Celebrating 150 Years of W. B. Yeats

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Celebrating 150 Years of W.B. Yeats

Sunday 2 August 2015

National Library of Australia

Speakers: Robyn Oates (O), Dr Richard Reid (RR), Dr Jenny Gall (JG), Professor Ronan McDonald (RM), Dr Jeff Brownrigg (JB), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Richard O’Brien (RO), Margaret Naylor (M), John Collard (JC)
O: ... Friends Committee for 2015 and it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to the National Library of Australia for this celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. May I extend a very special welcome to His Excellency Mr Noel White, the Ambassador of Ireland to Australia and New Zealand , and his wife, Ms Nessa Delaney. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re now privileged to call home. And now may I introduce Dr Richard Reid, Co-President of the Friends of Ireland, who will begin our afternoon of poetry and song.
RR: Thank you for that, Robyn. Leave that for later, you might not want to do that at the end of the day. Now ladies and gentlemen, in terms of introducing this this afternoon I’m going to give all the thank yous at the beginning because I want us at the very end of the day to drift away in a kind of Yeatsian haze if you like after the last piece of music is played rather than put up the lights and come to a kind of well thank you and thank you that. So I’m going to do all that now and then you’ll know at the end that’s not going to happen. Just a few thank yous I want to give first of all to the Friends of the National Library for, you know, co-hosting this event with the Friends of Ireland, I’m really very, very pleased about that. I’d like to thank Sharyn O’Brien and all her helpers this afternoon for getting this event together. Adam up in the control room. The Embassy of Ireland, and I know I have to thank the Embassy of Ireland ‘cause the Embassy of Ireland have been very gracious to us in all sorts of ways for this exhibition. You might have noticed the beautiful ... yes and Noel is doing that to me ... coming as I do from the northern part of Ireland I know what that is. And outside there’s a lovely exhibition, again thank the Embassy for putting that up for us about the life of W B Yeats and you might like to look at that as we go up to afternoon tea. We also have Sarah Mangan with us, the First Secretary of the Embassy, and Sarah has been very busy on our behalf with this event too and I’d like to thank her, and I’d like to thank our readers for this afternoon for so generously giving of their time in coming along to this but you might not want to hold off your personal thank yous to the Embassy if they read well enough or not.
I’d also like to thank Ronan McDonald, Professor Ronan McDonald for coming down from Sydney to be our kind of ... I’ve called him our narrator for the afternoon. He suggested to me the word facilitator but I thought that was far too public service speak so I went with narrator which sounded a bit more Yeatsian at the end of the day. Couple of other things to mention, there are some books available especially through the shop this afternoon at a discount and I know the shop would want me to mention that. Two books, one celebrating Yeats, one When You Are Old, Early Poems and Fairytales which was $34.99 and is now only $31.50. So I think that’s very nice for the afternoon. And the other one ... I’ve put an image of it up here on the screen ... W B Yeats, Poems selected by Seamus Heaney was 16.99, now 15.30. The wonderful essay by Seamus Heaney introducing that selection of poems and very appropriate because of course Seamus Heaney is the other Irish awardee of the Nobel Prize for Poetry as was W B Yeats. Very interesting, we have the Irish northerner, the Catholic, Heaney with a northern accent and we have Yeats representing the rest of the country and there he is with his Anglo-Irish accent and everything else, very ... that’s a bit of Irishness, we’ll forget about that. And the other thing I want to mention is that for those of you really interested in this, the National Library has actually got a very wonderful collection called the Fitzhardinge Collection of Australian Books but within that there’s a collection of works from the Cuala Press and the Dun Emer Press which was a little press in Dublin run by Yeats’ sisters and the Cuala Press in particular used to publish Yeats’ poems in Ireland. He had an English publisher of course as well, but they’re beautifully illustrated and they’re beautiful little books and there’s a very nice collection here in the National Library, just go in and put in Fitzhardinge Collection, you’ll find it.
