Friday 15 December 2017

A great poet's society

In first year of secondary school, my best friend promised me that it was perfectly possible to get through life knowing two Shakespeare plays and six Yeats poems. As it happened, we needed considerably more knowledge to deal with what life threw at us, but certainly the Yeats poems remained with me.

Earlier this week, on an unusually sunny day, it seemed a good time to remind myself of the great man.

Downstairs in our lovely National Library on Kildare Street is Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats, which has been going since May 2005.


The first thing that you will hear as you enter the exhibition space is a recording of Sailing to Byzantium, one of my favourite poems and which, of course, contains the line 'that is no country for old men', so presumably Cormac McCarthy is a fan, too.

There's a family tree showing how, on his mother's side, Yeats was descended from the Pollexfen and Middleton families of Sligo with their milling and shipping business; on his father's side, his grandfather and great grandfather were Protestant churchmen. An old-fashioned family album has photos of the various members of the family with Yeats as a schoolboy and as a young man 'cultivating his poet's garb'.

One of the most attractive aspects of this exhibition is the mocked-up rooms, which show short films, focusing on different aspects of Yeats's life.

So, we have a library decorated with Cumann Na mBan posters that gets you up to speed with Yeats's commitment to the idea of Irish independence and a small sitting room with a writing desk and photos of the various women in his life. The film here focuses on his obsessive relationship with the six foot tall Maud Gonne. He said of their first meeting: "The troubling of my life began." He immortalised her famously in No Second Troy.

A school report from the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, London from 1877 rates Yeats as being "Only Fair" in general work; "Moderate Only" in mathematics and "Pretty Good' in modern languages, which seems a bit harsh for our most famous poet.

However, he did win first prize in chemistry and a cup, at 14, for winning the half-mile race at the school.


There's plenty of touch-screen action in the exhibition. One shows the many different addresses Yeats lived at during his life, which include periods spend in Sligo, London, Galway, Oxford, Rathfarnham and Merrion Square. Yeats's interest in the occult is well known and special space is given to Madame Blavatsky, who was an inspiration to Yeats and many others, including George Russell.

A film in a small room with a tarot card display and a jewelled curtain focuses on his interest in the supernatural, which was greatly influenced by his time in Sligo and the legends of the countryside. I suspect that's where he got the inspiration for one of his most beautiful poems, The Stolen Child.

Cleverly illuminated class cabinets contain a terrific collection of Yeats memorabilia and more screens enable you to bring up more detailed information about the artefacts.

Some of the items that caught my eye included a manuscript of Among School Children from 1926, a top hat possibly worn by Yeats at the Nobel Prize award ceremony and a copy of The Wild Swans At Coole, published in 1919.


The Tower is considered Yeats's most influential volume of verse and consists of 21 poems in one volume. Impressive graphic timelines show how each of the poems, which include Leda And The Swan, made their way into this publication.

The Abbey Theatre gets a display all to itself and there's a beautifully detailed floor plan of the theatre by architect Joseph Holloway.

There's also a mock-up theatre space with props basket, ropes and red velvet curtains and a film about Yeats's involvement in the Abbey.

Make no mistake, this is a fascinating and beautifully put together exhibition and one that every Dubliner should take time to visit.

The exhibition is open Mon-Wed, 9.30am-7.45pm; Thurs & Fri, 9.30am-4.45pm; Sat, 9.30am-4.30pm; Sun, 1pm-5pm. Admission is free

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