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Yeats’s mother tongue

Anthony Gardner

Filed under: Poetry

Roy Foster, Edna O’Brien, Grey Gowrie, Warwick Gould and Fiona Sampson on the poet’s English influences.

Yeats was a man fascinated by antitheses, and if his ghost was stalking through the Irish Embassy when the RSL and British Academy met to celebrate his work, it must certainly have enjoyed the paradoxes aired. As Roy Foster pointed out, ‘If any writer emblematises Irish culture coming to independence, it is Yeats’ – yet his background was neither Gaelic nor Roman Catholic, but Anglo-Irish and Protestant. It was his English connections which the evening, sponsored by the European Commission, explored.

As chairman, Warwick Gould masterminded a seamless series of readings and reflections. First came an extract from A General Introduction to My Work, in which Yeats acknowledged that ‘I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language in which I think, speak and write.’ In addition, said Roy Foster, some of Yeats’s most ‘Irish’ poems were conceived in England; it was not until his mid-fifties, after a lifetime of to-ing and fro-ing, that he chose to make Ireland his home; and all the women he fell in love with, apart from a Dublin physiotherapist, were English – ‘though Maud Gonne wouldn’t have thanked you for pointing that out’.

Edna O’Brien then read – beautifully – two early love poems from Yeats’s time as a member of the Rhymers’ Club, which met in Fleet Street: He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven and The Cap and Bells. The latter, Yeats later decided, was the way to win a woman; the former, the way to lose one.

The next readings were devoted to Yeats’s long residence in Bloomsbury, and the friendships he nurtured there. So spooky was the atmosphere of Woburn Buildings that one occupant made a point of always going ahead to open the front door so that his wife could run through the hall without stopping. But it was here, said Roy Foster, that a shift took place in Yeats’s style which was to prove hugely influential on world literature, marrying ‘an elliptical, hard-edged note’ to traditional preoccupations and classical metre.

A ‘key laboratory’ for this was Stone Cottage in Sussex, which Yeats shared with Ezra Pound. Grey Gowrie read Pound’s account of the older poet declaiming his verse ‘as it were the wind in the chimney’, adding that however misguided their enthusiasm for Fascism, both might have remained ‘arty, Parnassian’ poets if they had not taken an interest in politics.

Another vital strand in Yeats’s work was his mysticism, nurtured in England through organisations such as the Order of the Golden Dawn. It was on honeymoon in Ashdown Forest that his wife Georgie’s inspirational automatic writing first manifested itself, while Oxford, where the newlyweds settled, was an ideal place to pursue his arcane interests, as All Souls’ Night testifies.

Living in Oxford also placed him firmly in the orbit of Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington. Grey Gowrie and Fiona Sampson’s antiphonal reading of Ancestral Houses captured the evening’s theme perfectly: although the sequence to which it belongs, Meditations in Time of Civil War, seems quintessentially Irish, the gardens and terraces described in the opening stanzas are actually the Morrells’.

After spending most of the 1920s in Ireland, Yeats turned to England again in the last decade of his life. One important factor, Warwick Gould explained, was an invitation to edit The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which brought him into closer contact with a younger generation of British writers – among them Dorothy Wellesley, whose house in Sussex, Penns In The Rocks, became a refuge for him. It was there, said Roy Foster, that Yeats settled on the central image for Long-legged Fly: after first watching a tortoise swim, he decided that the motion of a water-boatman was more what he had in mind.

The last poem to be read was, appropriately, the one which ends Yeats’s final collection: Politics. But the evening held an unexpected bonus, in the form of two archive recordings. The first was a broadcast by Yeats for the BBC, devoted to T.S. Eliot and the poets of the 1930s. The second, recently rediscovered and not heard in public since 1940, was by Dorothy Wellesley, remembering the friend who ‘brought dignity and distinction wherever he came’. It included a deeply moving account of his death at Roquebrune in the South of France in January 1939. ‘There is,’ she concluded, ‘one imperishable link between England and Ireland. That link is poetry.’

Anthony Gardner’s novel ‘The Rivers of Heaven’ is published by Starhaven.