Alright then very quickly we’ll get on with it but the format for the afternoon is this - we’re going to open up with a little bit of music from Jenny Gall from the National Film and Sound Archive, Dr Jenny Gall. Then Ronan is going to introduce Yeats to us, take us through a little bit of an overview about the poems that you’re going to hear read. You've got the poems on your program. They’ll also be on the screen by the way, they ... we’ll tell you the poem that’s being read but each reader will int ... will also tell you the poem that’s being read. And then we’ll just go straight through the poems of the first half of the afternoon and then we’ll have a break and we’ll have afternoon tea and we’ll come back and we’ll do the second segment. And we’ll end up with a very interesting little recording of W H Auden which I’ll leave the end, reading a poem, very beautiful poem about Yeats and then Jenny will play us out at the end of the afternoon. And that’s why I want us just to kind of drift away after that rather than actually come back into all these thank yous so that’s why I’ve done all of this upfront now. Okay. Let us begin our celebration of 150 years’ anniversary of the birth of W B Yeats. Thank you, Jenny.
JG: This is a vision air called Táimse im' chodhladh - I’m asleep, do not wake me. There are several meanings for this like all good traditional music, it’s said that it’s a call to sleeping Irish to rise up against the enemy invading and you can interpret that any way you like. and it’s often played at funerals because it’s looking beyond the sorrow that people are experiencing now to a better time.
Tune: Táimse im' chodhladh
RM: Wow, what beautiful music, thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, Your Excellency, it’s a great pleasure for me to be here and act as narrator, facilitator. Congratulations to Richard Reid for organising today’s event, it’s wonderful to be honouring Yeats here in Canberra. Richard has organised lots of wonderful slides to accompany all the poems which in part do my work for me insofar as each slide indicates something of what the poem is about, including, and there was no conversation between Richard and myself, happily the first slide which is going to accompany my introductory remarks because really what I wanted to emphasise in talking about Yeats before you hear all these poems spread out over the duration of his career is that he ... there is ... really we should be talking about Yeats plural because he had a long life, a long active life with many phases. So there are if you like multiple Yeatses. There’s the young Yeats of the 1890s living in London, fraternising with the so-called Rhymers’ Club, influenced by people like Arthur Simmons who brought French symbolism into the English language. There’s the nationalist Yeats of the earliest 20th century, writing poems such as September 1913, bemoaning the lack of vigour amongst the Irish middle classes, and then its companion piece, the more famous Easter 1916, his profoundly ambivalent response to the rising. But of those poems we’ll be hearing more about in a moment.
There’s the modernist Yeats, there’s the Yeats who’s friendly with Ezra Pound, whose poetry changes and mutates from that dreamy 1890s heavy decadent tone to something harder and more flinty. Then there’s the late Yeats of the famous ... really wonderful collections, The Tower and The Winding Stair, which he wrote in the 19 ... late 1920s and ‘30s, these extraordinary masterpieces that we’ll be hearing in the second phase, poets full of mythics ... full of symbolism and full of mythic reach informed by his own idiosyncratic work of the occult published in 1925 called A Vision. And then there’s the Yeats of old age that we’ll be hearing again in the second half towards the end, such poems like Circus Animals’ Desertion and Cuchulain Comforted. So all these involve really different figures and of course Yeats himself is very much involved in the business of self-invention and self-discovery, both of his own self and of Ireland that he lived in. But the Ireland he sought to invent or construct or revive ... he was after all a key figure in the Irish revival ... should not be seen simply as reviving something that was ... that is gone or remembering something, it’s also an act of imaginative creation, something of the future, as well as something of the past. In his autobiography he looked back at the 1890s and remembered the feeling that Irish culture was soft wax that could be moulded. It could be moulded culturally during the Irish revival, this extraordinarily fertile period of creativity, and also politically when it ... during ... when Irish politics started to gain traction again. It went into abeyance in the 1890s following the death of Charles Stewart Parnell and in the early 20th century took on more energy. Ultimately the home rule movement yielding space to a more militant sort of nationalism in the Easter rising of 1916.
So Elliott famously described Yeats as one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, and one of the reasons why Yeats is such a remarkable poet is that he has written poems which fully express the sense of crisis and the sense of change happening in Ireland in the early 20th century. And we’ll be hearing ... and when we’re talking about Yeatses we need to think about the Yeats of the public poems such as Easter 1916, but before then we’ll be hearing the more private Yeats. Yeats the love poet. Yeats in negotiation with his own creativity. So he hinges between private and public, between myth and history, between national concerns and international concerns. This makes Yeats a very hard figure to pin down. We should also bear in mind on this team of Yeatses, that not only is he a poet, he’s also as his career moves forward, a theatre director, the fou ... one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre in Presario, polemicist, essayist and novelist - he wrote a novel, The Speckled Bird - engaged in public affairs and when the Irish Free State is founded he becomes a senator, what he describes as a smiling public man in Among School Children.
