Our book today is a neat little pocket-sized 1963 paperback called Age of Yeats, part of an old Dell series called “Laurel Masterpieces of World Literature.” That series was actually full of nifty volumes, anthologies so well-assembled that you’ll find yourself returning to them time and again – if you can, that is: the whole lot was cheaply bound and printed on the cheapest post-rationing paper stock available (in the case of Age of Yeats, this has the unintended but somehow fitting effect of gilding the pages in green), with the result that as the decades go by, time is inexorably reclaiming its own, just as it does with the Outer Banks and Joan Rivers.
The volume is presided over by George Brandon Saul, a New England poet and first-rate book-critic who eventually fetched up in Storrs, Connecticut and so might seem at first glance an odd choice to ride herd on such a much-contended group of writers as this. As Hugh Kenner put it in his great book A Colder Eye (we talked about it at Stevereads years ago, here), “When you propose to discuss the private affairs of the Irish, your (non) credentials may be called for. They can be a touchy people.” In his own defense, Saul’s opening remarks seem well aware of how perilous his task is. “Selection is extremely stringent,” he tells us, then warms to his theme exactly as though he’d been born in Dublin instead of Pennsylvania: “there is nothing here that lacks power and beauty, nothing that will not bear triumphantly the acute and cruel test of frequent – and critical – rereading, nothing that is not on every score representative of the best.”
The very act of selection presents problems, or seems to. Again, Kenner comes close to getting it exactly right:
The Irish story is more complicated. Plenty of the reading matter and acting matter they produce seems intended for natives alone, but Irish writers have always been naggingly aware that Irishmen do not as a rule buy books, have never bought them, have even inherited a tradition whereby to write when you might be talking is an unnatural act.
But if you should find a copy of this inviting old book (true fact: my own copy finally fell apart as I was making this entry), worry not: there’s plenty here for non-natives! Considering the page-limitations he was working with, Saul manages to give fairly generous selections from the drama of the Irish Revival, like this typically bleak little aside made by Denis Dillon (“maudlin with drink,” the stage directions tell us, somewhat unnecessarily) in Paul Vincent Carroll’s The White Steed:
Yes, Phelim, I have been having a half one. I have been having ten half ones. Half ones make me brave. Half ones change me from a man who loves law and hates life to a man who loves life and to blazes with law. Half ones take away my fear of my holy masters, my fear of my job and the road. That’s it, the road. To you, Nora, the road is a place winding out and upwards to the stars; to me it is a place winding down to an old pond where men drown themselves because they have nothing to eat.
And the prose fiction of the period is also gloriously represented, as indeed how could it fail to be, considering the novelists and short story writers at work at the time, giant names like Joyce and O’Connor and O’Flaherty and O’Faolain? Even the less-than-giants acquit themselves well – just listen to the opening of “The Ploughing of the Leaca” by “Daniel Corkery”:
With which shall I begin – man or place? Perhaps I had better first tell of the man; of him the incident left so withered that no sooner had I laid eyes on him than I said: Here is one whose blood at some terrible moment of his life stood still, stood still and never afterwards regained its quiet, old-time ebb-and-flow. A word or two then about the place – a sculped-out shell in the Kerry mountains, an evil-looking place, green-glaring like a sea when a storm has passed. To connect man and place together, even as they worked one with the other to bring the tragedy about, ought not then to be so difficult.
Because the anthology is half a century old (and assembled by one very opinionated man rather than an academic committee), there are lesser-known figures like “Corkery” throughout, including writers like George William Russell (working under the pen name “A. E.” – half the authors in this book seem to dabble in pen-names! Disgraceful!) who are ripe for a little Revival of their own in the 21st century. Here’s his wonderfully ambiguous poem “Refuge”:
Twilight, a timid fawn, went glimmering by,
And Night, the dark-blue hunter, followed fast,
Ceaseless pursuit and flight were in the sky,
But the long chase had ceased for us at last.
We watched together while the driven fawn
Hid in the golden thicket of the day.
We, from whose hearts pursuit and flight were gone,
Knew on the hunter’s breast her refuge lay.
I mentioned the opinionated part: one of the best little surprises in Age of Yeats comes at the very end, where Saul gives us quite substantial little biographical sketches of his authors and works in a bit of salt in every one of them. Take the great Lord Dunsany (represented in this collection with his short story “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”), about whom Saul writes: “One whose huge and qualitatively variable output, in verse and prose, compels selective judgment, Dunsany delighted in color and fantasy, in realms encompassed by no earthly geography, in the lure of things long ago and far away.” I’m not sure even Dunsany’s heirs would have much of a quarrel with that.
And what of the Grand Old Man himself? Yeats gets pride of place, of course, in both the Drama and the Verse sections. The drama is, alas The Countess Cathleen, but some of the verse is as jaggedly beautiful now as it was when it was first penned – like the artfully hopeless predestination in “Leda and the Swan”:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Sid she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
So our first book of 2014 gets an unqualified rave from yours truly: this a little anthology very much worth having. It’s also, obviously, a little anthology very much worth reprinting – on better paper, with stronger binding – so one of you enterprising publishers should get right on that.