Yeats and the lights of Dublin

Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

J.W. (‘Basher’) Boyle taught us English at Belfast ‘Inst’. Dr Boyle was a Dublin Protestant and a graduate of Trinity, where, in the thirties, he knew the likes of Conor Cruise O’Brien and Owen Sheehy Skeffington. Inst, founded in 1791, was and is a large city-centre grammar school best known for its old boys’ rugby club, Instonians, which always provided at least one or two names in the Irish international XV. The school, though Unionist in ethos (the principal was always an Englishman), had a vaguely liberal tradition, and numbered among its former pupils the poets Ferguson and Allingham. More recent old boys included one Charles Monteith, a director of Faber & Faber and a friend of Eliot. We knew about that because there were several books by Eliot in the school library signed ‘for the boys of Inst’ by the author himself; and the publishers’ address, then 24 Russell Square, London WC1, in those rich, ‘linen-bound’ editions, left an authoritative imprint on those of us who took a precocious interest in such things.

‘Basher’ Boyle was so called not because he was physically violent but because, though of gentlemanly appearance, he had the large frame and concave features of one who could fight his corner. (He should really have been nicknamed Orson, since he bore a striking resemblance to middle-period Orson Welles.) He was put in charge of our Upper Sixth scholarship class where the syllabus covered a number of canonical texts from Shakespeare to modern times including King Lear, Tom Jones and Heart of Darkness. It also included a volume of verse entitled The Tower; and so it was that we embarked for the first time, during the school year 1959–60, on a serious reading of Yeats. Boyle had an insider’s knowledge of Dublin personality, folklore and anecdote, and his idea of teaching five hundred years of English Literature was to race through Shakespeare and the rest in the first term and spend the remaining two terms on a close study of Yeats. No doubt I exaggerate, but that’s how it seems in retrospect. Not only had he known O’Brien (soon to be in the news because of the 1961 Congo crisis); he had met the septuagenarian Maud Gonne. He had never actually met Yeats but had occasionally seen him, and other giants of that time, in the streets of Dublin; so when he read aloud the lines –

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses

– a magically recent world sprang to life: the streets of Dublin, a hundred miles down the road! Our own Belfast streets were Victorian and gloomy; but the Georgian streets of Dublin, glimpsed on our early travels, housed, we knew, a different and more glamorous spirit. Enchanted, we didn’t confine ourselves to The Tower but ranged freely over the Collected Poems in the old buff-coloured Macmillan (London) edition. I can still recall the excitement we felt as we turned to page 217 and the sonorous ottava rima of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, a sublime gift from the gods far transcending what contemporary poetry we knew then – except for pop songs, of course.

The contemporary poetry we knew at Inst in January 1960 was of three kinds: the Illustrious, the Local and the New English. (Of Clarke and Kavanagh, the Dublin poets, we as yet knew nothing.) The illustrious were Eliot, Graves, and above all Dylan Thomas, whom we strove to imitate. The locals were MacNeice, Rodgers and Hewitt; and the New English, notably Larkin and Davie, were the ones we sometimes saw mentioned in the book pages of the London Observer – which, as young sophisticates, we knew we had to read or at least be seen with. MacNeice and Rodgers, far off in London, seemed local no more. Hewitt ran an art gallery in Coventry but was known to spend his summers in a cottage at Cushendall, Co. Antrim, which made him seem more neighbourly. A regionalist, he spoke of the ‘identity crisis’ of that now familiar creature, the Ulster writer, and had written, in the magazine Lagan in 1945, that ‘the Ulster writer must be a rooted man [sic], must carry the native tang of his idiom like the native dust on his sleeve; otherwise he is an airy internationalist, thistledown, a twig in the stream’. We came to like and respect John Hewitt when we made his acquaintance later; but in those days, without knowing him, we thought of him as rather programmatic and authoritarian, even his admirable radicalism rather methodical. To us airy twigs the real question was: what’s happening in London, where they do the Observer? And the curious answer was that some of what was happening there was really happening, or had just happened, in Ireland.