Unusually many writers you know have something to say and they say it early in their career or in their ... as they find their voice 10, 15 years into their career. Remarkably and encouragingly Yeats’ standard endures, indeed for many commentators and many critics the really important work, the work which makes Yeats perhaps the greatest lyric poet ever ... certainly in the top two or three ... is the work he did in middle and old age, late middle age, and engaging with that process of going old and the existential questions that raises, which again he hinges both in private preoccupations and in public expression.
What then emits these variety of Yeatses can we say are continuous themes? I was ... what… there are huge differences as I say between the Yeats of the 1890s, the Yeats who wrote Down By the Sally Gardens, and there are Yeats who wrote Lapis Lazuli or The Circus Animal’s Desertions. What are the continuities? Well, I think one thing we can see, a theme that he returns to again and again, is poetry of escape, or more often ambiguousness escape. Perhaps one of the most famous poems that we’ll be hearing from his early phase is The Lake Isle of Innisfree, when the poet, and he records in his autobiography the inspiration, he’s walking along The Strand and he hears ... sees a fountain ... The Strand in London, so an urban setting and he sees a fountain in a shop and it inspires thoughts of Sligo and he dreams I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree.
Fast-forward several decades and he’s writing Sailing to Byzantium, another poem which poeticises this urge to go to another place. But these journeys, these imaginary journeys are never simple, they’re always ambivalent and they always set up a conflict between ... I’ve mentioned earlier history and myth, and he’s very aware of that conflict and that tension between myth and pulls back typically from the allure of escaping from history, escaping from change, escaping from transience. But the important thing is that he poeticises that conflict, that allure between the poles.
Later in his life Yeats says that the quarrel with others gives us rhetoric, the quarrel with ourselves poetry. And one of the reasons ... one of I think of the factors, again that bridges across Yeats’ career, is this preoccupation with conflict, with different poles working out and there is no resolution. This is why it’s wrong to look to Yeats for a tract or a message. Poetry is not about answers or about products, it’s about processes, it’s about the quarrel with oneself. An interesting feature of Yeats is how often his poetry ends on the question mark, how often his poems conclude with a resounding question mark, did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beat could let her drop? The last couplet of Leda and the Swan. How can we tell the dancer from the dance? The last line of Amongst Schoolchildren. These ... this sort of motif of the question mark po ... in some way incarnates that sense of struggle. It also I think assuages us, some of the later poems are very difficult but ... as indeed is a lot ... are a lot of modern poetry, lot of modernist poetry, that which Yeats is a part, every bit as much as he’s a part of an Irish national poetic movement. It doesn’t yield up its meanings easily, it’s quite erudite, it’s quite elusive, but that’s alright and you sh ... in listening to Yeats’ poetry we listened to its effect rather than always try and solve it, rather than always get the meaning or the message because this ... these are poetries which ... these are poems which poeticise the process of questioning rather than trying to give us philosophical answers.
The poetry that has been laid out for us is ... covers the whole of Yeats’ career starting with the early with the poems of ... very early poem like from 1886, and goes all the way through to the last poems. The first half covers some of these poems of Irish mythology such as Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland which refers to Cathleen Houlihan, the figure who embodies Ireland, the female figure about whom Yeats also wrote a play. Or The Song of Wandering Aengus. We can see Yeats’ early influence of Irish mythology which again continues across his career insofar as he’s still writing about Cuchulain, the ancient Irish mythic and military hero at the very end of his career, but they tend to ebb off a little bit, those poems of ... those revivalist poems from the early period. But that poem, like the 18 ... of the 1890s marked by a misty ethereal atmosphere, often a poem of longing, a poetry of enchantment, such as we find in The Song of Wandering Aengus.
