The last Friday of each month at this website
This my granddaughter Daisy who was invited to sing at the opening of St. Patrick’s Day Concert in the U.K.
Daisy is singing here.
She is singing an old Irish Song, Poem, Prayer. ‘ Céad Míle Fáilte.’
These words in the Irish language mean ‘ Welcome.’
I am Sheighle and I am Irish and I want to tell you about my dreams of my ancient days and lead you into the reality of the present. More than five thousand years have passed since my community of the Stone Age built our most famous temple called Newgrange. Newgrange is a large circular mound with a stone passageway and chambers inside and a retaining wall at the front and it is ringed by stones engraved with artwork. It is older than the Egyptian Pyramids.
Here we practised our ceremonial rites and worshipped our gods. We revered the Sun and other elements and accepted them as our notion of god…we worshipped the wonder and strength of Nature. When we built Newgrange about the year 3200 BC we aligned it with the rising sun and the sun’s light still floods the chamber during the Winter Solstice. We were farming people we grew crops and raised cattle wherever we settled and all our tools were made out of stone, wood, animal antler or bone. Building Newgrange was a major achievement.
Culture changed and people developed new skills and about the year 500 BC as the Bronze Age in Ireland drew to a close, the Celts arrived in Ireland with a new cultural influence. Celtic influences spread across much of central Europe and into Iberia and the British Isles. The Celts used iron and so had the technological ability to spread as they did. Over the course of a few hundred years the Celts obliterated the existing culture in the island and Celtic culture became way of life in Ireland. The language spoken was Celtic and the first written Irish appeared. It is called Ogham, the script consists of a series of grooves on the corner of a stone.
In many ways, it was a culture based around war. Ireland was divided into multiple kingdoms and disputes were settled by a battle. The blacksmith, druids and poets were held in high esteem within these kingdoms; the blacksmith made the weapons, the druids made the prophesies and soothsaying and the poets put into verse the exploits of the warriors to be sung around the cooking fires. Tara in County Meath was an important site throughout the Celtic period as it was a royal centre and ultimately, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Celtic art and crosses are still to be seen in modern Ireland and the Celts built large earth works of various kinds and burial mounds and large circular enclosures. The Celts believed that demons and spirits were everywhere and they depended on the druids (their priests) to protect them. The druids performed all the religious rites and acted as philosopher doctor and lawyer in Celtic society. The Celts loved music; they loved to boast and to make up stories, especially about fairies and leprechauns.
*My memories of so much heritage cannot be told in one long fable so I encourage you to visit my country of mists and magic and U2 and Riverdance.*
Ireland is a small island in the vast Atlantic Ocean off the north-western coast of mainland Europe and next stop to the west is the land mass of the Continent of the Americas. Ireland is a Republic of 4.6 million people whose history is long and complex and this presentation will involve only a small amount of historical fact.
Since Ireland was first conquered by the Normans in 1167 this Atlantic Ocean Island has risen with its people over and over through centuries in the fight to regain its right of identity.
Through many centuries Ireland served England, as an experiment, as England attempted to use its neighbour Ireland, as a foil for its supposed sophistication, naming Ireland, as a fantasy land of fairies and dreamers. Ireland’s island status acted as a protection against invasion of England by sea, so it played an important part in England’s security plans. England conquered Ireland and steadfastly set about changing its culture, language and ultimately its religion. The Irish language was forbidden and English was employed throughout. Native Irish words, expressions and nuances crossed over from Irish to English mixing the Celtic language and the Anglo Saxon language to become spoken as Hiberno English. (This means that the language retains some native words and has some grammatical differences.)
During the intervening centuries until the present, Irish Rebellions were a constant irritation for England and Ireland was aided frequently by foreign forces especially the French. There was massive emigration from Ireland following the devastating famines of the 1840’s. This dispersed hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women throughout the major cities of the world, of Britain, North America, South America and Australia while a million of Irish citizens died from starvation. Very sadly, today, those same countries and more are welcoming young Irish citizens due to the latest famine, a major financial famine.
