Saturday, June 13, 2015

The poet’s labour

‘Am I going against nature in my constant attempt to fill my life with work? Is my mind as rich as in idle days? Is not perhaps the poet’s labour a mere rejection? If he seeks purity - the ridding of his life of all but poetry - will not inspiration come? Can one reach God by toil?’ This is none other than William Butler Yeats, a literary giant of the 20th century, born 150 years ago today. The quote is taken from one of only two short diaries the poet is known to have kept, both of which were published in very limited editions.

Yeats was born on 13 June 1865 in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. His father was a barrister though he had ambitions to be a painter, and the family moved to England in 1867 for him to further those ambitions. At first William was schooled at home, but in 1877 he entered Godolphins school, Hammersmith. In 1880, the family returned to Dublin for financial reasons, where William went to Erasmus Smith High School, spending spare time at his father’s studio, meeting artists and writers. He was writing poetry by this time, and some of his poems were published in the Dublin University Review. Between 1884 and 1886, Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design). Although his early poems were much influenced by Shelley, he soon became inspired by John O’Leary, an Irish revolutionary patriot who was encouraging young writers to work with Irish themes.

In 1887, Yeats returned to London with his family, and began to publish poems in British and US magazines; and he co-founded the Rhymers’ Club. His first significant works - such as The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) - date from this period. His circle of friends, by this time, included William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. In 1889, he met and fell in love with the Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne. Although she turned down his offers of marriage, their relationship remained an important part of his life. A growing interest in matters spiritual and even occult led him to the Theosophical Society and to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats continued to publish his own works such as John Sherman and Dhoya (1892), The Countess Kathleen (1892), The Celtic Twilight (1893) and The Land of Heart’s Desire, but he also edited an anthology of Irish verse in 1895. In 1896, Yeats was introduced to Lady Gregory, a Irish playwright, ten years his senior, and together with another poet/playwright, John Millington Synge, they helped establish, what became known as, the Irish Literary Revival movement, as well as the Irish National Theatre Society. With Synge (most famous for his play The Playboy of the Western World) and others, Yeats acquired a property in Dublin which opened as the Abbey Theatre on 27 December 1904: on the bill were three plays, On Baile’s Strand and Cathleen Ní Houlihan (by Yeats) and Spreading the News (by Lade Gregory). Yeats was also involved in setting up Dun Emer Press (Cuala Press from 1904) to publish work by writers associated with the Revival. The press, run by Yeats’s sisters, produced over 70 titles until its demise in 1946, most of them by Yeats himself.

In 1909, the US poet Ezra Pound came to London to meet Yeats, and over the next few years the two of them spent much time together. In 1916, Yeats renewed his courtship of Maud, whose husband had been executed by the British. Biographers say, however, his proposal was half-hearted, and on being rejected he proposed to Maud’s daughter Iseult. She, too, turned him down in 1917. Only weeks later, though, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees, half his own age; and they would have two children. That same year, The Wild Swans at Coole, a collection of poems, helped to establish Yeats as a major poet. A year earlier he had written, what would become, one of his most famous poems, Easter, 1916, though it was not published until 1921: Yeats was committed politically to the Irish nationalist movement, but the bloody Easter Rising and the British executions that followed left him with unsettled views on violence.

Nevertheless, in later years, Yeats continued to be politically active. He was appointed to the first Irish Senate in 1922, and re-appointed for a second term in 1925. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, ‘for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. The publicity helped increase sales of his works, and gave him more financial independence. Further books of poetry followed, including The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929). In 1934, he underwent a Steinach operation (a now-discredited procedure that was supposed to increase overall vigour and sexual potency); coincidentally or not he also had several romantic affairs. Despite illness, he took on the editorship of the Oxford Book of Modern Verses in 1936. He died in 1939 in Menton, France. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Poetry Foundation, The Noble Prize, The New York Times, Ricorso, or Spartacus.

There is no evidence that Yeats was a diarist, but he did leave behind two short diary texts, both published by the Cuala Press (one posthumously) with very limited print runs (a few hundred): The Death of Synge, and Other Passages from an Old Diary (1928); and Pages from a Diary Written in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty (1944).

The Death of Synge contains a sequence of 41 sections, mostly a paragraph each (some long, some short) numbered in Roman numerals. Most of these are not dated, but some, towards the end are dated like a diary. Here are several extracts.

‘Why does the struggle to come at truth take away our pity, and the struggle to overcome our passions restore it again?’

‘March 23d. McDonagh called to-day. Very sad about Ireland. Says that he finds a barrier between himself and the Irish-speaking peasantry, who are “cold, dark and reticent” and “too polite”. He watches the Irish-speaking boys at his school, and when nobody is looking, or when they are alone with the Irish-speaking gardener, they are merry, clever and talkative. When they meet an English speaker or one who has learned Gaelic, they are stupid. They are a different world. Presently, he spoke of his nine years in a monastery and I asked what it was like, “Oh” he said, “everybody is very simple and happy enough. There is a little jealousy sometimes. If one brother goes into town with a Superior, another brother is jealous.” ’

‘Molly Allgood came to-day to ask where I would be to-morrow, as Synge wishes to send for me if strong enough. He wants “to make arrangements.” He is dying, They have ceased to give him food. Should we choose the Abbey or keep it open while he still lives? Poor Molly is going through her work as always. Perhaps that is best for her. I feel Synge’s coming death less now than when he first became ill. I am used to the thought of it and I do not find that I pity him. I pity her. He is fading out of life. I felt the same when I saw M_ in the mad house. I pitied his wife. He seemed already dead. One does not feel that death is evil when one meets it, - evil, I mean, for the one who dies.’

‘March 24th. Synge is dead. In the early morning he said to the nurse “It is no use fighting death any longer” and he turned over and died.’

‘Am I going against nature in my constant attempt to fill my life with work? Is my mind as rich as in idle days? Is not perhaps the poet’s labour a mere rejection? If he seeks purity - the ridding of his life of all but poetry - will not inspiration come? Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks nothing but attention.’

‘May 25th. At Stratford-on-Avon “The Playboy” shocked a good many people, because it was a self-improving, self-educating audience, and that means a perverted and common-place audience. If you set out to educate yourself you are compelled to have an ideal, a model of what you would be; and if you are not a man of genius, your model will be common-place and prevent the natural impulses of the mind, its natural reverence, desire, hope, admiration, always half unconscious, almost bodily. That is why a simple round of religious duties, things that escape the intellect, is often so much better than its substitute, self-improvement.’

‘October. A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins.’

And here are extracts from the first and last paragraphs in Pages from a Diary Written in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty (which has the same structure as The Death of Synge).

‘Portofino Vetta April 7th. I have been ill for five months since I bled from the lung in London, four out of the five of Malta fever, and a couple of weeks ago the doctor told me it would be three months before I had received strength. But eight days ago we came from Rapallo to this hotel at Portofino Vetta some fifteen feet above the sea and I am almost well again. I work at the new version of The Vision every morning, then read Swift’s Letters and only take to detective stories in the evening, and would be wholly well if my legs were stronger. Here I can slip in and out as I please, free from the stage fright I had at Rapallo whenever George brought me to the little Café by the sea. After all there may be something in climate which I have always denied. Here no mountains shut us in; I think three weeks should make well as ever.’

‘[. . .] November 18th. Science, separated from philosophy, is the opium of the suburbs.’

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