Larkin, for example, was a former librarian at Queen’s University; and Donald Davie had recently taught at Trinity. Somehow there came into our possession, at least for a time, Davie’s volume A Winter Talent (1957), which we took as illustrative of the state of English poetry, and perhaps we weren’t far wrong. It contained, among other modest achievements, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Dublin’, ‘The Mushroom Gatherers’, ‘The Fountain’, ‘Hearing Russian Spoken’ and ‘Rejoinder to a Critic’. There was at the time in England a circle who called themselves, or allowed themselves to be called, the ‘Movement’; sometimes, adopting the title of Robert Conquest’s anthology of Movement verse, they were known as the New Lines poets. Larkin was one, Davie was another; and ‘Rejoinder to a Critic’ is not only a typical but even, in its prohibitive constraint, an emblematic Movement poem; indeed, it’s virtually a Movement manifesto. A critic of the time, perhaps someone nostalgic for the glorious excesses of Dylan Thomas, had rebuked Davie for a lack of feeling, no doubt suggesting his poems were arid and academic. As if to prove it, Davie responded with a poem notable for strict form, argumentativeness, direct quotations from Coleridge and Donne, self-deprecating irony and an almost complete absence of imagery – except for the atomic mushroom cloud, a picture presented with the clinical detachment of a physicist in a lecture room:

Love’s radio-active fall-out on a large
Expanse around the point it bursts above.

Davie, himself a Navy man during the Second World War, clearly felt implicated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and there is something of Adorno here in the suggestion that, after the atrocities of the period, there could be no more ‘poetry’ (a theory contemporaneously refuted by Paul Celan, and indeed Dylan Thomas); or, at least, that one should ‘appear concerned only to make it scan’. This and the last line, ‘How dare we now be anything but numb?’, were often quoted in those years, and these prescriptions contributed significantly to the rather glum rationalism (Whiggery, Yeats would have called it) of Movement aesthetics; while their pedagogical tone and lack of interest in imagery were reflected also in more bohemian circles like the long-ago London ‘Group’, to which I’ll return.

Irony is a feature attributed to liberal Ulster Protestants generally, the tone having been set by MacNeice, as if to absolve us of responsibility for our reprehensible heritage: one might write a love poem, or a plea for the wretched of the earth, and someone would say, ‘Oh, he’s a liberal Ulster Protestant, he’s being ironical.’ No one could describe Yeats as ironical (sarcastic sometimes, never ironical); indeed, it was always part of his public persona, and his appeal to satirical spectators like George Moore, that he was, if anything, too much in earnest. It has been said that he had no sense of humour; to which the answer is that he wasn’t interested in humour but in passion and in wit, a different thing. Humour he would have considered beneath him, or rather a waste of time (one of his Middleton relations he calls ‘a humorous, unambitious man’). He had, though, like his brother Jack, a sense of fun, of the festive – and, of course, the grotesque. Also, I’m afraid, a deplorable taste in puns. Mrs French in ‘The Tower’, for example, whose manservant presents her with a pair of ears in ‘a little covered dish’, is later described as ‘gifted with so fine an ear’. The question of wit, humour, irony and the like may seem unimportant, but it is really quite central. Gramsci, in the prison notebooks, called irony ‘a disease of the interregnum’, which makes it sound peculiarly excruciating. While the world got on with the business of history, specifically the mutation of societies, irony remained and perhaps remains a resource for rueful liberals and nostalgic humanists, many addicted to the backward gaze. Yeats looked back too, of course – to the eighteenth century, to Byzantium – but in order to understand the present and anticipate the future; for, despite his patrician airs and flirtation with fascism, he remains to this day a revolutionary figure, a proto-hippie, eco-feminist and prophet of the new world disorder: ‘The arts lie dreaming of what is to come’. Nor was he ‘patriarchal’; the women in his life were, like himself, active, disputatious and independent.

