Y is for Yeats

Turns out it’s hard to make a poetry alphabet where Y doesn’t stand for Yeats. William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 and died in 1939, a pretty eventful 75 years in which to be alive. Yeats was born in Dublin and though he spent more than a decade of his early life in London, he was an Irishman and an Irish poet. He even served for six years in the Irish senate. Yeats’ work is steeped in Irish folklore and mythology, and he has become an almost fantastically large figure in Irish national and literary history. I read Edmund Wilson’s book Axel’s Castle, a survey of imaginative literature, early this summer. Writing about Yeats, Wilson asks:

What is the consequence of living for beauty, as beauty
was then understood, of cultivating the imagination, the
enjoyment of aesthetic sensation, as a supreme end in it-
self? We shall be thrown fatally out of key with reality,
we shall incur penalties which are not to be taken lightly.
There is a conflict here which cannot be evaded; and
Yeats, even in his earliest period, is unceasingly aware of
this conflict.

Sounds like a difficult place in which to live. Sounds like maybe the place where Keats lived, too. 

My most vivid Yeats memory is of attending a job talk for a new Modern British Literature professor my sophomore year of college. After delivering her presentation, the candidate was answering questions, and she somehow or other got into a word for word recitation of  Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming,” with my advisor, a professor of English more than 30 years her senior. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” they chanted, staring directly at each other in a room full of silent listeners. It gave me chills: two women just dashing out this poem, line after line, a slight feeling of pressure wondering whether one of them would stumble, though neither did. It was so clear how much they loved the words they were saying, how much that poem meant to them. It was thrilling. 


    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: a waste of desert sand;
    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
    Wind 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?

~ W.B. Yeats (first published 1919)


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