During the nineteenth century many Irish exiles, like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw who were the shining stars of London’s culture considered that it would be through contact with the Art of other countries that a modern Irish culture would be formed. Back in Dublin, the plan was to reinstate the Irish language as a protest against being anglicised. The revival began the desire for political independence. The Gaelic League was founded in the 1800’s and its members painfully studied and repossessed the Irish language while continuing to speak English in public life. W.B. Yeats followed Wilde and Shaw to London in the 1880’s. This was the route to fame for artistic endeavour at the time.
Yeats, however, was sickened by being considered a form of entertainer in London, rather than a serious Celtic Poet. He made the decision to return to Dublin to create there, his foundation for a Cultural Revival. Both James Joyce and W.B. Yeats agreed that the Irish needed to have a clearer sense of identity but disagreed on how this should be achieved. Yeats was fascinated by the past and wanted to craft a uniquely Irish style in literature with a Celtic tradition. Yeats looked to folklore and myth and the idea that part of Ireland’s future must come from its past. Joyce, on the other hand, saw Ireland’s past as a hindrance to Ireland’s progress. Ultimately, Joyce considered it necessary to leave his county in order to forge a new identity for his race.
The Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney grew up in a divided landscape…he was drawn to both the Irish and English poetic traditions. He lived through the death of the rural world into which he was born as Ireland emerged as a global modern country. Seamus Heaney was an Irish Nationalist in a country where gunmen grew vegetables, a contradiction of existence.
Life in Ireland today in 2020 is, to a certain extent, a contradiction of existence. After a brief moment of artificial wealth, a period referred to as The Celtic Tiger, Ireland was one of the first countries to suffer from the global financial crisis. External and internal forces of greed, corruption and irresponsible banking literally drained the life from the body and soul of many Irish men and women. But, we have struggled and we are reviving and Ireland is the first country in Europe to show a return to normality. Much of this has to be due to the Irish mentality of “Sure everything will be alright”.
And sure things are looking good; something is working when top global companies decide to settle in Ireland. Global companies have many good reasons for setting up in Ireland; we have a well educated workforce, Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Euro zone, our tax laws are favourable, laws that were in situ when we joined the European Union in the year 1973 and it is accepted that the country and its people offer a pleasant environment in which to work. (There is a long list of companies that operate from Ireland. Amazon, Apple Inc., Baltimore Technologies. Cisco, Dell Ireland, Dropbox, EBay, EMC, Facebook, Google Ireland, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel Lindkin, Microsoft Ireland, Oracle, PayPal Twitter, Kentz, Pfizer, at the moment Yahoo is negotiating to move to Ireland.)
As I told you earlier the Celts loved music and story telling and we Irish continue in this tradition with our writers and poets and our love of both traditional and modern music. Ireland has become a venue for major music acts throughout the year.. Festivals celebrating the Arts take place all year round in Ireland with many workshops lead by writers and musicians. Sporting events enjoy a very full calendar of Gaelic Games such as hurling and Gaelic football, soccer and rugby.
Very often it is in times of difficulty that readers turn to poetry for help in understanding a situation, or in an effort to sort out inner feelings. Sometimes only poetry can clearly say the words that we struggle to find when faced with either some dilemma or delight. It is unfortunate that poetry may be considered by some as irrelevant or by others, with a sense of fear. Worst of all, is when poetry is considered elitist and beyond the scope of our everyday conversation and understanding.
Poetry can cope with every aspect of life and it is well worth the effort required to inform ourselves and to set about enjoying the magnificent art of poetry. Believe in the truth of these words when you see the beauty and wonder of nature or the simple majesty of innocence. Examine your thoughts and feelings and you may find that many times you have brought to mind some poetic work that still works its wonder on your memory.
The poem is the product and work of the poet whose craft is the formation of words in a way to excite the imagination of the reader just as the conception of the poem has excited the poet. The poem must stand on its own merit. A thing apart. Only when we have read a poem, and pondered on its existence and perhaps tried to analyse its intent, should we turn our attention to the constructer or builder of this piece of art, that is, the poet.
Too often, the life of the poet is the thing that is scrutinised to the detriment of the poem and on many occasions the media is hugely responsible for this distraction. Celebrity has become a sensation of modern living and again too often the person and the humanity of the person has been obliterated by the fashion of scandal as a way of life. In my opinion, this is why some critics have called Heaney’s poetry bland. The have confused the words of the poet with the life that he has led.