John Boyle’s extramural activites involved him with left-wing politics and an interesting if shamefully middle-class cultural experiment off the elitist Malone Road, where Mary O’Malley, a Dublin woman, and her psychiatrist husband Pearse, ran an amateur back-garden outfit called the Lyric Theatre. The Lyric is now one of Belfast’s most venerable institutions, but in those days it subsisted on the energy and enthusiasm of a few, of whom Boyle was one. He sat on the board, as did John Hewitt and Austin Clarke. The Lyric specialized in the Yeatsian repertoire and brought out a quarterly magazine, Threshold, which published, among other things, work by Clarke and Rodgers, Hewitt and Montague. Yeats’s attitude to the North, specifically to the Protestant North, had been unappreciative. He visited often enough – first as a boy, for there were relations in Co. Down; later with the Abbey touring company; and later still to broadcast for the regional BBC. Politeness confined his frankest comments to the correspondence with Lady Gregory, to whom he remarked at the time of partition: ‘I have long been of opinion that, if such disagreeable people shut the door, we should turn the key in the lock before they change their mind.’

We got our scholarships, drank a bottle of Guinness with John Boyle in the Crown Liquor Saloon, and went down to Trinity – not a place, according to Yeats, that produced ‘artistic minds’, though his own father was only one obvious exception. I’m sure the lectures were all very good, but we didn’t go to lectures much except to hear Alec Reid, an endearingly helpless Englishman of Irish antecedents who, like Boyle with pre-Yeatsian English literature, took an oblique stance vis-à-vis the curriculum. He was that legendary figure, the inspiring teacher who stimulates the imagination; and he often conducted informal tutorials in O’Neill’s Bar and Lounge, Suffolk Street. Trinity lecturers didn’t publish much in those days, not the older ones anyway; perhaps it was thought a bit pushy. The gentle R.B.D. French, for example, confined himself to a tasteful monograph on Wodehouse and contributed brief comic sketches annually to the Trinity Week undergraduate revue. Alec would go on to write a short but insightful study of Beckett’s plays entitled All I Can Manage, More than I Could; but at the time of which I speak he was the author only of some theatre reviews in the Irish Times and a single poem which he recited sonorously to us in its entirety during our first lecture:

Remembering the eagle’s high adventure
And eager to resume the ethereal search,
I sit in a suburban drawing-room,
A clever parrot on a polished perch.

This memorable quatrain (note the subtle variation of ‘e’ sounds) first appeared on the first page of the first number of Trinity’s literary magazine Icarus, founded by Alec ten years before in 1950; and that simple, unadorned phrase, ‘a suburban drawing-room’, opens up a whole era – for I remember Alec’s drawing-room in Ballybrack, where he and his wife Beatrice sometimes had us out for ‘tea’ (bottles of stout), and very nice it was too for a Belfast scholarship boy then kipping, unsupervised, in a back room of the unrenovated Brazen Head: unrenovated, it seemed, since Swiftian times. Dublin was full of drawing-rooms in those days, all of them in Edwardian bungalows like Alec’s or in pleasant Georgian houses with windows open to gardens and birdsong, where sunlight lay perpetually on shelves of dusty first editions. These drawing-rooms were the property of older people, amateur poets and philosophers of private means like Arland Ussher, who had known Yeats or had moved in circles tangential to his; and, though we were happiest in O’Neill’s with Alec booming away, we were conscious too of a continuity with the unpubbable Yeatsian past. Alec’s holiday home was a disused lighthouse in Greece, though whether he had Yeatsian towers in mind when he chose it, he never said.

Those of us who were at Trinity in the early sixties and starting to write contributed to Icarus, which we edited in rotation, so I think of us as ‘the Icarus crowd’. We included Michael Longley (a slightly older Instonian), Edna Broderick, Brendan Kennelly, Eavan Boland, Ronnie Wathen, Jeremy Lewis and Deborah de Vere White. Not all were Yeatsians necessarily: Longley and Wathen were Gravesians, and Kennelly was a Kavanagh man. Up at UCD too they were Kavanagh people, as well as Joyceans, and our contemporaries there – Michael Hartnett, Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Eamon Grennan – could sometimes even be seen sitting nervously at Kavanagh’s table in McDaid’s. One of the fun things about the Icarus crowd was its gregariousness. We were a mixed bunch, from everywhere including India and Nigeria, and knocked about together with the natural camaraderie of youth – while cultivating, of course, all sorts of privacies and solitudes of the soul. Something of that inclusiveness is evident in Brendan’s later remarks about Yeats, where he praises his capacity ‘to discover unity where so many before and since have perceived and perpetuated discord and division’. This is an obvious but valuable point, and one to be emphasized; for Yeats incorporated aspects of most known traditions into the imaginative structure and wove into the patchwork, together with oriental silks and ‘grey Connemara cloth’, a few threads from the sash some fathers wore.

