Yeats’ birthday

by Henry Farrell on June 13, 2015

Today’s the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. From what I’ve heard (including a couple of first hand accounts), he wasn’t a particularly nice man. But he was a great poet. So, if you want to quote favorite bits in the comments, quote away. One of mine (not one of his great and famous poems, but some nice lines all the same), Two Songs from a Play:

I SAW a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.

Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.

In pity for man’s darkening thought
He walked that room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love’s pleasure drives his love away,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;
The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed.



nm 06.13.15 at 9:11 pm

You’ve left out a line in the first stanza: “And then did all the Muses sing/Of Magnus Annus at the spring,/As though God’s death were but a play.”

He was a jerk to the women in his life, and wrong about almost everything (IMO) but arguably the greatest poet in the English language since Shakespeare.


LFC 06.13.15 at 10:39 pm

I like (among others) “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which I think I had to memorize in 5th grade, or thereabouts.


JakeB 06.13.15 at 10:39 pm

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
and pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
and dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
and lift your tender eyelids, maid,
and brood on hopes and fears no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars
And rules the shadow of the wood
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.

I was going to link to Kate Beaton’s cartoon about Yeats & Maud Gonne but I can’t find it in the Hark! archives (although it while funny is also unfair to Maud).

I love Yeats but there’s something deeply wrong with any man who both 1) spends all his time talking about all the mystical stuff of his native land and 2) doesn’t like to have a pint in a pub with his friends.

Also, anyone here who knows what the Pentecostal preaching style sounds like should try reciting “Sailing to Byzantium” in that manner. I guarantee entertainment.


Anderson 06.13.15 at 10:43 pm

Since Shakespeare? Arguable, I guess. A longer productive career than Wordworth’s or Keats’s helps him, & Milton’s devotion to an unread epic puts him down a notch or two. Certainly the greatest 20th-century poet in English.

The ones I recite to myself most often are Sailing to Byzantium and An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.


Anderson 06.13.15 at 10:52 pm

Here is Caroline Herring’s version of The Song of Wandering Aengus.


Anderson 06.13.15 at 11:02 pm

3: people who don’t have something deeply wrong with them, rarely become poets.

Necessary but not sufficient, as the logicians say.


LFC 06.13.15 at 11:12 pm

@TBA: What’s your reading of “Irish Airman”? Despairing? Existentialist bravado in the face of death? Life’s pointless so one might as well follow the “lonely impulse of delight”? Are there other readings?


PatrickinIowa 06.13.15 at 11:46 pm

Perfect. We’re packing to fly to Dublin for Bloomsday.

When I teach literature during spring term–and sometimes when I’m teaching writing–I have a habit of reading “Easter 1916” on or about March 17, saying, “I’d just like to remind you that it’s not all leprechauns and green beer.”

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have 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 done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around 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.


between4walls 06.14.15 at 12:58 am

The end of Adam’s Curse:
“We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.”

And from the end of “On a Political Prisoner”

“Sea-borne, or balanced in the air
When first it sprang out of the nest
Upon some lofty rock to stare
Upon the cloudy canopy,
While under its storm-beaten breast
Cried out the hollows of the sea.”


between4walls 06.14.15 at 1:01 am

And Easter 1916, September 1913, and No Second Troy, which is short enough to quote in its entirety:
“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?”


between4walls 06.14.15 at 1:12 am

And this line from The Wanderings of Oisin, as Oisin rejects heaven in preference to damnation with his friends:
“It were sad to gaze on the blessed and no man I loved
of old there”


Ronan(rf) 06.14.15 at 1:41 am

I generally read literally, ‘The song of wandering aengus’ (“and those who strove with gods against their worlds destruction”)


kidneystones 06.14.15 at 1:42 am

This seems a useful link:

His early life is fascinating. As an undergraduate fourth-year lit major, we studied Yeats during the Stone Cottage period, and after. Re: nice people. It’s an interesting topic. Joyce was famously unpleasant. Despite his deep affection for the Whitman and his work, Joyce remained defensive and arrogant for most of his life.

The problem, I think, is that in all the writers of the period we open a window onto a world where the best minds were riddled by class, race, gender, and ethnic prejudices that seem very unpalatable to the modern reader, with some important exceptions of course.
For Yeats, Eliot and Pound, the writing of poetry an act of making too often. For this and other reasons, I much prefer Williams, Cummings, and Stevens for the period, and Marvell, Shakespeare, Milton and Donne for pleasure. For beastly good fun and to open a window into the purest of heart, we turn to Edwards, Mather, Shepard, and Wigglesworth.

The thing I like most about Yeats is his voice and the sense of regret that bleeds into some of his best work.


geo 06.14.15 at 1:53 am

Yeats for our time:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming”


Josh 06.14.15 at 1:53 am

Thanks! I had not known where Fabulous, Formless Darkness — Samuel Delany’s preferred title for The Einstein Intersection — came from!


Alan White 06.14.15 at 3:02 am

This may be a minor poem of Yeats’ but it has always stuck with me for showing the connection of the cosmic evolution of all things–the moon and cats as example.


by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.


Anarcissie 06.14.15 at 3:18 am

kidneystones 06.14.15 at 1:42 am @ 10:
‘… The problem, I think, is that in all the writers of the period we open a window onto a world where the best minds were riddled by class, race, gender, and ethnic prejudices that seem very unpalatable to the modern reader, with some important exceptions of course. …’

It is not just the period. Being an artist, at least in the kind of social order and culture most of us live in, is furthered by a lot of ‘bad’ qualities, like egotism, narcissism, self-absorption, and a willingness and ability to exploit others. While these qualities do not necessarily produce toxic personalities, they tend that way. Artists who can get away with being ‘nice’ are lucky people.


