The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats: on Tour

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The Department of English at the University of Freiburg recently hosted a travelling exhibition on the Life and Works of William Butler Yeats. This is an offshoot from the award-winning Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland. My trips to the NLI are usually in pursuit of a manuscript, a microfilm or a rare book, so I had not previously gotten around to paying visit. Having studied his work in a final year undergraduate course, having visited his grave in Drumcliff, having seen the statue in Sligo (demolished by a drunken driver in 2005, but since repaired), and having attended a ‘master class’ by Terry Eagleton on the poem Easter 1916, perhaps I felt I had had enough of Yeats. Still, when the Irish ambassador to Germany showed up around the corner from my office to launch the exhibition, I thought I had better take a look.

William Butler Yeats by John Butler Yeats (1900) (Wikimedia Commons)
William Butler Yeats by John Butler Yeats (1900) (Wikimedia Commons)

The highlight of this occasion was the lecture on Yeats given by His Excellency Ambassador Dan Mulhall to a room packed full of university staff and students. Mulhall has both researched and taught extensively on the period during which Yeats lived. His extensive knowledge of his subject and his experience in giving poetry readings duly lent assuredness and clarity to what he had to say.

Mulhall’s lecture explored the consequences of the fact that Yeats enjoyed such a long career as a productive writer, as opposed to a figure like Wordsworth who apparently produced nothing worthwhile beyond the age of forty. Had he died in 1900, Mulhall argued, Yeats would be remembered as a fine romantic poet. Instead, he remained active right across World War I and the upheaval in Ireland in 1916 and the years following, and Mulhall explained how such momentous events in turn helped to shape the marked evolution in Yeats’s writing.

It was nice to hear an admission that the speaker was not too keen on the later Yeats’s mysticism, as I remember quite well how the undergraduate class of which I was a part was none too enthused by gyres, whether they turned or not.

Mulhall finished his lecture with a digression on Irish culture more generally, even asserting that Ireland had preserved more of its traditional society than other European countries, particularly through Gaelic Games. The locals seemed interested in his description of the game of hurling, but I’m not sure they were convinced by the closing diplomatic remarks to the effect that the current crisis in Ireland would eventually be resolved without costing German taxpayers a cent.

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