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A New Approach to Reading Yeats by Joseph M. Hassett

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Poets
Yeats Now

By Joseph M. Hassett

My new book, Yeats Now: Echoing into Life, starts with the reader’s own life as a point of entry to the poetry of W. B. Yeats. This is a fruitful approach because Yeats often has just the right words to help us reflect on the most significant moments. Whether we are falling in love, getting married, celebrating a friendship, or even struggling to endure quarantine, Yeats has expressed his thoughts about a similar experience in memorable words. This is no surprise because, as he wrote in his diary, his idea of how to create a poem was ‘to live a passionate life, and to express the emotions that find one thus in simple rhythmical language’.

‘Who tells your story?’ This haunting question from the finale of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton grips listeners’ attention: who will tell their story? And how? The ‘how’ is an important question in telling the story of poets’ lives in relation to their work. W. B. Yeats lived such an eventful life and wrote so voluminously that potential readers of his poetry can be deterred by not knowing just how to start.

Yeats’s lines that illuminate and express our thoughts are plentiful. For example, to express his unwavering commitment to the elusive Maud Gonne, Yeats wrote in ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’:

‘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.’

The concluding lines work their magic on Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County. A stranger introduces himself by reciting them and praising their ‘realism, economy, sensuousness, beauty, magic’. Next thing you know, Francesca is tacking a note on the bridge inviting him to dinner. ‘Got your note’, he says, ‘W.B. Yeats as a messenger and all that’.

Many writers and artists have turned to Yeats to find the right words for emotional moments. When Samuel Beckett was walking from his friend Con Leventhal’s cremation, he stopped to recite these lines from ‘The Tower’:

‘Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come –
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath –
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades….’

Confronting serious illness, the painter Richard Diebenkorn found creative energy in Yeats’s admonition that

‘An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing…’

Diebenkorn found his own way to clap hands and sing by creating the haunting series of etchings ‘A Coat’. The focus on the ‘soul clap hands and sing’ line both gives us a deft metaphor for the creative impulse and leads us into Yeats’s own achievement of staying vital by constantly re-inventing himself in his poems.

Yeats Now also tells its subject’s story through photographs of places and things that add rich context to the lines under discussion. Yeats’s moving poem to Olivia Shakespear, ‘After Long Silence’, echoes with a special resonance when read in a photo of the letter in which he created the poem by writing to its subject. The photos bring alive Yeats’s ‘visitable past’, the realm that Henry James defined as ‘the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table’. The stretch to grasp the objects in the photographs is a reminder of their pastness but the continuous table emphasizes ‘the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions but tasting so of differences …’

Focusing on lines from Yeats not only helps us articulate our thoughts about significant occasions but also opens a path to engaging with his poetry as a whole. Photographs evoking the visitable past reinforce Yeats Now‘s basic approach of telling the poet’s story by letting him help us tell our own.

(c) Joseph M. Hassett

Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life by Joseph M. Hassett

This is an impressive, yet accessible, companion to the works and poetry of Yeats. Roy Foster, Yeats’s biographer, has endorsed the work, stating: ‘It is a work of personal engagement that will strike a chord with everyone who cares for Yeats, and anyone who loves poetry.’

W. B. Yeats believed that a poet’s life should be an experiment in living. His poems fashion into memorable words the sometimes puzzling emotions that hover over important life events. Yeats’s remarkable work can clarify our own thinking about similar situations. Joseph M. Hassett’s Yeats Now: Echoing into Life extracts and distils the rich harvest of Yeats’s experiment.

As Yeats’s biographer Roy Foster comments, Yeats Now is ‘a personal, quizzical, imaginative testament that ranges through Yeats’s thought and writings, showcasing and discussing a series of ringing statements, suggestions and aphorisms that evolve into a kind of vade-mecum or guide to life. The subjects cover love, anger, friendship, politics, violence and the competing claims of perfecting the life, or the work’.

This book is a wonderful companion to the work and poetry of Yeats. Hassett’s writing provides an excellent frame of context through which to explore one of the twentieth-century’s greatest poets.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Joseph M. Hassett has written extensively on Yeats, Joyce and other Irish writers. He holds a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College Dublin and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. His books include W.B. Yeats and the Muses (Oxford University Press, 2010) and The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law (Lilliput, 2016).

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