Men dance on deathless feet


Published on 5 December 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Celebrating the relevance and genius of WB Yeats, who would have turned 150 this year

yeatsBorn in the summer of 1865 in Dublin, Ireland, William Butler Yeats, who died at age 73, was a man of many interests, many aspirations, and of many talents. He dreamed of shaping Ireland in his own vision and was committed to the idea of Irish independence, both in his literature and life.

This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Yeats. Numerous events are being held around the world to commemorate the occasion. India too celebrated the ideas of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, especially since he had a spiritual connection with the country.

The India International Centre in New Delhi teamed up with the Irish embassy to celebrate his work through academic lectures, documentary film screenings, readings, and a play.

The auditorium might not have been packed, but every attendee listening to Dr Keith Hopper was a Yeats enthusiast. Hopper — who teaches literature and film studies at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education — spoke on Yeats’ interest in India. “Yeats looms over other Irish poets till today and has a tremendous influence on people who’re practising poetry. His agenda of remaking Irish culture was very popular. He put Ireland among the nations of the world. And what makes him all the more special is that everything he ever wrote was read,” he said.

Even though Yeats strove to remake Irish culture, he was never directly involved in the historical revolution, suggested a documentary titled The Mask: Yeats, The Public Man. He worked meticulously for the revival of the Irish language Gaelic, and was considered more important than the political leaders of his time in shaping Ireland’s destiny.

India calling

As a young adult, Yeats was drawn to theosophy. He met Mohini Chatterjee, an Indian theosophist, when he visited Dublin in 1885, and four years later he wrote three poems that referred to India — The Indian to His Love, The Indian Upon God, and Anasuya and Vijaya.

Though he never visited India, the country and its philosophy seeped into his work. Yeats was further influenced by the fourth-century poet and dramatist Kalidasa. He also wrote a poem inspired by the Bhagavad Gita in 1933 titled Mohini Chatterjee. In 1912, he wrote an introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. He was also instrumental in bringing Tagore’s play, The Post Office to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in October 1913.

His prominence in literary circles led him to establish connections with other Indian poets such as Sarojini Naidu and Manmohan Ghose. His relationship with Indian poets was a symbiotic one; he encouraged a young Indian student in Oxford, Govinda Krishna Chettur, to publish his poems in 1922. Chettur dedicated the anthology to Yeats.

Experiments with theatre

Yeats’ greatest theatrical legacy to his country was the Abbey Theatre, which he founded in 1899 with dramatist and theatre manager Isabella Augusta Lady Gregory and Irish playwright Edward Martyn. Yeats was the key founder and lifelong supporter of the Abbey theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland). He also succeeded in establishing the great modern Irish theatrical tradition.

Dr Vinod Bala Sharma, founder of the Delhi-based theatre society Shaw’s Corner, presented Yeats’sPurgatory, a play that the poet wrote a few months before his death in 1939.

The play tells the story of an old man and his 16-year-old son who are the only two living members of a family that has fallen apart. It deals with issues of decline and death. It also reflects Yeats’ interest in this life and the possibilities of the next.

Sharma, a Shauvian scholar, said at the sidelines of the play, “Yeats is better known as a poet than a playwright. I chose to stage Purgatory because there is something very Irish about it… the Irish never see straight. There is an undercurrent of humour, which is not negative, but neither is it positive.”

On his birth anniversary, there is no better way to celebrate the genius and relevance of Yeats than by reading and re-reading one of his many great poems, such as Remorse for Intemperate Speech, where his fanatic heart and silken tongue are on full display.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,

But outgrew that school,

Would transform the part,

Fit audience found, but cannot rule

My fanatic heart.

I sought my betters: though in each

Fine manners, liberal speech,

Turn hatred into sport,

Nothing said or done can reach

My fanatic heart,

Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

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