The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry

By Schuchard, Ronald | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Autumn-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry


Schuchard, Ronald, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Derek Mahon and Peter Fallon opened their Penguin anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry by declaring unequivocally that 'Among the contours of modern Irish poetry the work of Yeats is Everest. His poems and his other activities in the pursuit of a new national identity represent a monument which, more often than not, obscured the achievement of younger writers'. (1) The editors imply that most contemporary Irish poets have of necessity sought to get out from under the cold shadow or the blinding glare of Yeats's imperious presence, scaling instead the more accessible peaks of Louis MacNeice or Patrick Kavanagh. As Desmond O'Grady wrote to Mahon in a verse-letter,

   The statuary that Yeats erected
   left his generation knackered.
   We were luckier in our day
   with Beckett, MacNeice, Kavanagh
   who wrote for us an exit visa ...
   Yeats may lead our poets' procession
   MacNeice and Kavanagh show direction.

But then he warned Mahon:

   Joyce and Beckett are cul de sac
   from which the only out's turn back. (2)

Mahon and Michael Longley certainly pay homage and debts to MacNeice; John Montague, Seamus Heaney, and Eavan Boland to Kavanagh; but other poet-critics would add Joyce, Beckett, and Austin Clarke to a list of alternative precursors and insist on the admission of Auden, at least, among non-Irish influences. Many prefer the strong grounds of Yeats filtered through MacNeice, who wrote the first major book on Yeats, and Auden, whose famous elegy reveals his deep comprehension of Yeats's vision on the eve of another world war--'With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice', and whose 1948 essay 'Yeats as an Example' would eventually reverberate in the poetry of Northern Ireland. (3)

In a succeeding generation, Paul Muldoon declares that initially he found his inspiration in Eliot and the metaphysicals, and in Joyce rather than Yeats, whom he was temporarily forced to ignore. Where Yeats, and Heaney after him, profess Coventry Patmore's belief that 'The end of art is peace', Muldoon demurs: 'I believe in the exact opposite', he declares, 'The end of art is disquiet and discomfort and rearranging the furniture in your head'. (4) And in '7, Middagh Street' he is quick to dissociate himself from Yeats's 'crass, rhetorical posturing' when Yeats asks in 'Man and the Echo' a famous question of history, whether his Irish play of 1902 led to the English executions of 1916. 'Certainly not', answers Muldoon. 'For history's a twisted root / with art its small translucent fruit / and never the other way round'. (5) However, in his Clarendon Lectures in 1998 he prefaced his brief discussion of Yeats by saying that 'The work of W. B. Yeats ... is a massive subject in itself, one to which I hope to return'. (6) Moreover, when he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1999 his inaugural lecture was on Yeats's 'All Souls' Night', the first chapter, we expect, of many to come. (7) In Belfast, Medbh McGuckian prefaced her poetic career by immersing herself in Yeats, writing a masterful paper for instructor Heaney on the poet and the Anglo-Irish poetic tradition, a paper that Heaney judged 'One of the best things I've read on the subject'. (8) 'I feel I exist somewhere on the Tree of Poetry on the same limb as Blake and Yeats', she said earlier in her career, 'but many phone calls below them'. And yet she could use Yeats as an example in dealing with the relation of her poetry to the Troubles: 'Yeats set an absurdly rhetorical example which I don't feel able to follow. Also it got him too involved with reality--being a senator marred his vocation'. (9) In McGuckian's generation there has been no lack of resistance to Yeats. An American critic seeking an interview with Ciaran Carson on Yeats and contemporary Irish poets in 1994 let it be known that he knew the word was out on Carson and Yeats: 'Tess [Gallagher] says you're no admirer of Yeats. Okay'. (10) Carson had also begun with Eliot in conceiving of Belfast as waste land.

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