Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

I will arise and go back to Sligo

Looking back on 50 years of the Yeats Summer School
I shall be returning to Sligo for the Yeats International Summer School in August. The occasion is the 50th anniversary in a not untroubled history. The Yeats Society was founded in 1958, the year I first visited that part of Ireland and met the agreeable founder of the Yeats International Summer School, Tom Henn. He was the cousin of a Sligo friend and lived in a beautiful house in Co Clare called Paradise. He was then a well-known academic at Cambridge and famous among Yeats lovers for his early work of critical interpretation, The Lonely Tower.

I therefore saw the early emergence of the school at close quarters, attended lectures and, as a journalist, hunted for celebrities among visiting lecturers and Sligo notables, and wrote about them. In due course I came back and lectured, not without misgivings, since, in the early 1960s I had published a famous -- or infamous -- essay by an American academic that was highly critical of the poet's work. I was unrepentant at having done this, believing that regular discussion of artists must give all sides of the picture, and in the case of the Yeats family, all sides are of great interest.

There was another reason. I sided with the erratic and dysfunctional father of the family, the painter, John Butler Yeats, in his view that posterity would in due course rate the youngest member of the family, the painter, Jack Yeats, as a greater genius than the poet. I am not sure how I feel now, but I also became intrigued with the devastation among the four surviving Yeats children that resulted from the fact that their father laid waste their early lives through his own ineptitude as a parent.

This, the human factor, was central to my interest and has remained so. It has not been matched by the many dissertations -- apart from my own -- that I have listened to in Sligo town at other Yeats summer Schools. Indeed, looking at the main programme of lectures, the old familiar emphasis on poetry and literary tradition, that can very quickly become stifling and boring, dominates what is planned.

One exception to this may be contained in a lecture by John Kelly of St John's College, Oxford, entitled 'Inheriting a Philosophy of Life: WB Yeats' Debt to his Father'. I never thought there was such a debt. It always seemed to me that the father was in the son's debt, imposing on him intolerable responsibilities when he was young and when he should have been happily breathing the free air of poetic inspiration instead of fulfilling the domestic duties of putting bread on the table. Perhaps there is a philosophy of life here. We shall see.

I shall bring two books with me to Sligo, both by Louis MacNeice. The more important of the two and the second to be published is The Poetry of WB Yeats which appeared in 1941, almost 10 years before Henn's The Lonely Tower, and is I think the first extended study by another poet, and a very great one who easily rivals Yeats among 20th century poets.

Earlier in MacNeice's career he published a book called Modern Poetry, in 1938. This is 'A Personal Essay' with a very brief preface outlining MacNeice's own views about his work and beginning with the sentence: "This book is a plea for impure poetry, that is, for poetry conditioned by the poet's life and the world around him". MacNeice did not have Yeats in mind when he wrote those words. Indeed, Modern Poetry, which has a good deal of autobiographical material in it, suggests that MacNeice came to know Yeats quite late, long after he had left Oxford.

He reaches him, in the book, in chapter five, and introduces him with comments about how poets, generally speaking, are often "physically clumsy, or short-sighted or weedy. As children they have had night terrors or been bullied. Some are afraid of sex and some were precociously erotic. They grow up to use their poetry as a weapon. It is their way of showing off".

And coming to Yeats on foot of this he says: "An obvious contemporary example of the vain poet is Yeats, who admits that poetry is a pose. But it is, he insists, a stock pose, approved by history and permanently valid." MacNeice thought this presented a problem for Yeats and later he observes that "Yeats is a federation -- more self-conscious than is usual -- of opposing interests"; he cites Irish politics, theatre management, controversy, publicity and being a snob.

This is the kind of stuff that should be enlivening the Yeats International Summer School, but such nuggets are offered infrequently these days. Modern Poetry was published the year before Yeats' death. It coincided with MacNeice's masterpiece, Autumn Journal.

Three years later MacNeice took on the more fundamental task of a full-scale book on Yeats. As in Modern Poetry he begins with the essential problem of "a definition of the relationship of poetry to life".

Though bewildered by the idea of explaining this, he nevertheless suggests its primary importance in any discovery of the meaning of another poet's work. The book is a brilliant analysis of what Yeats achieved.

The Fiftieth Yeats International Summer School will be held in Sligo from Monday, July 27, to Friday, August 7, and will include contributions from Denis O'Donoghue, Helen Vendler, Roy Foster, John Kelly, Warwick Gould, Edna Longley and Terence Brown all giving lectures, with many other participants involved in seminars. There are readings from, among others, Seamus Heaney, an old friend of the school, Gerald Dawe, Bernard O'Donoghue, Greg Delanty, Eavan Boland and Clare Roche.