Meredith 06.14.15 at 4:09 am

To the lines Henry quotes: few historians have observed so well the appropriation of “antiquity” that defined modern Europe. (Not clear to me where Yeats really stands on that appropriation or how self-aware he is in advancing it in a slightly new direction, but that’s another problem.) Poets, like other great thinkers and wordsmiths, see things the rest of us don’t (at the time). The greatest poets especially have this habit.


Ronan(rf) 06.14.15 at 4:32 am

Just to say , because I don’t want ‘between4walls’ to think I’m Stakin an oppositional stance to him/her (however cryptically)….. 12(me) was posted when 9, 10, and 12 were in moderation


between4walls 06.14.15 at 4:36 am

Ronan(rf) 06.14.15 at 4:32 am

Don’t worry about it, I didn’t take it that way.


Peter T 06.14.15 at 5:45 am

“people who don’t have something deeply wrong with them, rarely become poets.”

Is Shakespeare a counter-example? He seems to have well-liked all round, a highly-competent manager, actor and playwright and an adept minor courtier.

My high school library had the volumes of folk-tales published by Oxford. The Irish and Russian both struck me as complex, often with a wry melancholy-wise view of life. Maybe a tragic history gives a certain insight?


ZM 06.14.15 at 6:08 am


“I like (among others) “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,””

Me too. I was just re-reading it and it reminded me of an acquaintance’s beautiful mud brick house set amidst the wattles (acacias) in the bush just out of town here. I visited her last year when the wattles were flowering and the bush was full of a lovely riot of yellow surrounding her place.

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 honey-bee,
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.


Tyrone Slothrop 06.14.15 at 6:12 am

Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.

Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.

Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked—and where are they?

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.


kidneystones 06.14.15 at 6:13 am

@17 Cheers. You have a point. I think there is something to the idea of the blind seer, at least in our imaginations – the poet who needs, not wants, to give voice to some secret pain. It’s an interesting medium. I like vulgar ditties at least as much as the lofty stuff.

I taught irony this month to first-year students using selections from “The Wire,” “Richard III,” “Macbeth” with Judi Dench, “Throne of Blood” the same play rendered by Kurosawa, and “Ghostbusters.” I’m not convinced that artists need be miserable or lead miserable lives, but poverty can have that effect on anyone. And most artists live their lives broke.

Writing poetry is good fun. My own is dreadful, but I’ve a circle of friends who produce some good work now and then. What I really enjoy are advertisements, and all portable culture from virtually any period.


dr ngo 06.14.15 at 6:21 am

For Anne Gregory

‘NEVER shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’

‘But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.’

‘I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.’

William Butler Yeats

(Not very nice, but extraordinarily deft.)


Tim Harris 06.14.15 at 6:24 am

“people who don’t have something deeply wrong with them, rarely become poets.”

All I can say to this is that I have known – and do know – a number of poets personally, and have in the main liked them or do in the main like them. The sentiment seems to be the of glib kind that tell us that good businessmen are necessarily ruthless people (and their ruthlessness is a virtue), or are along the lines of ‘show me a scientist who is a nice man and I’ll show you a man whose lab-coat is covered in his colleagues’ foot-prints’ (it appeared in something close to that form in a comment on Jerry Coyne’s website a few years ago, and I have never forgotten it because its easy banality so angered me, as did the ease with which most seemed to accept it). Seamus Heaney, for example, whose work I introduced when he first came to Japan, was a man of great warmth, humour and kindness; the English poet C.H. Sisson was a wonderfully generous man; Christopher Middleton, the English poet long resident in Texas, is one of the most delightful and stimulating people you could meet. There are a number of others I could speak of.

And now Yeats: he is a poet I have very mixed feelings about because of his curious self-obsession, or more kindly the obsession with being seen as a poet, and the coldness of his verse: there is very little warmth even in what seems to be more intimate verse. Someone has remarked above that he is the greatest poet in English since Shakespeare – this is surely a very poor judgement, as is a subsequent remark about Milton’s ‘unread epic’ (speak for yourself, and don’t presume to speak for others; you may not have read it, but many other people have and Paradise lost is widely admired – Landor rightly said that after reading Milton all other poetry sounded like the ‘music of the streets’). I should certainly put Donne, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth above him, and a number of other poets besides. I greatly admire the sturdiness and economy of his verse, particularly in the later plays, but though I was bowled over in my youth by the sheer sound of poems like ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, I find in age the coldness and the posturing (about which Sisson wrote tellingly) very hard to accept: a great poem, because an honest one, is ‘The Stare’s Nest by my Window’; I cannot believe now that anything serious or perceptive is being said in ‘Sailing to Byzanyium’. A good antidote to the strutting and posturing of too much of Yeats’s poetry is the poetry of Thomas Hardy: ‘Poems of 1913’ , in which the poet addresses the death of his wife, is one of the great poetic sequences of the last century.


Val 06.14.15 at 6:35 am

I sometimes fear this is a bit of a romantic adolescent thing to like, but I like it anyway:

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.


Jim Buck 06.14.15 at 7:21 am


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 fairy vats
Full of berries,
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O, human child!
To the woods and waters wild
With a fairy 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 farthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands, and mingling glances,
Till the moon has taken flight; p. 60
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! O, human child!
To the woods and waters wild,
With a fairy 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;
We give them evil dreams,
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Of dew on the young streams.
Come! O, human child!
To the woods and waters wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping then
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 hill-side.
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 woods and waters wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than
he can understand.


Suzanne 06.14.15 at 8:10 am

@11: ” With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great…”

Troublesome women, encouraging the lower orders to attack their betters. Bad Maud! Bad Con!

Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?

Not that Yeats’ politics were anything like simple.