Often poems at this period treating the theme of thwarted love. And another continuity from the early to the late is the figure who embodies thwarted love for Yeats in biographical terms and that’s Maud Gonne, his muse who he met in 1899 and said in his autobiography then, the troubling of my life began. This fiery Irish nationalist who becomes an inspiration for his verse and is the figure behind poems of lust, love such as No Second Troy. A little bit later he’s ... she’s still figuring in Broken Dreams that ... where the tone becomes somewhat more wistful and middle-aged and po ... Yeats is of ... is one of the great poets of middle age, of disappointment, of life turning into something different from early expectation and one of the great poets of old age. So that again is something that crosses the whole career. We also hear Maud Gonne referred to in Amongst School Children when he imagines her as a little girl, he in old age, she in old age, he imagines her as a little girl. So that ... she figures very, very heavily in some of the songs we are about to hear, but also in this first section we find Yeats somewhat reluctantly moving from this mythic sphere into commentary and Irish public affairs. We find the birth of the public poet. Initially it’s railing against the middle classes in September 1913 who he sees as letting down the spirit of the great Fenian, John O’Leary. This is ... I won’t go too much into the context but September 1913 is inspired by anger over the Irish corporations’ failure to fund an art gallery, and therefore he sees the middle class as more concerned with mealy-mouthed acquisition of the ... adding pence to pence rather than idealism, poetry, visionary truth, the imagination. Which are those things he puts against the forces of modernity, the debased forces of modernity such as ... including science and empiricism which he associates with England and which he puts Ireland against but he also associates with the middle classes, people who believe in surfaces rather than visions and imaginary truth.
Yeats has got an abiding interest in the occult from early in his life. In some ways it might seem ... in some ways Yeats is a very religious poet. He’s not religious in a conventionally Christian sense but he’s looking for truth in meaning outside simple surface and he finds it initially in Irish ... in Irish mythology, but also in the occult and he’s drawn to spiritualism and theosophy early in his life. This is something which later in particular becomes the girding for some of the great modernist poems that we’re going to hear such as The Second Coming and Leda and the Swan. I’ll say a little bit more about that in the second half. And there’s an aspect of Yeats, his interest in séances, in fairies which some critics have struggled with including Auden who we’ll hear at the end. The old figure of Silly Willy who believes ... who believes everything. It’s what one critic said is the southern Californian side to Yeats. Which we still ... which critics still conjure with, I think the point to remember is that these images are sources for poetry, to provide metaphors for his poetry.
Right, I th ... another ... just one ... just finally before we start getting on with the actual reading. I’ve a little bet with myself ... Richard doesn’t know this, but I have a little bet with myself that Richard might have underestimated the amount of time we’ll take so I’ll try and be brief. Other poems I’d like to look at or just mention just by way of gloss, Three Friends ... Friends which we’re going to hear Genevieve read shor ... read halfway through refers to Maud Gonne, Olivia Shakespear who became a friend who was very akin to him who ... who took Yeats’ virginity and he refers to that in this poem. And Lady Gregory who becomes a collaborator in theatrical matters and who owns Coole Park which is a big house in the west of Ireland which ... where he used to go and spend a lot of time and this is immortalised in The Wild Swans at Coole.
There are a number of poems Yeats writes about Coole Park. A Prayer for My Daughter which Richard’s going to read at the end of this section really incarnates many of the themes of the conservative Yeats, the later Yeats, who tries to look towards tradition and continuity, looks nostalgic back to 18th century Ireland, as he puts it, “How but in custom and in ceremony, / Are innocence and beauty born?” We can see the middle period Yeats emerging there quite strongly. And An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, a poem with the ... a poem about ... in honour of Lady Gregory’s son who was killed over Italy during the first world war. I mentioned Yeats as a public poet. One area which he treats very gingerly for a lot of reasons ... I don’t really have time to go into ... is world war one and this is his response to world war one, he makes it a very, very individualistic poem, a beautiful poem of balance in its words and chiasmas. Everything is balanced including the plane but also diversification. So I’ll leave it there and I will join you ... well I’ll be reading one poem in the middle but then I’ll be able to gloss the second half after our break, but for now I will pass over to Richard again who’s going to read The Stolen Child.
RR: The Stolen Child.
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; 
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, oh human child! 
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
‘Til the moon has taken flight; 
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, oh human child! 
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams; 
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, oh human child! 
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.
JB: Normally I’d sing this without a book but you know that people who sing often make improvements and I suspect that this afternoon’s not a time to be improving on Yeats.
Song: Down by the Sally Gardens

JB: Thank you, Jenny.
G: Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

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