Lilliput Press €15.00
Joseph Hassett’s book, focusing obviously on Yeats but drawing from many other great pens from Socrates to Zadie Smith, is nothing if not aptly timed; Yeats lived through the Great War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the rise of fascism and the volatile unrest here in Ireland in the early years of the 20th century. There’s a frightening prescience to it all in this 21st century, indeed one chapter of the book is called “Cycles” and presents some carefully considered ideas on the cyclical nature of human history. Here we go again, in the middle of a pandemic, watching again the rise of fascim (now called populism, but a steaming pile by any other name, etc) and it’s alarming to observe how ‘doomed’ we are to endlessly repeat the errors of our ways.
Yeats, of course, had much to say about all this and in his slim but packed volume, Hassett presents us with Yeats the man as much as Yeats the poet, fraught with self-doubt as much as he was blessed with genius. We’re also given valuable context for some of Yeats’ finest works, shedding light on passages that we might have found obscure. Hassett also shows Yeats as inspiration to others, most immediately Joyce and Beckett and later, in particular, Seamus Heaney.
The book’s short essays are gathered under headings such as “On Friendship” and “Inventing and Reinventing the Self”, “Marrying” and “Growing Old” and through these episodes we see Yeats’ flawed humanity, doomed himself to repeat his own mistakes. His unrequited love for Maud Gonne and then for her daughter Iseult is well known. He married late and was not completely fulfilled. But he wrote prolifically throughout his myriad travails and his impulse to transcend what Kavanagh called ‘the habitual, the banal” is the very essence of his poetry.
This book gravitates more towards the everyday Yeats reader than the Yeats scholar. Not that it is not a scholarly work – it most certainly is – but it’s an accessible book, almost a ‘Companion to Yeats’-type book, offering non-scholar and scholar alike an array of richly-illustrated frames of reference that further illuminate the poet’s work. His influence on Joyce, Beckett and Heaney is handled lightly but thoroughly. If all great men are standing on the shoulders of giants, then Hassett leaves us in no doubt about whose shoulders bore the weight of those three greats.
We are in the midst of dark days again. We are locked up and locked down, clamped into inertia by an unknown disease. We are spending more time in the company of books than in the company of loved ones. And I can’t think of a more inspiring way to fill the unforgiving minute than to read this book, to be renewed and invigorated by Yeats’ relevance today – Now – and to rediscover the nobility of his poetry, the endurance of his hope.