"Music expresses the inexpressible. All our songs are about that, about inarticulation."
W.B. Yeats: U2 Connections
I remember as a child, growing up in Ireland, we were taught the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I must have been ten years old. The teacher said, "and then Yeats went through his dry period. He had a writing block and he couldn't write about anything." I remember putting up my hand, and saying "Well, why didn't he write about that?" -- Bono
I once read an article claiming Yeats was the U2 of his time. Without having it in front of me, I can't provide an exact quote, but the sense was "His popularity makes him annoyingly inescapable, but he merits the hype because he really is brilliant."
So U2 and Yeats both have an overwhelming market share, but that's not all. It would almost be easier to list disconnections between them than connections. They own acres of common ground.
The similarities defy easy explanations, however. When examined closely, even the most obvious link-the Irishness of the band and the poet-reveals a more complex bond. William Butler Yeats had family ties to England and Ireland and came from a ruling class Protestant background. Likewise we could call the collective heritage of U2 "Anglo-Irish," and most of the members had a Protestant upbringing in a culturally Catholic environment. These artists spend their lives as outsiders in some ways, never quite fitting in-and this condition surely impacts their art. Only those with a vantage point outside society can paint its picture for the rest of us.
Many musicians have gravitated toward Yeats either to steal a line here and there or to set a whole poem to music. "Down By the Salley Gardens," one of Yeats' earliest works, has the rhythm and feel of some old folk song. Someone married a traditional tune to it early on; countless performers have sung it over the years, including the British a cappella group the King's Singers and Donegal-based Clannad. Joni Mitchell recast "The Second Coming" as the song "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"; Judy Collins made "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" into plain simple "Innisfree."
Van Morrison claimed "Crazy Jane on God"-he also drops Yeats references elsewhere in his repertoire as he pleases. An Irish connection surely inspires his Yeats fixation, though Irish poets aren't the only ones to get his nod-Morrison has name-dropped Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Eliot and many others in song.
Many reasons stand behind the poet's popularity in the music world. Some (and not just musicians) would bestow on him the title "greatest poet of the twentieth century." He uses rhythms and speech patterns that are associated with traditional or folk styles, but he writes from a modern worldview. His concerns (of things falling apart, or terrible beauty being born) are concerns 20th-21st century readers can relate to. This "greatest poet" tag helps him become part of the common vocabulary. Just as musicians will familiarize themselves with Dylan's songs for the sake of cultural literacy, those interested in things literary better read Yeats.
Irish schoolkids growing up in the 1970s, just a couple of generations removed from their country's founding, would have studied Yeats' life and work extensively. Think of how many English expressions originate in Shakespeare, and you will have some idea how much impact Yeats had in those classrooms. The reverence might be fading-today prevailing educational opinion in Ireland may cast him as "a bit of a civil war society relic." Even if he loses favor in school, he will never disappear from a culture which reveres the artists, poets and writers in its history.
Irish kids who became rock lyricists, and who wanted to connect to an esteemed tradition, could do worse than to codge a few lines from ol' Willie. So Sinead O'Connor launches into her recent song "The Lamb's Book of Life" with words just slightly altered from the poem "Remorse for Intemperate Speech." And fans of her debut The Lion and the Cobra will know O'Connor's response to Yeats' query in the poem "No Second Troy":
Though critically revered and popular, many of Yeats' poems use deeply personal or symbolic-or just plain vague or purposefully obscure-language. Comprehension can be elusive. Take a poem like "Sailing to Byzantium," where he writes:
In a verse like this, a reader responds more to the emotion than to any literal sense. The abstract quality of the words-and the way their sounds fit together-create something akin to music: when Yeats read his poetry aloud, he emphasized the rhythm over the words. Some in his audience found this approach monotonous, but Seamus Heaney calls the result "elevated chant" or "semi-liturgical utterance." Yeats clearly wanted people to experience his poetry, not just fact-find with it. U2 have often done the same with their work. They emphasize the feeling or the mood, fitting the words to the music instead of the other way round, leaving many possible interpretations open.
There aren't many direct Yeats quotes in U2 songs, but several poems make guest appearances in one form or another. A non-exhaustive list of connections appears below. The poems are in chronological order -- Yeats, like U2, made many stylistic changes over his long career, so some idea of the passage of time helps.
The Stolen Child (published 1889)
Down by the Salley Gardens (1889)
They are not the only ones who have used this poem as a starting point for an original song. Compare Black 47's "On the Banks of the Hudson ("On the banks of the Hudson, my love and I lay down/Just above 42nd Street, while the rain was pouring down").
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1899)
September 1913 (1914)
Incidentally, "September 1913" was included in the collection Responsibilities, which includes this quote credited to an "Old Play": "In dreams begins responsibility."
The Mother of God (1933)
Before the World Was Made (1933)
See also the lyrics for Van Morrison's "Before the World Was Made."
Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites (Included
in Last Poems 1936-1939)
Which, as Bill Flanagan pointed out in U2 At the End of the World, matches the rhythm and mood of
Including such a reference in a song for a movie like "In the Name of the Father" gives an Irish-specific resonance equal to having bodhrans and Lambeg drums battling in the title track.
We can, just by looking at U2's lyrics with a Yeats anthology handy, understand a dialogue between artists is taking place. We can even imagine the poet and the rockstars' personalities might mesh. Try placing U2's name into these descriptions from M.L. Rosenthal's Selected Poems and Three Plays Yeats anthology and see what happens:
"He was...the poet who, while very much of his own day in Ireland, spoke best to the people of all countries...his themes are most clearly the general ones of life and death, love and hate, man's condition, and history's meanings."
"Yeats sometimes made the assumption, flattering both to himself and to his readers, that because he had something intensely felt to say it must somehow be understood...In any case the poems present images...with a tremendous magnetism apart from their literal meaning."
"Many a poor poet perseveres and writes his roomful of wretched verse without rising an inch toward Heaven. Audacity is another thing, and it seems to me the early Yeats had this quality to a marked degree."
He could have been a rockstar.
Thanks to Sherry, Khoa and all others who assisted with this article.
Related Story: Background and Editorial Response by @U2's Khoa Tran