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ClassicsOnline Home » KAVANAGH, J.: Life and Works of W.B. Yeats (The) (Unabridged)
The life of William Butler Yeats is a remarkable one—poet, playwright, essayist, politician, occultist, astrologer, founder of a national theatre, voluminous correspondent, lover, husband and father. It was a life that extended to a packed, sometimes frantic seventy-three years and left us with what many consider to be one of the finest collections of poetry from one voice.
THE LIFE AND WORKS OF
W.B. Yeats remains one of the most famous and respected
poetic voices in written English. As we enter the twenty-first century his
reputation seems more than intact with a healthy readership and steady sales.
Students in the
now massive edu-business of academia turn regularly to his
poetry, theatre, prose and the massive volume of correspondence to fuel an
endless flow of theses.
And in the last fifty or so years, Yeats has also proved a
powerful magnet for the talents of many highly successful artists in
non-literary fields, such as music and film, with a considerable number of
composers and songwriters drawing on his works as sources of word, idea and
What is it that continues to appeal to such a broad
constituency of poetry reader and student?
Well, there is, of course, the life itself – a tumultuous,
protean incarnation that lasted a crammed 73 years from 1865-1939. This, in
itself a fascinating subject, is fuller than most could bear to contemplate,
never mind replicate: it is a dramatic one, often very dramatic. Despite the
vast public and often political dimensions of its contours – the latter not
often fully appreciated – Yeats’ life was not so much dramatic in the
traditional sense of the public, heroic adventurer or the goal-driven extrovert
so redolent of the world of Empire of
the nineteenth century; his is an adventurism of the
interior spaces and caverns of heart and psyche – the ‘deeps of the mind’, as
he would call it. This approach sets him up as being avant-garde in his anticipations
of the sensibilities of the Western world through the twentieth and into the
twenty-first centuries, especially in light of the rise of psychologies and
more general concerns with the ‘self’ developmental pursuits of the post-1960s
The ‘working’ span of this life is also phenomenal: from the
personal breakthrough at the age of 23 with The Lake Isle of Innisfree, the
poem which he said was the first to contain ‘my own music’, to the corrections
on his deathbed of the proofs of The Death of Cuchulain fifty years later.
Within this half-century is contained a body of poetry which does appear to
capture all of ‘the fury and mire of human vein’, and chances are remote that a
span of such skill, energy, insight, focus and poetic brilliance will happen
too often, if ever, again given the multimedia worlds we now live in.
This world, characterised by the demands of a sound bite,
frequently turns to the polished jewel of a Yeatsian line of poetry or rhetoric
to add weight to interview, debate, political speech, letter to an editor or
book title. Such uses keep the work constantly in the public eye and domain.
A major reason the work remains so fresh today is Yeats’
constant ability to change – to, as he put it, make himself ‘anew’. These
efforts ensured that he never fell into easy habits and the life-long
experimentation with, and use of, many forms, wedded to such technical
virtuosity, gives us a poetic palette perhaps unmatched.
The personal life as subject, in particular its immersions
in love and the subsequent immersions of love itself into poetry – often
failed, unconsummated or unfulfilled love – has left us a body of stunningly
achieved and felt work that speaks to readers with a universal resonance
unlikely to be dimmed where poetry is loved and appreciated. We, the general
readers, are perhaps lucky in that Yeats felt these aches most when young and
when in the high lyrical phase of his early works which conformed to such
masterfully wrought traditional verse structure and rhythm.
There are also the extraordinarily colourful philosophical
and meta-physical underpinnings of both the life and work. These of course have
in for much dismissal and derisory comment throughout his
life and since (as in Auden’s well-retailed remarks that he was ‘silly like
us’), but it would be wise to understand their importance contextually. Yeats,
like many before and since, needed a belief system or religion to fathom
meaning. Rather than turn
to conventional models, he turned with a deeply religious
spirit to what he
called ‘heterogeneous orthodoxies’ and not the more
available or popular orthodoxies of the established churches of which some of
his forbears were quite prominent members.
What is often ignored or dismissed is that the reservoir of
occult, magical and other hermetic lore and ritual that Yeats drew on for both
his spiritual and poetic well-being are in fact long established and ancient
Western knowledge and wisdom systems. Yeats was not so much ‘New Age’ as we
would now term it, but a student of the some of the oldest and most
conservative initiatory systems known to Western culture, whose origins date
back to the Egyptian, Greek and Jewish mystery schools of the ancient world.
These are characterised by what are known as ‘universal truths’ common to all
and souls – the philosophia perennis or perennial wisdom
that has always been and will always be available to those who look for it.