Longley and I, like other Northerners in Dublin, returned regularly to Belfast and environs, where our families lived, and often hung out with students from Queen’s, some of whom we’d known at school; so a typical Saturday night in Belfast, especially around Christmas time, would find us in Kelly’s Cellars or Lavery’s back bar (the ‘Cobbles’) off Shaftesbury Square, with our QUB opposite numbers. There we met student activists like Eamonn McCann and other literary types like James Simmons and Seamus Heaney. Belfast-fashion, there was much sectarian banter, idiotic in a place where so many have exogamous relations: my own non-Protestant auntie, Lily Lavery, I presumed to be related, however remotely, to the ‘wine trade’ and even to the great Sir John, husband of Hazel. There too we met an Englishman, a recently appointed lecturer at Queen’s, called Philip Hobsbaum, a Cambridge man who had known the London ‘Group’ and now established a Belfast branch. Philip in person was an exhilarating presence and fitted in very well to the rather rackety local milieu; for he was a challenging, rambunctious figure, fond of drink and controversy, and given to self-dramatizing pronouncements like ‘Things happen wherever I go; fights break out’ and ‘I bet I could take Mahon’s girlfriend away from him’. About the fights it was certainly true, and we cherished him for it; but in his critical attitudes he espoused a moral earnestness, an insistence on ‘felt experience’ and a literal-mindedness that were dogmatic and doctrinaire in the extreme. You didn’t disagree with Philip, or not for long; you learned to listen to his opinion, think your own thoughts, and keep your own counsel. Much guff has been written about Philip’s ‘Group’, whose combative meetings aroused limited interest. Though we hit it off in informal situations, I myself attended only once and never went back. ‘Group’ guff was an invention of English journalists, critics, commentators, who had no idea of the circumstances, and I think there’s a reason for this, a political one. Conscious of a loosening grip, English culture (always retentive) seizes upon whatever it can claim, however residually, as its own; and so it has been with the recent Ulster poetry. The Limerick-born actor Richard Harris used to say that if he won an award the London papers would run the headline ‘British Actor Wins Award’; but if he misbehaved they would say, ‘Irish Actor Thrown Out of Night Club’.

While Belfast discourse was cheerfully abrasive, a more polished variety was characteristic of Dublin, where the rhetorical arts still flourished. Famous windbags abounded, and self-appointed ‘wits’; extravagant gesture was much admired, parliamentary vehemence cultivated. The university debating societies, where aspiring barristers and politicians practised their oratory, flashed with profile and attitude; everyone thought he was Edmund Burke. These performances were exclusively masculine and stylistically conservative. Women were not encouraged, not that any sane woman would have wanted to take part, though she might have found the spectacle revealing; for here, on noisy nights, one could hear the voice of authority being formed (or so they hoped) in the inflections of an earlier time. They were all longing for an opportunity to exclaim, ‘Let no man write my epitaph!’ or ‘You have disgraced yourselves again!’ The tradition died, however. The debating-society stuff was already archaic; for even in Ireland the sixties brought new developments. We’re all provincials of our own time, and the decade probably brought little that hadn’t occurred before, in the forties or in the twenties; but it seemed evident to us that a new age had dawned, and one or two of the brighter hippies noticed a relevance to their own concerns in some of Yeats’s prophetic utterances. Gyres and the like were bound to appeal to a generation devoted to Tao and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Yeats himself, in A Vision, describes his strange ideas as ‘stylistic arrangements of experience’ comparable to the cubes of Wyndham Lewis and the ovoids of Brancusi. If he has taken such ideas literally, he reports, ‘my reason has soon recovered’. This is reassuring to us sceptics, and gives us the perfect excuse to pay minimal attention to his magical system. But perhaps we miss out on something by being too quick to ignore the implications; for A Vision is really a sort of political book. Yeats described it as mythology rather than philosophy, much as Graves later described The White Goddess as ‘an historical grammar of poetic myth’. But both are political books, or perhaps I should say ecological books. I think it probable that Yeats considered A Vision to be in effect a Nietzschean prophecy like Spengler’s now largely forgotten Decline of the West, so fashionable at that time; and he may have thought it better to publish a fanciful work than a pompous one. The gyres have come in for a lot of stick over the years; but aren’t they really a way of asking questions like ‘Is there a shape to history?’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’, questions not in themselves ridiculous. Besides, in his curiously practical fashion, Yeats was epistemologically sound; he always ‘saved the phenomena’, as scientists say.

