The Tyburn walk is to my mind ‘a British Establishment-upon-sewer walk’ as so many of its landmarks connect with ruling-class sites, most notoriously the site of the public hangings of six hundred years or so in what is now called Marble Arch. Asquith, Winfield House (the U.S. Ambassador’s residence where the only above-ground view of the Tyburn is protected from view by armed guards), the S.O.E., William Pitt the Younger, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, MI5, Houses of Parliament etc etc. More anon.

The Tavistock Centre is on the course of the river and boasts the excellent statue of Freud above, though there is no monument to the other maverick shrink  R.D. Laing who worked there subsequently.

Sigmund Freud was assuredly not a member of the British Establishment – though he was lionised in the short time he lived and died in London – but his descendants very much feature in the family trees of the British ruling class and upper class of today.

That’s not a football scarf about his neck, it’s a Palestine scarf. I do not think he would object too much to sporting it. He was an anti-Zionist, as the following letter of rebuff shows:

Vienna: 26 February 1930

Dear Sir:

“I cannot do as you wish [i.e., become a Zionist] … Whoever wants to influence the masses must give them something rousing and inflammatory and my sober judgment of Zionism does not permit this. I certainly sympathize with its goals, am proud of our University in Jerusalem and am delighted with our settlement’s prosperity. But, on the other hand, I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state, nor that the Christian and Islamic worlds would ever be prepared to have their holy places under Jewish care. It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy. I concede with sorrow that the baseless fanaticism of our people is in part to be blamed for the awakening of Arab distrust. I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall [i.e., the Wailing Wall] into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives. Now judge for yourself whether I, with such a critical point of view, am the right person to come forward as the solace of a people deluded by unjustified hope.”

Even if he was slightly bothered by it, the scarf is actually made by his direct descendant Bella Freud.


Photo: Max Reeves



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Nov 10 is Arthur Rimbaud’s death-day. He died in the Hopital de la Conception in Marseille as the certificate above explains.

The hospital has been rebuilt so it’s not actually the same building that Rimbaud died in, but it is the same hospital and the same site. There is continuity. It is worth visiting. Rimbaud is commemorated therein.


Photos: Julie Goldsmith

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The lion’s share of Shakespeare’s working life took place not in Warwickshire or Southwark, but north of the Thames in Shoreditch and the City.

He is known to lived in Holywell Lane, Shoreditch; St Helen’s, Bishopsgate; Silver Street, Cripplegate; and in a gatehouse he purchased in Blackfriars as late as 1613.

He spent years cutting his teeth in the Inn-Yards of Bishopsgate and Ludgate as well as the Theatre and the Curtain. The last great stage in his development as a playwright was not at the Globe but the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, where the Kings Men introduced seats, candle light, acts and scenes, musical interludes. Alongside those innovations, thus began the gentrification of the theatre.

Poet Niall McDevitt leads a psychogeographical tour of the little-known Shakespeare sites north of the river, far from the madding crowds of Bankside and Stratford-upon-Avon. The Middlesex Shaxberd is finally available to us in all his glory, revealing far more about the real man than the other places with their more famous associations. We learn enough from walking through the City and Shoreditch to never doubt again that he wrote his own plays and poems. Why wouldn’t he have when everyone else was at it?

‘Shaxberd’ is immortalised in the annals of Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose office at St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, was a regular port of call for the ‘upstart’ and his colleagues. (See bottom right hand of document):


The ghostly closed-down atmosphere of The City on a Sunday allows you to time-travel 400 years back in the company not only of the Immortal Bard, but of fellow poets such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and fellow actors such as Richard Burbage, Dick Tarlton and Gabriel Spencer (all of whom are buried in the legendary ‘actors’ graveyard’ in St. Leonard’s Church.) London Wall looms again and its seven gates swing open…

Niall McDevitt’s Shakespeare walk was glowingly reviewed by writer Nigel Richardson in the Daily Telegraph on Sat 5 Feb 2011.