Yeats always had his high horse tethered close by, to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal, and no poet’s horse ever rode higher. I love WBY when he’s calling down the thunder:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

There aren’t many poets who retain the fullness of their powers so late in life. And to the very end Yeats was also capable of most delicate and mysterious effects:

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.

Truly, we won’t see his like again.


Chris Bertram 06.14.15 at 8:14 am

The Tower, I think. A stanza,

And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day—
Music had driven their wits astray—
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.


maidhc 06.14.15 at 8:23 am


bad Jim 06.14.15 at 8:40 am

One way to measure the influence of poets is to count how often their lines are repeated elsewhere, as something one is expected to recognize: No Country for Old Men, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Not Shakespeare, not Milton, not Marx, but not bad.


Conor O'Brien 06.14.15 at 10:38 am

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 till time catch;

Should the conflagration climb,

Run till all the sages know.

We the great gazebo built,

They convicted us of guilt;

Bid me strike a match and blow.


bill benzon 06.14.15 at 10:57 am

@Alan White, #17: Yes, “The Cat and the Moon” may be minor Yeats, but it’s deftly articulated nonetheless. Here’s an analysis that I did of it some time ago in which I conclude:

What is most amazing is that the technical virtuosity required is almost totally invisible. Nothing is labored or forced; the language is simple and yet vigorous. Technique has become totally absorbed into the meanings constituted through that technique. The dancer and the dance are, in this poem, one.


Lynne 06.14.15 at 11:32 am

geo above quoted the lines I most often recall, but I like these, too:

“Like a long-legged fly upon the stream his mind moves upon silence.”

The first stanza goes:

“THAT civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.”


engels 06.14.15 at 11:40 am

Neath Ben Bulben’s buttocks lies
Bill Yeats, a poet twoice the soize
Of William Shakespear, as they say
Down Ballykillywuchlin way.


bjk 06.14.15 at 12:45 pm

Who thinks this is yeats? quality sounds too good for.


Stephen 06.14.15 at 12:45 pm

Two pessimistic, or do I mean realistic verses:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars change places, but the lash goes on.


Parnell came riding down the road, he said to a cheering man
Ireland shall have her freedom and you still break stone.


Stephen 06.14.15 at 12:46 pm

And one long one:

Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood —
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
Thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
And yet it lack all glory; and perchance
The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument,
Has but one comfort left: all triumph would
But break upon his ghostly solitude.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if Such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.


Tim Harris 06.14.15 at 1:47 pm

bjk: that is definitely not Yeats. Yeats CHANTED things, lingeringly. This man is too light, too English, too conversational.


bjk 06.14.15 at 2:17 pm

You’re probably right. The recordings of Yeats I’ve heard are much poorer quality too and don’t sound at all like this guy. If you want to hear some great readings, search youtube for Richard Burton poetry.


Dean C. Rowan 06.14.15 at 2:51 pm

@25: “What I really enjoy are advertisements, and all portable culture from virtually any period.”

Then you must know Bodley’s John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera:


deliasmith 06.14.15 at 2:52 pm

George Orwell was good on Yeats:

In the case of Yeats, there must be some kind of connection between his wayward, even tortured style of writing and his rather sinister vision of life. … how artificial Yeats’s manner of writing was. As a rule, this artificiality is accepted as Irishism, or Yeats is even credited with simplicity because he uses short words, but in fact one seldom comes on six consecutive lines of his verse in which there is not an archaism or an affected turn of speech. … This does not matter, because, on the whole, Yeats gets away with it, and if his straining after effect is often irritating, it can also produce phrases (“the chill, footless years”, “the mackerel-crowded seas”) which suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room. He is an exception to the rule that poets do not use poetical language … the epigram against the critics who damned The Playboy of the Western World:

Once when midnight smote the air
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by;
Even like these to rail and sweat,
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.

The power which Yeats has within himself gives him the analogy ready made and produces the tremendous scorn of the last line, but even in this short poem there are six or seven unnecessary words. It would probably have been deadlier if it had been neater.


PJW 06.14.15 at 3:02 pm

Reminds me of two slits, the Feynman mystery.


PJW 06.14.15 at 3:16 pm

Oops. That was meant for Chris Bertram’s photo. As for Yeats, I find his spiral imagery fascinating.


geo 06.14.15 at 3:19 pm

Henry: An inspired post! (Where have you been lately, by the way?)

Tim Harris @27: Much sympathy and agreement with your comment. (Especially about Milton.) Heaney is certainly a fine counterexample to the stereotype of the mad or amoral poet. Keats too was as sane as anyone could well be. Likewise Goethe. But like all stereotypes, that one has at least a shred of plausibility. There was a Romantic image of the poet with his/her “eye in a fine frenzy rolling,” later echoed in the phrase “poete maudit.” And so many examples: Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Rilke, Brecht, Yeats … Doubtless you could articulate the Romantic conception better then I could — you seem very well grounded in literary history. Would you — and then perhaps take issue with it?


PJW 06.14.15 at 4:11 pm

Dr. Nancy Andreasen (University of Iowa) for several decades has done interesting work on possible links between creativity, genius, mental disorders, etc.


Anderson 06.14.15 at 5:56 pm

27: I should have said, great poets. (Pace 47. Milton was a bit of a nutter. I’ll spot you Goethe, tho adding lamely that poetry was almost a part-time job for him.)

8: most of the above, plus Irish nationalism.


Suzanne 06.14.15 at 6:30 pm

@41: When WBY was recorded in old age his voice was old and shaky. He did chant “Lake Isle of Innisfree” in a Pound-like manner, or maybe Pound picked it up from him, but it’s not a model way to read the poem IMO. It is always interesting to hear the poem from the source, however, and especially Yeats, since we almost had nothing at all.


