Over a year ago I hurriedly pushed it into my bag before setting out for a train journey with my daughter. It was small and light but not too short that I would be left with nothing to read before the train shuffled into its destination.
But even the best laid plans are said not to survive first contact with the enemy. The enemy on this occasion was a malfunctioning rail system causing a delay of three to four hours before the train even pulled away from the station. Anticipating arrival in Belfast Central by around 8 or 9 we got there, I recall, shortly after midnight. I was glad it was a power failure of some signalling system up the line rather than a bomb scare. That way I could complain about it. Giving out about delays resulting from bomb scares would sound a bit rich giving the amount of them I had caused in my teenage days. Yet I had to grumble about something, having brought a book too short; just to keep my mind occupied with something else.
The copy of Yeats I had with me was an old one I had picked up in a second hand book shop. It was first written many years ago by professor of literature, Denis Donoghue as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series. Any time I found myself browsing in the dusty shops of Belfast back streets whose shade seems to draw used book sellers - although unlike their counterparts the car dealers they seem not be shady – and one of the series appeared on the shelf, I would quickly bag it if it were not already at home. There were occasions when I reached up to place the new acquisition on one of my own book shelves only to find a copy already there. No great loss. That only occurs when a book is borrowed by someone and not returned. I am one of those types who remember who still have my books from 1993.
Although I prefer biography the Masters series is thematic rather than biographical. Still, there is always something to be learned from any book. So with a little patience, perseverance and probing even the dullest and densest will eventually yield something that make the journey through its pages a little less onerous. Like many others, I know William Butler Yeats through phrases: a terrible beauty is born ✑ the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity ✑ too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
Yet limitations on my own knowledge do not preclude awareness that Yeats’s contribution to literary life has been immense. Said to be perhaps not as great a poet as a playwright his legacy has run for longer than his mortal coil. Jonathan Powell borrowed from him for the title of his peace process memoirs Great Hatred Little Room.
Donoghue probably annoyed the nationalistic purist through his claim that Yeats ‘invented a country, calling it Ireland.’ His contribution to founding the Abbey Theatre, which he hoped would promote the flourishing of national life, helped establish his ‘greatness’ in the world of culture. Described by Donoghue as a ‘Tory nationalist’ – in this sense not all that different from the Tory nationalists who strut the political stage north and south today – this was less grating than the fact that Yeats had a strong liking for the fascisms that were sweeping the Europe of his day. Although Donoghue defends him against the charge of secretly harbouring an ambition to become the ‘Mussolini of Ireland’ there is no disputing his penchant for the generic dictator. Donoghue refers to his ‘cordiality to the Blueshirts.’ His preference for the land over the city, his revering of ‘the people’ in a volkish sense and his detestation of the ‘many headed-foam at Salamis’ – the emergence of modern democracy with its lack of order - all combined with his call to ‘limit the families of the unintelligent classes’ to mould a man of deeply reactionary views.
Donoghue stressed the centrality of Nietzsche to the thinking of Yeats. Being tardy in his responses to the letters of Lady Gregory, in his defence Yeats offered:
The truth is you have a rival in Nietzsche, that strong enchanter. I have read him so much that I have made my eyes bad again … I have not read anything with so much excitement since I got to love Morris’s stories which have the same curious astringent joy.
Yeats identified with the Nietzschean disdain for the herd and the elevation of the superman. Cuchulain became Yeats’s own superman. But Nietzsche is a much maligned character in the history of philosophy, having positions ascribed to him that he in fact never held. Much of this was down to his sister who took charge of his voluminous literary output after his illness and death and invented a Nietzsche the authentic one would not have recognised. She superimposed her own racist and anti-Semitic perspective onto her brother, at one point writing a lie riddled biography. Most damning of all she published the book Will to Power from a scattering of her brother’s unpublished notes and claimed that it represented his final testimony. So extensive had been her repackaging of his image that when Gerard Hodgins first introduced me to Nietzsche in prison my domineering thoughts were, ‘Was he not a fascist?’
He of course predated the emergence of fascism and while German by birth saw the dangers in the rise of Germanic nationalism. It is said to the extent that Nietzsche was racist it was only against the Germans whose nationalism he despised, and whom he castigated for not being ‘good Europeans.’ Curiously for an intellectual, Yeats was not a lover of ideas distrusting them for their philosophical grounding in concepts. ‘Descartes, Locke and Newton took away the world and gave us its excrement instead.’
No concession here that he viewed such as the fertiliser needed to replenish the earth he so worshiped. He loved to quote Goethe by saying that people never learn to know themselves by thought, just by action. As he expressed it, ‘do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.’ This ‘action’ focus would appear to have nourished the fetish for strong men, power and heroes. I disembarked at Belfast Central not quite thinking I had discovered my own hero.
Denis Donoghue, Yeats. Fontana. Modern Masters Series. 1982.