Seamus Heaney in 1995 won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for works olyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Seamus Heaney was a celebrated poet, a Nobel Laureate. A celebrity of the highest calibre. He was a poet who lived and worked in the limelight but never sought to be centre stage nor sought to outshine his contemporaries, but did so, through his natural talent. Heaney loved poetry and he understood and admired poetry in all its guises. He could understand and enjoy ancient works and classics and still be moved by both modernity and the poetry contained in Rap. He was a normal everyday man. He was warm and kind and a giant scholar with an authentic intelligence always willing to share his words and his time. This fact has been recorded over and over by people throughout the world. Seamus Heaney made being a great poet look easy through his captivating sense of delight in the ordinary. His poetry, like the man, lacks arrogance and makes us look at our ordinary lives and the ordinary things that happen each day and cause us to wonder and delight in just being alive.
Most of all, to delight in the ordinary, in communication with others and the sharing of experience to elevate the normal ordinary understanding to a new level, that of the extraordinary. For instance, time taken to watch the sunset and to share that experience, or hearing a piece of music or simply sharing time with a friend can all be extraordinary if we allow it to be so. Through his poetry, his choice of words, his subject matter and clarity of thought Seamus Heaney is telling us that all things, all time and all situations can be amazing.
Heaney struggled with contradictions all his life. He grew up in a divided landscape…he was drawn to both the Irish and English poetic traditions. He lived through the death of the rural world into which he was born as Ireland emerged as a global modern country. Seamus Heaney was an Irish Nationalist in a country where gunmen grew vegetables, again, a contradiction of existence. He was also able to understand both sides of the political and emotional conflict that haunted Northern Ireland without being harnessed as a spokesman for either side… these lines explain it all “Two buckets were easier carried than one. I grew up in between.” And also. An IRA sympathiser has his demands for political commitment refused and angrily demands as to when will Heaney write something for the IRA.
The poet retorts. “When I do write something, whatever it is, I’ll be writing for head…from the “inside out”. He said that he could hear a word, a phrase or have an idea, and he would let it germinate in his imagination until it became the root of a poem. In other words, it was his interior world that fashioned his poetry. This was the technique that gave substance and quality to the craft of writing poetry. A craft and technique that won for him the Nobel Prize in Literature
Seamus Heaney was born April 13th. 1939 at the family farm called Mossbawn near Castledawson Northern Ireland, about thirty miles from Belfast. He was the eldest of nine children.
His father, Patrick as well as being a farmer was also a cattle dealer and a very popular figure at cattle markets and fairs throughout the district. His mother Margaret was a member of the Mc Cann family from Castledawson many of whom worked in the local Clark’s linen factory.
Heaney’s family was Catholic and he was raised in the Irish Nationalist tradition. Seamus attended the local primary school which was a short distance from his home. When he was twelve years old he won a scholarship to Saint Columb’s College, a Catholic Boarding School in Derry. There he excelled in English, Irish and Latin. In 1957 Heaney began his study of English language and literature at Queen’s University Belfast and he also began to write. During his third year at University his poems began to appear in the University’s literary magazines. On graduating he trained as a teacher and after some time teaching and lecturing be became, in 1966, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast.
Seamus Heaney is one of the world’s best-known poets, his work encompasses, not alone poetry but literary criticism and translation. He has held prestigious teaching positions in Europe and the USA. In the words of the Nobel Academy Heaney creates “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” Heaney is a wise poet. He talks about the beautiful and the monstrous. He climbs out of the earth and takes us with him never losing touch with the reality of life and death. Seamus Heaney is regarded as the elder statesman of poetry; he has received the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006) Nobel Prize for Literature (1995) Whitbread in 1996 and 1999. He was both the Harvard and Oxford Professor of Poetry and was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1996.
