Tag Archives: William Butler Yeats

Yeats, Kennedy, ‘Vietnam’ and ‘The Second Coming’

William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming” is referenced in Episode 6 of “The Vietnam War,” the 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

The series narrator mentions that Robert F. Kennedy cited the poem in a 1968 op-ed piece about the overseas war and domestic woes. But the voice-over transposes the poem’s third and fourth lines as viewers see Kennedy’s image, intoning “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” then “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” rather than the other way.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” was the headline of Kennedy’s 10 February op-ed in The New York Times. The then-U.S. Senator from New York quoted the same two lines as above, but in the correct order.

Kennedy also quoted the lines in a 4 January 1968 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Watch a short clip of the speech featuring this segment starting at 1:35.

Kennedy was not the first person to cite the poem in relation to the war. In a December 1967 New York Times wire service piece published in numerous U.S. newspapers, journalist James Reston reported “The Second Coming” was one of the favorite poems of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a hold-over from the administration of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Like the Kennedy brothers, McNamara was the American-born grandson of Irish immigrants.

Yeats’s poem began getting fresh attention in 1965, the centenary of his birth. It surfaced later in 1968 in Joan Didion’s collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which takes its title from the final line of the poem.

“ ‘The Second Coming’ ” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English,” Nick Tabor wrote in a 2015 piece for The Paris Review. He suggested “dozens if not hundreds” of writers and other artists have cribbed Yeats’s lines “in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration.”

It’s worth remembering that Yeats wrote the poem at the end of Word War I and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The violence and unrest of the 1960s was hardly new to the world.

Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968. The Vietnam War dragged on until 1975.

Here’s my earlier post about Irish connections in the Vietnam documentary.

Exploring Irish history through texts and ephemera

An excellent exhibit at the University of Delaware Library’s Special Collections Gallery explores Irish history before and after Easter Week 1916 through literary texts, political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, graphics and other ephemera.

Cover of rare first edition.

Cover of rare first edition.

A rare first edition of William Butler Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” is the iconic centerpiece of ” ‘A terrible beauty is born’: The Easter Rising at 100,” which closes 12 June. Images and commentary on the exhibit material will remain available online.

The exhibition was curated by Maureen Cech, UD’s senior assistant librarian and coordinator, Accessions and Processing, Manuscripts and Archives Department. I asked her a few questions via email after viewing the exhibit in mid May.

Which parts of the exhibit are held by University of Delaware Special Collections? Where did the other portions come from, especially the Yeats first edition? What other Irish-related material is available for researchers at UD?

MC: Most of the material is from Special Collections’ holdings. Our senior research fellow Mark Samuels Lasner, whose collection is on loan to UD, lent me a few wonderful pieces around the Yeatses, including a beautiful pencil sketch of Lily and Lolly by John B. Yeats and a poster advertising W.B. Yeats’s first produced play in London designed by Aubrey Beardsley; several items relating to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; and an excellent volume of Beltaine.

I was also lucky enough to have faculty in the English department here at UD lend me some items: Prof. Bernard McKenna lent, among other things, two medals from the War of Independence; and Prof. Jim Burns lent several documents that had belonged to his grandfather from de Valera’s campaign in the United States in 1918-1919 for support and funds for the Republic. They add a really personal touch to the exhibit.

Irish holdings in Special Collections (including the first edition of W.B. Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”) have been built over the years, beginning with faculty input and support, especially from Irish scholar Robert Hogan, who was part of the UD faculty until his retirement in the early 1990s. Our strength would be toward the 20th century (representing both the Republic and Northern Ireland), especially in terms of manuscript material, but we do have some great items from the 19th century, including a diary kept during the Great Famine. We also continue to collect new Irish literature, in English and Irish.

What is your favorite item in the exhibit, and why, and/or something you learned about Irish history?

MC: I learned an enormous amount researching this exhibit and figuring out how to tell a very complicated, multi-layered story in a finite amount of space. Some were trying to define what it meant to be Irish, but there are no simple dichotomies of English or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Throughout the exhibit I wanted to examine how the leaders of the 1916 Rising got to that point, the physical force tradition they drew on and felt was their only option, and the parliamentary efforts they felt had failed them, as well as contemporary reactions to the Rising. It’s a pivotal point in Irish history and one that created a lot of ambivalence and anxiety when it happened and of course still carries a lot of gravity. 2016 has been a time of reflection in Ireland.

