a bizarre amalgam of occult and information from George’s automatic writing. Very, very obscure, full of cycles of history, personality types but it is nonetheless a useful annotator for scholars trying to get behind the poetry. Now sometimes getting behind the poetry, even the poems we’re about to hear, can be really beside the point. Let the difficulty of the poems just float by and listen to the language. You could spend an awful lot of time unpacking a poem like The Tower or, you know, a really famous poem like The Second Coming. Its strangeness is part of its power. We’ll just say ... so I’m going to restrict what I want to say about it but I will just say one thing from The ... A Vision which might gloss both The Second Coming and Leda and the Swan.

In A Vision Yeats comes up with a theory of history as cyclical and the cycle of history lasts for 2,000 years and for Yeats we’re coming to an end of a cycle, or we were coming to an end of a certain cycle of history, a cycle that was inaugurated by the incarnation by the Christian era, it was inaugurated by both the Christ and it’s now coming to the end and he has this symbol of a gyre, what he called the gyres which is something spiral which is coming to the end of a spiral. Starts at a point, cycles on and on, it gets wider. In The Second Coming he ... this is ... his symbol for this is the falcon and the falcon ... “the falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. This is his power to express historical crisis which is evidenced in the historical crisis he sees around him at this era after the first world war, after the Russian revolution, there’s war in Ireland, but it also ties into his own personal idiosyncratic mythology.

The companion poem is Leda and the Swan which is take ... which ... the image comes from a bit of Greek mythology where Gree ... where Zeus takes on the image of a swan, takes on the form of a swan, often when Zeus, the Greek God, takes an int ... sexual interest in a mortal, he often takes on the form of an animal before he, you know, has a sexual experience with that mortal, and whenever that happens there is always issue. And one of the issues, one of the children born of Leda is Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy famously leads to the Trojan wars and that’s the reference in that poem ... poem to ... burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead. But it’s an echo because that for Yeats inaugurated the period of history before the Christian period. So The Second Coming and the Leda and the Swan which are both poems of apocalypse, poems of transformation, poems of sudden transformation. And we saw in Easter 1916 that Yeats’ idea of history and the way his poetry relates to history is through incarnation or apocalypse rather than evolution. That’s to him is our history changers so the poems have their power because things happen suddenly, a terrible beauty is born, because in 1916, here too he is witnessing, yearning for poeticising a moment of change.

We also ... we have poems here from The Tower and The Winding Stair which I said at the start are amongst Yeats’ great modernist achievements as collections. Sailing to Byzantium, another ... another very, very famous poem, the first poem of The Tower, a poem of escape which you know looks back hugely different from the early poems like The Lake Isle of Innisfree but like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, written when he was a relatively young man in London , he’s looking around and he’s seeing sensuality and he’s seeing youth and he desires to go away and in his mind, in his myth, it’s 5th century AD Byzantium, which is now Istanbul, where he wants to go. He sees this as a place of perfection but it’s a very frozen sort of perfection. As ever with Yeats, the urge to escape is fraught with ambivalence and it’s actually not that attractive, the image of ambivalence, but Sailing to Byzantium is one of Yeats’ great poems of old age and responding poetically about old age. But as ever with Yeats the real knux is the conflict itself, it’s the urge to go on the journey rather than arrival. And we find old age in the passing of time and death, really huge questions surfacing again and again in these poems that we’re about to hear, often refracted through political crisis and marrying political crisis, political change, violence, that he sees in Ireland also in Europe, with his own hugely significant grapplings with the meaning of life, with the purpose of living, with the purpose of work, and these are the questions that come up in a great poem like Among School Children or indeed Lapis Lazuli which is Yeats’ reflections on catastrophe that he writes in 1939. He doesn’t witness the second world war because he dies before it but the year ... he’s aware of the storm clouds that are gathering and it’s a poem, Lapis Lazuli, which Jeff will be reading which ... where he ponders that, and he puts a western artistic response and an eastern artistic response ... considers how ... how they can mediate catastrophe and how they can mediate suffering. And it’s actually a very affirmative poem, he has this idea which he borrows from the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, of tragic joy, an eternal recurrence which that poem plays on.

A brief gloss I think ... I should say that these are the poems ... one of the remarkable things about Yeats is how fragments of his language have entered our culture, “a terrible beauty is born”, for instance. “Tread softly for you tread on my dreams”. Equally these are the poems which have given us phrases like “no country for old men”, which was a film a few years ago, a line from Sailing to Byzantium. Or The Second Coming which may I think be the most quoted Yeats poem. Often these quotes come out of context. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”, “the centre cannot hold”, “things fall apart”, the name of a novel by Chinua Achebe, the African novelist. These phrases just enter the culture, they’re so extraordinarily quotable.

I’ll just briefly gloss, just looking through the poems you’re about to hear, what might help. Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz. Constance Markiewicz was also numbered in Easter 1916, she was one of the leaders. She was an Anglo-Irish woman who was bor ... who’s brought up in Lissadell, which is a big house in Sligo which Yeats used to visit as a child. She herself went on to become a revolutionary, actually the first woman elected to the House of Commons though she didn’t take her seat. She wasn’t executed because she was a woman after 1916. Her sister, Eva Gore-Booth, went to England and became a trade unionist and a feminist. Yeats did ... they’d both just died when this poem was written and Yeats calls it a vague utopia, so that’s who they are. He’s reflecting on the past on a lot of these poems, on his own life.