Another problem area is the archaism: linguistic certainly; social too, of course, but also what we might call environmental:

Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere.

The tower itself is an ivory one, figuratively of course; he wishes to ‘set eyes on nothing’ not sanctified by time, like Sato’s sword. A tall order in the modern world, and there’s something painful about the great national poet staring with ‘hatred’ (his own word) at the lights of Dublin. He studiously ignored many modern developments; much had to be excluded from consciousness, especially if it had an electrical or mechanical origin. We know his philosophical aversion to mechanism. Perhaps in the long run he will be proved right, and some future post-industrial society will turn for endorsement to his ecological purism; but even so he misses out on an exciting feature of the period. Readers of the future, exploring the texture of twentieth-century life, will find little of it in Yeats. True, the Middleton freighters sailed to Constantinople (‘All my dreams were ships’); but there are no cinemas or aircraft in his work, the obvious exception being Robert Gregory’s biplane in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ – though even here the plane is more like the picture of a plane. There’s none of the ‘oil-rinsed bearings’ of Hart Crane’s ‘Cape Hatteras’. Crane, another Platonist, also writing in the twenties, likens the cinema to Plato’s cave with ‘multitudes bent toward some flashing screen’, and proposes, in futuristic mode, ‘the articulation of the contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitatis’. Yeats preferred his eternity unadulterated; yet he recommends ‘the baptism of the gutter’ – an example of his ability to make words mean different things in different contexts. ‘Arrogance’ and ‘bitterness’, for example, can be good or bad depending on the persons involved. He is hostile to the notion (his own) that the ‘abounding gutter’ might be Helicon; while for many, including himself, this has been an article of faith. He talks frequently about ‘the book of the people’ and ‘the common tongue’; and one can easily imagine him, in another context, using a phrase like ‘the abounding gutter’ with a positive and even festive intention. The list of modern poets whose Helicon has been, precisely, the abounding gutter, vox populi vox Dei, is a long one, and I need only mention MacDiarmid, Brecht and Pasolini to show with what eloquence the idea has been celebrated. Yeats knew this too, of course, as later poems like ‘Lapis Lazuli’ go to show: everything is dialectic, truth and counter-truth.

Other objections might be that there is too much ‘fury’; that his heroism is too relentless; that his standards of beauty and performance are too elevated to be humanly interesting. There is a singular character defect too: the will to ‘win’. He was too interested in winning; so it comes as no surprise that his brother Jack was the more winning personality and his father, in many ways, the wiser man. Yeats learned much, perhaps most, from his father, as a reading of the old man’s letters to his son make clear. Writing from New York in April 1913, JBY says, ‘Rhetoric expresses other people’s feelings, poetry one’s own’ – a remark which, duly pondered by the poet, emerges five years later, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae: ‘We make, out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry’; and there are many such examples. ‘The world will not be right’, says JBY, ‘till poetry is pronounced to be life itself, our being but its shadow and poor imitation’; and in June 1921, eight months before his death, he again writes to Willie: ‘It is easier to write poetry that is far from life, but it is infinitely more exciting to write the poetry of life, and that is what the whole world is crying out for. I bet it is what your wife wants – ask her. She will know what I mean and drive it home.’