Sun 20 September. Meeting at Blackfriars Station at the north bank entrance on Queen Victoria Street. 2pm. £5


“… But now behold
In the quick forge and working-house of thought
How London doth pour out her citizens…”

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Stratford Place is a lesser known but key street in the imagination of William Blake. It is a street that goes vertically north of Oxford Street (as visible in the photo above), a continuation of the bifurcated Davies Street and South Molton Street to the south.

Blake lived in South Molton Street, number 17, for almost two decades, so he would have known Stratford Place well and walked it regularly.

My fellow William Blake walker, Henry Eliot, claims Blake imagined an arch connecting South Molton Street and Stratford Place, and that the arch was a portal into the Gate of Los.

S. Damon Foster’s Blake Dictionary has the following entry: ‘STRATFORD PLACE intersects South Molton Street; there Tyburn Brook crossed Oxford Street and plunged underground. ‘

This may be mistaken. Some historians claim Tyburn Brook flowed as a tributary from the Westbourne upto Tyburn itself; and has no connection with the River Tyburn which still flows underground from South Hampstead to Millbank. Others claim that Brook Street in Mayfair – immediately below and perpendicular to South Molton Street – is named after Tyburn Brook, which would suggest that ‘river’ and ‘brook’ were interchangeable terms. Thus, there was a Tyburn Brook in Hyde Park, and a Tyburn River a.k.a. Tyburn Brook cutting visibly and invisibly through Mayfair.

That the Tyburn flowed by Stratford Place and crossed Oxford Street at that intersection explains the two Blake quotes which mention Stratford Place:

‘Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place, Calvary’s foot’ (Milton 4:21)

‘The Wound I see in South Molton Steet & Stratford Place’ (Jerusalem 74:55)

(Note: Blake mispells Street as ‘Steet’).

The quote from Milton continues:

‘Where the Victims were preparing for Sacrifice their Cherubim;
Around their Loins pour’d forth their arrows, & their bosoms beam
With all colours of precious stones, & their inmost palaces
Resounded with preparation of animals wild & tame,
(Mark well my words: Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies)
Mocking Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length, Breadth, Highth:
Displaying Naked Beauty, with Flute & Harp & Song.’

This is a place of sorrow for Blake because it puts him in mind of the Tyburn hangings. Elsewhere he writes of ‘Tyburn’s Fatal Brook’. Morton Paley speculates you could see the triple gallows from that point, as one might see the three crosses of Calvary from the foot; but the last Tyburn hangings were in 1783, 20 years before Blake moved to Mayfair. ‘Calvary’s foot’ shows how Blake imaginatively equates Tyburn with Calvary. In an amazing vision Blake limns the victims naked and playing flutes – almost like a hippy protest – to confound the calculating minds of the authorities who have erected the geometrical construction designed to execute 24 people at a time.

The quote from Jerusalem is very obscure, but serves to envision the flowing Tyburn as a topographical ‘Wound’, a scar traversing Oxford Street (which used to be called Tyburn Road):

‘I see a Feminine Form arise from the Four Terrible Zoas,
Beautiful but terrible, struggling to take a form of beauty,
Rooted in Shechem: this Dinah, the youthful form of Erin.
The Wound I see in South Molton Street & Sratford Place,
Whence Joseph and Benjamin roll’d apart away from the Nations.
In vain they roll’d apart: they are fix’d into the Land of Cabul.’

I cannot find the arch that Henry Eliot was talking about. The closest we come is in 38/39 of Jerusalem where the mysterious Gate of Los is described:

‘There is in Albion a Gate of precious stones and gold
Seen only by Emanations, by vegetations viewless:
Bending across the road of Oxford Street, it from Hyde Park
To Tyburn’s deathful shades admits the wandering souls
Of multitudes who die from Earth: this Gate cannot be found


By Satans Watch-fiends tho’ they search numbering every grain
Of sand on Earth every night, they never find this Gate.
It is the Gate of Los. Withoutside is the Mill, intricate, dreadful
And fill’d with cruel tortures; but no mortal man can find the Mill
Of Satan, in his mortal pilgrimage of seventy years
For Human beauty knows it not: nor can Mercy find it! But
In the Fourth region of Humanity, Urthona nam’d,
Mortality begins to roll the billows of Eternal Death
Before the Gate of Los. Urthona here is named Los.
And here begins the System of Moral Virtue, named Rahab.
Albion fled thro’ the Gate of Los, and he stood in the Gate.’

