A Yeats Journey
I was bitten by the Yeats bug at the fourth annual Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, in 1963. The opening ceremony in neighbouring Drumcliff Church was magical. Even a fledgling student knew the ringing lines in which Yeats declared,
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there…
I could not have foreseen that fifty-six years later I would have the honour of delivering the opening address at the sixtieth Yeats Summer School to an audience at Drumcliff Church that included the great-great-great-granddaughters of the ancestor referred to in Yeats’s poem, Reverend John Yeats, who was Rector at Drumcliff from 1811 to 1846. The feeling that night of being a link in a human chain of 208 years was one I’ll never forget.
Linkages like these help us locate ourselves in an otherwise impersonal universe, and lend order and meaning to life. My beloved professor at University College Dublin, Gus Martin, used the term apostolic succession to describe the line of succession from the original Chair of the Department of Anglo-Irish Literature at UCD. He was riffing on the fact that UCD’s founder, John Henry Newman, had left the Anglican religion to become a Roman Catholic because he believed in the critical importance of apostolic succession from Peter, Bishop of Rome.
Direct links to predecessors abound in the Yeats community. Yeats’s son and daughter linked me to their father by their readiness to help an aspiring scholar. Michael Yeats turned up at a lecture I was giving, chatted amiably afterwards, and kindly answered a letter asking about his father’s papers. We regularly conversed over lunch at the annual Autumn Gathering at Coole Park, County Galway, just down the road from Thoor Ballylee, the Norman tower where Yeats lived while writing some of his greatest poems. Michael and I sat together at the opening of the National Library of Ireland’s Yeats exhibition in 2006, not long before his death. His sister, Anne Yeats, was also wonderfully generous. She often welcomed me to her home to browse her father’s library.
Thoor Ballylee itself is another point of linkage. Yeats emphasized the tower’s centrality in these lines from Blood and the Moon:
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my
By highlighting his succession from his ancestors, Yeats invites readers to become links in the chain. I have spent many happy hours at Thoor Ballylee, participated in its restoration, and had the privilege of speaking there on the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth in 2015. When a bat interrupted the performance at Thoor Ballylee of a play based on my book W. B. Yeats and the Muses, no one questioned poet-playwright Eamon Grennan’s spontaneous exclamation that it was Yeats.
Joseph Hassett is a trial lawyer and a literary critic based in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively on Yeats, Joyce and other Irish writers. His books include W.B. Yeats and the Muses (Oxford University Press, 2010), The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law (Lilliput, 2016) and Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life (Lilliput, 2020).
Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life by Joseph Hassett is available now.
CRITICAL PRAISE FOR YEATS NOW: ECHOING INTO LIFE
‘Joseph Hassett is an uncommonly acute and insightful reader of poetry, highly attuned to the noise made by the poem. He hones in on how Yeats’s words echo through many of the poems of his successors …’ — Michael O’Loughlin, The Irish Times
‘… one of the most beautiful and enjoyable books on Yeats … a delight to read … Lucky Yeats in having an interpreter as relaxed, authoritative and tender as Joseph Hassett.’ — Declan Kiberd, Dublin Review of Books
‘… a work of personal engagement that will strike a chord with everyone who cares for Yeats, and anyone who loves poetry.’ — Professor Roy Foster