Book Of A Lifetime: Selected Poems, By W B Yeats
Friday 23 July 2010
I first heard WB Yeats's poetry spoken aloud not by the reedy-voiced poet himself intoning on an early recording, or by a teacher at high school or a friend at university, but on an album that belonged to my big brother: ''Fisherman's Blues'' by The Waterboys. The band had set Yeats's ''Stolen Child'' to music: "Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand". I was fascinated by language that was musical, yet freighted with grief and melancholy.
I grew up with an Irish surname (O'Riordan derives from "riogh bhard" or "royal bard") but with no living link to Ireland. My father's family had moved to Edinburgh from Cork several generations ago, while family lore on my mother's side told of a great-great grandfather shot dead on the steps of Armagh Cathedral. Yeats's work allowed me to engage with a side of my identity I was, in name at least, entitled to.
It is a book I would carry around in my pocket as a schoolboy until the yellowed pages began to fall out. "An Irish Airman foresees his Death'' was the first poem I had by heart, and those middle lines on the "lonely impulse of delight'' that is the airman's motivation still fill me with that fleeting satisfaction when a feeling or a thought finds its ideal expression in language; or what Yeats might call "something to perfection brought''.
WH Auden, addressing the poet in ''In Memory of WB Yeats'', asserted that ''Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry''. But Yeats teaches us how a poet might approach the political by placing the reader close to contradictions. Take for instance "Easter 1916''. written in the wake of the Easter Rising, where Yeats cautions that "all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born''. His poems provide an object-lesson in the power of the visceral, as in "Leda and the Swan", where beauty and violence rival for position as Leda is ''mastered by the brute blood of the air".
As a student at Oxford, I remember attending a lecture series on Yeats by an academic who would begin, in aviator sunglasses and sucking on a throat sweet, by launching into declamatory passages. He once bought a first edition of – I think – The Winding Stair, which seemed to glow as he opened it on the lectern. The edition we had at home showed a young Yeats sketched in pencil on the cover, looking distant, somewhat imperious and otherworldly. But the poetry inside is a poetry of the inescapable sadnesses that attend on worldly experience - from the simple romantic tristesse of early poems like ''Down by the Salley Gardens'' to the powerful later work on mortality and creativity in ''The Circus Animals' Desertion'' and ''Sailing to Byzantium''. The edition we had closed, with a twinkle, on that life-affirming late poem "Politics": "How can I, that girl standing there,/ My attention fix/ On Roman or on Russian/ Or on Spanish politics?" It's all these things and more that keep me coming back to Yeats.
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