Suzanne 06.14.15 at 6:56 pm

@27: It may be a poor judgment, but some pretty knowledgeable people have shared it. “Arguably” should always be in there, of course.

Hardy does have a kind of warmth Yeats’ doesn’t possess – as a rule WBY gives off more heat than warmth– but then I am not generally put off by Yeatsian rhetoric. I think of the 46-ounce bat that only Ruth could wield. But if you can’t hope to swing it, Hardy can show you another way, as he did to Larkin and others, even if he is not the better poet.


Peter Hovde 06.14.15 at 7:09 pm

@meredith #19-The OP poem is a reworking of a particular appropriation-Shelley’s “Hellas: Two Choruses.”


between4walls 06.14.15 at 8:05 pm

But precisely what’s interesting to me about those poems is that in spite of his despising these political women, he can’t look away and is fascinated by them nonetheless. (And I think Easter 1916 is in part an acknowledgement that his own view is limited.)


geo 06.14.15 at 8:06 pm

Anderson: Milton was a bit of a nutter

True. I was just agreeing with Tim Harris that he was a very great poet.


Beryl 06.14.15 at 10:14 pm

Suzanne @ 51

You said it well. But what a “bat”, eh?


Alan White 06.14.15 at 10:19 pm

Bill B @35

Thanks for that–a very elegant explanation of what always struck me as a very elegant poem!


mbw 06.14.15 at 10:24 pm

“….I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. “


kidneystones 06.14.15 at 10:39 pm

@50 You raise an interesting question, re chanting and Pound. I’d respectfully suggest we consider that Yeats was much more familiar with the impact of voice than we, and that he first heard, rather than read, many of the Irish folk tales that so clearly inform his poetry. The late 1800s are the glory years of primary source research into Celtic myth. Oral histories of communities, of local landmarks, local myths and legends were collected and compiled by a number of first-rate historians, who pass on to us an invaluable record. Yeats, I suggest, got these stories first-hand, sung and chanted by his own family members, by servants, or by locals during his childhood visits to Sligo. There are also members of the Irish expat community in London to consider. I see these tales as the mother’s milk of Yeats, memories of songs he learned and sang in childhood with others, memories that remained with him his whole life, and which re-appeared in fragments and in more substantial pieces in his verse, both in terms of content and tone.

I agree, btw, with your point about age, Pound, and the quality of the recording affecting our hearing. But, like any artifact, we’re compelled to add and correct for time. So many fascinating voices live on only on the page. Comparative studies in oral readings across cultures must exist. I’m sure anthropologists have very substantial archives of recordings. Perhaps these may offer some insights.

Thanks to all for reminding us of what Yeats offers.


Peter Hovde 06.15.15 at 12:04 am

As long as we’re bringing in other poets, let me pitch Louis MacNeice, another Anglo-Irish poet who was ambivalently pre-occupied with Irish identity, though he settled in England, and who quite self-consciously set out to chart a different path from Yeats. “Neutrality” was written during WWII, in which the Irish Republic was neutral.

The neutral island facing the Atlantic,
The neutral island in the heart of man,
Are bitterly soft reminders of the beginnings
That ended before the end began.

Look into your heart, you will find a County Sligo,
A Knocknarea with for navel a cairn of stones,
You will find the shadow and sheen of a moleskin mountain
And a litter of chronicles and bones.

Look into your heart, you will find fermenting rivers,
Intricacies of gloom and glint,
You will find such ducats of dream and great doubloons of ceremony
As nobody today would mint.

But then look eastward from your heart, there bulks
A continent, close, dark, as archetypal sin,
While to the west off your own shores the mackerel
Are fat—on the flesh of your kin.


Bill Benzon 06.15.15 at 12:55 am

@ Alan White, thanks!


joanblondelle 06.15.15 at 2:20 am

I adore the Gore V quote! and what a fine steed it was.

I loved and read poetry (Yeats included) indiscriminately as a child and teenager, and as an adult have had the strange experience of being congratulated for employing a Yeats quote in situations where I was not even aware that I was quoting Yeats. Thanks for the refresher course gang!


joel hanes 06.15.15 at 2:46 am

This bit helped me get through the Bush 43 years

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty 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.


Henry 06.15.15 at 2:48 am

Apologies for the missing line – being lazy, I just searched the internets for “vain all Doric discipline” and cut and pasted.

geo – have been dealing with the professionalization of the other blog I’m involved in (all sorts of new obligations) as well as the usual duties of teaching and research, and what CT time I’ve had has been devoted to helping get long delayed seminars off the ground. One done (MacLeod), one starting tomorrow (Danielle Allen), and one with contributions more or less there and formatted to be published at a date TBA but hopefully soon.


Peter Glavodevedhzhe 06.15.15 at 4:55 am

Be secret and exult
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”


Suzanne 06.15.15 at 5:10 am

@53: Oh, I don’t think he despised them at all, even if he did tend to rant a bit. I agree that he was fascinated, and knew that he shared some of the same feelings and impulses.

@50: Points well made. I only meant that it isn’t perhaps ideal to read all his poetry by the style of his own recordings.

@55: I’ll say. Although I now notice that if you combine my posts I have Yeats swinging a big bat from a high horse, which may be a bit much, even for him.


JakeB 06.15.15 at 6:03 am

@Suzanne 65–

“I hear the shadowy horses
Their long manes a-shake
Their hoofs heavy with tumult
Their eyes glimmering white

I’m gonna hit this polo ball right through his f***ing skull”

–from “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace” (mildly paraphrased)


Marc 06.15.15 at 6:09 am

From Fergus and the Druid:

I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.

I’ll forgive a poet many things for turning a phrase that can take my breath away.


