I’m tempted to begin a campaign to knock down the statue of William Butler Yeats that’s outside the Ulster Bank near his boyhood home, and the good people of Sligo would probably thank me, because Ronan Gillespie’s statue is hideous.
But I’m no iconoclast. And – love him or hate him – a poet of Yeats’ stature deserves a statue. Here are two reasons why.
First, there’s his life. William Butler Yeats was born on the south side of Dublin, Ireland in 1865. Early on, the family moved, and he grew up in Slough (in South Central England) and later in London. Then his family moved back to Dublin in 1880.
His return to Ireland propelled him into all things Irish – all things, that is, except the Catholic Church.
In William’s early twenties, the Yeats family moved back to London – patriarch J.B. Yeats was nothing if not peripatetic. W.B. joined a poets’ group, the Rhymers’ Club, became interested in spiritualism and joined a group called The Ghost Club. He took an interest in fairies.
But along with his developing work as a poet, his peculiar quasi-religious pursuits, and later political activism, Yeats was very much a part of what was known as the Protestant Ascendancy, which is best described as the domination of Ireland’s Catholic majority by a minority of wealthy and powerful Protestants, supported by the power of the British throne. The Ascendancy lasted from the 1600s right up until the 20th century.
Yeats soaked up anti-Catholicism the way Jefferson absorbed racism, except that Yeats rose to fame just as the Ascendancy was ebbing. He was the Irish equivalent of one of the Lost Cause writers of America’s postbellum South, although which I can’t say. Not William Faulkner or Margaret Mitchell but maybe Allen Tate, although Tate became – for a time – a Catholic.
Ireland had been officially Protestant only since the Reformation. Yeats’ nostalgic vision leap-frogged the Catholic centuries back to a time before St. Patrick. But there was no stopping the papists. And no evocation of a roseate Celtic past or any number of seances could lift Yeats’ gloom about the eclipse of his world of privilege and elite “wisdom.” Not even the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature could help that.
It also didn’t help that his spiritualism brought him into friendship with the malevolently louche Aleister Crowley, about whom Ernest Hemingway told the funny story (in A Moveable Feast) of being with a friend in Paris café when a man and a woman walked by and Hemingway – thinking he recognized the man – said, “That’s Hilaire Belloc.” His friend laughed. “Don’t be a silly ass. That’s Aleister Crowley, the diabolist. He’s supposed to be the wickedest man in the world.”
A second reason for a Yeats statue: The Great Poem. In 1919, after a tumultuous half-century of life (to which what I’ve written does little justice) – and following the end of the Great War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Irish rebellion, and a new Catholic Ascendancy – Yeats wrote “The Second Coming.” This is it:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It’s almost Shakespearean in its quotability. It’s a short, agnostic gospel, except it’s entirely Bad News. Christian imagery aside, it may be the most un-Christian poem ever to be extensively quoted by Christians.
The poem is taken now to have been prophetic: in foreseeing the collapse of Christendom (i.e. the Irish Establishment), the new century’s hyper-individualism, and the inevitability of an even greater war than the Great one. I don’t know about all that. I think it was more like Yeats kicking his foot against a rock. You want to say, Brother, things always fall apart.
Lord knows, there are some sweet turns of phrase. They don’t give you a Nobel for “roses are red, and violets are blue.” But it seems to me Mr. Eliot got much, much deeper into our predicament in The Waste Land (1922), and not just because he wrote 412 more lines of poetry to secure the Nobel he won in 1948.
Then again, it’s easier to grab a few lines and recall them from Yeats than to excavate gold from Eliot’s magnum opus after “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land . . .”
Both poets have been called “conservative.” True. But Yeats’ conservatism – for all his worry about the future and his glorification of the past – was ephemeral and haughty, especially in his flirtation with fascism and eugenics. He was desperate for a world of purity and goodness, which – cantankerous right-winger though he may have been – makes him seem hopelessly liberal in the way H. Richard Niebuhr described: a man seeking “a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
I can admire Yeats’ upright stand against the gathering darkness, but I prefer Eliot on bended knee, surrendering to the light. Of course, close scrutiny of Eliot’s political leanings, especially in the 1930s, can give one an uncomfortable feeling.
As a greater writer than either Yeats or Eliot put it, “use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”