W B Yeats at Garsington

The Irish poet and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats, died in January 1939.  He and I shared only 18 months as contemporaries.  But Yeats was alive this weekend at an old haunt of his, Garsington Manor.  A couple of weeks ago I had come across this invitation to:

An evening of poetry and prose with Irish music and dance . . .

WB Yeats at Garsington, Friday May 1, 7:30 pm at The Great Barn,

Garsington Manor, Garsington, Oxford.

I’m still not sure how it ended up in my mail slot at the College, but I took it personally.

Garsington was where Phillip Morrell and wife, Lady Ottoline, held court in the early 20th Century with the likes of D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and particularly Yeats and his wife George.  The town of Garsington and the manor are about 10 miles outside Oxford.  I think Yeats would have enjoyed how magic the readers, Irish dancers, and musicians made the evening . . . Fairies! (Yeats believed in Fairies, but I don’t.)  Before the sun set I walked in the flower gardens of the estate and could see why Yeats with his weird sense of the occult loved coming to Garsington.

The production was in the “Great Barn” and wove together Yeats poems, letters, essays with Irish songs and melodies. There was a group of eight musicians — a fiddle, two flutes, three guitars, a penny whistle and an accordion; two unbelievably beautiful green eyed, blond haired, big boobed Irish dancers, and maybe five readers (all professional actors from the Oxford Playhouse).  The barn was packed — maybe three or four hundred — and the acoustics perfect.  I can’t remember ever having been so lost in anything.  The reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” (see blow) was surrounded with a flute tune (She’s Like the Swallow) and the haunting, traditional Irish song “May Morning Dew.”  Cliche:  I was carried away . . . but what else is “Sailing to Byzantium” supposed to do?  

I had not known of Yeats’ life long obsession for Maud Gonne (the beautiful Irish Republican radical) . . . just the failure of my education, I’m sure . . . but that heart-sick thing played out unforgettably this night in the reading of their letters accompanied by a soft Irish pipe in the background!  Holy St. Patrick, I was in tears.  Listen to what he wrote when he first met Maud:

I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty.

It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past,

A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body

had the beauty of lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty

because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great

that she seemed a divine race.

And her name!  Maybe there are Fairies after all.  To long for someone so beautiful and whose name is like her love, Gonne! Of course, I am the first one to make such a comment! Forgive me sophisticates of Yeats’ works and biography.  Think back, though, you-in-the-know, to your first reaction to this nominal, mystical, coincidental wonder. Palpably Yeats was there and, yes, God forgive me, she was gone. 

Maud Gonne

Maud Gonne (I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.)

In rejecting one of Yeats’ three proposals of marriage, Maud said she did not want to deprive Ireland of its great poet simply so she could have a husband!  Sadly she believed that if they married Yeats would lose his passion for his work.  Yuck!  He sure never lost his passion for her, right winged Irish Nationalist and all. Gonne, after having two children with a right-wing Irish politician (Lucien Millevoye), married another radical, Captain John MacBride, who was executed by the British for sedition following the Easter Rising in 1916.  Only the Irish could manufacture such magnificent pathos.  Perhaps it’s the whiskey. 

It was dark outside the barn when the applause died and the musicians, dancers and readers along with the audience ambled away.  I was aware, standing waiting with a friend for a cab to arrive, that tonight I had met the great man.  He was at Garsington, not so much in the mystical sense he might have proposed, but in reality.  As Virginia Woolf herself an old haunt of Garsington surmised, we are only stories, after all, just physical apparatuses – synapses, nerves, impulses, chemistries — maintaining the narratives necessary to make sense of things that happen.  Meeting and knowing anyone is simply becoming a part of his or her story.  And tonight at Garsington I actually met Yeats . . . sailing to Byzantium.







Sailing To Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.     

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

William Butler Yeats 

4 Responses to “W B Yeats at Garsington”

  1. 1 k8 May 4, 2009 at 7:28 pm


  2. 2 Terrell May 14, 2009 at 1:45 am

    Hardly seems right to comment on this blog; it’s beautiful. Dad so loved Yeats. Wish the three of us could talk about him.

    When You Are Old (by Yeats)

    When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

  3. 3 leviathanindex May 14, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Thought of him and you all that wonderful evening.

  4. 4 Gerry Byrne September 22, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Many thanks for the wonderful review, I am glad you enjoyed the night. I do hope you are coming to words spoken and sung at the North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Oxford.
    You are invited to an evening that celebrates the beauty and power of language spoken and sung. Poets Tom Paulin and Bernard O’Donoghue will read from their own collections and selections from other writers, and singers Cliona Cassidy, Mick Henry, Joe Hughes, John Griffin, and Jenny Whitehead will delight you with songs chosen from Irish and Classical traditions.

    This performance complements the eighth annual Children in Troubled Worlds’ conference ‘Between the Words’ which takes place the following day at St Antony’s College. The conference brings together the fields of literature and psychoanalysis, exploring the meaning in and between words with Tom Paulin and Bernard O’Donoghue offering a poetry masterclass. Further information available from lindyrapkins@hotmail.co.uk or http://www.childrenintroubledworlds.org

    Produced and directed by Janet Bolam and Gerry Byrne, Words spoken and sung follows the success of W.B. Yeats at Garsington in May 2009 at Garsington Manor Barn: ‘Beautiful instrumental pieces, interspersed with famous verse, Irish dancing.



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