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. 'At the end of the day', he says, 'I don't think that the impulse behind what I write comes from other Irish poets'. (11) Yet he too still takes his parodic fun with Yeats, as in his allusion to the golden birds of Byzantium in 'Sierra': 'Squawk-box parrots flitted in and out like cunningly- / constructed gold machines'. (12) There is no doubt that these and other contemporary poets draw much nourishment from precursors other than Yeats, but in spite of disclaimers and distancing techniques, eventually they all must negotiate their art with or play it against some of Yeats's several legacies. The most persistent and pressing legacy received by contemporary Irish poets, North and South, is doubtless the pressure to engage and transcend their historical predicaments in their art, to work out the quarrel between the free creative imagination and poltitical-religious constraints, between artistic consciousness and historical conscience.
Yeats knew well how the emerging poetic consciousness in Ireland is torn by the aims of art on the one hand and the claims of history on the other, and in his early poems we see the young visionary and nationalist finding mythic ways of re-enacting the ancient drama between artistic imagination and national allegiance. But on 24 April, 1916 the reality of violence and the nightmare of history suddenly became too great and too personal for myth to bear the strain. It was the horror of the Easter Rising and the subsequent executions, which would haunt his imagination from 'Easter, 1916' through his last poems and plays, that made imperative the vision of history that he began to construct through his spirit masters in 1917, in the midst of a world war. (13) That tragic vision of 2000-year cycles of civilizations rising from a bestial floor to great heights of intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual achievement before turning like a tragic wheel down to apocalyptic anarchy enabled him to deal with the home-bred violence and destruction in his art. It helped him, he said, 'to hold in a single thought reality and justice' (A Vision, p. 25) and to become confident of the superiority of art to history. In the three decades following Yeats's death, his intimidating construct of A Vision remained as unapproachable as a Chapel Perilous, and no Irish poet dared draw too closely on his over-bearing achievement.
In 1969, however, with the onset of the Troubles, a group of writers in their late twenties were coming to poetic maturity--Eavan Boland, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Mahon, brought closely together in their college days as they moved between Belfast and Dublin, Queen's and Trinity. The successive shock-waves that had shaken Yeats's poetic sensibility--the Easter Rising, the atrocities of the Black and Tans, and the Civil War--were felt anew in these poets by the Bogside Rising, Bloody Sunday, and the Dublin bomb blasts. Torn by the conflict of private imagination and civil violence, they suddenly found themselves conscripts of Yeats's poetic dialogue with history, a dialogue entered into with an urgency and necessity much greater than that felt by the succeeding generation of Muldoon, McGuckian, Carson, and others. For the entirety of their careers these four poets have struggled in their separate ways to work through what they have intuited, embraced, and resisted in Yeats. Numerous misperceptions about their continuous engagements with him have accrued, but the accessibility of previously unexamined archival materials now makes it possible to bring new perspective and detail to their phenomenal historical turn to Yeats.
When Eavan Boland was an undergraduate at Trinity College in the mid-sixties, she befriended and wrote poems for Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly, and others in that Dublin-Belfast coterie. (14) In 1966 she wrote to Longley about her exciting discovery of Yeats's note to 'The Stare's Nest By My Window', part six of 'Meditations in Time of Civil War'. She describes to Longley 'how, during the Civil War in Galway, Yeats became desperate not to lose his understanding of beauty and not to become embittered', and she quotes from his note to the poem: 'Presently a strange thing happened. I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be'. 'Out of this hallucination', she continues, 'he wrote that exquisite poem, "O honeybees, / Come build in the empty house of the stare". That sentence of his in the note is the most perfect expression I've found for the way in which a poet rescues his imagination from violence and sorrow--in fact, I can't put it in words but its meanings seem infinite'. (15) What she also reveals in the letter is that she is flush with the excitement of a new poem, 'the best I've ever written'. Entitled 'Yeats in Civil War', the poem borrows the quotation from Yeats's note for epigraph and concludes in direct address to the master, 'Whatever I may learn / You are its sum, struggling to survive--/ A fantasy of honey your reprieve'. (16)
Yeats's 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' was already a poem deep in the consciousness of Longley, and she wanted to know his response. The previous year Longley had published his Ten Poems in a Queen's University pamphlet series that included Mahon and Heaney, and he was now writing out his critical opinion of Yeats for a BBC Northern Ireland film biography of the poet. He declared unequivocally at the outset, 'I regard Yeats as the greatest poet in English since Shakespeare', though he modestly admitted that 'Attempting a professional critical account of Yeats would be for me like climbing Mount Everest in my carpet slippers'. (17) But he went on, both as an apologist for Yeats and as a passionate student of his poetic technique, to declare Yeats's importance to himself and to Ireland:
As an Ulster Protestant, a West Briton, an Anglo-Irishman, I personally have a vested interest in Yeats, who was virtually the first artist to bring the Anglo-Irish tradition into line with a positive nationalism. He was proud of coming from Anglo-Irish stock, and yet took as an inspiration, especially in his earlier work, the Celtic legends of the west, rifling translations in English for raw material. In his later years he claimed his place in the line of Swift, Goldsmith, Berkeley …
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Publication information: Article title: The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry. Contributors: Schuchard, Ronald - Author. Journal title: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn-Winter 2004. Page number: 291+. © 2008 Irish University Review. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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