Yeats and Heaney: The Poetry Without the Pity

By C. L. Dallat

Featured Art: Genip Tree in the Mountains, Jamaica by Frederic Edwin Church

When W.B. Yeats dismissed Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry as “all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick” (and omitted Owen, Sassoon, and Rosenberg from his 1936 anthology), he was making a powerful statement, not just about dis- taste for sentimental language and the role of pity in poetry, but about the poet’s duties and limits. He had already excluded writing war poetry from his own list of obligations in 1915’s “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” but only later became more coherent on the abjuration of pity as an unfit subject.

This is, of course, the Yeats whose career started in the mists and myths of a Celtic twilight amidst a flurry of pre-Raphaelite sentimentalism and romance, who wrote of tragic heroes, of “The Pity of Love” and “The Sorrow of Love.” So before reaching for his famous poem, “Easter 1916,” where Yeats does appear to address war and politics, we should take a momentary look at that early work.

Yeats’s romantic poems are much more nuanced than many of their Victorian counterparts. In fact, he had dismissed Ireland’s previous national poet, Tom Moore, as a sentimentalist even though Moore’s work had won Erin a place in the hearts (and drawing rooms) of Georgian/Victorian London with its mix of romantic ballads and nationalist feeling. Yeats refused to wallow in those older ways, or in the pity of love itself.

His “When You Are Old,” for example, radically revises Ronsard’s appeal to the object of devotion to “gather roses” while young. Yeats’s version abandons the sonnet form—with the sestet’s implication of conclusive argument—and omits the rejected poet’s voice speaking from beyond the grave, refusing to accuse the lady of “proud disdain” or overburden her with future regret. Instead, while acknowledging that she’s much admired by others for her beauty and “moments of glad grace,” the poet insists that

. . . one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

This is a love of a completely different order from the swooning self-indulgence of the jilted suitor, the poet in this case admiring her spirit and spiritual or political journey, loving her through life’s realities, including aging.

Yeats’s conclusion is not to plead his own case or indulge in self-pity: nor is it to pity the beloved grown old in Ronsard’s sexist, ageist manner, but merely to note that she might note, “a little sadly,” how she missed out; not on the poet’s love, but on “Love” itself, which (personified with an upper-case L and rejected by this independent woman) has exiled itself to pace alone upon the mountains overhead, in true nineteenth-century fashion.

Equally, the popular ballad of exile “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is far from the typical emigrant’s sentimental evocation of some “dear little place.” There is certainly no old Irish mother waiting there for the speaker, with a tear and a smile in her eye. Instead the poet seeks to escape from the city (“the roadway” and “the pavements grey”) and find solitary peace on an uninhabited island in the middle of a lake (not the more Irish “lough”) where he will live self-sufficiently:

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee:
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

If the lake and the cabin recall Walden, the bean-rows are certainly in imitation of Thoreau (“I came to love my rows, my beans”), who planted rather more rows than Yeats.

Had Yeats indulged in the more familiar, more populist kind of tear-jerking emigrant evocation of Ireland in 1888 he might justly have castigated himself later for sending men out to fight on its behalf, as Norman Rockwell’s sentimental visual evocations of U.S. life were specifically aimed at doing during World War II. And James Baldwin might well have accused Yeats, retrospectively, of sentimentality, “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion [which] is the mark of dishonesty.” But Yeats’s “Innisfree” makes no special claim for Ireland or Irishness: his escape is to a Rousseauian, Thoreauvian place of peace and self-sufficiency, a dream revisited in frequent “New Age” phases in Western culture since.

So if we understand Yeats as avoiding the pitfalls of Irish sentimentality and self-pitying love-clichés, and abhorring the accepted ways of writing of war’s horrors, how do we understand his treatment of the Easter Rebellion, of the death of his poet, and playwright, and schoolmaster friends, in 1916?

Always unwilling, in the Irish tradition, to separate love and war, Yeats argues that the rebel leaders died through “excess of love.” Suggesting (contentiously) that the Rising may indeed have been unnecessary, he can, rationally and un- dramatically, understand how the rebel leaders “changed utterly” from literary national revivalists to political (and violent) insurrectionists, asking, “What if excess of love bewildered them till they died?” He insists their names will not be forgotten, but he eschews common grief, even avoids the voluble anger one might expect from a person who has lost sixteen friends and acquaintances to execution.

