How Yeats Did It

In a recording of his poetry made for the BBC in 1932, William Butler Yeats prefaced his stirring rendition of pieces such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Fiddler of Dooney” by explaining that he would read “with great emphasis upon the rhythm, and that may seem strange if you are not used to it.” “It gave me,” he continues, “a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” There is indeed nothing prosaic in his incantatory method of delivery—“I will ariiiiiise and gooooo noooow, and gooo to Innisfrreee…”—and it takes him a full five seconds to do justice to the long vowels of the poem’s final line, “I heeeeaar it in the deeeep heeaart’s coooore.”

In his poems as well, Yeats frequently refers to the “devil of a lot of trouble” involved in getting thoughts and feelings into verse. In “Adam’s Curse,” for instance, he presents the business of writing as more onerous than the toughest kinds of manual labor:

We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.”

Many of the contradictions inherent in Yeats’s figuration of both poetry and his poetic persona are delicately captured in the stately yet fluent pentameter couplets in which he casts his conversation with the mild woman (based on Maud Gonne’s sister Kathleen) and the silent “you,” Maud Gonne herself. On the one hand, a poem is only successful if it disguises the hard work that went into its creation, but on the other Yeats needs us to know about the intense and unremitting labor required to create an apparently spontaneous line. And yet the more natural and effortless a poetic “moment’s thought” can be made to seem, the less likely it is to impress the industrious professional middle classes, from whom Yeats here carefully distances himself, and who, or so he claims, dismiss him as a mere “idler.”

When Yeats began publishing in the 1880s, Tennyson was poet laureate, and, largely through his influence, poetry was popularly conceived as offering such people as the bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen derided in “Adam’s Curse”—as well as their wives—a means of melodious relaxation, a series of “sweet sounds” that might divert a stray hour of idleness, or console for some loss in the real world. Occasionally Tennyson would rail against the enervating…

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