Joseph M Hassett writes: The twenty-eighth day of January 2022 marks the eighty-third anniversary of the death of WB Yeats. Anniversaries remind us to step outside the relentless flow of time and ponder a moment of significance.
Anniversaries of deaths are especially meaningful because absence heightens focus on essence. They are fruitful occasions to heed Virginia Woolf’s general reminder of the importance of embracing the moment: “If one does not lie back & sum up & say to the moment, this very moment, stay you are so fair what will be one’s gain dying? No; stay this moment. No one ever says that enough. Always hurry.”
Anniversaries of great poets’ deaths invite us to stay the moment and reflect upon their legacy. Poets’ words are especially worthy of attention because, as Shelley glossed his aphorism that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, poets are “the inventors of the arts of life”. Yeats’s words about friendship express an essential art of life.
As Seamus Heaney wrote, “Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed.”
The necessity of Yeats has been acutely apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. His poem “A Friend’s Illness” transforms unsympathetic reality into a reminder that the tremendous comfort of friendship can outweigh painful circumstances. The poem’s origin is recounted in a moving passage Yeats wrote in his journal when his friend Lady Augusta Gregory was seriously ill in February 1909. Dramatically asserting that “more than kin was at stake”, he noted that Gregory “has been to me mother, friend, sister and brother. I cannot realize the world without her – she brought to my wavering thoughts steadfast nobility. All day the thought of losing her is like a conflagration in the rafters. Friendship is all the house I have.”
That last line is an example of poetry that exists in a form other than verse. It gave rise to what Yeats called a “scrap of verse” when he sent Gregory these lines:
Sickness brought me this
Thought, in that scale of his:
Why should I be dismayed
Though flame had burned the whole
World, as it were a coal,
Now I have seen it weighed
Against a soul?
Gregory, with “all that pride and that humility”, is chief among the friends celebrated in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”. Standing in the gallery, Yeats sets the stage – “Around me the images of thirty years” – then declares:
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
The continuing necessity for poems like these is part of the emotional landscape that longs for works like Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You. In the emails between Alice and Eileen that make up much of the novel, the correspondents assert that friendship is the only thing other than sex worth living for, yet each believes the other has been inattentive to a friendship that falls short of the beautiful world evoked in the novel’s title.
Alice voices the gap between the desired “beautiful world” and the reality of her friendship with Eileen by complaining that Eileen never left Dublin to visit her during the months she was in a mental hospital in the West of Ireland. Eileen has a reciprocal complaint that Alice twice passed through Dublin without contacting her.
Rooney’s title is taken from a line in an Enlightenment-era Friedrich Schiller poem, “The Gods of Greece”, which laments the sterility of life after the departure of the ancient gods. In the context of Alice and Eileen’s imperfect friendship, the “beautiful world” of Rooney’s title can be seen as a place characterised by friendships like that of Yeats and Gregory in which long distance communication was no substitute for in-person visits. The medium and message of their friendship are reflected in the 1932 note Gregory pencilled to Yeats about the months he spent with her in the West of Ireland during her painful last illness. Believing that the time may have come “for me to slip away”, she thanked him “for these last months you have spent with me – your presence has made them pass quickly and happily in spite of bodily pain, as your friendship has made my last years – from first to last fruitful in work, in service”.
Although the note went undelivered, it makes clear that Gregory had found a beautiful world. Friendship was all the house she had.
Joseph M Hassett’s Yeats Now: Echoing into Life was reviewed by Declan Kiberd in the Dublin Review of Books last February: https://drb.ie/articles/quote-dont-dote/