Y- William Butler Yeats: A letter to Dead Poets

Gratitude To The Unknown Instructors

WHAT they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

William Butler Yeats

 Dear Mr Yeats,

How are you? No doubt, it’s been quite a surprise to regain human form and return from Byzantium. I assure you that this isn’t some kind of belated April Fool’s Day prank. Rather, I am writing a series of Letters to Dead Poets from A-Z and you are my second last stop. I know you’re probably sick of almost always coming last. This is unless there was a “Z”. I’m sure that you and “Z” would have been the best of friends!

So, being “Y”, I had to ask you: WHY????

This journey from A-Z has become quite a philosophical journey, exploring a plethora of seemingly rhetorical questions like what it means to be a man?  Why do some people suffer so much and what is the point of suffering? What’s more, when things in our own lives go devastatingly wrong, how do we survive? How do we go on, when we want to let go? What is love and how can it last a lifetime and overcome its many challenges and hurdles? What does it mean to be happy and how do we find happiness? Why do so many creative people struggle with depression and mental health issues? Is it wise to become a poet or should we get a “real job”? Why did Hemingway shoot himself and John Lennon get shot? Why was Shelley out sailing in a violent storm and when he was cremated, why didn’t his heart burn? Indeed, why did his wife, Mary, wrap his heart up in the manuscript from Adonais and keep it in her desk until she died? You weren’t even all that close. I’m not even going to ask what happened to Shakespeare’s head. That said, I might ask if that’s really you in “your grave” in Ireland? Of course, conspiracy theories prevail!

That will keep you busy for awhile!

I must admit that I find writing to you rather intimidating, although you would think I’d be used to it by now. In 1923, you were the first Irishman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature  for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. However, you are one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize. Indeed, TS Eliot called you “one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them”. Indeed, I’ll defer to WH Auden’s eulogy:

Yeats By Rohan Gillespie Stephen St Sligo

Statue of Yeats by Rohan Gillespie

In Memory Of W.B. Yeats

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

[Auden later deleted the next three stanzas.]

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

WH Auden

However, it seems you understand what it’s like to have a dream which is still a work in progress:

Aedh Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

I have read your poem: Easter 1916.

Having Irish heritage myself, of course, I had to mention Ireland. While in so many ways our family are Heinz Variety Australians, a good number of our ancestors came from Ireland and brought something of Ireland with them which keeps being passed down from parent to child, in our souls as well as in our genes. My husband’s great something grandfather, Daniel Burke, helped Irish revolutionary John Mitchell escape Tasmania bound for America by lending him his horse…a role which earned him a mention in Mitchell’s Jail Journal. My ancestors somehow survived the Great Famine and came to Sydney. These Irish people were tough. After surviving the famine, their beloved St Mary’s Cathedral burned down in and they raised the money to rebuild through donations brick-by-brick. There was no falling on their sword crying “Woe is me”. No talk of how they’ve survived the famine only to have the cathedral burn down. No, they immediately started fundraising the next day and when that fledgling structure was also burned down, they started over. Indeed, John and Bridget Curtin lost three children and yet they battled on in the overcrowded hardship of Sydney’s Surry Hills and Paddington. Yet, they never gave up. That said, they might have drunk a bit too much…

I have never been to Ireland and am quite curious to see whether I feel a sense of home there or not. Just how Irish am I?

Humph! Despite raising poets from the dead, I still can’t quite click my fingers and travel over to Ireland in an instant. So, I am back to searching for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to fund my trip.

So, this leaves me sitting about to board the train to meet up with my very last poet…Z.

Yours sincerely,

Rowena

Notes

Aedh was a Celtic God of Death, one of the children of Lir.Yeats seems to have used this character in some of his stories along with Ahearne and Michael Robartes and describes him as fire reflected in water.

2 thoughts on “Y- William Butler Yeats: A letter to Dead Poets

  1. Maria Matthews

    I enjoyed your post, as we studied Mr. Yeats at school many years ago and so many of his lines are stuck in my head and heart forever. However, I never knew that about Shelley, (why didn’t his heart burn? ) Which means I will have to wander back to the S’s over the weekend and have a read of that article.

  2. Pingback: #AtoZchallenge Reflections…66, 652 Words Wiser. | beyondtheflow

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