Dr. Stewart Donovan gave an illustrated talk on the life and work of famous Irish poet William Yeats on Thursday afternoon at St. Thomas University’s Kinsella auditorium. The talk was timed to coincide with the celebrations taking place in Ireland on the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
Dr. Donovan said poet W.B. Yeats gains his cultural significance from being “born between two worlds.”
Yeats was able to have a Victorian and post-Victorian perspective. A member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the organization who was chief advocate of republicanism during the campaign for Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom, Yeats had “something to sing about” as a poet. “By the turn of the [twentieth] century, he’s in his forties,” said Donovan.
Dr. Trevor Sawler, who teaches Irish Literature at St. Thomas, agrees that his significance spawns from when he was alive.
“I see Yeats as a transitional figure,” said Sawler. “He’s more Victorian or Edwardian than he is modern but after 1913 he becomes increasingly more modern. He spans two genres of English literature and he excels in both.”
W.B. Yeats is widely regarded as the best poet of the twentieth century. Donovan admits that he didn’t have a lot of competition, but Sawler is quick to say he was so much better than what competition he did have.
“Yeats was lucky. That doesn’t mean he’s not a great poet. Without having a musical ear, he made up for it with a notion of the image and how he could communicate it,” said Donovan.
“There are [poets] being taught today that will be forgotten, and I don’t think Yeats is on that list,” said Sawler.
Yeats may have written some political poetry, but it was written in such a way that it is not tied completely to a past event. His writing can be applied to events of today. He wrote also about the human condition and did so with honesty, making his poems relevant now as well as then.
Readers can still identify with his poems.
His poems are often referenced in pop culture, from a reference to “The Second Coming” is the novel “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe to the recital of “Brown Penny” in the movie “Must Love Dogs.”
His most famous and arguably most important poem is “The Second Coming.”
“Even people who don’t like poetry like the sound of it,” said Sawler. “People have argued about what it means for so long and nobody agrees and it doesn’t matter. It just sounds so good.”
Dr. Donovan will be giving a second talk in February about Yeats and the Easter Rising.