I suppose if I had to pick a favorite item it would be two matchbook covers from Tuam from around the end of the 19th century. They were unexpected finds. One depicts Irish sports (hurling and Gaelic football) and the other reproduces portraits of prominent political figures like Charles Stewart Parnell and William O’Brien. Both are representative of the politicization of advertising that was happening in the 19th century and how buying local and supporting Irish industries (and not English ones) was a political act.

A hand-colored Christmas postcard from Kathleen Clarke, widow of Rising leader and signatory Tom Clarke.

A hand-colored Christmas postcard from Kathleen Clarke, widow of Rising leader and signatory Tom Clarke.

As a librarian, archivist, curator & specialist in literary collections, what are your thoughts about how ephemera (the political broadsides, manuscripts, letters, periodicals, and graphics in the exhibit) reflect patriotism and popular culture, as compared to bound books, official documents and other materials intended to be held long term? How well, or poorly, do you think today’s digital media will reflect our contemporary world 100 years from now?

MC: The press was incredibly important in spreading ideas in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ephemera like newspapers and publications was cheaper, produced more quickly, distributed more broadly, and aimed at a wider audience than other kinds of publications. The industrial revolution came late to Ireland, after the Great Famine, so developing Irish industries was very important. Advertising became very politicized starting in the 19th century, encouraging people directly to “buy Irish” and/or incorporating nationalistic elements like shamrocks into advertisements.

That’s a very complex question because it addresses ideas of postmodern archives in which we consider ideas of collecting and who’s doing the collecting and the institutional biases that create (intentionally or unintentionally) gaps and silences in the archival record. The archival record is never 100 percent complete, at least as we know it now. But it might become more complete because more people are able to create records, and institutions are recognizing the value of multiple voices and multiple narratives.

It’s also a difficult question because born-digital materials represent a different kind of ephemerality–not only do we need to ask whether it is meant to last, as with traditional analog ephemera, but will it last? How will we continue to determine what is ephemeral? How will our traditional definitions of “enduring value” in archives change? Our collecting activities as archivists are becoming more active and robust in order to accommodate new forms of expression. We are developing collecting strategies and creating short-and long-term born-digital and electronic preservation plans. There are projects that are documenting the new ways in which we communicate and document our lives, like the Library of Congress archiving Twitter and some institutions documenting social movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, which have large born-digital components.

New media have democratized record-keeping and creation in really exciting ways, ones that will hopefully reduce the amount of gaps and silences in the archival record. So I think it will depend on how well we are able to document what is created at the rate at which it is created and remains “permanent.”

Best of the Blog, 2015

This is my third annual “Best of the Blog” (BOB, as my wife calls it), a look at some of the most important news stories, historical anniversaries and personal favorite posts of the past year. The items are not numbered, so as to avoid the appearance of rank. Most links are to my own posts, but a few are to outside websites.

Enjoy. Thanks for supporting the blog. And Happy New Year!