This lifelong search was no fad for it required years of dedicated reading and
study and was also a direct response and resistance to the rise of empiricism,
rationalism (and realism in art and literature) in mid- and late-nineteenth
When these resistances were embodied in a young man who grew
up in Sligo in the landscape and Celtic-based culture of the West of Ireland,
then it is perfectly understandable that for a poet with such sensibilities,
experiential truth holds more sway than any other, and certainly more than
those systems on the rise throughout his youth via the works of Darwin, Tyndall
and Huxley, whom he abhorred.
These lifelong beliefs gave rise to missionary impulses
which were given full rein in his native country’s battle for
self-determination, to which he would add his considerable passion and talents.
He saw an opportunity for an independent Ireland to embrace beliefs compatible
with his own, which he believed were merely dormant and in need of reactivation
and which would make Ireland a leading nation in the world.
This impulse saw him join in the growing political and
artistic ferment which would give rise to a successful separatist movement not
just on political but also on cultural levels. Yeats became a leading figure in
the birth of a new Ireland; he also helped to promote the work of writers such
as Joyce and Synge (his ‘Go west, young man’ edict that was the making of the
writer) O’Casey. He co-founded the world’s first subsidised national theatre,
the Abbey Theatre, and his own 26 plays remain influential among aficionados,
though their experimental qualities have prevented popular embrace.
The eventual establishment of the new Ireland and the
political realities on which it was founded saw little room for artists like
Yeats and he shrank from it after a brief period of public office as a Senator.
However, his stature as a world literary figure was confirmed after his winning
of the Nobel Prize in 1923, the first Irishman to win it.
He would spend the latter years of his life and career in
retreat from the kind of dominant world order he had battled so hard to stave
off since his youth. This final period, spent in long and brilliant reflection,
produced an astonishing late flowering and contains some of his most accessible
and memorable poems as well as more difficult but rarely forgettable work.
Notes by John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh from Sligo, Ireland is an award winning poet,
playwright, screenwriter and song-writer. He has been a Director of the Yeats
Society for twelve years. His poetry collections to date from Salmon books are
‘Etchings’ and ‘Half Day Warriors’. He is at work on a third. He has recently
written and recorded ‘Words For Music’, a
musical album of Yeats’
poems put to music featuring some of Ireland’s top musicians.
Jim Norton, one of Ireland’s leading actors, worked
extensively in Irish Theatre, TV and radio before coming to London. His many
West End credits include Comedians, The Changing Room, Bedroom Farce and Chorus
of Disapproval. For Naxos AudioBooks he has also recorded A Portrait of the
Artist As A Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Active on both
sides of the Atlantic, he has become particularly associated with the plays of
Conor McPherson, playing a leading role in the world premieres of many plays,
including The Weir and Port Authority. He has since also recorded Port
Authority for Naxos AudioBooks.
Denys Hawthorne’s long and distinguished career has
encompassed extensive work in theatre, television and film, both in England and
Ireland. Drama has included Shakespeare and Chekhov, as well as many
contemporary plays, while he has been seen in popular TV series including
Inspector Morse and Father Ted, and The Russia House and Emma on the wide
screen. Throughout, radio performance has been a constant theme, notably in
drama and poetry.
Nicholas Boulton studied at the Guildhall School of Music
and Drama, winning the BBC Carleton Hobbs Award for Radio in 1993. Since then
he has been heard in numerous productions for BBC Radio 4 and the World
Service. Work for Naxos includes Cecil in Lady Windermere’s Fan and most
recently Mozart in The Life and Works of W A Mozart. Film work includes
Shakespeare in Love and Topsy Turvy. Theatre credits include Platonov for the
Almeida, Henry V for the RSC and Arcadia for the Theatre Royal Haymarket. He is
also a cutting edge House Music DJ.
Marcella Riordan began her career at The Abbey School in
Dublin and has worked in theatres all over Ireland and the UK, including Druid
Theatre and Lyric (Belfast). She has worked extensively on BBC Radio and RTE in
Dublin. Her previous work on James Joyce text includes playing Gerty McDowell
in Anthony Burgess’s Blooms in Dublin (BBC/RTE), Zoe in Ulysses (RTE) and Molly
Bloom for Naxos AudioBooks’ recording of Ulysses. She was awarded Best Actress
for her portrayal of Nancy Gulliver in a BBC Radio adaptation of Jennifer
Johnston’s The Old Jest.
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KAVANAGH, J.: Life and Works of W.B. Yeats (The) (...