The first poem that we will read is “Digging” written during the summer of 1966. Heaney has said that it was “the first poem I wrote where I thought my feelings had got into words and the first place where I felt I had done more than make an arrangement of words: I felt that I had let down a shaft into real life”.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Wherehe was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
“Digging” is one of Heaney’s earliest poems written when he was twenty seven years old. It is essential Heaney, rooted in the earth and place. He invites the reader into the private world of his family. We can see through the images that he paints with the pen and the atmosphere that he creates with his words. He enters time dimensions of the present, the past and the future.
The title of the poem is in the present active tense and we can imagine something happening, something being done, as we read the poem. Digging. We can imagine a young person, interrupting his writing (the young Heaney) the pen is held between finger and thumb “The squat pen rests” the writing is stopped – the pen rests as the writer hesitates and contemplates what is occurring outside, outside in nature and outside the realm of his thoughts.
The first two lines introduce us to the poet writing but also to something else, he uses a simile to remind us of his surroundings, the North of Ireland. “the squat pen” “snug as a gun” Nothing more, but our minds take on board the subtle inference that there are guns in existence nearby.
Next, we are invited to learn about the poet’s father as he digs and digs, a farmer bent low, digging potato drills. We can see the man’s foot on the edge, the lug of the spade as he pushes down into the earth for the potatoes the hard cold potatoes that the children love to pick. Heaney changes the tone of the poem and takes us from the present into his family’s past as he tells us that his father handles the spade with skill just as his father did before him.
A picture is painted for us of his grandfather cutting turf, great amounts of turf and we see a man so immersed in his toil that he can hardly stop to drink the milk carried to him by his young grandson “corked sloppily with paper” we feel the energy of the man neatly cutting and heaving the sods out of the earth and over his shoulder. He digs deeper and deeper, “for the good turf”
The smell of potato mould and the sound of turf cutting make their way through the roots formed in the earth. The roots of family and place and a sense of belonging, all these roots swarm into the psyche of this poet and he is “taken aback” for a moment. He has not chosen to dig the land as his father and his father’s father have. He acknowledges that his planting of roots will take a different form. He brings us with him once again from the past to the present “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them” Heaney tells us with conviction what his future will be; he will dig and plant with words. “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it”.
The poem “Digging” was a kind of initiation for Heaney; his is a work of excavating the past, he unpeels layers to reveal, veiled and unveiled the misty remembered past. Digging is at the heart of his work.
(They Toga and The Rose. Demons and other Friends. Mine and Mine.)
I was born in Limerick. Ireland, a long time ago. My parents had eight children four boys and four girls. I am number seven. My school days were a mixture of joy and disorder. Poetry and Ballet were my passion and occupied most of my life. For me, poetry put my ballet parts into words. Sandy and I married at a young age and we had our four children,a son and three daughters in quick succession. We now have seven grandchildren, who delight us just as our own children delighted us.
I studied English and Philosophy for my Batchelors Degree and Women’s Studies as a Post Graduate. I have a Master of Arts Degree in Modern Literature. Harvard Summer School was a wonderful experience. A semester studying the work of Sylvia Plath and the work of Anne Sexton, while attending readings of poetry and enjoying the playful squirels in the College grounds.
Coming to live in France and founding The Poetry Corner encouraged me to publish my third collection of poems. I am still passionate about writing and research and love to have discussions about my poetry.
This was even better,
a full stop privacy.
It was there. There,
in the middle of the vineyard
stark in the midday sun.
Like a hangman’s dream
it loomed into her consciousness
taking over her compliant existence.
Her adult life was a quest laid out
by a higher order, or so it seemed.
Lack of control over so many circumstances
and nothing to help.
Her well of ideas floundered every time
That was one of her problems
lack of freedom to think and find a way
to explain ones particular existence.
And a way to accept and choose ones part,
a player in the amazing dramas of life.
Thoughts like these flitted through
her consciousness, escaped and returned.
Who does not search for explanations
the existentialist question about life
and reality of existence, ones particular life
and the why and wherefore of everything?
Hers was a mind that hungered for answers.
She thought that everyone else had the answers.
She sat under the tree shaded
by its dark gaunt branches…
she sought trees with this kind
of architectural growth …
a Beckett tree, she privately mused.
Slowly, she drank from the bottle
Clutched tightly, in her tired hand.
