Yeats's Wireless

By Johnson, Colton | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Yeats's Wireless


Johnson, Colton, The Wilson Quarterly


William Butler Yeats took to the radio in the 1930s with poetry that he hoped would sound a public theme and stir the public interest.

On February 2, 1937, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) wrote to a half-dozen friends, calling himself "a fool," "a bore," "an ignoramus," and, most improbably, "a humbled man."

This rare moment of self-reproach came not from artistic failure or political defeat, but from his radio. He was sure he had utterly failed in an ambitious scheme to use the new technology to advance a longstanding hope of engaging public issues through poetry, directly and without the mediation of the printed page.

Arguably the greatest poet to write in English in the 20th century, Yeats the dramatist, senator, elitist, converser with the spirit world, father, loyal friend, meandering husband, social theorist, authoritarian, editor, lustful old man, and Nobel laureate increasingly kneaded his public and private lives--and his confusion about them--into his verse, prompting the American poet Archibald MacLeish to call him "the best of modern poets." Accepting the declaration of the German writer Thomas Mann that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms," MacLeish wrote in a 1938 essay that he found in Yeats's later verse "the first English poetry in a century which has dared to re-enter the world.[ldots] It is the first poetry in generations which can cast a shadow in the sun of actual things.[ldots] Writing as Yeats writes, a man need not pretend an ignorance of the world, need not affect a strangeness from his time."

Yeats's experiments with radio between 1931 and 1939 extend this aspect of his modernism. He played down the radio work to Ezra Pound as "a new technique which amuses me & keeps me writing," and to his wife as a means to "pay for my legitimate London expenses," but he devoted much time and energy to the "remarkable experience" of speaking "to a multitude, each member of it being alone," sometimes even seeing in it "an historic movement." In all, he participated in 11 radio broadcasts, and at least three more were planned when declining health made him concede in 1938, "My broadcasting is finished."

Wireless voice transmission was barely a decade old and the BBC only in its ninth year when Yeats began his experiments. But poetry on the radio was not entirely new, and the medium's potential for the literary artist was under broad examination. In 1930 John Masefield, the poet laureate of Britain, urged poets to recover their heritage through radio. Imagining ancient times, when poetry was central to the lives of every member of a relatively small and simple community in which "all ranks and classes of men met together," Masefield decried the printing press as "a detriment to the poetical art" that "put away the poet from his public." "It may be," he concluded, "that broadcasting may make listening to poetry a pleasure again, tho' this can only come about with difficulty and with a great deal of hard work."

In America, Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, a cradle of American modernism, was musing on the same questions. Although not herself "a radio fan," she granted that "this radio subject" called for serious attention. Among her many worries--that only inferior poetry seemed to find its way to the studios, that poets might make poorer radio readers than trained professionals, that publishers seemed oddly uninterested in allowing poets' works to be broadcast--she sounded a theme similar to Masefield's: "The public cannot yet listen intelligently to poetry, for they have had no practice in listening since the invention of printing." Monroe lamented the "500 years poetry has been silent," suggesting that "the radio is the poet's one best chance of escape from that condition. Poetry is a vocal art; the radio will bring back its audience."

Among the first poets in Britain or America to take to the radio, Yeats clearly started out with little theoretical intent and even less knowledge of the medium. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Yeats's Wireless
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.