In all the hullabaloo about his 150th birthday, might WB Yeats the writer be getting lost?
Katy Hayes | The Sunday Times | Jun 14 2015
Yesterday marked the 150th birthday of William Butler Yeats, and was the high point of a four-day festival celebrating Ireland’s “national poet”, as a press release for the event dubs him. The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht provided a budget of €500,000 for these Yeatsian events, and Susan O’Keeffe, a Labour party senator, chaired the initiative. O’Keeffe was a surprising choice, not being known for involvement in the arts, but she is Sligo-based, and it was decided to make Sligo the centre of this extravaganza.
Dublin is a voracious gobbler of arts funding, so it’s not inherently a bad idea to spend €500,000 on culture and creativity in the west. As Dublin has its Bloomsday, should not the west of Ireland have its Yeats Day? But isn’t there a danger that, like the cutesifying of Joycean celebrations on June 16 — where the emphasis is on costumes and “nutty gizzards” for breakfast — that there is too much attention on attracting tourists and not enough on the the writer’s work?
Where is the searing, excoriating Yeats in all this celebration? Where is the Yeats who disrupted a society and spurred it to action, who told the Irish public “you have disgraced yourselves again”; who spared neither the populace nor his creative colleagues the lash of his words, occasionally in iambic feet. Where is the Yeats who arguably initiated the 1916 rebellion: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” As Scotland is finding out, once you establish a “national theatre”, a movement towards independence soon follows.
The Yeats 150 festival is a tsunami of events, including a recreated Nobel dinner at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Sligo. It ranges from a gathering of poets at IT Sligo’s Knocknarea Arena, to a family-focused fancy-dress day in Coole Park, Co Galway. Back in Dublin, the Central Bank has produced a limited-edition Yeats-inspired €15 coin, and An Post has issued a special stamp. Some events are avowedly intellectual, some more populist; the balance between them is always arguable. But isn’t there is a danger that we simply indulge in smug self congratulation, and have a party on the coat-tails of our hard-working, provocative and uncompromising literary forbear? Pat ourselves on the back for labours not ours? Might not Yeats the writer get lost in the hullabaloo? By creating such a populist public spectacle, are we diluting the intellectual Yeats?
That might be Maud Gonne’s point of view, according to Joseph Hassett, a Washington-based lawyer, Yeats scholar and philanthropist. Yeats’s muse did not like him diverting energy into the Abbey Theatre when he should have been writing poems. “But Yeats himself would be quite pleased with all this, because he wanted to have an effect on the popular imagination,” says Hassett, of the current festival. “He liked quoting Lady Gregory’s Aristotelian view that one should ‘Think like a wise man, but express oneself like the common people’. So I don’t think he’d object to any of this at all.”
Still, given that government spend of €500,000 in the run-up to an election, is Yeats not only being recruited into a national feelgood festival, but also being co-opted to a self-congratulatory political agenda?
Yeats was a believer in government support of the arts, according to Hassett, and was a “great admirer of the Italian Renaissance city model”. This admiration was reflected in his “bitter lacerating poem” To a Wealthy Man Who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery If It Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures. It concerned Dublin Corporation’s reluctance to pay for a gallery to house Hugh Lane’s collection of paintings, and the wealthy Lord Ardilaun refusing to contribute anything further until he saw “some sort of evidence” that Dubliners were interested. Yeats wrote: “And Guidobaldo, when he made/That grammar school of courtesies/ Where wit and beauty learned their trade/ Upon Urbino’s windy hill,/ Had sent no runners to and fro/ That he might learn the shepherds’ will.”
Hassett, who can quote these lines from memory, says: “Yeats saw it as the obligation of government to support art because it would ennoble citizens. In terms of the current commemoration, I think Yeats would say, ‘Why only €500,000?’”
Margaret Harper, the Glucksman Professor in Contemporary Writing in English at the University of Limerick, is on the steering group of the Yeats 150 celebrations. An American from North Carolina, she is also the current academic director of the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, an annual conference that attracts academic high flyers, but is rooted in the Sligo locale, is organised by a local committee, and has been running for 56 years.
“It’s a summer camp for people who really love the arts,” says Harper. “Yeats is endlessly fascinating to people like me, to people in the academy, but he wasn’t an academic himself, and he certainly wouldn’t have wanted himself to be shut up [in an] ivory tower.”
In terms of his engagement with the public via the media, she says: “Yeats didn’t like shallow thinking, to the degree that journalism can sometimes be — pardon me for saying this — prone to the quick thing, rather than the thoughtful thing. But he was completely willing to engage with journalism and engage in the world of public discourse, which was one of the reasons he got so angry. Yeats loved a good fight.
“He was a great believer in the oppositional stance, and would have had much to say during the Celtic tiger. He was an absolute hater of shallow materialism, of any culture that thinks stuff you buy is more important than the creative. He loved tradition and landscape, so I suggest he would have been appalled at some of the architectural disasters put up during the tiger period, like the hulk of a rusting half-built shopping mall near the University in Limerick. The ghost estates.”
A different empty building, with a different kind of ghost, has attracted Joseph Hassett’s philanthropic interest. He recently donated €31,000 towards the reopening of Thoor Ballylee, a Norman tower near Gort in Co Galway where Yeats lived with his wife and two children in the 1920s, and which he declared was his symbol. Hassett says: “Yeats had the idea that psychic disorders of many kinds were not so much individual as societal, and that one of the causes of a lot of psychic disorder was people’s loss of connection with their roots in the past.” Yeats, in inhabiting the tower, “was restoring a severed connection with his ancestors”. Hassett adds: “Irish people, and I include myself as a diaspora member, should preserve our own connection with that past, and I think it’s healthy for us to do so.”
The Yeats 150 celebration is like an expensive national seance in its attempt to summon if not the man, then the memory of the man. Wouldn’t it be preferable to have an equivalent to Yeats in contemporary Irish life? “Equivalent is a word I would argue with,” says Harper. “I don’t think it’s possible any more to be involved with as many things as Yeats was. It would be difficult to found a theatre and serve in politics and be a central man of letters in the digital age and in the age of professionalism.”
Hassett thinks there may be an equivalent, however. “I’d find [Seamus] Heaney comparable to Yeats, not just because he was an Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize, but because he cared so much about Irish poetry, writing and culture. And he gave so unstintingly of his own energies to support them.”