(c) Sheighle Birdthistle
My first love was complicated
In fact so is all my love story
His eyes compelled me
As he sauntered past my home
A firm mix of Elvis and Paul Newman.
I longed to kiss his sardonic lips
And so calm my beating heart and
The warmth that set my body afire
Now we still catch a look and smile
What might be or has been loved
We are both less and more of whom
We were when he was a cute eighteen
And I had my first passionate kiss
A girl of thirteen and still warm
With the touch of his passionate kisses.
(c) Sheighle Birdthistle
The magic of an Ancient Stone Circle Near Lough Gur. Co. Limerick. Ireland;
I walked into the hazel parch
And plucked a bough from the bush
Inhaled the scent of sorrow
In that place of hush and secret
Ordered by a strange power
With bough outstretched,
To ramble over fertile green,
Over bog of rich dark turf
Alive in its death shell, warmly
Nourishing the perfection
Embalmed within its depths.
As moonlight crept from clouds
And crows cawed their way home
To nests in high dark trees,
Cows lowed in meadows
That now seemed ominous.
Darkness clawing at my soul
That strange power urged
Me onwards to a place
Where stones heaped on stone
Rose in a circle
A wide wide circle.
Gossamer fog fell
As I fell to my knees
And prayed and scourged
My innermost soul
(C)2013 Sheighle Birdthistle
Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used to write the early Irish language, Primitive Irish. Evidence shows that Ogham was in use since at least the 4th century, long before the arrival of the Latin alphabet to Ireland.
HISTORY OF THE OGHAM LANGUAGE
The ancient Ogham script (pronounced ‘oh-am’) is most often found on Ogham stones that date back to the third century. Most examples of the writing is found on Ogham stones of which there are over 350 found mostly in southern Ireland as well as in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Wales.
The transition to the use of the Roman alphabet took place about the sixth century. Most examples of Ogham writing confer the name of person that they represent, thus the stones are often memorial symbols. When carved on stones the first letter was at the base and the inscription read from the bottom up. Ogham is occasionally called the ‘Celtic Tree alphabet’ as many of the letters of Ogham refer to trees.
The origin of Ogham is unclear with some scholars suggesting that the language was invented to allow the native Irish communicate in code that the Roman Britons would not understand. Other scholars contend that the language is of Christian origin and exists as a means of religious communication.
Poems written in Ogham. An old Irish poem attributed to Amergin, the chief Druid of the Milesians in Irish mythology. This, along with four other poems by Amergin, appears in the Lebar na Núachongbála (The Book of Leinster) a 12th century manuscript which contains some ogham script.
The Five Vowels. A E I O U
Click on the above image to see my name in Ogham.
And finally ……
Come take my hand and let us go
And roam through the desert of life
Listening to the whisper of the wind
And the chuckle of birds who watch.
Grab the vines trailing and fly, if only
For a moment in time, fresh and free.
Sense movement plump your skin
Hair tousled flying wild and weightless.
Then scramble across rocks barefoot
Feeling layers of origins touching us
And lie down in bogland and hear whispering,
The voices of our ancestors and their breath
Mingling in our senses like flowing blood.
Capture then the wind, and hover over lands
Unvisited and shed tears for battled lives unlived.
Let the wind gather us in harmony and song,
Or scream, with the horror and wonder of freedom.
I am your voice and your inner child I am dead
But I live. Dance with me, lie with me. Love me.
I am the shadow that escapes the sun.
(c) Sheighle Birdthistle.
Hello Poetry Friends,
Happy New Year to you all! My resolution for 2018 is to regularly update my website. Please feel free to visit and leave comments.
We celebrated ten years of poetry at The Poetry Corner at the December meeting. It was a lovely evening of poetry and it was wonderful that so many members wrote a ten line poem to celebrate the occasion. Congratulations to Liz Chevalier whose poem was the lucky recipient of a gift from The Poetry Corner. Thank you Liz for your poem…Sandy and I appreciate your kind words.
From Ireland she comes and one word does she speak and
Ah! the brogue that you hear, is ever so sweet.
A decade has passed and we’ve come to inter-act,
It’s Friday evening, Book in Bar, with tea and expat.