It is doubtful that the Gate imagined here is the same as the ‘wound’ crossing Oxford Street at the intersection of Stratford Place and South Molton Street. Not only is Stratford Place not mentioned, but Hyde Park is. It seems more likely that the Gate of Los is sited somewhere between Hyde Park and Tyburn i.e. below the site of the Tyburn Gallows at the foot of Edgware Road, close to Marble Arch. If it bends across Oxford Street, it does so at the very beginning of Oxford Street, where the Tyburn Turnpike – a tollgate at the point where Bayswater Road becomes Oxford Street – once stood. If we could imagine Marble Arch being turned about so that it crossed Oxford Street, there we might find the Gate of Los.

tyburn-turnpike(The view eastwards along Oxford Street from the Tyburn turnpike gates. Hyde Park is to the right.)

If we return to Stratford Place, to look for any traces of the Tyburn River, we make a startling discovery. Grays Antique Centre on Davies Street has an underground tributary running through it which is believed to be the Tyburn.


I am grateful to Henry Eliot for alerting me to the Stratford Place/South Molton Street continuum. Stratford Place is one of a million place-names in the great epic, and it never quite registered with me before. Blake sometimes skips from county to county and shire to shire in the space of a few words, and I may have thought Stratford Place was somewhere in East London or even in Stratford-on-Avon. The intersection adds to the mythos of Oxford Street immeasurably but I would cordially suggest to H. Eliot that the link is an underground river rather than an overhanging, gem-studded archway.

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Dear Michael McEvoy / Marlowe Society

Firstly, thanks for publishing my essay on Anti-Stratfordianism in issue 43 of the Marlowe Society Newsletter, which was submitted by my friend, the actor Chris Tranchell.

The outraged comments on it in the subsequent issue 44 have actually occasioned me to invent the philosophical categories of accidental truth and substantial truth. I’m sure Ros Barber is correct to point out that she received £50, 000 of public money for a PHD and £75,000 of private money for a literary advance on a work of fiction, but it’s hardly a rebuttal. These accidental truths only serve to confirm the substantial truth of my assertion that Anti-Stratfordism is a lucrative profession, as is historical fiction generally. Another eye-watering figure is invidiously dangled before the eyes of the jury. I do not wish for enmity with Dr Barber but the Blakean ‘true friendship’ of ‘opposition’. I have purchased a copy of The Marlowe Papers – from a charity shop – and will review it presently. But I reserve the right to uphold the veracity of the historic records of Marlowe’s death and Shakespeare’s authorship.

Another commentator, ‘Yorick’, in his essay ‘Mr Cantankerous Goes Ranting’, accuses me of exhibiting the very snobbery I was criticising but misses the point that I am merely ventriloquising the snobbery of the Anti-Stratfordians by imagining them having to listen to their own elitist theories in the mouths of the masses. Alas poor Yorick, an empty skull.

Peter Daley calls my essay ‘disturbing right-wing fundamentalist rant’ but didn’t notice my accusation of ‘class war’ against proponents of Baconian/Oxfordian (et al) claims, and that I am arguing against ‘patrician appropriation of a plebeian genius’. I have nothing against the masses; I am defending their opinion that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Anyone who knows me as poet and commentator knows I’m healthily, if unacademically, left-wing.

My essay makes it clear I’m aware of the difference between Marlowe’s commoner background and the titled would-be Shakespeares. There is no need for anyone to correct me on that score. As the Baconian claim is unkosher, the Marlovian claim is cobblers.

The commentators unanimously berated my style but, of course, this is the very same style that was the trademark of their beloved Marlowe. Marlowe was always ranting. He was a professional provocateur in the fullest sense. It got him so into trouble with the authorities that his life was taken by a gang of known government lackeys. Marlowe liked to outrage with his inflammatory writing, so I don’t see why Marlovians should protest against a provocative literary manner per se. Above all, Marlowe detested the gentrified.