My poet great-uncle, Charles O’Neill, wrote a piece called “The Foggy Dew,” set to an old air by composer Carl Hardebeck, which became the popular alter- native to “Easter 1916,” (“The Foggy Dew” was later recorded by The Dubliners, Sinéad O’Connor, The Chieftains.) It is unashamedly Nationalist, Catholic, male, epic, anti-British, mythical, heroic. From this distance I can see that Uncle Charlie’s rhetoric did a great deal of political damage in entrenching exactly the sort of positions Yeats skillfully sought to avoid, in inflaming exactly the sort of passions Yeats didn’t want to see inflamed.

Instead, Yeats’s complex balancing act involves asking whether the rebel leaders’ deaths were “needless” while not only recognizing the political contexts that led to their deaths but also predicting that they will be remembered as martyrs, to be honored for having given birth to something new and beautiful, if violent.

In the poem’s oxymoronic refrain, “A terrible beauty is born,” he is still echoing the conclusion of his earlier play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan (where Ireland, personified as a poor old woman, is transformed into beauty by the heroism of an earlier generation of rebels). He asks in a late poem “The Man and the Echo,” referring to that piece’s dramatic ending, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” The question is variously viewed as self- aggrandizing and/or self-exculpating. It is, though, a valid question for the poet, concerned with the interplay of sentimentality and violence, to ask himself. Which takes us to one of Yeats’s key poetic philosophies.

Like Yeats, others have tried to set limits on poetry’s political obligations. Frost maintains that, “Poetry is about the grief, politics is about grievance.” Avoiding Donald Davie’s Frost-Hardy/Yeats-Eliot opposition we nonetheless notice that Yeats’s Occamian divide cuts differently. In “Per Amicae Silentia Lunae,” between the time he had written and privately circulated “Easter 1916,” and the point at which it was published in the New Statesman (London) and The Dial (New York), he writes, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Which is not to say that Yeats didn’t also indulge in rhetoric both as a man of letters and as a poet, but the distinction is important. “Easter 1916” does not express grief for the leaders. It does express Yeats’s own personal, complex argument over the emotional causes and consequences. And indeed reminds us that all trowelling on of grief, pity, sympathy, horror, and tragedy are almost invariably about our quarrel with authorities, oppressors, perpetrators, and thus about polemic, rhetoric, politics.

That an Irish poet might wisely and unsentimentally position himself or herself in relation to public grief, and in relation to pity for victims, became equally important when another generation of poets in the North, following Yeats’s lead, were expected to respond to the 1960s/1970s Troubles: and it is noteworthy not just that Seamus Heaney occupied, in that period, a standing in Irish letters comparable to Yeats’s during the earlier Troubles, but that Yeats and Heaney are the only two poets born in the British Isles to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and are both Irish.

For citizens at large, poetry is often thought of as a medium for the expression of strong personal emotions, so there is a popular belief that great events, great hurt, great loss, including that occasioned by political violence, should find their expression immediately in “poetry.” But poets’ poems—those by, say, Yeats or Heaney—are much less likely to be poems which simply state, or prove, that war or terrorism or famine (or perhaps a particular government) is wrong; less likely to cry out for vengeance, but more likely to be works within which the poet explores, examines, discovers, confesses, what the poet’s own (and his community’s) attitudes, actions, assumptions, even conditioning, have to do with the events, or with their pitiable consequences.

And so while a group of Irish poets are easily pigeonholed as Troubles poets, very many of their poems are not about the public tragedies of the Troubles. Many are about the attitudes of the society, or the parts of society, out of which such troubles arise, though. Thus some of Heaney’s best-known Troubles poems manage the hurt without the obvious rhetoric, and certainly without resort to tear-jerking pity.

Among these, Heaney’s poem “Casualty” (from Field Work, 1979) addresses the infamous 1972 Bloody Sunday shooting by soldiers of thirteen (Nationalist) civilians in Derry:

Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral

But the poem’s actual “casualty” is a friend who failed to observe a curfew called by his own (Nationalist) community to protest the shootings:

How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity.

Thus Heaney’s Bloody Sunday poem is actually a complex reflection on how reaction to injustice contains its own injustices, on how victimhood turns to violence, on how, to revisit Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” “Too long” or too great “a sarifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” And Heaney’s use of “our tribe” shows the poem is about “the quarrel with ourselves,” not a quarrel with government, security forces, or “the other side” of the political divide.

An earlier poem, “Funeral Rites” (from North, 1975), actually brings together, triptych-style, three strands of Heaney’s role as witness. In the first setion he describes local wakes and funerals, much as he had described traditional County Derry life, ploughing, thatching, blackberry picking, in pre-Troubles poems as a part of a cross-community discovery of the richness of the quotidian and as, for a wider urban British audience, a recovery of vanishing ways of life. In the second panel he recognizes how, in the face of each “neighbourly murder” (an oxymoron as potent as, if more plangent than, Yeats’s “terrible beauty”), “we pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms.”

