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"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."

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W.B. Yeats: U2 Connections Response

A Background and Editorial Response to Angela Pancella's U2/W.B. Yeats Connection Piece

by Khoa Tran

WB YeatsWhile it is fairly safe to assume that the majority of the readers who frequent this site are familiar with U2, Yeats is perhaps less accessible to the general public these days. This, then, is intended to be a response and a companion-piece to fellow @U2 writer Angela Pancella's excellent U2-Yeats Connections piece. While I don't exactly qualify as an authoritative scholar of Yeats's life and works (though I have studied him academically and on my own time), I hope that I will be able to provide a good introduction to those uninitiated, in addition to highlighting and expanding upon some specific points in Angela's own article.

William Butler Yeats, who is arguably the greatest and certainly the most renowned poet that Ireland has yet produced, is a difficult character to pin down. His verse is beautiful, yet oftentimes indecipherable. He had lofty ideals while at the same time being rather unashamedly elitist in his political views. He espoused Irish art and culture while he wasn't exactly Irish himself. He was the "Last Romantic" and also perhaps the "First Modernist." He was a complex man whose own uniqueness is definitely reflected in his body of written work.

Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. His family, of the English aristocratic class, had lived in Ireland for over two centuries at that point; what we now know as the independent Republic of Ireland was then still completely under British rule, and was so until the early 1920s. So, as Angela points out in her article, like the members of U2, Yeats was a Protestant Anglo-Irish man living in a predominantly Irish Roman-Catholic society. If you have a listen to some of his voice recordings, you'll hear that he definitely did not speak with what we would consider to be an Irish accent. He was immensely interested, however, in ancient Irish culture and folklore, and much of his earlier verse (have a crack at "The Madness of King Goll") is impenetrable to those without an understanding of his subject matter and references. And though he had a lofty view of the old "Romantic Ireland" his view is somewhat descended when some of his verse deals with the members of the Irish-Catholic working class ("September, 1913" immediately springs to mind). Strangely enough, though, considering this, and considering again that he wasn't exactly Irish himself, he was a vocal supporter of the movement for Irish independence, though I have a feeling that this was more than just partly due to his being madly in love with Maud Gonne, an prominent figure in Irish Nationalist politics at that time. Though he proposed to her on several occasions, she never accepted, and forever remained his "Beatrice," a love unattainable, but an inspiration for much of his best-known poetry. She, in fact, was the woman for whom was there no Second Troy to burn.

Yeats was a man with very lofty poetic ideals. In many ways, he can be called the Last Romantic, as he was very much concerned with aesthetic ideals in his verse. His poem, "Leda and the Swan," was originally intended to be a political piece written for a political purpose. He felt however, as he wrote the poem, that the imagery of "lady and bird" simply took over, and the political content of the poem was simply removed from it as he stayed true to his aesthetic priorities. At the same time, however, he was also a (if not the) major poetic figure of the early twentieth century, and his style and technique can be said to lend itself to his being given the title of being the "First Modernist." Oversimplifying somewhat, Romanticism was a literary movement that began in the late eighteenth century and continued through much of the nineteenth century. The poets of the Romantic period (Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, et al.) generally preferred feeling and emotion over logic and form, the intangible and sublime to the tangible and concrete. Also oversimplifying, Modernism as a literary movement generally espoused an emphasis on an experimentation in poetic form - Modernist poetry is often intentionally difficult, as the poets (Elliot, Pound, et al.) believed in making the reader work towards an understanding of the poetry. Yeats was immensely concerned with how his words sounded together. Angela writes that "an attentive 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." Though his verse is often impenetrable to the average reader, Yeats was a wordsmith who almost never used superfluous words simply for their sound and lyrical quality. If you dig deep enough, you can figure out what Yeats is trying to say (or, at least you can figure out enough to argue it to death with another Yeats student). And though there are often layers upon layers of meaning in Bono's work, one could probably argue that oftentimes he's more concerned with aural aesthetics than with meaning.

Though he was a poet in modern times (at least relatively so), I would disagree somewhat that his concerns were those which a modern audience could identify with, as he often dug deep into the esoteric and the mystical, basing much of his later work on his own occult ideas and developments, and moving away from the general trend of the 20th century's increasing concern with science and industrial progress. "The Second Coming," "Leda and the Swan," and "The Mother of God," (this last poem famous among U2 fans because it was recited by Bono in a recording) are all annunciation stories of sorts, signaling ends of eras and the beginnings of others. Leda's rape by Zeus brings about the destruction of Troy and the rise of the Classical Greco-Roman era, an era which ends with the Birth of Christ, whose own era Yeats foretells in an gloomily apocalyptic tone in "The Second Coming."

An interesting tidbit about Van Morrison and "Crazy Jane on God": the reason he drops Yeats references everywhere is that Yeats's estate refused to allow Van Morrison to use the poem in its entirety on the album (though Van rather cockily suggests in a 1985 interview that his own lyrics are better than Yeats's). Yeats's estate has apparently been very uncooperative with allowing popular artists to record songs based on his lyrics still under copyright (I don't profess to understand how they let Joni Mitchell get away with it, since she too was rather confident in saying that she "improved" upon his "The Second Coming" for her own "Slouching Towards Bethlehem").

With all of their artistic similarities, the divergence between U2 and Yeats is rooted in the political. Though Yeats tended to put aesthetics above politics in his work (it does make an appearance here and there throughout his canon), he himself was rather unfortunately sympathetic towards fascism, as were many other intellectual figures of his time. Bono, meanwhile, is most definitely a left-leaning man when it comes to the political issues of the day, and his political stances are often reflected in the song lyrics he writes. To his credit, like most of these other figures, Yeats was later also turned off by the atrocities with which fascism was associated in the Second World War. W.H. Auden eulogises Yeats beautifully with a few lines from his 1939 (the year Yeats died) poem, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats":

...
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all:
...
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.

References:

The Norton Anthology of 20th Century Literature. W.W. Norton & Company. 2000: New York.

"Yeats, William Butler". The 2002 Websters' Encyclopedia
Decurtis, Anthony. Interview from the October 1985 issue of Record Mag. Transcribed by Jack Zelensky, and found at http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/~hayward/van/reviews/1985.html

 

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