Yeats day

driving south out of Galway, the rain was splashing on the road and slowing the traffic to a crawl. By the time I reached Coole Park, it was easing, but the woodland paths certainly weren’t dry:

The house is gone, falling into disrepair even before Lady Gregory died in the early 1930s, but in the visitor centre there are displays centred around her granddaughters’ recollections of those days and the crowd that passed through. And what a crowd: a single fan displayed on the wall contains the signatures of no less than Henry James, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Hardy, Ramsey McDonald, Augustus John, Kipling, Asquith, George Bernard Shaw, J M Synge, Sean O’Casey and the Yeats brothers.

On the water drift no swans, but branches break the (not-so) glittering waters of the flooded lake:

Close to flood too a few miles away at Thoor Ballylee:

And still under what once was Yeats’ window-ledge the waters race:

The magnificent final line of that stanza comes easily to mind:

What’s water but the generated soul?

Yet here’s the problem with Yeats: he wrote some of the greatest verse of the twentieth century, but his very brilliance obscures the fact that much of what he wrote was nonsense. That line, for example, is such gobsmackingly authoritative poetry that while your inner ear is still trembling it might not occur to you that, wait, water is much more, and more significant (even to a pantheist) than the generated soul – and it is highly questionable whether it is even that! His talent did his thought no favours.

Then a two-hour drive to Sligo, where under bare Ben Bulben’s head in Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid:

As I am parking the car, a giant tour bus pulls up and disgorges several dozen elderly Americans, who wander around the graveyard chattering quietly to one another, while their driver stands by his vehicle door smoking. Yeats’ grave itself is less romantic than I would have thought; far from being hidden in some secluded corner right under the mountain, it is directly exposed to the large tarmac forecourt of the church. Nevertheless, as expected, on marble quarried near the spot by his command these words are cut:

Yet for all the stellar verse he wrote and the stellar company he kept, if we truly cast that cold eye, what would become of people like this?

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