William Butler Yeats: 150th Anniversary of his birth on 13th June, 2015

Yeats’ writing addressed not only the Irish situation but, drawing upon the mythology of the world, his poetic scalpel dissected global issues.

Yeats in his time also saw Ireland as an accessible model of the world’s situation.

Horseman pass byToday is an important day. All this week we in Ireland have been celebrating, talking and thinking about his work, but today, Saturday 13th June, 2015 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. I make no pretensions to be a poet, and when the truth is told, I struggle to feel the unwritten power between the lines of any poet’s work. But for some reason I cannot explain, I have always been drawn to the work of Yeats. I have no difficulty even now, three score years after I sat in my secondary school desk, in remembering the poems of Yeats, and in moments of doubt and trepidation it is strange how easily his words slip quietly into my mind.

Yeat was an Irish poet, a Nobel Laureate and one of the four such Laureates about whom our small country, but great nation, boasts. Yeats’ writing addressed not only the Irish situation but, drawing upon the mythology of the world, his poetic scalpel dissected global issues. In particular, I sense that his comments upon the emerging Irish State in the early 1900s, are still fresh and true, not only about Ireland today, but they also give us a poet’s insight into the universality of the human condition.

Just as Pierre Turquet in the 1960s suggested that the situations then emerging in Ireland and in South Africa offered a laboratory of social change that the world could well benefit from, Yeats in his time also saw Ireland as an accessible model of the world’s situation. After the relentless viciousness of the Anglo-Irish war that followed the Rising in 1916 and eventually gave way to the Treaty of 1922 and ironically ended with the Civil War, Yeats wrote:

“We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere

A man is killed, or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact to be discerned.”

Surely, if the hearts and spirit of those who, in increasing numbers around the world, are fleeing persecution and manic ideology, were aware of those words of Yeats, they would resonate in sympathy. Yeats not only saw clearly into the heart of such a situation, he also showed some of his own despair with what was happening:

“We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love … “

Having immersed myself in Irish politics in my younger days, devouring the works of Karl Marx and James Connolly, I spent most of my working life outside Ireland and had the good fortune to find work in different countries, with different cultures and different histories. Nevertheless, I became increasingly concerned with the story line that I saw emerging, a story line that said:

  • The world is a violent place that is evolving from violence and must live with violence
  • Ruling classes always use violence to enforce their will; those who are oppressed by them must needs overthrow them with violence
  • Sir James G. Frazer described Magic and Religion as a cultural story or a dream-world within which human beings live their lives. Again violence was a central warp thread in the story that he wove.

Yeats painted a picture of what he saw, and truly, we can see the same picture around the world today. A shared story is still ruling people’s lives and our lives are rounded with that dream:

“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 convictions, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

When I examine what I have learned so far in my life, I see the relevance of what Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I think that Yeats’ despair at what he saw reflects the same thinking. Our only chance of getting out of the spiral dance of violence which is leading us to the destruction of our world, is not to fight our way with violence, but to open our hearts to the silence within, the silence of Spirit, and ultimately to wake from the dream that confines us. We have a chance to write a new story, a story with a happy ending. Then we might turn to those great minds that have led us there and salute them with the words of the Great Man whose birth we celebrate today:

“What they undertook to do

They brought to pass;

All things hang like a drop of dew

Upon a blade of grass.”

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