S is shared with Sheighle and Sandy, who’ve given ten years
Presenting their best, we treasure them all, at your bequest.
H is for harmony that springs from their act, choosing their poets
With flair and with tact.
E is the energy, the presenters propose,
Each session a challenge that keeps us on our toes.
I is the ideas that each of us brings,
Sheighle masterfully turns into poetical things.
G is golden moments, a sonnet, a verse for poem’s fair measure,
It’s never rehearsed.
H’s happiness found in a poetic treasure, a Shelley, a Plath
And Keat’s lines, make our pleasure.
Leprechauns, we’ve become so vocal and quick!
It’s easy to imagine, not always to say, we appreciate
Your love that you’ve shared every way.
This poem spells Sheighle and hopefully more.
Accept my attempt, I’ll not ask an encore.
The fields are full of poppies; my heart bleeds Deep in my field of dreams, in my sad soul, They stretch on and on. Far away I see wooden crosses of men and boys Slain on fields of green, turned poppy red With blood of the ordered man. The stem of the delicate flower Is strong, as the obedient soldier It sways in the breeze, persisting. Can you hear the cry of the dead? Listen! The scream of the living Tells of the greatness of survival The slaughter of death. Of the longing to be home To see in the fields, the poppies Growing wild and free. (C) 2014 Sheighle Birdthistle (The Toga and The Rose)
William Shakespeare invites you to a rehearsal of speeches from some of his plays at The Globe Theatre at Book in Bar. Let your imagination take you back to the sixteenth century when audiences enjoyed the beauty of the words of Shakespeare and the fashion on stage. Our players will read speeches in English and French and Italian. We will toast the Bard with a glass of wine.
Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the birth of W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
About the Author:
Sheighle Birdthistle is an Irish poet living in Provence France. While studying at the University of Limerick she spent a semester at Harvard Summer School studying the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Sheighle has a Masters Degree in Modern English Literature and is Director/Founder of The Poetry Corner in Aix en Provence. France.
This complete article can be downloaded here: The Poetry Corner – W.B.Yeats
A Word from the author:
This photograph shows a plaque in Rapallo commemorating William Butler Yeats who lived in this building from 1928 to 1930. I am holding a bag from Book in Bar. Aix en Provence where I present The Poetry Corner on the last Friday of each month. The photograph was taken April14th. 2010
The Poetry Corner.
William Butler Yeats. (1865-1939)
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin June 13th. 1865. He was the eldest of six children born to John Butler Yeats and his wife Susan Pollexfen. Susan was part of a wealthy family from
Sligo in the west of Ireland. Her family welcomed John B. Yeats who was the son of a Protestant churchman, who like his father and grandfather had studied at Trinity College Dublin. However, they were dismayed when John Butler Yeats abandoned his career as a barrister in favour of being a portrait artist. Unfortunately he was never financially successful as an artist. The family moved from home to home between Ireland and England in pursuit of this artistic career. Instead of financial security the young Yeats family, had challenging conversation and encouragement in the discovery of their talents. So it was that as a boy, attending High School in Dublin, W.B. Yeats was accustomed to genteel poverty as were many Irish writers of the time. Willie, as he was called, travelled each morning by train with his father Willie, to school and his father to his studio. They discussed and enjoyed poetry during these daily journeys. When the time came to choose a career W.B. decided to attend The School of Art in Dublin rather than Trinity College Dublin, thus breaking with family tradition. There, he met and was impressed by other writers and artists such as James Clarence Mangan and Standish O’Grady and so it was not surprising that he decided that he wanted to be a poet. He began to use the beautiful folk tales of Sligo that his mother had told him and his siblings when they were children. John Yeats encouraged Willie by recklessly saying, that a gentleman should follow his desires regardless of money considerations. From a young age Willie was interested in nationalism and translations of Irish writing into English and as he matured so did this interest in Irish literature. He thought that he could recreate Ireland’s forgotten intellectual heritage. It was while he attended the School of Art that some of his first poems were published in the Dublin University Review.