What the poem proposes in order to assuage that pining is a massive funeral, not simply a Catholic or Nationalist funeral like those he’d grown up with (and described in the first section), but one bringing the “whole country”—its opposed Nationalist and Unionist communities—together in a serpent-like pro- cession to “the great chambers of Boyne.” In his choice of Boyne as destination (historically significant for Nationalists for its Neolithic archaeology and for Unionists because of a Williamite victory there in 1690) and in his including, in this funeral procession, “the muffled drumming // of ten thousand engines” (“drumming” being very much a Unionist tradition), Heaney has brought both sides of the suffering province into his imagined ritual.

In the poem’s third section Heaney invokes some of the North of Ireland’s Vi- king past in place names, and imagines that this funeral has “allayed . . . the cud of memory” (that is, stopped each community chewing over bitter legacies of history). He imagines, instead, all the Troubles victims as heroes of some saga:

disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound
though dead by violence

and unavenged.
Men said that he was chanting
verses about honour.

Nothing here of the “blood” and “dirt” of communal violence, but a heartfelt desire for some way of recognizing shared communal loss, and a reminder that even in the bloodiest of Nordic feuds it was not dishonorable to disavow revenge: a much more useful and powerful public message than rage or grief, a much healthier “quarrel” to have with oneself, or within one’s community, than to consistently revisit tragedy, horror, and loss, to cry out for vengeance.

Interestingly Heaney’s upbringing in a mixed, rural area where there was practical, daily interchange and mutual respect between Nationalists and Unionists (including attendance at neighbors’ funerals), despite historical and contemporary political differences, echoes Yeats’s late nineteenth-century youth spent between London, Dublin, and Sligo, where he was exposed to a wide range of diametrically opposed Unionist and Nationalist opinions: but the decision not to indulge in grief and pity is, in the end, an intellectual choice and a decision about the function of one’s art.

Heaney was, unsurprisingly, criticized within the North’s Nationalist community for failing to take on the role of polemicist, propagandist, spokesperson. But Thirties poet Louis MacNeice, who bridged Yeats’s and Heaney’s generations and who, with his North of Ireland background, understood the bitterness of the feud, argued that the poet must be “not so much the mouthpiece of a community . . . but its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct.”

Yeats and Heaney both meet the requirement of examining one’s own and one’s community’s conscience, of exercising one’s critical faculties on its behalf and of opting for generosity instead of loudly rehearsing “the quarrel with ot ers.” Heaney frequently observed that Lost Lives, a book of all the Troubles deaths compiled by Belfast journalists, was one of the most important books of our time. It too eschews pity, but does much of the factual work from which the contemporary poet, in Irish terms at least, is absolved. Having moved beyond the role of the bard in the old Gaelic culture (which included counting, and re- counting, who had been slain by whom) and keeping in mind Yeats’s principled stand at times of high public anxiety, twentieth century poets adopted the role of witness, not protagonist or propagandist.

There remains a strong public sense that poets should use their skills to evoke sympathy, pity, tears for the victims, should protest more; but the refusal to indulge in grief that is not owned, the unwillingness to invoke pity for polemic and political purposes, remains a constant thread among the best of contemporary Irish poets since Yeats. They avoid, as instructed, the “sugar stick,” and man- age to see through the blood and dirt of cycles of violence to complex underly- ing issues of identification, belonging, suffering and loss, distrust and fear that implicate poet and reader, whether within the communities in question or not.

And sometimes, just sometimes, as in Yeats’s exhortation to remember the rebel leaders as dreamers, as in Heaney’s invocation of a shared process of reconciliation, in his insistence that victimhood is not the prerogative of one side or another, in his daring to suggest that revenge and payback are not the ways to deal with grief or grievance, a poet sees beyond and shows us the way forward.

C.L. Dallat, poet, musician, and critic (b. Co. Antrim, Ireland), lives in London, reviews for The Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian, has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s weekly arts magazine, Saturday Review, since 1998, has won Ireland’s Strokestown International Poetry Competition, and is organizer of, and the inspiration behind, the W.B. Yeats Bedford Park Project to create a public artwork marking the London suburb where Yeats spent much of his early life. His latest poetry collection is The Year of Not Dancing (Blackstaff).

Originally published in Issue 19.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s