Tim Harris 06.15.15 at 8:30 am

Well, it is not only poets who can be a bit odd – any creative (I hate the word!) can be: Kurt Godel, for example, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Beethoven, or Emil Nolde, or Robert Walser, or Franz Kaka… so that I think it is wrong to regard poets as being so peculiarly exceptional. (‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied … ‘) With Yeats, I’ll confess that sometimes I love him but quite often he infuriates me – and his politics (though not his Irish nationalism which was understandable and right) particularly infuriates me, as when he talks, in a posturing poem about Maud Gonne, of ‘what is left for massacre to save’, or when he conducts a flirtation with O’Duffy’s fascist blue-shirts – the poet and painter David Jones, whom I revere, tells a story of Yeats arriving on his high horse and in a blue shirt at a gathering to celebrate, as I recall, the publication of Jones’s great poem of the First World War, ‘In Parenthesis’, and booming dramatically across the room as he entered, to Jones’s great embarrassment (Jones was a very shy man), ‘I salute the author of “In Parenthesis”!’ I also dislike the constant carping at the splendid women who were his acquaintances – Constance Markievich (nee Gore-Booth), whom he had known from childhood, for instance, both in ‘Easter 1916’ (‘That woman’s days were spent/ In ignorant good-will, Her nights in argument/ Until her voice grew shrill…’) as well as in the poem quoted in one of the comments above in memory of the Gore-Booth sisters. Maud Gonne and the Constance G-B were remarkable and physically extraordinarily brave people (the latter actually shot an English sniper in the Easter Rising, as I recall) who sought to help, and to improve the lot of, the poor in Ireland, and to dismiss this as ‘ignorant good-will’ is unconscionable and inexcusable, as are his remarks on the sisters in age in the latter poem. And yet, there are the ‘Meditations in a Time of Civil War’ and ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, where the posturing ceases and there is honesty. In his essay on Yeats, my old friend C.H. Sisson remarked on ‘Cast a cold eye…’ (quoted also in one of the comments above) that Yeats was frivolous enough to want to cut a figure even in death. My feelings about Pound are similar: his politics were loathsome and foolish, and I can quite understand Harold Bloom’s and Joseph Brodsky’s sour remarks on him, and yet there is something like ‘From CXV’ (‘The scientists are in terror…’) which is so extraordinarily beautiful in its force and rhythmic subtlety that one almost wants to forgive the politics; but one shouldn’t.


Tim Harris 06.15.15 at 8:33 am

‘any creative… person’; and later there’s a ‘the’ that should be removed.


Tim Harris 06.15.15 at 8:51 am

I should also add that I find some of Yeats’s ideas about the reading of poetry aloud fascinating (there’s an interesting essay ‘Speaking to the Psaltery’ that you can find on the internet – and which prompted an interesting response from Arthur Symons); and I find even more fascinating his remarks on the relationship between actor and audience in connexion with his ‘Four Plays for Dancers’. He could be extraordinarily perceptive, and stirs all sorts of thoughts in one’s mind.


Stephen 06.15.15 at 9:06 am

Tim Harris@68: I think you will find that the man shot by Constance G-B in the Easter Rising was not an English sniper, but an unarmed Irish policeman going about his business. Whether that called for extraordinary physical courage I leave for you to judge.


Tim Harris 06.15.15 at 9:52 am

I do not think, Stephen @ 71, that I shall find anything of the kind, and so I shall be unable to make the judgment that you clearly want me to.


verbatim 06.15.15 at 10:40 am

Yeats was instrumental in discovering Rabindranath Tagore. Yeats’ initial admiration of Tagore based on early works was replaced by contempt when he read Tagore’s later works.


verbatim 06.15.15 at 10:41 am

And by “discovering” I mean “popularizing in the western world.”


Henry 06.15.15 at 11:18 am

the poet and painter David Jones, whom I revere, tells a story of Yeats arriving on his high horse and in a blue shirt at a gathering to celebrate, as I recall, the publication of Jones’s great poem of the First World War, ‘In Parenthesis’, and booming dramatically across the room as he entered, to Jones’s great embarrassment (Jones was a very shy man), ‘I salute the author of “In Parenthesis”!’

Jones was a friend of my grand-uncle’s. I remember going through some of his old letters to the aforementioned, which were not of course as physically lovely as his blockprints, but beautiful structures nonetheless, with bits that he had decided to add later orbiting the main text on the margins, joined by lines to the places that they were commenting on, and occasionally other addenda later joined onto the bits in turn. I’m not sure that anyone has ever written his biography, but he sounds to have been quite an extraordinary man.


Tim Harris 06.15.15 at 12:48 pm

For Henry@75:
The only biography I know is Keith Alldritt’s ‘David Jones: Writer & Artist’ (Constable). Jonathan Miles & Derek Shiel did a monumental & well-illustrated critical study entitled ‘David Jones: The Maker Unmade’. He is gradually becoming better known, but does not have the recognition he deserves, either as a poet or as a painter. Harold Bloom rightly associates him with the author of ‘Piers Plowman’ & with William Blake, who was of course also a poet/painter. ‘In Parenthesis’ is one of the great works to come from the experience of World War I, ranking with Ernst Junger’s (very different) ‘Storm of Steel’, and much superior, in my mind, to the work of such as Wilfred Owen. ‘The Tribune’s Visitation’ is a wonderful late middle-length poem that I think is one of the greatest such poems of the twentieth century.


kidneystones 06.15.15 at 1:04 pm

David Jones’ poetry is/has been widely studied for at least 25 years. Indeed, Jones is effectively synonymous with the modern long poem in English. His work is most frequently compared with that of Geoffrey Hill. Just checking now I see there’s rather a lot on both poets. The Aldritt biography looks very good.


engels 06.15.15 at 1:56 pm

“any creative (I hate the word!)”