In March 1888 John Butler Yeats once more moved his family from Dublin to London. The family was almost destitute, both money and food were in short supply. Willie’s small amounts of money from magazine publications paid almost all the household expenses. When his sister Lily began working in an embroidery shop earning ten shillings a week, it was a cause for celebration. Around this time Mrs Yeats suffered a stroke. She virtually gave up on life when there followed a second stroke, and she died in 1900.
Yeats was twenty fours years old when he met, and fell in love, with Maud Gonne. She was tall and beautiful a revolutionary and an actress. Born in England and educated in France, Maud Gonne was an amazing and energetic woman, she had a son who died in infancy and a daughter Iseult, they were the children of her liaison with a married French rebel politician Lucien Millevoye. It was in France that Maud Gonne began her lifelong interest and fight for the Irish nationalist cause. Yeats wrote poetry for Maud Gonne and a play, The Countess Kathleen. The poetry was full of love and longing. Melancholia invades and invests the poetry of Yeats from the moment her meets Maud Gonne. His lifetime of unrequited love pulsates in his words – so many words cherishing and exalting this beautiful woman. Maud Gonne was a contrast of soft beauty and ruthless rebel and this touched the soul of Yeats. He proposed to her in 1891 and was refused with the words that the world would thank her for not marrying him. Yeats repeated his proposal many many times but she continued to refuse. They remained lifelong friends and she continued to figure in his poetry. Years later Yeats proposed to Gonne’s daughter Iseult and she also refused him. Iseult married the highly controversial writer Francis Stuart they had two children but the marriage did not survive. Francis Stuart later married a German woman and after her death he married, in the 1980’s the Irish artist Fionnuala Graham who was more than forty years younger than Stuart. I remember Fionnuala Graham the budding artist we shared the same classroom in my convent school in Ireland.
Maud Gonne witnessed the cruel evictions that took place on a regular basis in Ireland and was deeply moved by the plight of the poor Irish people. She became involved in the Irish struggle for Independence and is buried in the Republican plot with the other Irish patriots. Her husband John Mac Bride was executed with James Connolly after the 1916 Easter Rising. Maud Gonne and John Mac Bride had a son Sean who was born in Paris in 1904. His first language was French. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 and the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975. He died January 15th. 1988.
Yeats was hugely influenced by Gonne’s revolutionary ideals and he impressed her with his view that his literary movement would work equally alongside her battle to forge an Independent Ireland. Yeats’ early poetry was romantic, modelled on poets such as Spenser and Shelley and the Pre-Raphaelites. As his own personal style developed he found that in Ireland he had a huge store of subject matter. His familiarity with the west of Ireland, and Sligo in particular where fairy and folk tales dealt with the mysterious otherworld, with ghosts and the supernatural, gave Yeats inspiration and fascinated his imagination. He delved into ancient Irish legends and already by the age of twenty three he had begun to grow into an original and accomplished poet.
It was from the sense of homesickness for Sligo that Yeats wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. With this poem Yeats considered that he had found his own articulation, his own music. The poem has a musical rhythm with its lines of uniform feet. The lines flow easily one on to the next in a fluid telling of the story within the poem. Yeats had found his voice and a place in poetry. He also began to forge a sense of self dignity a composure, which contrasted greatly with his father’s lack of grace and willpower. Although he began to expand his horizons Yeats’ career progressed slowly. In Dublin he had been published in Irish magazines and now in London he had to start again in London’s literary life. He began to be published in the Scots Observer and the National Observer and he did much editing including editing Blake whose work appealed to him.
Yeats was very interested in the Occult and the Supernatural. He was always searching within and without for answers to the questions of existence. He joined the Theosophists, who sought knowledge of the Absolute, through intuition and spiritual ecstasy. However, Yeats was asked to leave the society as he continued to demand and desire evidence. Yeats was continuously pulled between his desire to believe and his ever anxious questioning. There was a lull in Irish politics after the death of Parnell 1891 (the leader of the Irish Parliamentary party) and Yeats considered the time right for launching a literary movement. His form of revolutionary work was to be done through writing whereas Maud Gonne his beloved muse was ultra political. This revolutionary literature was to dignify Ireland’s sense of self and make Irish readers aware of their heritage of a Gaelic civilization. It would be a new literature not dominated by political rhetoric but abundant in its return to past traditions. In 1892 Yeats published The Celtic Twilight and it gave its name to the Irish Literary movement as well as showing Yeats’ great intellect and leadership. The Irish Literary Renaissance came into being. Yeats’ work took many shapes and forms as it moved forward. He moved from his desire to write popular poetry to poetry that was intense and rarefied. He wrote beautiful language with delicacy and style. The tone of his love poetry changed and he wrote epic poetry and poetry about the difficulty and hard work that goes into writing poetry that seems simple and spontaneous.