The mask compels reductive curiosity: what was Yeats ‘really’ like? Who was the bundle of incoherence that sat down to breakfast? Did he ever play football, go for a swim? Had he a phone, a radio? He would have played football at school, though it seems like a ‘mobbish’ kind of game for a solitary; so it comes as no surprise to learn, from the Autobiographies, that as a boy he followed athletics, where individual excellence is the thing, not team spirit, where the individual competes against himself, as in any form of art. He himself drew, or implied, the parallel: ‘I followed the career of a certain professional runner for months, buying papers that would tell me if he had won or lost. I had seen him described as “the bright particular star of American athletics”, and the wonderful phrase had thrown enchantment over him. Had he been called the particular bright star, I should have cared nothing for him. I didn’t understand the symptom for years after …’ He swam constantly in youth at Rosses Point (indeed, he swam into middle age when occasion offered); interestingly too, also in youth, he was a keen sailor, sometimes setting off at dawn in a cousin’s boat and spending whole days on the water. We know that later he had a phone and a ‘wireless’, answering back to broadcast voices he disagreed with. Did he ever push a pram? I don’t know that he ever pushed one, but I think he’s at least minding one in ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’, one of the great pram poems together with Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’. Watching his baby daughter, he entertains thoughts of ‘natural kindness’; and it’s worth remembering that, for all his abstract urgency and hauteur, these ordinary things were central to him – indeed, they have much to do with the ‘unity of being’.

We came to think of him as a monument, even as a statue. Yeats himself, like Pound, perfected ‘the sculpture of rhyme’, and had a taste for lapidary inscriptions: ‘Swift’s Epitaph’, ‘To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee’, ‘Cast a cold eye …’. To be cold, somehow beyond human reach, especially ‘the daily spite of this unmannerly town’ (Dublin), became a personal necessity, though one which didn’t rule out the ‘passionate’; on the contrary, the ideas fused in his mind. To be somehow beyond critical detraction was also a stylistic (and creative) imperative, and we came to think of him as unassailable where the poetry itself was concerned, if open to serious question in matters of politics and philosophy; but the scholarly snow precipitated by his own coldy passionate dreams disfigured his dream-statue in our minds; he ‘became his admirers’. The myths took shape, the critical books piled up, and somehow the man himself ceased to exist. Such was the force and ingenuity of his self-creation (a trick learnt from Wilde), he seemed to have spirited himself away until only the work remained, a monument of its own magnificence. He really did seem to be ‘out of nature’, one who had never taken his bodily form from ‘any natural thing’ – a ludicrous thought when one considers his own emphasis on the physical. It was a triumph of masquerade, heroic in its intensity; but the deconstructionists came to Sligo, and now he is human again.

Montague, Simmons, all of us indeed, have echoed Yeats; Heaney, too, echoes Yeats echoing Shakespeare: ‘Every wind that blows’; ‘The end of art is peace’. All this intertextuality is nothing new: ‘Works of art are always begotten by previous works of art.’ We inherit his example, to use Seamus’s word. What we haven’t inherited, or only residually, is his deep structure; for we were born at a later time, into changed conditions, and have often felt it necessary to resist the Yeatsian charm and authority. He was, of course, proud with a pride many called arrogance; but, though no ‘wit’ in the traditional sense, thank God, he obviously had a rich vein of fun, besides giving an important place to ‘gaiety’ in his hierarchy of values. Humour he recognized as an enemy of his kind of poetry, so he avoided it in verse almost entirely; but gaiety is a different thing, capable as it is of condoning madness, lust and rage. The Chinese sages in ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and the lords and ladies of Byzantium and Ben Bulben are gay in that sense; and so too was Yeats, as the later photographs testify. No doubt he could be affected and insufferable, yet how come such a man had so many friends? As for the admirers he has become, they increase daily. He has left us phrases like talismans, consolatory and inspiring (‘a lonely impulse of delight’; ‘our proper dark’), an ideal of audacity and empowerment, and a paradigm of transfiguration, personal and historical. His example shames and ennobles us all.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 8 Autumn 2002