The commentators carped and quibbled but did nothing to counteract my more serious statements. They beat about the bush of accidental truths and untruths while ignoring the substantial truths. No one responded to the ‘Jonson problem’, for instance. Why would a notoriously loose cannon such as Ben Jonson write a poem celebrating the literary genius of his friend, fellow poet and fellow man of theatre, William Shakespeare, if Shakespeare wasn’t in fact the real thing? Jonson was no flatterer. He would have laughed in the face of any attempted conspiracy and probably written a ferocious satirical play about it. Another later poet who was nonetheless alive in the time of Shakespeare, John Milton, also wrote a poem in Shakespeare’s honour. The combined heavyweight genius of Jonson and Milton should be incontrovertible, or at least more persuasive than the combined charlatanry of the Delia Bacons and Charles Beauclerks of this world.

No one responded to my central assertion about ‘the devaluation of poetry’ and ‘the devaluation of poets’ that such a conspiracy would entail. Marlowe himself would have gladly spat on the claim that he wrote Shakespeare because he does not need to have written Shakespeare to be the proud, full-sailed Christopher Marlowe he is. The Marlowe Society needs to work out whether it’s a society that exists to honour the legacy of Christopher Marlowe or one which is lobbying for the Marlowe claim to the Shakespeare Authorship. The ‘Society Policy’ is charmingly ambivalent. I forsee a schism because the two factions should be incompatible. One is both an insult and an embarrassment to the other. How seriously would we take a Chatterton Society that became hijacked by people who believe Chatterton faked his own death and wrote all of Blake? A Marlowe Society whose members believe Marlowe wrote Shakespeare is underestimating their own man. It fails to take into account that Marlowe was the quintessence of the poet as rebel, unlike the politic Shakespeare. The former propagandised against the Tudor regime, the latter for it. The world doesn’t need Marlowe to go into a telephone booth and change into Supermarlowe. Poets, Barber apart, don’t either. Poets hate lies, and that’s why so many Elizabethan/Jacobean dramas warn against the glibness and mendacity of the human tongue.

As Shakespeare himself said: ‘Truth’s a dog that must to kennel. He must be whipped out, when Lady Brach may stand by th’ fire and stink.’

All I am saying is: render unto Shakespeare what is Shakespeare’s.

Yours sincerely,

Niall McDevitt

Photo: Max Reeves

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Yeats and Pound, though not exclusively a double act, can be looked upon as an occasional double act, as Pound and Eliot sometimes are. Their decade-long collaboration in London was fruitful and influential, and their friendship lasted at least another decade.

Yeats was the sorcerer, Pound the sorcerer’s apprentice. The ever-tasteful Pound had, from America and Italy, singled out Yeats as the first poet in the English language, a mantle the Irishman is thought to have inherited from Rudyard Kipling at some point in the early 20th century, certainly by 1912 when the observation was made by Robert Frost.

Pound became a Londoner in 1908 because Yeats was a Londoner, and sought to cultivate Yeats as friend and mentor. He succeeded quickly by making contact with Yeats’s former mistress Olivia Shakespear. He soon became a controversial fixture at Yeats’s Mondays at Woburn Buildings. Horton, a visionary friend of Yeats, imagined Pound entering with a pack of phantom-like black dogs on a leash. Later, Pound married Dorothy Shakespear, Olivia’s daughter, and Yeats married George Hyde-Lees, Dorothy’s best friend. Yeats and Pound were virtual in-laws.

As poets, the mentorship worked both ways. Pound hauled Yeats forward in modernity, but Yeats was the very embodiment of the eternal spirit of poetry. Pound’s Imagism was partly sourced in Yeats’s Symbolism. From a Yeats essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’:

…we would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination…

Yeats was impressed by Pound’s personality and scholarship more than by his poetry. But there was one poem that the Irish poet found arresting and that he cited again and again. Yeats saw it as a persuasive free verse workout and perfect Imagism.


See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”

Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!

Haie! Haie!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.

Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!

