A Review – W B Yeats: Poems selected by Seamus Heaney

Yeats poems by Heaney

My lovely daughter Emma, for my recent birthday, presented me with an anthology of Yeats’ verse, pieces selected by that other Irish master Seamus Heaney (once a teaching colleague of mine!). [Faber & Faber ; 978 – 0 – 571 – 24732 – 9]

Already I have enjoyed hours of delight for this selection includes the greater number of my personal favourites. Also I have closely perused the introduction by the Derry man – more than once – and I shall do so again, for much light is therein shed – by the Nobel prize-winner – on his predecessor, the greatest ever Irish poet (arguably until Seamus came along).

I take exception only to one reservation, where Heaney castigates the older man for ” a certain coarsening of tone in some of his poetry of the 1930s. His own self-absolution – ‘Why should not old men be mad?’ – does not necessarily extenuate the rant and licence”.

Seamus Heany Book review W B Yeats Poems
Seamus Heaney

I suppose it depends on which of the many meanings of ‘mad’ one chooses in interpretation but for my part

-being now an old man and given to frenzied railing –

in my inadequate body but reasonably preserved mind, memory, emotions and aesthetic appreciation -against impotence to make a difference, and failure to do so when I might have, and inability to communicate satisfactorily now with that great repository of human joy, beauty, innocence and wisdom, the fair young lady, I choose to side with Yeats over Heaney.

Heaney is particularly scathing about the poem I reproduce below.


How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix,
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows,
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

How many hours have I spent, more than half a century ago, in university halls, asking myself that same rhetorical question? And frankly, on reflection, I deem those hours better spent than those when i was paying attention to the academic topic in question.

What then, you may wonder, in Yeats’ opinion is left to the ‘mad’ old man?


Picture and book remain
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

Precisely so, I agree, in tune with W B Yeats. Myself I must remake, in the sure knowledge that truth and beauty are paramount.

The above are just two of eleven dozen poems in this worthy tome – my bedside reading for some time to come.

Thank you, Emma!