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.