…and then there’s Yeats

A friend who is too shy – or maybe too busy – to leave a comment (re Colum McCann) sends an email reminding me that Yeats said it’s easier to break stones than to write.
And so he did. Here it is, in “Adam’s Curse”

“ … ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kind of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’ …

Yeats is a man who’d know quite a bit about the turgid and the overblown; but he’d also know everything worth knowing about the sublime, and about revelation, vision, ambition. But, poor man, he often comes in for criticism. I was on a guided tour of the city once (yes, Dublin – there’s no law against Dubliners doing this; in fact, I’d recommend it – you’d be surprised what you might learn) when the guide began to mock him. Ah, leave Yeats alone, I said. The tourists were surprised. I’d listened with pleasure while various other figures from the national pantheon were derided by this guide, a witty and impassioned person, but you have to draw the line somewhere.I always feel that Yeats needs defending. Being posh and shortsighted and prone to wearing his heart on his sleeve makes him an easy target – look at George Moore, comparing him to an umbrella left behind at a party. And let’s face it, Moore didn’t have much to crow about in the physique department.

Another time, I heard a woman giving out yards about Yeats.

Ah, leave him alone, I said – it’s getting to be a bit of a habit, this – What have you got against him? He was a terrific poet.But a terrible person! she said.

How did she know this? She’d read Roy Foster’s biography, both volumes, and that was the conclusion she’d drawn from them. So there.

The dead are terribly vulnerable to this sort of judgement; especially dead writers, don’t ask me why. Yeats is the very one who wrote, ‘Let them be, they’re dead and gone …’

I’ve always had a soft spot for Yeats. His poetry, which is the one thing we know for sure about him and the only thing that matters, helped me through those hidjus teenage years when No-One-Understood. I used to copy his lines onto sheets of paper and carry them around. He had his struggles, his failed loves and disappointments, his wilderness years. But he was the real thing. He came back, time after time, better than ever. We should all be so committed. And so lucky.

By the way, the poet Stephen James Smith has a words-and-music version of ‘September 1913’ that’s well worth a listen:http://www.stephenjamessmith.com/Audio.html
He and Enda Reilly are making an ep of old Irish poetry, including this track.

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