Yeats was very hurt and surprised when in 1903 Maud Gonne married John Mac Bride, another revolutionary. Now he could only record memories and old hopes of his love and pay tribute to her great beauty and he compares her to Helen of Troy.
Yeats became disillusioned with Irish politics and returned to his ambition to create an Irish theatre. He was helped in this by Lady Gregory the widow of an Anglo-Irish landlord. He spent many summers at Coole Park her house in Co. Galway and it was the perfect ambience for his creative writing and poetry. With determination and able assistance from Lady Gregory he brought a national theatre into being. Yeats plays were performed, including Cathleen Ni Houlihan with Maud Gonne in the leading role. When the Abbey Theatre was established in 1904 Yeats became its production manager until 1910. His was an unselfish role as manager. He encouraged younger dramatists as the theatre moved away from his idea of poetic drama to a drama of realism. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 caused uproar as it was considered a slur on Irish manhood. Despite hostile audiences, Yeats continued to stage the play. Yeats next volume of poetry was one of completely different poems lacking its former mysticism. He used savage satire and attacked the ungrateful philistines in defence of Art. He wrote contrary to his normal style and denigrated some of his earlier work through extreme form and style. He was venting his frustration and frustrated passion for Maud Gonne through poetry.
The Easter Rising of 1916 took Yeats completely by surprise and the revolutionaries whom he had come to despise, now attained heroic stature. A terrible beauty was born. Maud Gonne’s husband, from whom she was separated, was one of the sixteen leaders executed and Yeats went to France and proposed to her once again. Again he was refused both by Maud and Iseult. In October 1917 he married Georgie Hyde Lees and his marriage gave a serenity and order to his life. Through his interest in unusual and extensive reading, and the mixture of his romantic and realistic poetry, his work seemed to have a rebirth a renaissance. He wrote with authority and could blend the beautiful and the tragic. He gave significance to the ordinary things and events of life that he had avoided earlier and his voice spoke to the people.
Yeats was made a Senator of the Irish Free State and was active and constructive in his role as Senator and he was listened to with respect. In 1923 William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and this gave public recognition of his work. He bought his first house in Co. Galway and called it Thoor Ballylee it was a medieval Norman tower and he and his wife restored it and they lived there with their son and daughter. Yeats work continued to shine and mature and he wrote with fervour and energy despite illness and impending age and death.
He died in France and was buried in Roquebrune in January 1939. His body was brought to Ireland and interred at Drumcliff in September 1948.
Jeffares, A. Norman., (1990) (end) W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry. Pan Books Ltd., London.
Jeffares, A. Norman., (2000) York Notes Advanced. W.B. Yeats Selected Poems. York Press. London.
Shortall, Barry. (2002) Willie & Maud The Collins Press. Cork.
Birdthistle, Sheighle. (2001) U.L. Notes. Ireland.
I should like to thank Dario and Marit of Le Bookshop. Montpellier for their invitation to read from my book The Toga and The Rose at this year’s La Comedie du Livre. I am delighted to be the only English speaking poet reading at the event.
Le Bookshop is a delightful place to explore books and enjoy a delicious coffee in a convivial atmosphere. Le Bookshop is host to readings and other activities throughout the year.
La Comedie du Livre is the most important literary event outside Paris and this year it is dedicated to Scandinavian Authors. There will be readings and book launches and exhibitions with a Scandinavian flavour. A great opportunity to become familiar with some excellent writers. There will writers from other parts also and I am delighted to be honoured with my own poetry reading at Salle Petrarque on Friday afternoon at 4.pm. I will read from my new book The Toga and The Rose. Some poems have been translated into French and one poem ” Poetry” will be read in a number of different languages.