W. B. Yeats scholar James Flannery thinks the Irish Nobel prize winner for literature would have no qualms with Ireland’s recent vote for same-sex marriage.
“Yeats would have viewed that as a triumph of the human will, of the human individual’s self-determination, of the theme of love itself,” Dr. Flannery told Global Atlanta during an interview at his home on the outskirts of Emory University’s campus.
Perhaps also surprising would be Dr. Flannery’s view that Yeats would have thought that with the economic success of the “Celtic Tiger” the Irish were in danger of losing their essential character.
“Ireland is a better country in my view today than it was in 2008. It had to reckon with what really counts,” he said.
Dr. Flannery established the W. B. Yeats Foundation at Emory after persuading the late Donald Keough, the Coca-Cola Co.’s president and chief operating officer for many years, to provide the original funding for the organization that seeks to keep alive Yeats’s work as a dramatist, folklorist, poet and politician.
He is the Winship Professor of Arts and Humanities emeritus at Emory having retired in 2012, exactly 30 years after coming to the university to found the theater program.
Since earning his doctorate at Trinity College, Dublin in 1971, he has continued to devote himself to a serious study of Yeats’s work and Irish culture.
These days he is busy organizing in partnership with Paul Gleeson, Ireland’s consul general based in Atlanta, the foundation’s gala celebration of Yeats’s 150th birthday with a special program titled “Here Still/Still Here” to be held at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum on Saturday, June 13th.
Nationally-known musicians are to perform songs inspired by Yeats’s poetry and the Atlanta-based Irish theater company Aris is to put on selections from Yeats’s comic dance play “The Cat and the Moon.”
Among many other activities, Dr. Flannery was the executive director of The Yeats International Theatre Festival at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theater, from 1989-93 where he produced 14 of Yeats’s plays, winning critical acclaim in the process.
Dr. Flannery is intent on imparting “what really counts” in life and providing a knowledge of Yeats as a key to that understanding. A quick look into his study in his orderly and well-appointed home is proof enough of his quest to determine what Yeats thought “really counts.”
Quite in contrast to the rest of his home, the cluttered study — which his wife, Ildiko Flannery, the former associate director of international affairs at Emory, says reflects her husband’s state of mind, or so he said with a laugh as if sharing a private joke between them.
It is waste deep in stacks of books and papers, many either biographies of Yeats or the poet’s works themselves.
There’s a painting over the mantle in the study of a little white bird in flight against a sea of blue that was done by the poet’s daughter, Anne, as a tribute to the continued presence of her father’s spirit in the world.
During the interview, Dr. Flannery also showed a painting of Yeats in old age by the noted Irish artist Louis le Brocquy that hangs in his dining room .
“What I love about it is there’s a film of blood behind the eyes,” he said. “Yeats was one of the rare writers who retained his creative genius right to the end. Quite literally right on his deathbed, he wrote a couple of great works. And that film of blood is passion.”
The painting makes him recall Yeats’ poem “A Prayer for Old Age“:
“God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone…
I pray — for fashion’s word is out
And prayer comes round again —
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.”
Yeats’s creative passion also was sparked by Ireland’s struggle for independence.
As a young man Yeats was greatly influenced by Irish patriots like John O’Leary, exiled for 20 years because of his revolutionary activities. Mr. O’Leary encouraged the young Yeats to focus on Irish subjects, instead of Romantic themes.
Maud Gonne, the great love of his llfe , became the muse that inspired much of his poetry as well as many of the leading characters in his plays. She also was a leading revolutionary of the time.
Yeats memorialized Mr. O’Leary in “September 1913,” which will be read by Mr. Gleeson, the Irish consul general, during the celebration.
Dr. Flannery grew up in Hartford, Conn., listening to his father’s stories about the Irish struggle for independence and was exiled because of his participation on the Republican side of the civil war. Dr. Flannery still becomes emotional thinking about what his father lost when he left Ireland, severed from a culture that was and remained his whole world.
His father’s stories, he said, reflected the soul of Ireland’s identity, adding that Yeats tapped into that soul when he set out to create a new spirit of nationalism rooted in the historic culture of Ireland, which had been badly damaged through centuries of colonial occupation.
“When you lose a language, you lose a huge cultural reservoir; you lose folklore, you lose mythology, you lose a lot of songs. All of these contribute to feelings of national pride as well as resistance to foreign rule.”
In 1904 Yeats established the Abbey Theater in Dublin to nurture Irish talent and showcase its art. Yeats wanted “to raise the dignity of people by displaying their culture in a public form,” Dr. Flannery said. “The theater, at the time, was a major way of doing that.”
Between 1989-93 the Emory scholar built on Yeats’s legacy by organizing with the help of Mr. Keough and the Coca-Cola Co. a Yeats International Theater Festival at the Abbey Theater. Composer Bill Whelan says the inspiration for his Grammy award winning “Riverdance” show was born during the festival, and he and Dr. Flannery were inspired to hit the road in Georgia, listening to Gospel music, looking for parallels in the African-American tradition with the huge spirituality that is woven into Irish culture.
Dr. Flannery said Mr. Whelans’ score is grounded in traditional Irish music but also incorporates Flamenco and African-American traditions. “Whelan also brings in Macedonian as well as Russian music and dance. As a result Riverdance is both an Irish and a multicultural event with global impact.”
Additionally, he said that the title of Emory’s upcoming birthday tribute to Yeats at Emory “Here Still/Still Here” goes back to the festival. Abbey Theater actress Joan O’Hara told him that the spirit of Yeats whispered these words to her while she was walking on the beach in Yeats’s beloved ancestral home in the county of Sligo.
The title “Here Still/Still Here” thus reflects Yeats’s fascination with the afterlife and captures the continually growing interest in his work around the world.
The poet T.S Eliot described Yeats as “one of those few poets whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.”
Dr.Flannery added that T.S Eliot is referring to poems like “The Second Coming,” which was inspired by the violence of the Irish civil war but on a wide level speaks to the horrific violence of the 20th century as a whole: the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshama in Japan and even ISIS as reflected in the following lines:
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. “