Saturday 13 June 2015

Silver apples

William Butler Yeats, the poet, was born in Sandymount, Dublin 4, 150 years ago today: 13th June 1865. He died in the South of France in January 1939 as the world was tipping inexorably into WWII. He'd discussed the possibility of an exile's death with his wife and asked to be buried in the cemetery on the hill above the hotel.  Accordingly he was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.  Nearly ten years later a rattle of bones was bundled into a box and transported with pomp and circumstance back to Ireland aboard the Irish Naval Service ship the LÉ Macha.  There is some doubt as to whether there is any piece of Yeats, let alone his whole skeleton, lies beneath the gravestone to which poetry people, including my younger self, go on pilgrimage in Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo. The epitaph:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
Could as easily be written:
Move along please
Nothing to see here
Doesn't even smell of Yeats.
There is plenty of ammunition if you want to show that the great poet [Nobel Prize for Literature 1923, so he must might be good] had feet of clay.  But you cannot reliably claim that he had a surgical implant of 'monkey glands' to assausage his anxieties about impotence. That's wrong wrong almost right, in that he underwent a vasectomy in 1934 under the mistaken impression that recycling his sacred spermatozoa would cause more testosterone to course through his aged frame as if he was in his 20s again having the hots for the symmetrical Maud Gonne. She famously and repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly rejected his proposals of marriage, and had relationships in and out of marriage with several other men which has a sense of anyone but Willie about it. Yeats seepily started proposing to Maud's daughter Iseult as soon as she was old enough as if mother and daughter were interchangable in his rather two-dimensional view of women. It's certainly ludicrous to write off Maud Gonne as a mere poet's muse as she was clearly a person in her own right with decided and revolutionary views about the status of women.

Gonne, Gonne, gonad is about all most people know or care about Yeats, who has been a penance to generations of Irish school-children in the same way as Camões is forced upon their counterparts in Portugal. But if we look too hard at the foibles and failings of poets and only rate those who passed muster as to financial probity, sexual conduct, attitude to drink and/or consideration for others; why then we'd have a very short reading list.  It would be reduced to a handful of young people who died of TB before they could get up to any mischief . . . and the quintessentially nice Seamus Heaney.  Anyway, WB Yeats: it's his day today and I have to acknowledge that his earlier easier poems played a big part in my life and love when I was young and foolish.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

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