Poetic justice: WB Yeats’s time in London to be celebrated at last
Homesickness often brings fellow expats together and drives the creative impulse, prompting exiled artists to pick up the brush, or poets the pen. So the unveiling this week of a new tribute to the burning 20th-century Irish talent who wrote of the land of his birth from the English capital should not be a surprise.
What is perhaps surprising is how long it has taken. William Butler Yeats was, after all, not just a great literary star in Ireland. He can also claim to be the only Nobel prize-winning, full-time poet raised in England.
Now, after a campaign waged by fans of Yeats’s work, including Sir Bob Geldof and the actors Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack and Ruth Negga, the new public sculpture they believe is well overdue will finally celebrate the poet’s London life.
The sculpture, to be unveiled on Tuesday by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is the work of the British sculptor Conrad Shawcross, and its arrival in a leafy London square will mark the end of a slow process of recognition in the area where Yeats grew up and lived into his 50s. The west London enclave of Bedford Park is also the place where he created some of the most popular poems ever written in the English language, among them The Lake Isle of Innisfree. In British polls of favourite lyrical works, it is Yeats who regularly scores the most hits.
As Geldof has put it: “Bedford Park is where the national poet understood what it was to be impoverished, alien, exiled, became obsessed with a woman who would haunt his life and give rise to the greatest poetry of the 20th century. Surrounded by his extraordinary family and his radically revolutionary neighbours, Bedford Park whipped the beautiful young poet into the maelstrom of poetry that would give rise to a nation.”
Organisers of the project claim the sculpture will be a fitting gateway to the park, which was the world’s first garden suburb, with its carefully conserved architecture from the Arts and Crafts movement.
English Heritage had originally suggested a blue plaque should go up on the house in Blenheim Road, Chiswick, west London where the young Yeats met the inspirational, radical figure of Maud Gonne, and co-founded the Irish Literary Society. Yeats’s parents had brought the family over to Victorian England to settle in the village near the Thames that was being built “for communal happiness” by Dublin-born Jonathan Carr. Soon the park, which had its own inn, stores, church, school of art and social club, had drawn in an eclectic, bohemian crowd and become a magnet for creative activism.
Now, to misquote the line from the poet’s famous Easter, 1916, “a shimmering beauty will be born” when Williams reveals Shawcross’s tower of flashing metal. The artwork was partly funded by a £25,000 award from the Royal Academy, as well as by public donations, and support from the London Borough of Hounslow and the Irish embassy.
For Cahal Dallat, a local contemporary poet and founder of the project, the new sculpture will be “a dazzling piece that reflects Yeats’s genius” as well as an apt memorial to the “exiled longing” the poet expressed.
Around the base of the artwork are words from Yeats’s poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, inscribed in stone. But the line that inspired Shawcross is not its best known phrase, “tread softly because you tread on my dreams”, but the earlier couplets which first impressed him when he heard Hinds read the verse at the launch of the project in 2018.
“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light…”
Some have already compared his 4.5 metre-high artwork to a fall of autumn leaves. Others to a flock of the white birds that appear in Yeats’s work, or the flight of angels from Yeats’s Bedford Park-period poems and the cover of his 1895 volume, Poems. But interpretations should run free, since as Yeats’s father, the artist John Butler Yeats, once wrote to him in a letter dated between 1911 and 1916: “What can be explained is not poetry.”