As William Butler Yeats turns 150, an exhibition at the Hugh Lane is a little like having the poet as a tour guide
You would hardly know it was three days to Bloomsday. The middle of June in Dublin is usually infused with Joycean events and readings and articles, but this year, the face in the arts pages, banners and posters is not James Joyce but W.B. Yeats. Fair enough, though. Tuesday might be the annual celebration of Joyce’s masterwork, but today would have been Yeats’ 150th birthday.
I admit I’m not hugely knowledgeable on either. I’ve read and reread Portrait of the Artist… and Dubliners, but dipped no more than a toe in the “snotgreen… scrotumtightening sea” of Ulysses. I’m fine with the fact that I’ll die without attempting Finnegan’s Wake. The Yeats poems I know best are still the ones we studied at school – Sailing to Byzantium, September 1913 and When You are Old – and even though I loved mythology as a kid, I sometimes find his mythological and spiritualist allusions a little too cerebral for my tastes. For me, Yeats dealt more with the grandiose – with idealism and politics and nationalism – whereas Joyce was more rooted in mundane and intimate humanity, and it might be for that reason that I feel more of an affinity with Joyce’s writings.
That said, an accidental encounter with Yeats this week was a disarmingly intimate and personal one. On a whim, I dropped into the Hugh Lane Gallery (sorry, I can’t bring myself to fumble through its clumsy official name). I came across an exhibition based on Yeats’ poem, The Municipal Gallery Revisited, which he wrote on visiting that very gallery. I had no particular expectation – taking a look more out of curiosity than anything – but the interplay between the paintings and the poem about them made it one of the most moving artistic experiences I’ve had for quite a while.
Lane’s Municipal Gallery
A little background: In 1901, Hugh Lane, nephew of Yeats’ literary colleague Lady Gregory, was inspired by an exhibition of John Butler Yeats (W.B.’s father), to establish a modern art gallery in Dublin. He spent years campaigning, building a collection and persuading contemporary artists to donate their work. In 1908, he set up a temporary gallery in Harcourt Street, but it was not until 1933 – 18 years after his death on the Lusitania – that the gallery finally found its permanent home on Parnell Square.
By that time, Yeats was 71 and just two years away from his own death. He visited the new building and wrote his poem on finding himself surrounded by the faces of many friends – Hazel Lavery, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory and Hugh Lane himself – as well as paintings of the tumultuous nation-building he had witnessed and played a part in.
I think had I read the poem on its own, I could have imagined some of the emotion this old man felt. But to read it surrounded by the very paintings he was writing of – collected again in the same space where he viewed them – put me as the viewer right in Yeats’ place. His emotion was not just imagined but almost tangible in the space between the words and the pictures on the walls.
Here was Michael Collins’ pallid corpse lying in state. Opposite, Arthur Griffith sat “staring in hysterical pride”. Yeats met the fashionable young woman in this large portrait “all but fifty years ago/For twenty minutes in some studio”. Lady Lavery is shown in her “living and dying”, painted in her husband’s brushstrokes. The sorrowful stare of a sickly Synge, painted by Yeats’ own father, is as hard to look at as to look away from. To Yeats, Antonio Mancini’s stunning depiction of Lady Gregory is:
A great ebullient portrait, certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
Hugh Lane – “the ‘onlie begetter’ of all these” – poses for his own favourite painter. At the last, a portrait of the poet himself as a young man, accompanied by the melancholic closing lines of his poem:
You who would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that…
…say my glory was I had such friends.
The power of the exhibition lies not so much in Yeats’ lines or in the quality of the art on display, but in the meeting space between the two – in experiencing the same conditions of the poem’s inspiration. The emotions of the old poet – among the last of this influential group – are not simply described or captured but manifested. The effect is almost like viewing the paintings with Yeats by your side. It could just as easily be 1937.
Too late, too old
I came across an interesting anecdote about Yeats the other day. When he was much younger – around the time when his father’s paintings were inspiring Hugh Lane’s ambitions – Yeats was accosted on O’Connell Street by a kid with a notebook of poems. Yeats was impressed by this young James Joyce’s poetry, but Joyce was less than impressed by the famous poet. He berated Yeats for his attachment to abstractions from folklore and history rather than the inspiration of his own mind. He saw it as “the sign of the cooling of the iron, of the fading out of inspiration” and dismissed Yeats’ explanations as the ideas of an academic, not a poet. Yeats recalled:
As he was going out, he said, “I am twenty. How old are you?” I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, “I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.”
Quite a put-down. At 37, Yeats must have seemed old to the twenty-year-old Joyce, and his harking back to myth and history probably appeared regressive to Joyce’s hankering after modernism. But Yeats was far from old and he still had a major role to play in the cultural identity of modern Ireland. His founding and running of Abbey Theatre, his political career, his Nobel prize and many of his most enduring poems – the ones from my schoolbooks – all came after Joyce’s withering dismissal. In the end, the young modernist writer who thought Yeats to be old and faded outlived him by just two years.
When it comes to writing, I wonder if there is such a thing as being ‘too old’. As long dead now as he was alive, the Yeats we still read and admire and celebrate is as much the old Yeats as the young. Though I might still identify more with Joyce’s writings, I couldn’t but be touched by Yeats’ melancholic reflection at the end of his life on his friends and their works, and more – to have the opportunity to “come to this hallowed place/where my friends’ portraits hang”.
I’m sure Joyce wouldn’t begrudge the old man taking a little of his limelight this week.
More information on events to mark Yeats’ 150th birthday can be found at yeats2015.com
Corrections: An earlier version of this post stated that the permanent home for the Municipal Gallery was found in 1937. That version also used the portrait of Hugh Lane by Antonio Mancini, which is elsewhere in the Hugh Lane Gallery.
The Municipal Gallery Revisited – William Butler Yeats
Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O’Higgins’ countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;
An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. ‘This is not,’ I say,
‘The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’
Before a woman’s portrait suddenly I stand,
Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way.
I met her all but fifty years ago
For twenty minutes in some studio.
Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down,
My heart recovering with covered eyes;
Wherever I had looked I had looked upon
My permanent or impermanent images:
Augusta Gregory’s son; her sister’s son,
Hugh Lane, ‘onlie begetter’ of all these;
Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad-singer had sung it all;
Mancini’s portrait of Augusta Gregory,
‘Greatest since Rembrandt,’ according to John Synge;
A great ebullient portrait certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and that humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.
My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, ‘My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,’ but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept —
(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue).
John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggar-man.
And here’s John Synge himself, that rooted man,
‘Forgetting human words,’ a grave deep face.
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.