Then don’t use it. Please.


Stephen 06.15.15 at 3:18 pm

Tim Harris@72: I wasn’t around in 1916, so all I can go on is what other people have said. Try
“[she] had no trouble shooting poor unarmed Constable Lahiff dead in St Stephen’s Green. Yes, she revolts me too … for her triumphalist murderousness (“I shot him, I shot him,” she gleefully screamed beside Lahiff’s body)”.

Now, this may be utterly wrong. Is it? What’s your source to the contrary?


Stephen 06.15.15 at 5:26 pm

Tim: For other accounts of Constance G-B murdering an unarmed policeman, see (not exactly a Unionist source)
according to which Constable Lahiff knew the Countess personally, and was himself a convinced Home Ruler. His last words, before she shot him, are alleged to have been “Countess. Act your age,like a good lady.”


Brian 06.15.15 at 5:29 pm

Jolie Holland does my favorite musical version of “Wandering Aengus:”


Henry 06.15.15 at 5:40 pm

The Irish Times article cited in #79 is unsigned, but was almost certainly written by Kevin Myers.


Julian F 06.15.15 at 6:21 pm

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.


Stephen 06.15.15 at 7:00 pm

Henry@82: article almost certainly [I like that] written by Kevin Myers.

If so, then what? Playing the man, not the ball? If an article is written by someone with whom I do not on other matters agree, it is to be automatically ignored?

Consider the possibility that a statement by someone to whom on other matters I am completely opposed, may on this matter be true.

As Orwell put it about Republican atrocities in Spain: they happened, even though the Daily Mail said they happened.

Please check the other urls I cited, and see if you can discredit them on the grounds that you don’t like their authors.


Teachable Mo' 06.15.15 at 8:04 pm

I think Yeats wrote many very good poems. He’s a little like Robert Frost or Thomas Hardy in the respect.

I remember seeing an essay on Shelley which talked about Shelley’s method of composition. The discussion included a work-in-progress. There was a big chunk of verse. Then a big chunk of space to be filled in later. Then more verse. If I remember correctly, there may have been certain rhymes in the to-be-filled-in-later section. Not really the work of a man who is jotting down what the muse pours into his ear. The work of a professional man-of-letters and a man of ideas. Yeats seems like that. I’m thinking here of The Fascination of What’s Difficult which has all those pre-set rhymes.
And he was determined to flog a system which involved real goof ball stuff. I remember — I think — a passage in his Autobiography where he and Mrs. Yeats were summoning the spirit world while in their Pullman car on a train ride across America. I love that scene. I hope it’s not something I simply dreamed up. As I’m writing this I can’t really convince myself that Yeats came to America.

My favorites aren’t too surprising. Among School Children. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Sailing to Byzantium. For some reason the couplet of his that regularly comes to mind is:

My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor

And at over 60 the stanza that really hits home is:

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?


Doug K 06.15.15 at 10:16 pm

one of many that the Waterboys/Mike Scott set to music,

Behold the flashing waters
A cloven dancing jet,
That from the milk-white marble
For ever foam and fret;
Far off in drowsy valleys
Where the meadow saffrons blow,
The feet of summer dabble
In their coiling calm and slow.
The banks are worn forever
By a people sadly gay:
A Titan with loud laughter,
Made them of fire clay.
Go ask the springing flowers,
And the flowing air above,
What are the twin-born waters,
And they’ll answer Death and Love.

With wreaths of withered flowers
Two lonely spirits wait
With wreaths of withered flowers
‘Fore paradise’s gate.
They may not pass the portal
Poor earth-enkindled pair,
Though sad is many a spirit
To pass and leave them there
Still staring at their flowers,
That dull and faded are.
If one should rise beside thee,
The other is not far.
Go ask the youngest angel,
She will say with bated breath,
By the door of Mary’s garden
Are the spirits Love and Death.

I had not known this poem before, but it seems to me perfect.

The Waterboys’ version of Stolen Child,

At first the accent on the narrated parts irritated me as altogether too Irish to be true, but it turns out to be authentic – Tomás Mac Eoin came by it honestly.

As a fisherman (hermit in gumboots) I am partial also to The Fisherman, though it is very bitter.

Although I can see him still—
The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies—
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped it would be
To write for my own race
And the reality:
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved—
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer—
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”

“cold and passionate” is exact..


Henry 06.15.15 at 10:57 pm

If so, then what? Playing the man, not the ball? If an article is written by someone with whom I do not on other matters agree, it is to be automatically ignored?

Kevin Myers, whom I believe was the regular writer of An Irishman’s Diary at that point (happy to be contradicted if wrong) isn’t a reliable source (do a search at Crooked Timber for past posts), nor are a couple of random blogposts. To put it mildly, I have no brief for Markievicz (who denounced various family members of mine in the wake of the Risingand sought to court martial one of them), but if you’re going to make strong claims, you need strong evidence from, like, actual historians.


Ronan(rf) 06.15.15 at 11:17 pm

I know this is one of Stephen’s hobby horses, so won’t say anymore after this, but afaik reputable historians (which clearly Myers isn’t) do imply that the claim Markievich killed Lahiff has some plausibilty (ie Roy Foster in his new book, and Ferghal McGharry in his 1916 one) They caveat it with ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly’ , though. (The historian Ann Matthews takes it as fact in one of her books, and has written a play about Markievich’s hypothetical trial for the murder.)


Bloix 06.15.15 at 11:51 pm

There was and is a dispute over whether Markievicz or another member of the St Stephen’s Green garrison shot and killed Constable Lahiff. I don’t think there’s any contemporary evidence that she shot a sniper – that seems to be a modern invention.


