The political contradictions of Yeats

A century and a half after the birth of W B Yeats, Kevin Higgins gave this assessment in Issue 60 in June 2015.

When I was at school I had next to no interest in poetry, even managing to fail English in the Leaving Cert the first time around. It was the way it was taught, yes. But the fact that I was, from second year on, more focussed on helping bring about the downfall of world —or at least British and Irish—capitalism was also in the mix. I had little use for poetry then. It was, after all, mostly written by a class of people many of whom, come the great event, would unavoidably end up being put against some wall or other and disposed of because, well, they’d leave us no alternative. Some days I think that this is not an altogether bad solution for many poets, though there are of course legal difficulties, and if carried out, it would probably lead to complaints from a few people on Twitter.

One poem did stick in my head, though. Ever since the moment in the autumn of 1983 when I heard our fifth year English teacher Mr Maguire read the lines

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save…

—Yeats’s poem ‘September 1913’ has stuck in my head. I remember thinking I know which shopkeeper on Shop Street he means. My teenage mind took a moment to focus all its considerable hatred on this one shopkeeper, to whom I now think I was likely being a little harsh because, while I have often seen him fumble in his till—indeed, he continues his fumbling to this day—I have no evidence at all that he has ever said a prayer, let alone one to which the word “shivering” might be attached. In this poem Yeats displayed a detestation of two things I had just begun to loathe in 1983: the acquisitive small town petit-bourgeois personified by the shopkeeper and his “greasy till”, and the ghastly combination of tyranny and sentimentality that is Irish Catholicism with its shivering renditions of the ‘Hail Holy Queen’ and the ‘I Confess’.

I was more aware than most of my contemporaries of the back­ground to this particular Yeats poem: the 1913 lockout. To me, in this poem at least, Yeats sounded like some sort of socialist who was against both the employers and the church, and his words had a beautiful brutality only rivalled by those of Trotsky, which I had begun to read around then. What was not to like about this W B Yeats, even if he did have the misfortune of being a poet rather than an active revolutionary like myself and old Leon?

Quite a lot, actually. The strange thing about Yeats is that he managed to write a number of poems just as full of deadly clarity as the one quoted above, inspired by major political events as they were happening, despite the fact that his head was crammed with every sort of pseudo-intellectual junk. Be you a guru who believes that the world can only be saved if each of your followers runs naked down the Newcastle Road after first buying you a red Porsche, or a guy with mad eyes who likes to march around the Barna woods in uniform with a picture of the late Klaus Barbie poking out of your breast pocket, then you can be sure that William Butler Yeats would have given you at least half an hour of his time. And probably a good deal more than that.

Yeats believed in fairies, ouija boards, astrology, and thought the spirits spoke to him through his wife, who apparently used that to get him—via advice received from the great beyond—to do what she wanted. He sympathised with Benito Mussolini, and was appointed a member of the Seanad in 1922 by Cumann na nGaedheal, where he spoke in favour of liberal divorce laws, the likes of which weren’t actually enacted until 1995. He wrote marching songs for the Irish fascists, Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, despite the fact that O’Duffy was very much in favour of both shivering prayers and greasy tills. As a political thinker Yeats was next to worthless, a kind of thinking woman’s Éamon Dunphy, with the obvious difference that he never played midfield for Millwall. A snob and often a bit of a fool intellect­ually, Yeats was at the same time too smart not to realise what a dirty shower the new Irish ruling class that stumbled into power in 1922, in coalition with the Church, on the back of the sacrifices of others, really were. In most of us, such contradictions are in time resolved, for better or for worse, but in Yeats they mostly remained, and so his poems exist to some extent apart from the silly ideas of which his head was full.

In his most famous poem, ‘Easter 1916’, the unresolved nature of said contradictions is actually an asset. In an earlier short poem about republican activist and society beauty Maud Gonne—with whom Yeats had a long, unsatisfied obsession—he accuses her of having “taught to ignorant men most violent ways” and of hurling “the little streets upon the great”. This is a better written version of the foam that can be regularly seen emerging from the mouths of Ruth Dudley Edwards and Éilis O’Hanlon. Gonne was guilty of many things, such as, for example, engaging in a bit of Holocaust denial in later life and, worse than that, giving birth to Seán MacBride, but “hurling the little streets upon the great” by, for example, supporting the locked out workers in 1913, was one of the better things she did. Given such pre-existing prejudices, one might then expect that Yeats’ big poem about the 1916 rising would be an all-out Kevin Myers style attack on the whole enterprise, written out in verses. In fact, Yeats’ take on the rising was at worst ambivalent, and in its best lines full of quiet admiration for the fact that Connolly, Pearse, McDonagh, and John MacBride—by then married to Maud Gonne—had each in turn had the courage to resign “his part in the casual comedy”. When it came to it, Yeats admired them for having had the guts to actually do some­thing rather than just sit around safely passing gas. This puts him well to the left of many, including a well-known Cork poet with a long-standing supposed interest in ‘international socialism’ who has of late taken to social media to froth about the gob about how the methods of anti-water charges protesters have had certain similarities to “fascism”. Many literary types prefer gas over action—it will always be thus—but Yeats was drawn to men and women of action, whether or not he exactly agreed with them.

Yeats’s surprisingly sympathetic take on the rising did not lead to him becoming any sort of left-winger or radical republican. His Mussolini-admiring, writing-songs-for-the-Blueshirts phase came after that. And in his poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ (1927) he fondly remembers the sisters in their youth at Lissadell: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle”, before going on to attack their feminist, republican socialism in a way that sounds almost like Eoghan Harris on a good day, only much, much better:

The older [Constance Markievicz] is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams—
Some vague Utopia—and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.

This is, to say the very least, harsh on Gore-Booth and Markievicz, who were both altogether more serious about politics and activism than WB, however vague some of their Utopias may have been. In parts of this poem Yeats sounds almost like a slightly grown-up version of one of those eternal masturbators who populate university debating societies. Later in the same poem some nuance does creep in:

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time

Though, as ever, he says it well, it is not true to say that a fight over a “common” issue—there he goes with the snobbery again—is necessarily a “folly”. But it is certainly true that revolutionary activism takes a huge toll personally on those, such as Markievicz and Gore Booth, who take that general path, though there are of course rewards too, of which Yeats would have known not very much.

My personal favourite Yeats poem—by far—is ‘The Second Coming’ (1920) in which he turns his face fearfully away from the revolutionary tidal wave which hit Europe—including Ireland—in the aftermath of the war John Bruton and Co. still like to call ‘Great’. In the last two lines of this poem Yeats wonders “what rough beast, its hour come around at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Now, while Yeats desperately wanted back the deceased pre-1914 world order—and so was in a way his own kind of vague Utopian—it is certainly true that some very rough beasts indeed were born during the long interwar crisis, which wasn’t really at an end until the gates of Treblinka and Auschwitz had been opened and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Politically, Yeats may have been more than a bit of a messer, but to be able to put such big political stuff into poems that still speak is indeed the mark of genius, whatever about the ouija boards and the parlour fascism.