Irish poets and poetry

I have a large anthology of poems in my head, not because I have set out to ‘learn’ them, but because when I was young and got attached to a poet’s work, and read it often, some of the poems would stick – and have remained there. When Allen Curnow and I lectured on W.B. Yeats at the University of Auckland, he to the M.A. class, I to stage 1, we used to talk about Yeats and between us could assemble any of the better known poems without opening a text. This was early in the 1960s, and I suggested he and I should write a book about Yeats by exchanging letters about the poems we were discussing. I was about to publish my first critical book, The New Poetic, which had a chapter on Yeats, and I was being urged by a publisher with connections to T.S. Eliot’s widow to write an Eliot biography; but I felt too swamped by the business of preparing new lectures to take on anything so large. An exchange with Allen about Yeats, on the other hand, seemed only an extension of our conversations, and not too daunting, especially because each reply would at once suggest a direction for the response.

I think it was a good idea and could have been an unusual and valuable contribution to Yeats studies, but Allen was not keen. His private life at the time was complicated; and I had the impression he was nervous of whether he would ‘measure up’ and which of us might shine brighter. I should simply have sent him the first letter as a prompt. A few years later we were indeed exchanging letters about poetry – our own (more his than mine of course) across Tohunga Crescent, where we were neighbours after he and his second wife, Jeny, moved to live there after their marriage in 1965 – and this kind of exchange was to continue for the rest of his life.

Over the years my view of Yeats became less reverent. I had begun by defending him in a Leavisite English Department (University of Bristol) where I had gone in the late 1950s on a scholarship from New Zealand to do a PhD, and where the view of the great Irishman had been less than wholehearted and unequivocal. Now, while still seeing him as one of the major twentieth century poets, and admiring his great skill in labouring ideas up from prose drafts into stanza forms (his usual working method), I sometimes felt one was made too aware of the labour: ‘hard work’ poems, they were. There was sometimes a clumsiness that did not destroy the poem but could make it fall just short of what it might have been. I thought of the Keats precept, ‘If poetry come not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it might as well not come at all.’ This was altogether too absolute – ‘shoulds’ in poetry are seldom wise. But it was clear that whatever the many merits of Yeats’s later poems, they did not arrive like leaves in spring.

And it was more than a technical matter, a matter of verse-making. There was also his Irish posturing (‘That we in coming times may be / Still the indomitable Irishry’); his glorification of war and his contempt for the poets of World War I who had paraded their suffering; his romanticism about ‘peasants’ and ‘country gentlemen’: so much of it was at least ridiculous, and even politically dangerous. Did great verse have to be – could it be – intellectually jejune?

One of his poems that remains in my head is ‘Easter 1916’, his great (and yes, it probably is great) commemoration of the sixteen rebels shot by the British for their part in the rising of Easter 1916, a poem for which I had written what became pretty much the standard, often reprinted critical exposition. ‘Easter 1916’ is in a simple stanza form of four three-stress lines rhyming (and half-rhyming) a,b,a,b, the stanzas running continuously without gaps, and containing passages of rare beauty:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moorhens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live,
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Lovely lines – and the next bring us back to the reality of Easter 1916, and the thought that these brave rebels perhaps died needlessly; that certain qualities of flexibility and patience might have served them as well and saved their lives: ‘Was it needless death after all?’ The image of the stone in the stream is beautiful, but ‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.’

It’s when he tries to characterize some among the rebels who were known to him personally that the verse begins to look clumsy, unpolished, laboured:

This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other, his helper and friend,
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken vainglorious lout,
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song.

He wants to say that one of the rebels was a poet, but brings in that tired old trope about the winged horse (which he signals must be pronounced wingèd to get the full three stresses for the line); and then, for the rhyme with horse, says that the poet’s friend, another of the sixteen executed rebels, was ‘coming into his force’. Dear god! Meaning he was improving, I suppose, maturing, but what a lazy and cluttered utterance it is! And then one feels one knows what ‘daring’ thought means; but ‘so daring and sweet his thought’ to my ear is like singing la-la-la to fill an emptiness, as if for a moment he has forgotten what he meant to say next. After that he begins to lay into (without naming him) John MacBride, whose crime (the ‘bitter wrong’ he did) was that he married the great unrequited love of W.B’s life, Maud Gonne. But even MacBride is forgiven – ‘Yet I number him in the song’: all sixteen of them are forgiven their ‘ignorant good-will’, their shrill speech, their banality which he used to joke about ‘around the fire at the Club’, because everything has been ‘changed, changed utterly’ by the failed rebellion. Comedy has turned to tragedy: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’

The poem is retrieved and gathers to its great (again yes, I think so, even if the wearing of the green is slightly embarrassing) rhetorical climax:

I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

So my attitude to Yeats became more complicated over the years. I still admired him, respected his great feats of verse-engineering, and even more his capacity for lyrical delicacy as in ‘The wild swans at Coole’ – but at the same time I felt he sometimes allowed himself to be bullied by poetic form, and in old age became in effect a ridiculous right-wing reactionary. This made, I think, for a richer and more complex view of his work, and it was reflected in my second book on 20th century poetry, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement, which appeared in 1986 in the UK and the US, and which, since the year of its release, I have never re-read. (One day I will do that, and perhaps report here!)