Tim Harris 06.16.15 at 1:53 am

Well, all I shall say to this is that I hope she didn’t shoot the unfortunate constable. The extra nuggets of information provided – that she actually knew the man and knew him to be a supporter of Home Rule, and that after shooting him she cackled and screamed like a character from a cheap melodrama, ‘I’ve shot him!’ – really do not inspire much confidence: rather the opposite, in fact. If, of course, she did shoot him, then I find that appalling, and such esteem as I have for her evaporates.


Garrulous 06.16.15 at 4:36 am

Brecht could be bad and dangerous to know, especially if you were a woman who fell under his spell. But not mad, and not that wild, except maybe very early on. His dominant traits – shrewdness, diligence, caution and self-possession – don’t quite fit that Romantic image.


Suzanne 06.16.15 at 5:23 am

There is evidence to suggest Markievicz was otherwise occupied at the time of the shooting. As I remember offhand, her biographer Diana Norman said no, Tim Pat Coogan said maybe. In any case, it’s unlikely that Yeats was considering that dispute when he wrote such lines as “conspiring among the ignorant.”

She was indeed deeply committed to the poor (to whom she was “Madame” in Dublin).

She could be quite silly, providing one of the lowlights of the Dail debate over the Treaty when she made the suggestion, presumably sarcastic, that Michael Collins had broken up Princess Mary’s engagement. Collins noted in his somewhat over-dignified response that he was not of the same class as she, coming as he did from the plain people of Ireland ( Myles na gCopaleen, take note), with the implication that where he came from, you weren’t supposed to bandy a lady’s name.


Suzanne 06.16.15 at 5:24 am

Screwed up the italics on that one. Only “he” was supposed to italicized….


Tim Harris 06.16.15 at 6:31 am

Not entirely on topic, but here goes: I once, when in my mis-spent youth I was working on a building site in London, knew a murderer – perhaps more than one. He was a painter – the painters in particular (they always went about and worked in pairs) seemed often to be petty criminals. It was he who told me he had been inside. I asked another painter (from another pair, whom I’m pretty sure were petty criminals, too), a Yorkshire boy not much younger than me, whether he knew what he had been inside for. “Oh,’ said the Yorkshire boy, ‘he shot this man.’ And seeing the expression that came over my face, hastened to add, ‘But it weren’t his fault, see. They was doing this job, and this bloke got in the way so he shot ‘im.’ ‘Ah,’ I said, and thought I had better leave it that. The murderer was a friendly sort, with a sense of humour, who liked instructing a younger man like myself in the ways of the world, though I was careful not to get on his wrong side after that. As for the story about Constance Markievicz, it honestly sounds to me rather too good to be true (as does mine, perhaps, but that genuinely DID happen!), though, as I said above, if it does turn out to be true, then I am more than willing to revise my judgement of the Countess.


engels 06.16.15 at 11:09 am

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many Western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.


LFC 06.16.15 at 11:27 am

why are you quoting Keats, or am I missing the pt?


Tim Harris 06.16.15 at 11:48 am

It is surely engels who is missing a small, consonantal point.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 2:16 pm

Henry@87: I’m not making a strong claim. I wrote about the Irish Times article: “this may be utterly wrong. Is it?” I think you are reading into my words something that was never there at all.

Could we agree that there is no evidence at all that Constance GB ever shot an English sniper, but there are plausible accounts (inevitably unsupported by contemporary photographs, recordings or other by-modern-standards convincing evidence) of her shooting PC Lahiff? The account of her knowing Lahiff, knowing that he supported Home Rule, and speaking with him before she shot him comes from a member of Lahiff’s family. That does not, of course, mean it’s infallibly true.

Ronan: I don’t know why you think this is one of my hobbyhorses. I’ve never mentioned C G-B before. Yeats, yes, of course.


Henry 06.16.15 at 2:21 pm

John M. Ford on Thomas Friedman after a post by Kieran Healy:

Much have I travell’d on the feet of gold,
And many tumbled walls and maidens seen,
Round many horny Africs have I been
Which bards like bosoms in their welkins hold,
Oft of a spare expanse had I been told
That fence-swung Homer looked on as demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its mountains clean
Till I heard Friedman speak out uncontrolled,
Then felt I like some Cousteau of the skies
When a new bubble undermines his ken,
Or sack-like Falstaff, when with precast eyes
He stared at echoes—and his fellow men
Harked back in multitudes like single spies
Silent, past their peak in Darien.


Ronan(rf) 06.16.15 at 4:33 pm

Stephen – I meant the general topic was your hobby horse, but I didn’t mean it snarkily. I agree with Tim Harris’ initial comment that she was (in some ways) an admirable and interesting person. In other ways not. I think a lot of that generation of revolutionaries were admirable (even those who were genuine fanatics) even if I’m ambivalent about their larger cause and actions. It is off topic though and I won’t be back near a computer for a while, so I’ll leave it there.


Ronan(rf) 06.16.15 at 4:57 pm

“but I didn’t mean it snarkily”

Which is to say I meant it affectionately.


Stephen 06.16.15 at 5:04 pm

Ronan: affection reciprocated.

But forgive me for not finding fanatics, of any description, admirable on the whole: though they may have some admirable qualities. Many of the SS were admirably courageous.

Since this is a Yeats thread:
Out of Ireland am I come.
Great hatred, little room
Maimed me from the start.
I carry with me to my tomb
My fanatic heart.


LFC 06.16.15 at 8:31 pm

Henry @99
This is funny (as a skewering of Friedman), though to appreciate it properly I would, or one would, have to re-read the Keats original.