Just finally the last two poems you’re going to hear, The Circus Animal’s Desertion, which Yeats writes the year of his life ... or the year of his death ... is about his battling with creativity. Many of these poems are about battling with creativity and the point of poetry. He’s writing poetry and as he’s thinking about the meaning of life he’s also thinking about the role of art and the role of art confronted with violence. In The Circus Animal’s Desertion he’s pondering the loss of his symbols, the loss of these images and stories and myths that he uses that I suppose become incarnate in a vision, and he resolves to get back to the foul ragged boneshop of the heart. Cuchulain Comforted is a poem about the unwinding and the unravelling of identity. Cuchulain, all his career has been ... from very, very early in his career, Cuchulain, the ancient Irish mythic figure has been an anti-self to Yeats, a man of action, a military hero, and here in an extraordinary opening, a very democratic poem, and democracy is not something that we associate Yeats with, Yeats is interested in hierarchy and oligarchy and rhetorical hauteur, but this poem is an extraordinary easing poem as Cuchulain becomes a shade in the afterlife and finds common cause with these other shades, the cowards who are opposite to him.

Okay, sorry, Richard, I’ve gone on for a little bit more than 10 minutes but hard to push all of it through. I’ll pass over I think to Genevieve who’s going to read one of Yeats’ towering poems, A Second Coming.


G: Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


JG: Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


RM: Among School Children

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way -- the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy --
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age --
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage --
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind --
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheeks as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once -- enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Soldier Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts -- oh presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise --
Oh self-born mockers of man's enterprise;

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
Oh chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, Oh brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?


RO: Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
---Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Oh sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


M: In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams -
Some vague Utopia - and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful.
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another ‘til time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run ‘til all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built,
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.


G: Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.


JB: Lapis Lazuli

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or On shipboard,'
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When the sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
A third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum and cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.


RR: The Circus Animal’s Desertion

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer ‘til old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

What can I but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.


RM: Cuchulain Comforted

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead;
Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head
Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree
As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

A Shroud that seemed to have authority
Among those bird-like things came, and let fall
A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three

Came creeping up because the man was still.
And thereupon that linen-carrier said:
'Your life can grow much sweeter if you will

'Obey our ancient rule and make a shroud;
Mainly because of what we only know
The rattle of those arms makes us afraid.

'We thread the needles' eyes, and all we do
All must together do.' That done, the man
Took up the nearest and began to sew.

'Now must we sing and sing the best we can,
But first you must be told our character:
Convicted cowards all, by kindred slain

'Or driven from home and left to die in fear.'
They sang, but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before;

They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.


RM: That poem was written shortly before Yeats’ death in 1939. Richard at the start mentioned Seamus Heaney, the other Nobel Laureate for Poetry who was born in 1939, the year Yeats died and he selected Cuchulain Comforted. Yeats wrote brilliantly on Heaney and he wrote the introduction to one of the volumes that was on sale upstairs, but he selected that as his favourite poem and we’re going to end looking at, you know, Yeats’ huge figure, huge towering influence on the poets who came after him, but often an oedipal influence, po ... Heaney takes poetry in a very different direction, away from the oratorical grandeur and extraordinary vision of Yeats towards a much more ordinary idiom.

W H Auden, the English poet, also had an ambiguous relationship with Yeats. Like many English poets and commentators he was uncomfortable with the silliness, silly willy, the occult interests that Yeats had. Auden ... Philip Larkin had the same response. But at the same time couldn’t escape his influence. He was also ... Auden in the ‘30s, and this is 1939, he writes this elogy, but Auden like his generation were very left-leaning and supported the Republicans in the Franc ... in the Spanish civil war, so Auden has an ... recognises Yeats’ genius, how could he not? And recognises his worthiness for an elogy but has these two problems with it, particularly with Yeats’ politics which moved to the right. They were always on the right, but he moved quite to the authoritarian right in the 1920s, but for Auden, “Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent,/ And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique, / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives” as he says. So we’re going to finish now by listening to Auden recite his great poem, In memory of W B Yeats, from 1939.

[Auden’s poem has been cut from this recording for copyright reasons.]

JG: Well I think Auden was wrong and Yeats was right, the supernatural world is alive and well and this little tune is some ... bears witness to this. I learned this tune last year in Ireland at the Willy Clancy Summer School from Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and it’s called The Drowning at Brookless. So there was a witch who lived in a seaside town of Brookless and each evening the men would come home from the fishing and they would bring her a fish for her dinner. And one day they’d had a terrible ... a terrible day and no catch at all, very few fish and the witch came down to ask for her dinner and they said, well we have nothing to give you, we only have what we have for our families. And she said, give me my fish or you’ll be sorry, and they said well we can’t, we can’t. So she went home. She put her cauldron on the fire, lit the fire under the water, and she stirred and she stirred and she tore eight little pieces of paper that was the number of the fishing boats in the village and she put them into the cauldron, and she stirred and she stirred, and they disappeared to the bottom of the cauldron. And the next day the fleet went out, and nobody came back.

Tune: The Drowning at Brookless


End of recording