June 13 – Birth of Poet William Butler Yeats & Review of “Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life” by Joseph M. Hassett

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, dramatist, writer and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature, was born in County Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. He died in 1939.

William Butler Yeats at age 38

Although Yeats’ family moved back and forth between Dublin and Ireland, Yeats closely identified with the history and culture of Ireland. He once wrote, “I understand my own race and in all my work, lyric or dramatic, I have thought of it … I shall write for my own people, whether in love or hate of them matters little, probably I shall not know which it is.” (Herbert Howarth, The Irish Writers, 1880-1940, 1958, p. 111) His writing influenced the Irish nationalist movement, as well countless artists of all kinds, but especially literary artists.

This lovely book about the influences upon, and influences of, the poetry of William Butler Yeats seeks, as Declan Kiberd wrote in the “Dublin Review of Books,” “to restore the full poetic and personal context to many famous lines. . . . The result is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable books on Yeats ever to call forth the skills of a gifted designer and of a true critic. . .” I would concur.

But this book is not only about Yeats and those he influenced; it is also about the appeal of poetry generally. Hassett writes in the Introduction, “poems can encapsulate a sentiment that cannot be grasped or expressed in any other way.” He quotes John Keats’s statement that a poem “should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”

Dividing the short chapters into themes, such as “Loving,” “Marrying,” “Hospitable Places,” and “Growing Old,” Hassett examines in detail phrases from Yeats’ work, showing throughout how poetry can capture and clarify the essence of life. He explains what various poem excerpts meant to Yeats, what they meant to readers, and in particular, what they meant to other writers, including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Joan Didion, and Seamus Heaney, among others.

Many of the passages have to do with Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne, “the apple on the bough most out of reach.”

Yeats and Maud Gonne

Yeats’ striking reaction to the events of the early 20th century, as expressed most memorably in “Things Fall Apart,” receives perhaps the most extensive treatment by Hassett, since that poem has had such extraordinary staying power and continued relevance. Hassett notes, for example, that the morning after the UK electorate voted for “Brexit,” i.e., leaving the European Union, the line “The centre cannot hold” “was tweeted or retweeted 499 times….” Users of twitter can do a search for other lines, like “slouching toward Bethlehem,” or just the name “Yeats,” and they will come up with numerous hits.

Quoting Fintan O’Toole, Hassett concurs that “Yeats’s brilliance lay in his ability to turn . . . immediate anxieties into words that seem capable of articulating every kind of epic political disturbance.” Hassett also jokes, “Lines from ‘The Second Coming’ are pressed into service so often that it has been proposed that they be retired.” Hassett avers that Yeats’ poetry “illustrates Walter Pater’s dictum that ‘success in life’ is to achieve ‘some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement’ that is ‘irresistibly real and attractive’ and will ‘burn always with this hard, gem-like flame.’”

Irish poet William Butler Yeats circa 1920.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Aside from limning the roiling political climate, Yeats’s descriptions of ordinary experiences, Hassett maintains, “invites the reader to seek the same transcendence in the everyday, the same sacralizing of secular experience.” Nobel Prize winner poet Seamus Heaney, often mentioned in this book, was highly influenced by Yeats, especially in Yeats’ exaltation of the commonplace. Yeats’ overall intent, Heaney averred, was to impose an imaginative vision atop reality, “to clear a space in the mind for the miraculous, for all kinds of rebellion against the tyranny of physical and temporal law.” (For how this inspired Heaney, see, for example, Heaney’s transcendent account of memories of doing tasks with his mother “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984, Section 3,” or “Lightenings viii” in which he suggests “marvelous” is in the eye of the beholder.)

Irish poet Seamus Heaney with his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995

In Hassett’s penultimate chapter, “On Facing Death,” he remarks that Yeats had the belief that his life would not terminate, but rather, enter a new phase. Indeed, he notes that in W.H. Auden’s elegy, Yeats “became his admirers” and was “scattered among a hundred cities.” Hassett contends that Yeats lives on not only in the endurance of his work for his readers, but through the works of all of his successors. Ronald Schuchard, in “The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry” (Irish U. Review, Vol 34, No. 2, 2004) quotes Derek Mahon and Peter Fallon as declaring “Among the contours of modern Irish poetry the work of Yeats is Everest.” This book illustrates the attempts of just a sampling of successors who have tried to scale those metaphorical heights.

Evaluation: Admirers of Yeats will appreciate this meditation on his work, but so will fans of literature and/or poetry generally.
I confess I don’t always understand all the words in a Yeats poem, but I am drawn to them over and over again because of their beauty and their undeniable ability to evoke emotional responses. This book is full of poetic portraits that will stimulate, enchant, and inspire those both already familiar to them, as well as those new to the wonders of William Butler Yeats. Moreover, readers of this small jewel of a book are treated not only to memorable lines of Yeats but of others who were influenced by him and/or reflected his work.

An index would have been helpful, but it is a small complaint.

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Lilliput Press, 2020

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