Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The poet and the diplomat: 150 years of Yeats

“My only qualification for teaching this course,” one of my best lecturers told a class I attended, “is a sense of my complete inadequacy to the task.”

He was teaching us about Michel de Montaigne, whose great work is a series of essays. He used the word essay in the literal French sense of a trial, or a test: “these are the trials of my natural faculties” he explained in a preface. It is that sense of tentative reflection that marks Montaigne, and justified our lecturer’s humility.

Two months later, he completed that course and moved on to the poet Ronsard.

“A great many people have written on Ronsard,” he told us, “and you can ignore them all. None of them has understood him. Only I can explain him to you.”

The contrast in the lecturer’s attitude made me smile, particularly as his new mood was, again, so completely appropriate to the subject. Ronsard knew he was the best poet France had ever produced. He would also write in the style of the great figures of antiquity, as if to say, “you think they’re good? Watch how I can do the same thing – better.”

I thought about all this again yesterday, when we attended a talk at the Luton Irish Forum about William Butler Yeats, marking the year of his 150th birthday. The speaker was the Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Daniel Mulhall. 

Daniel Mulhall, in a suit, with pupils of a local school
who contributed to a great evening at Luton Irish Forum
Mulhall showed you don’t have to be one-dimensional to be a senior diplomat. Indeed, he displayed an insightful relationship with a great poet – and he communicated his enthusiasm to others, by talking for just the right length of time, quoting just the right number of poems and commenting on them in just enough detail to be illuminating without ever becoming dull, far less pompous.

He did admit that, many years ago, he had quoted Yeats at some length to a young woman on their first date and, since she had decided to become his wife then, and still is today, it clearly had done him no harm.

Among the poems he quoted, few of which I knew, he recited this one: 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The woman addressed is Maud Gonne, to whom Yeats proposed not once but six or seven times, being refused on each occasion. As Mulhall pointed out, it is astonishing that Yeats wrote this poem when he was only in his twenties, and yet it looks forward to a time far distant in the future.

When that time actually came, Yeats had been married, in all appearance happily, for nearly twenty years to another woman. Even so, he must have been 60 or so when he wrote Among Schoolchildren, containing the line “she stands before me as a living child”: as an older man he sees Maud Gonne still, though now he conjures up a childish image.

Above all, however, what hearing this poem did for me was remind me of another, by Ronsard. Roughly translated, it starts “when you are quite old, in the evening by candle light, sitting at the corner of the fire, spinning and threading, you will say, singing my verses and full of wonder, ‘Ronsard celebrated me, in the time of my beauty’.”

Yeats includes enough allusions to Ronsard to make sure we see the connection: nodding by the fire, thinking about a poem (reading it instead of singing it, but it’s still a matter of recall), thinking back to lost love.

But the contrast is far more striking than the similarities.

Ronsard’s poem is about him. It’s about the wonder the older woman will still feel that Ronsard had once sung her praises – had, indeed, been generous enough to give her his love. In other words, all the arrogance my lecturer had pointed to, infuses the poem.

Yeats, by contrast, focuses on his love and the woman he loved. instead of pride of accomplishment, of conquest, we get wistfulness and a sense of loss: love “hid his face amid a crown of stars.”

I liked my lecturer, but I was never really comfortable with Ronsard’s arrogance. Having now enjoyed the gentle half tones of Yeats’s poem, I can say that it does the same thing as Ronsard – better.

Yeats: a touch more subtle
My thanks for that discovery to a man who represents Ireland to government, and a great Irish poet to the rest of us.

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