  • Four years into the “Decade of Centenaries,” 2015 proved that even as Ireland remembers its past, Ireland is not bound by its past. This was most dramatically demonstrated in May as Irish voters enshrined same-sex marriage rights in the Republic’s constitution, becoming the world’s first nation to give such approval through popular referendum. The outcome prompted Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin to comment: “The Church needs a reality check right across the board, to look at the things we are doing well and look at the areas where we need to say, have we drifted away completely from young people?”
  • Other long-standing Irish institutions also changed in 2015. Clerys, a landmark department store on O’Connell Street in Dublin, closed in June after 162 years in business. … In August, Aer Lingus was acquired by British Airways owner IAG for €1.5 billion after nearly 80 years of state ownership.
  • The erosion of the Irish language continued at “a faster rate than was predicted” by a 2007 study and “demands urgent intervention,” a government agency reported in an update this year.
  • 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. His poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” was celebrated during the year. And, of course, “Easter, 1916.”
  • The Republic’s official remembrance of the Easter Rising began in August with a commemorative re-enactment of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The original Dublin funeral of the Fenian leader, who died in New York, set the stage for the Rising eight months later. Pádraic Pearse’s oration at Rossa’ graveside became a call to arms that continues to inspire Irish patriots. One of my Kerry relatives kept a copy of an August 1933 reprint of the speech, cut from the pages of The Gaelic American.
  • I also reflected on my copy of a 1953 St. Patrick’s Day greeting from another Kerry relation.
  • In Northern Ireland, the International Fund for Ireland launched a new “Community Consolidation-Peace Consolidation” strategy for 2016-2020 focused on removing some of the more than 100 “peace walls” that separate Catholic and Protestant communities. “We have a role to take risks that governments can’t take,” IFI Chairman Dr. Adrian Johnston said during a September briefing at the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, D.C. … But a new poll showed that support for removing the physical barriers has dropped to 49 percent, compared to 58 percent in 2012.
  • The British and Irish governments announced a new political accord to overcome various crises in the North. … Seventeen years on from the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell told a Washington audience the peace talks got off to “a very rocky start” due to the long history of mistrust in Northern Ireland and “no habit of listening to the other side.”
  • An RTÉ/BBC poll revealed two-thirds of respondents living in the Republic favor political reunification of the island within their lifetime, while just under one third of those surveyed in the North share the view. … In what was described as a “rogue action,” the Republic’s tricolour flag flew over Stormont for a few hours in June.
  • Irish Minister for Diaspora Affairs Jimmy Deenihan, speaking at the  Embassy of Ireland in Washington, announced “a new strategy to improve Ireland’s connection with the diaspora.”
  • More historical records continued to be made available in 2015 for online inspection, including:

Dublin Metropolitan Police Detective Department’s “Movement of Extremists” reports leading up to the Rising, held at the Irish National Archives;

Long-awaited Catholic parish records, held by the National Library of Ireland; and

Fenian Brotherhood records and O’Donovan Rossa’s personal papers, held by The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

River Shannon by Therea M. Quirk.

Departed in 2015:

  • Six college students, five from Ireland and one holding Irish and U.S. citizenship, were killed 16 June in Berkeley, California, when the fifth floor apartment balcony where they were partying collapsed and plunged them 50 feet to the ground.
  • Dublin-born actress Maureen O’Hara, who co-stared with John Wayne in the 1952 screen hit, “The Quiet Man,” died at 95. … More than three dozen other notable Irish and Irish American deaths from the arts, sports and politics are listed here.

From the Archive:

Author chases Yeats’ wandering soul to Innisfree

The 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats is being celebrated all year long, as I blogged about in February.

Innisfree_image

Now comes a Travel section piece in The New York Times about Yeats’ poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Published in 1888, the poem is about an island in the middle of Lough Gill, County Sligo. It was partially inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden’s writings, according to the article author Russell Shorto. He continues:

The whole landscape echoes the poem. You realize, sitting there, identifying the sound of the lake water with the deep heart’s core, that the Yeats who wrote the poem does not actually intend to retreat from the world and move to this spot. He is reaching for something. He is aware, at 23, of death and the inexorability of change. He is searching, trying to find his balance, his center. He knows he left it somewhere in his past, as we all have done.

Here’s the full story, and here’s the poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
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.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth

“This year sees a worldwide series of creative and cultural events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats,” Adrian Paterson begins an opinion piece in The Irish Times that serves as a good introduction to the sesquicentennial. He writes:

…Yeats was more than a poet. He was a cultural revolutionary who became a cultural entrepreneur. He began things, co-founding the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Literary Society and, with his talented family, the Cuala Press, producing designs and books from a single hand-press in Dublin. He was anything but a solitary dreamer: his collaborations with musicians, actors, dramatists, stage designers, folklorists, journalists, artists, dancers, printers, occultists, broadcasters and lovers are reflected in the vibrant range of celebratory events on offer.

There’s plenty to explore at Yeats 2015, official website for the celebration. And much more at the Yeats Society & Yeats International Summer School.

Here, from February 1915 (when he was 50) is Yeats’ “On being asked for a War Poem,” which was written less than a year into the conflict remembered today as World War I.

I think it better that in times like these 
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth 
We have no gift to set a statesman right; 
He has had enough of meddling who can please 
A young girl in the indolence of her youth, 
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.