It is one of Pound’s more enigmatic early works. Who are these characters? It is neither set in the contemporary bohemia of ‘The Garret’ or the medieval landscapes of Provence. Some see it as paganism, a depiction of the return of the pagan gods after the crisis of Christianity in the 19th century. They are Greek gods most likely. But there is no explanation as to why they seem so aged and infirm. The modernism to come would be almost over-dependent on Greek parallels seen as having more vitality than these ‘slow’ personages. Pound is a critic of the Judeo-Christian, but here implies the limpness of the new paganism. They seem like the survivors of an expedition to the antarctic. They also call to mind the poets of the 1890’s whom Yeats called ‘the Tragic Generation’: Davidson, Johnson, Dowson and others of the Rhymers Club and the Decadence, some of whom were dead, some of whom were alive but struggling, such as Arthur Symons. But really the poem is a parable. It is a strange elegy, an elegy for survivors.

For Yeats, it possessed occult qualities, so much so that he even reprinted it in his own occult manifesto A Vision. In 1913, he penned a reply.


Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

But herein is an obvious twist. I identify Yeats as a Christo-pagan poet, and one of the most original Christian poets ever. Ireland has produced many Christian poets, but Yeats is utterly different to any. His unique take is due to his Rosicrucianism. A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society, he communicated his spirituality to his readers in the compilation of early poems under the consecutive headings ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

‘The Magi’ is very ostensibly not a pagan poem, like Pound’s, but a Christian poem, one whose subject is arguably the very first Christians on record, the three magician-kings who sought out the infant Jesus at his birth. But something is different; this is not like Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’; it is more like a return journey. They too are suffering. Alchemical silver paints the scene. The crucial detail – literally the crux – is that the magicians are ‘unsatisfied’. The phrase is used twice. In the penultimate line it is revealed that they are unsatisfied by ‘Calvary’s turbulence’. So, they have witnessed the crucifixion. Therefore these mysterious travellers are attempting to journey from the scene of Christ’s death back to the scene of Christ’s birth. The brilliant final line “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” – reminding us of the later and more famous “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” – takes us unmistakably to the manger.


But Rosicrucianism tends to be more Rose than Cross. These magi also seem to be figures from Yeats’s own life, actual magicians, fellow initiates of the Golden Dawn. This was Yeats’s ‘church and university’, one he attended for almost three decades. His fellow seekers were on a serious quest for knowledge, and power. The head of the order had at the time of Yeats’s initiation in 1890 been Samuel Liddel MacGregor Mathers, charismatic author and ritual magician. Yeats had met him at the British Museum, struck by his heroic appearance, an appearance that seems to be recreated in the poem. Mathers was literally a magus, and a flamboyant eccentric. He and his wife Moina Bergson – sister of Henri the philosopher – designed the Vault of the Adepti. This was like a little self-contained room, moveable, a room within a room. It was supposedly modelled on the tomb of Christian Rosenkreuz and was beautifully decorated with images painted by the gifted Moina. The most famous image of Mathers is from a painting by Moina, capturing him in Egyptian looking attire. He was known to perform rites of Isis. The temple he, Yeats et al attended was the Isis-Urania Temple. Yeats seems to have immortalised the now lost Vault in another mysterious poem ‘The Mountain Tomb’ with its refrain “Our Father Rosicross is in his tomb.” The mountain in question is undoubtedly Calvary, a Yeatsian obsession.


But something else is at stake in both ‘The Return’ and ‘The Magi’. There is in both poems an imaginative vision at work, a vision of the procession, a poets’ equivalent of the artists’ tableau. Similar to the vision of a procession William Blake experienced as a teenager in Westminster Abbey – a procession of monks walking up the aisle – Pound’s and Yeats’s poems contain in their visionary vessels a procession of Greek gods and of ‘stiff figures’ respectively. Yeats even paraphrases Blake when describing these types of figure. Blake’s anti-establishent views are summed up in a phrase from A Public Address: “Princes seem to me to be fools. Houses of Lords and Houses of Commons seem to me to be fools. They seem to be something else besides human life.” Yeats adapted this avant-Ickean insult in a different way. He began using the phrase ‘something other than human life’ to describe these visions which he could see in the blue of the sky.

One of the members of this procession was a human being however. The excellent footnotes by Daniel Albright to the Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems point out that in Yeats’s unfinished novel A Speckled Bird, a character based on Mathers likes to wear a tattered crown and ermine rug while pretending to be one of the biblical magi.