I do have to say that “fence-swung Homer” is memorably terrible. Of course the whole poem is intentionally bad, but “fence-swung” seems special in its horribleness, combining as it does a lack of any pretense to grammatical sense with a ridiculous image (Homer swinging for the fences). By contrast, “sack-like Falstaff” is pretty brilliant. I haven’t troubled to look up John M. Ford.


dob 06.16.15 at 8:53 pm

Like Doug K @86, I’m very partial to Mike Scott’s interpretations of Yeats’ poems. The one that I think adds most to the text is the Waterboys’ version of Mad as the Mist and Snow:

As for Yeats’ poems themselves, I often find myself thinking about these lines from ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’:

I climb to the tower-top and lean upon broken stone,
A mist that is like blown snow is sweeping over all,
Valley, river, and elms, under the light of a moon
That seems unlike itself, that seems unchangeable,
A glittering sword out of the east. A puff of wind
And those white glimmering fragments of the mist sweep by.
Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb the mind;
Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind’s eye.

‘Vengeance upon the murderers,’ the cry goes up,
‘Vengeance for Jacques Molay.’ In cloud-pale rags, or in lace,
The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face,
Plunges towards nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide
For the embrace of nothing; and I, my wits astray
Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried
For vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay.


engels 06.16.15 at 10:31 pm

Can anyone quote humorous verse by Yeats (I can’t)? I’ve a pet psychological theory there’s a correlation between sense of humour failure and partiality to reactionary mumbo jumbo (admittedly not sure how it accommodates Richard Dawkins…)


Bloix 06.17.15 at 4:41 pm

#105 -“Can anyone quote humorous verse by Yeats?”


WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney.
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Mocharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.


dr ngo 06.17.15 at 5:04 pm

For certain senses of “humorous” see also “For Anne Gregory” @26 above. Cracks me up, anyway.


engels 06.17.15 at 6:55 pm

Thanks, guys, not exactly belly-laugh stuff though, is it? (I do like them both and did know FoD – thanks for the reminder.)


Ronan(rf) 06.18.15 at 12:15 pm

Stephen, yes. They were products of their time. They are completely and utterly explainable by the context they existed in and the values and actions of their contemporaries, including (and especially) those who sacrificed themselves on various European battle grounds from 1911-23. Despite the overwrought ahistorical nonsense of certain revisionist commentators, their infatuation with violence and self sacrifice was not unusual.
And they were not ss stormtroopers, which is borne out by (1) the way the revolutionary conflicts developed (where the arguments are over ambiguous deaths/disappearances that number in the double digits not tens or hundreds of thousands) and (2) the way the history of the new state developed, which was a lot of things but not fascistic or (relatively) sectarian/ethnically exclusionary/fanatical.


Stephen 06.18.15 at 1:16 pm

Ronan, yes. I’m not arguing that the Irish revolutionaries were or are exactly, even approximately equivalent to SS stormtroopers: you are quite right that Irish history would be very different if they had been. Though the deaths in more recent troubles have been well into four figures.
Just that some of the revolutionaries were, as you said, fanatics, and that fanatics may have qualities that are in some ways admirable, like courage, without themselves being on the whole admirable.
As for their being “completely and utterly explainable by the context they existed in and the values and actions of their contemporaries, including (and especially) those who sacrificed themselves on various European battle grounds”, yes, you have a good point there. But was not the same also true of the Freikorps and, later, the SA/SS?


Ronan(rf) 06.18.15 at 4:33 pm

Well, perhaps. But there are also, imo, more apt (and less politically loaded) comparisons closer to home, within the political culture they existed in; which was the greater British isles, where the religious and national devotion in ireland had plenty of parallels in British politics and on European battlefields.
There’s no need to look at Irish nationalism and political violence as an independent, inexplicable malevolent force. There are parallels across Europe at the time, and then again in the post war decolonisation wars. And there are local comparative studies within the isles plausibly explaining the mechanics of how British political institutions and British national identity failed in ireland, and are now failing in Scotland.


Stephen 06.18.15 at 5:14 pm

Ronan: thanks for alerting me to Paul Bew’s book, which I will certainly read. Consider my failure to read it before as down to the curse of the drinking classes.

I don’t “look at Irish nationalism and political violence as an independent, inexplicable malevolent force.” Irish nationalism, perfectly explicable and non-malevolent. Political violence, especially in 1916 when the Home Rule Act had already been passed, not so much.

Going through O’Leary’s long article, there are some phrases I found memorable:

“the most reasonable, up to date, rational, liberal and accommodationist unionist history in a field crowded with rage, denial, undignified obsession, and contempt dressed up as common sense.” Must read, obviously.

“the failure of all political parties on our island, and its larger neighbour, to respond sufficiently to the conciliatory politics of John Redmond.” Absolutely: but if only Redmond’s conciliation had gone as far as accepting the right of (some parts of) Ulster to opt out of Home Rule, on account of the local inhabitants didn’t want it.

“Althusserian Marxism was part of an intellectual vortex from which few returned sane, alive or Marxist.” I say ditto to Prof O’Leary.


Ronan(rf) 06.18.15 at 5:34 pm

I was going to quote that last bit ‘re Althusserian Marxism as well.
(I’d be interested to know what u think of the article if u get around to reading it. Perhaps on a different thread as I think we’re pulling this off topic. I think it’s a reasonable analysis and gives what I think would mostly be my perspective at this stage. Bews book is good, as is o leary’s (perhaps a little dated) “explaining northern Ireland”, if u haven’t read it)


Stephen 06.18.15 at 5:54 pm

Ronan: roll on the next relevant thread. I agree this is way off topic.


Bloix 06.18.15 at 7:39 pm

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

from In Memory of W.B. Yeats,
by W.H. Auden (1940)


bianca steele 06.18.15 at 9:46 pm

Is this John Ford, Shakespeare’s contemporary, everyone’s talking about? Oh, . . . no.

I do like Keats and Auden. And the one about the dancer and the dance.

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