Updated May 7 at 2 pm
As is the case with Byron and Hemingway, the life and times of Irish poet William Butler Yeats were nearly as bold as his work. In brief: He was born in Sandymount, Ireland, in 1865, a descendant of the earls of Ormond. His father was a painter, the family traveling back and forth between Paris, London, and Dublin, with holidays in County Sligo. It might please some people to know that here was yet another figure of towering success who never excelled at school, gave college a miss, and yet later in life won the Nobel Prize for Literature — the first Irishman to be so honored.
As a young man, his poems won early recognition. He fell deeply in love with legendary beauty and Irish radical Maude Gonne, now chiefly known for William Butler’s ardor: He proposed to her any number of times. She married another man, and long thereafter, after she’d divorced, she and Yeats consummated their love in Paris. Clearly the event was underwhelming for both of them, as they went their separate ways, Yeats to at long last marry another. In subsequent years, perhaps because he’d finally broken free from Ms. Gonne’s bewitching spell, he made up for lost time with his womanizing.
Gonne’s greater influence was to pull Yeats into the fight for Irish Independence, a struggle that yielded some of his most commanding poems, including “No Second Troy” and “Easter 1916.”
In his later years, Yeats regretted the overemphasis on working-class culture in the Irish struggle; he reconnected with his aristocratic roots, which in turn led him down that regrettable 1930s reactionary road, even going so far as to fawn over Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Yeats died in January 1939 in the South of France, where he was buried for a mere five years. (The French have a tendency to houseclean by digging up old bones to make way for new bones; there is only so much French soil to go around.) The poet’s body — or someone’s body; no one was entirely certain, in those pre-DNA-testing days, that the remains necessarily belonged to William Butler —now resides in Ireland under a tombstone that bears an inscription from one of his poems: “Cast a cold Eye/ On Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by. W.B. Yeats.”
On the Island, John Crelan, founder and director of Arts & Society, has long been a Yeats lover, but is best known to Island literati as the ringmaster behind the annual Bloomsday Concert held in May, the oldest continuous public celebration of the life and works of James Joyce. In 1979 and in 1984 in Concert Hall at Boston University, Mr. Creland assembled a group of Yeats lovers to read from selected works.
Last Saturday night at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, Creland’s third Yeats event was realized. Writer and performance artist Niki Patton, her waist-length mane of white hair flowing free, read with both a beguiling Irish lilt and with her usual soulful penetration a number of poems, including the three “Crazy Jane” ballads: “Men come, men go/ All things remain in God.”
Actor and Island Theater Workshop board member Buck Reidy brought his well-honed stage presence to such poems as “O Do Not Love Too Long”: “I loved long and long/ And grew out of fashion.” Wallace Bullock, a longtime English teacher in the Bronx, now settled full-time in Oak Bluffs, read in his resonant deep voice the poem “Ephemera”: “Your eyes that once were never weary of mine/ Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids/ Because our love is waning.”
Singer Joyce Maxner of West Tisbury, always a joy to behold on stage, read “The White Birds”: “Would that we were, my beloved/ White birds on the foam of the sea.” Ken Rusczyk of Oak Bluffs read “The Song of Wandering Aengus”: “I went out to the hazel wood/ Because a fire was in my head.”
Kristian Seney, barefoot and clad in the perfect Irish country-lad outfit of black vest, white blouson shirt, and baggy pants, read “A Drinking Song” and “A Deep-Sworn Vow”: “. . . when I look death in the face/ When I clamber to the heights of sleep /Or when I grow excited with wine /Suddenly I meet your face.” Becky Williams, looking a proper Irish lass in a straw bonnet, read “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” and “Girl’s Song”: “And that was my song/ When everything is told/ Saw I an old man young/ Or young man old?”
Doctor and writer Gerry Yukevich who, among his many distinctions, lives in the smallest whaling captain’s house in Vineyard Haven, read Adam’s Curse: “We sat together one summer’s end/ That beautiful, mild woman, your close friend.” Looking debonair with a Stetson hat and a black leather jacket, humorist and Martha’s Vineyard Poet Laureate Arnie Reisman read from a collection of Irish freedom poems, including the iconic “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer/ Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
Mr. Crelan cleverly paired two poems, one by Pierre de Ronsard, “Quand vous serez bien vieille,” beautifully recited in French by fashion designer Chrysal Parrot in a Snow White gown, followed by Creland’s rendering of Yeats’ magnificent ode, “When You Are Old”: “When you are old and grey 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.”
The evening was satisfying for all of us Yeats fans, but here’s the crux of the matter: In the audience, mostly all old and gray and full of sleep (not that we don’t look mahvelous, dahling), all the usual suspects who turn out for poetry readings, chamber concerts, and theater events. Is there some way we could lure our younger friends into the fray? Perhaps announce the bill of fare with the offer: “Bring a millennial free of charge.” We know they’re out there: The Under-40s mad for content beyond Game of Thrones and the 89th message of the day on their Twitter accounts.
Think about it. There isn’t a single line that Yeats wrote — with the possible exception of his marching songs for Mussolini — that isn’t still exquisitely relevant today, perhaps more than ever.
An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the founder and director of Arts & Society as John Creland. The correct spelling of his name is John Crelan.