Another story told by Roy Foster is of Maud Gonne’s snobbish reaction to encountering the Golden Dawn, whose shabby middle-class clothes she could see protruding from under their magical costumes: “They’re an awful set.” Mathers’s riposte was classical. “They said the same thing about the early Christians.” This is an exchange that Yeats could not have forgotten and his poem about the Christian magicians seems like an advance elegy for Mathers. Later, in his seance-poem ‘All Souls Night’ he conjured another more condescending vision of Mathers:

I call MacGregor Mathers from his grave,
For in my first hard spring-time we were friends,
Although of late estranged.
I thought him half a lunatic, half knave,
And told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seem changed with the mind,
When thoughts rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!

He had much industry at setting out,
Much boisterous courage, before loneliness
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less;
They are neither paid nor praised.
but he’d object to the host,
The glass because my glass;
A ghost-lover he was
And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.

Moina Mathers was also furious with Yeats’s account of her husband in his autobiographical essay ‘The Tragic Generation’, calling the portrait “fantastic and grotesque”. Yeats edited offending details out of a subsequent edition.

Yeats and Pound, despised to this day by many, got away with much. Yeats got away with more, while Pound became a notorious pariah. Yeats didn’t live to see Pound’s disgrace, but would almost certainly have rallied to his defence, as he did with Wilde. Before Yeats and Pound fell out  – Pound used the word ‘putrid’ to describe a new play by Yeats – they had once compared one another to Greek Gods. Pound thought of Yeats as Zeus; Yeats apologised to a friend for Pound’s brashness by calling him Hercules.

Niall McDevitt

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The Irish poet W.B. Yeats is celebrating his 150th anniversary, or – if you don’t believe in the afterlife as Yeats did – it is being celebrated for him. He seems weirdly young. Born in 1865, dying in 1939, it feels like he’s been around forever, so firmly lodged is he in what his beloved Nietzsche would call the ‘world-historical’ consciousness, as well as whatever literary canons still survive undisputed. In Ireland there are activities all over the country. In Britain, what does the occasion mean, if anything? What should it mean?


It’s an anniversary that will pass largely unnoticed, mostly uncelebrated. The Yeats 2015 website lists happenings in Ireland and internationally, but there are only a few isolated events here, and those in London. To quote Auden from his elegy on Yeats: “A few thousand will think of this day / As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.” BBC Radio has been shouldering most of the responsibilities with a cornucopia of documentaries and essays. Admirably, most of the airspace has been offered to Irish voices: Roy Foster, Fiona Shaw, Paul Muldoon, Michael D. Higgins and others. But this does not inform us of the feeling for the Yeats anniversary on this side of the Irish Sea, or of how English literati feel about him.


Yeats is a patriarchal figure. Poet Paula Meehan says he ‘dreamed Ireland into existence’. But we must somehow go beyond the stock image of Yeats as ‘National Poet of Ireland’ and ‘Ireland’s greatest poet’. The fact that Yeats spent so much of his time in London (with regular stints in Oxford, Sussex, Kent et al) make of him something more than a national poet. Certainly, he is a great London poet; not a poet who wrote about London but a poet who mined London for raw materials, a consummate Londoner who exploited the opportunities offered by the artistic, intellectual and spiritual milieu of the city to his own singular advantage. Reinventing himself as he went, he straddled the four great avant-garde movements of Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, Decadence and Modernism; and was a major player in the revival of the Western occult tradition. He is an iconic London character. Moreover, his unique status is not that he is Ireland’s greatest poet but that he is the single greatest lyric poet in the English language. In other words, he is English’s greatest poet.

I hear cries of protest, but think about it. One by one, if you weigh other lyric poets on the scales with Yeats, they invariably seem lighter. Of course Shakespeare is the greatest dramatic poet, perhaps the greatest sonneteer; of course Chaucer and Spenser and Milton and Blake and Wordsworth and Byron and Shelley are candidates for greatest epic poet. But when it comes to lyric poems, this was the form that Yeats mastered for more than half a century. While other major poets abandoned lyric for epic, Yeats abandoned epic for lyric, moving from The Wanderings of Oisin to the creation of songs that lodged in the Anglophone memory. He stuck with lyric and was one of the rare poets who got better and better with age. That’s why he took English lyric to the pinnacle. Yeats’s busy sideline as dramatic poet is welcomely minor; he always knew to return to song. It could be argued that there are better religious lyricists than Yeats, but that’s generic rather than general, and anyway Yeats was a supremely religious talent, albeit an unorthodox one.