1986 was the year I left the University of Auckland finally. I had been easing myself out during the previous five years, and was now departing permanently (though retaining the Professor Emeritus title, and a sense of loyalty and gratitude to the institution). I taught for two terms of that final year and then, in August, took off to lecture at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, the happy place of Yeats’s not always happy childhood, where the clear waters of Lake Innesfree rush out into the estuary of Sligo Harbour.

I flew to Dublin and then needed to find my way onward by rail. At the airport I asked how I would get to the Dublin railway station. ‘Is it Connolly or Pearse you’ll be wanting?’ the young woman asked. So I learned that those executed rebels of Easter 1916 are remembered and honoured in the naming of public places.

The one among them ‘who rode our wingèd horse’ was Thomas MacDonagh, and many years before my Sligo visit I had found and bought a book of his poems, a first edition. Later, I wrote a poem about him:

Easter 1916

(For Seamus Heaney
to whom I gave the book)

Irish Thomas MacDonagh
thirty years ago
in that dusty Oxford bookshop
I found your poems
published by Hodges Figgis
Dublin, 1910.

Songs of myself you called them:
how lovingly
you must have turned
these long-ago pages
dreaming of fame
and your country free.

Alas, Thomas MacDonagh
shot by the British,
it's not your poems live on
in the mind of your country.
It's your dying,
your death.

I gave the little book to Seamus Heaney after hearing his first lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in I think 1989. I had gone to hear it with Craig Raine, who had been Heaney’s poetry editor at Faber, and a passing reference to MacDonagh gave me the thought that I should do that. I knew as a loyal Irish Catholic Heaney would value the book; but I gave it to him also because he had expressed gratitude to me for that early book, The New Poetic – not for my defence of Yeats and ‘Easter 1916’ (though I’m sure that was appreciated) but for what I had written about T.S. Eliot. As a young man, Heaney told me, he had been unable to read Eliot until he read my book. In the title essay of his book The Government of the Tongue, and again in a lecture called ‘Learning from Eliot’, he goes on about this at some length.

He had sent me a broadsheet of his poem ‘The Sounds of Rain’, no 9 of 15 copies, signed and inscribed ‘for Karl Stead with “the feeling of an immense debt”’ – a line from the poem itself, which was an ‘in memoriam’ for Richard Ellmann, critic-biographer of Yeats and of Wilde. So in this matter of acknowledgements, I felt my debt was as great as his, and I tried to balance the score with the gift of that rare MacDonagh book. I’m glad I gave it, and still wish I had it – which is as it should be. ‘The Sounds of Rain’ appeared in Heaney’s 1991 collection, Seeing Things.

At Sligo I had made some new friends, among them the brilliant Harvard critic Helen Vendler, the Yeats biographer Roy Foster, and the wonderfully sociable editor of the Yeats letters, John Kelly from Oxford and his clever and beautiful wife, Christine. The following May we all met again, this time as members of an invited group of ‘world experts on Yeats’, to discuss the theme of ‘Yeats the European’ at the Princess Grace Memorial Irish Library in Monte Carlo. We presented and listened to papers (mine slightly out of key with the unequivocally affirmative note of my colleagues), did a lot of good eating, drinking and talking, and were taken to see the shell of the soon-to-be demolished Hotel Idéal Séjour, where Yeats had died in 1939. His son Michael, an Irish Senator and Member of the European Parliament, and his daughter Anne, a painter – both the subject in childhood of now famous poems by their father – were among the delegates; and Michael reminisced about playing in the garden of the hotel during W.B’s final illness.

Next we were taken by bus to the Roquebrune cemetery where Yeats was first interred. The cemetery is limited in space and situated on a hillside, the graves mostly above ground, so the dead spend a given period in or under whatever tomb or monument is built for them, and are then removed to an ossuary to make room for the newly dead. The body of Yeats spent the years of World War II there and then was disinterred and taken on an Irish warship to be buried, as his poems had instructed, ‘under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliffe churchyard’ in the countryside outside Sligo. One hot day during the Sligo summer school I had walked to the grave, and read on it the famous inscription he had ‘commanded’:

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

So I could say now that I had visited both of the Yeats graves! But could I claim that with confidence? A strange moment early in the Monte Carlo conference was an assurance the delegates received that any stories we may have heard suggesting that wrong bones had been sent to Ireland were mistaken. The French authorities wanted us to know that no mistake had been made, and that it was indeed the remains of the great poet that had been handed over to the Irish warship for transfer and re-interment. This reassurance only fuelled the rumour, which almost everyone had heard, and fired further speculation.

Disagreement on this matter continues, and it has been suggested at least once, and in the Irish Times, that French official papers indicate bones had been taken from the Roquebrune ossuary and ‘assembled’ by guesswork by officials who had no certainty about the choices they were making. There is even an English family who believe their loved one and not the poet was in the coffin handed over to the Irish ship. Could an Englishman be buried in the grave of the great Irish nationalist? Tiens!

One final irony: the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs who approved the transfer and accepted the bones as those of W.B. Yeats was Sean MacBride, son of W.B.’s great love, Maud Gonne and the ‘drunken vainglorious lout’ and Easter 1916 hero, John MacBride. I think I hear someone having the last laugh. The accent is Irish but I can’t be sure about whose voice it is.

– C.K. Stead

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