Let’s have an example of the weighing on the scales. Of the modernist poets, people often compare Yeats with Eliot and give the nod to the influential American. Eliot is seen as more modern, more stylish, more cosmopolitan, and his prophecies of doom more fashionable. But I always argue it’s a no-brainer that Yeats’s colossal life-affirming oeuvre is far superior to Eliot’s miniscule and miserabilist oeuvre. Yeats, someone who is credited with inventing emotions as he wrote, communicates melancholy as well as joy. (Yeats was no Prufock, he regularly proposed.) Eliot’s handful of classics are backed up by another handful of third rate poems. Yeats’s twoscore or more greatest hits are backed up with hundreds of fresh, fabulous, beguiling works of art. But it’s also a plus that of both these foreign masters of the English language, Yeats was in revolt against the British Establishment, whereas Eliot was aspiring to climb it. While Yeats was successfully exhorting his fellow Irish to overthrow the might of the British Empire, Eliot was a Unionist who crossed the Atlantic 150 years after the American revolution, an expat Ivy Leaguer embarrassed by U.S. backwardness and desperate to be admitted into the mystical heart of Old England, its church, its crown, its Conservatism.


Mixed feelings this side of the water will be reserved for an Irish poet who – in the formulation of the great Palestinian critic Edward Said – was one of the foremost ‘poets of decolonisation’ in the English language, one who inspired poets throughout the world, such as Pablo Neruda, Chinua Achebe, Aime Cesaire, Cesar Vallejo and others. Yeats’s cultural nationalism is seen as the ideological weapon of “a national poet who represents the Irish nation in its war against tyranny” (Said) . But Yeats is large and contains multitudes. Others will be pleased that the Irish poet accepted a Kings Civil List pension, enjoyed dining in clubs and country estates, flirted with Irish fascism, and was an enthusiastic eugenicist.


The real Yeats is the remarkable man and artist who is such an amazing interface between Ireland and England. Years ago I asked another such interface – Shane MacGowan – what his favourite Yeats poem was. MacGowan was in his prime, the late 80s, and about to go onstage with the Dubliners. Though a Japanese man was avidly photographing him, he really thought about my question and you could see the cogs of his brain whirring, well-oiled cogs. When the answer finally slurred out of his mouth, the effect was mind-blowing. “An… Irish… Airman… Forsees… His… Death!” The familiar title suddenly took on took on new and hidden meanings: Irish nihilism… Stephen Dedalus… We were all Irish airmen, Yeats, MacGowan, me, everyone! MacGowan subsequently recorded a version of the poem with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The thing is, MacGowan’s choice echoes that of many English people, not all of whom are aware that the poem is about an Irishman who dies fighting for England in World War One. Yeats skilfully presented the Protestant Ascendancy scion of Lady Gregory, Major Robert, as one of ‘Kiltartan’s poor’. This spin-doctored elegy thus possesses a profound subliminal appeal to Irish and English people alike. That’s magnetism for you. Yeats’s general example works in a similar way fostering positive relations between the two nations in the postcolonial era.


There are other reasons for ambivalence, and muted acclamation. Once, Yeats was ‘the Eagle’ according to Ezra Pound. In the literary culture of 21st century London, Yeats is a stuffed eagle-cum-anachronism, a writer who is so assured of canonical permanence that he is left to himself. One problem is that in the era of political correctness he is something of an embarrassment, a dangerously senile great-grandfather who you can’t take anywhere. Feminists crucify him for ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ and Marxists crucify him for his big house poems and marching songs. (It’s fair to say that while feminists regard ‘Leda’ as rape apologism, postcolonialists regard ‘Leda’ as depicting imperialist conquest, the ravishing of Ireland by England.) Another problem is that Yeats is seen as formally old-fashioned, a rhymer, by a more experimentalist era, one which prefers his protege Ezra Pound’s more free-ranging example. Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Mina Loy are hip, Yeats is fodder for iconoclasts. Yet another problem is that Yeats as mystic and magician is deplored by what he himself called ‘The Realists’, positivist England, land of the Darwinians and neo-Darwinians. Like Blake, Yeats created his own fusion of art and religion, one secularists bury under a one-dimensional appreciation. Even the ‘New Formalists’ of today prefer to namecheck the grimly ‘little England’ Philip Larkin than the magically cosmic Yeats.

However, the real problem is something else entirely. It is best expressed by the ambivalence of the man who many think is England’s greatest poet of the 20th century, W.H. Auden. The young Auden had been alerted by Cecil Day Lewis to the often neglected fact that Yeats’s late poetry was among the highest contemporary achievements of the artform. (Less informed readers typecast him as the poet of ‘Innisfree’ and assumed he’d lost the plot.) Auden wrote his famous elegy in 1939, the same year he wrote his magnificently Yeatsian poem ‘September 1, 1939’. And yet Auden the man wrote of Yeats the man: “I have only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when I met Yeats.” This presumably reflects the emotions of a young Communist meeting an elderly Fascist. But Auden and Yeats were both flirting with 30’s isms. As Auden was no Communist, Yeats was no Fascist. Auden, as Larkin later did, grew out of Yeats. Auden was feeling the anxiety of influence, uncomfortably humbled by the dazzling genius of his master, all the moreso as Yeats was authentically committed to his perennial philosophy while Auden posed as a revolutionary but defected to capitalist America rather than communist Russia and later converted to Christianity, seeking refuge amid the arch-Tory gargoyles of Oxford University. Irish poets are supposed to nourish inferiority complexes regarding Yeats, but the truth is that all intelligent poets do. Auden, a giant, demonstrates this clearly. Yeats is a mindbogglingly but embarrassingly brilliant poet, as astounding to Anglophones as Catullus must have been in the time when Latin was the universal language of the literary world.


Personally it is the London magician I most admire, his correct choosing of that route for the development of his poetry. As a poet-magus he is exemplary. When admitted to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he chose the magical name of ‘Demon Est Deus Inversus’ as his alter ego, a Blavatskyan/Blakean moniker which means ‘A demon is an inverse god.’ As William Butler Yeats is often shortened by academics to WBY, occultists shorten his magical name to DEDI. He chose this name to invoke his own higher self, his own genius. How well it succeeded. As a Rosicrucian, his work is Christo-pagan, he being simultaneously one of the most original Christian poets who ever wrote, as well as Irish pagan with Greco-Indian influences. And yet his love poetry and political poetry touches the most ardent materialists. He seems to surpass anyone in any approach. To all those who still begrudge Yeats his pre-eminence in English poetry, my appeal is simple: come to DEDI.


Passing the 23 Fitzroy Road house where the two-year-old Yeats lived with his family from 1867 to 1873, I pondered that he must often have played on Primrose Hill, a few metres away, the ancient druidic hill that was rediscovered in the 1790s by Welsh poet and antiquarian Iolo Morganwg, where Blake had a vision of ‘the Spiritual Sun’, and which has been revisited in the 20th century by Allen Ginsberg, Iain Sinclair and others as a significant site in the history of London poetry and magic. It is a commonplace to speak of the impact of Sligo on Yeats’s childhood, but that was during the summer holidays. When biographers remark upon his London episodes, it is usually recalled how unhappy he was in London as a child, but I like to imagine him at the summit of Primrose Hill looking down on a city he perhaps detested, but also absorbing other more positive energies which he would later channel into his writings.


London is virtually censored out of his designer Irish poetry. His most famous line about the English capital is the pejorative penultimate line of his 1890s hit ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ which haunted him like an albatross for the rest of his career: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey…” London stories feature in his memoirs but there are only the subtlest traces to be sifted in his lyrics. That he could be happy in London is attested by one of the lyrics from a late sequence called ‘Vacillation’:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

Niall McDevitt

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