We're delighted to present an extract from Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life by Jospeh M. Hassett, published by Lilliput Press. 

W.B. Yeats believed that lyrics can "take on a second beauty, passing as it were out of literature and becoming life". By focusing on Yeats’s most memorable lines of poetry, Joseph Hassett reveals new ways of enjoying a body of work that speaks to the twenty-first century.

This book is an enriching companion to the work of one of the world's great poets. Its iconography – portraits, photographs, book designs, manuscript letters – illuminates the poems and the life. Its continuing dialogue with writers past and present, from Joyce to Beckett, Heaney and others, offers up an enduring harvest of wisdom for our age.

'We had fed the heart on fantasies...'

Yeats witnessed the violence of the Irish Civil War from Thoor Ballylee during the summer of 1922. While writing the sequence of poems published as 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', he made a fascinating comment to his neighbour Lady Gregory about the connection between the poems and the violent circumstances in which they were written. 'Lyric poetry', he said, ‘is such a fragile thing it ought to have its roots in history or some personal thing.’  In the best-known poem of the sequence, ‘The Stare’s Nest by my Window’, Yeats found a new word to describe the impulse to  violence. Delirium and bewildered are replaced by ‘fantasies’: 

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The wisdom Yeats distilled from the Irish experience applies around the world and seems never to lose its pertinence. Early in his life Yeats had foreseen that his local experience would have global resonance, an idea memorably expressed in his pronouncement, 'One can only reach out to the universe with a gloved hand – that glove is one's nation, the only thing one knows even a little of.’

O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare

Yeats emphasized the origin of these lines in a note to the published version of his 1923 Nobel Prize Lecture. He seems almost to have willed the honey-bees into existence as an antidote to the bitterness of war. His account told how, in the midst of the confusion, violence and despair of war, he felt 'an overmastering desire notto grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature'.

He went on to relate that a ‘stare (our West of Ireland name for a starling) had built in a hole beside my window’ and that he ‘made... out of the feeling of the moment’ the verses that begin below and conclude with the above-quoted plea to the honey-bees:

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house is burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

'Presently,' he reported, 'a strange thing happened. I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be, at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road'.

Yeats’s plea to the honey-bees exemplifies what Seamus Heaney called 'the redress of poetry’ – the placing of a ‘counter-reality in the scales’, and thereby generating the ‘redressing effect’ of ‘a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of the potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances’.

Seventy-two years after Yeats’s 1923 Nobel Prize Lecture, Seamus Heaney used his own Nobel address to breathe new life into his predecessor’s metaphor. Heaney’s extensive discussion of ‘The Stare’s Nest by my Window’ noted Yeats’s ability to distill the emotions surrounding an experience and preserve them in memo-
rable language. ‘Yeats’s work’, he said, ‘does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed’. Commenting on how the form of Yeats’s poem solidifies its meaning, Heaney instanced the way in which the trio of forces – ‘build’, ‘house’ and ‘empty’ – is ‘held in equilibrium by the triple rhyme of "fantasies" and "enmities" and "honey-bees"’.

The image of Yeats ‘closed in’ with the ‘key ... turned / On our uncertainty’ speaks directly to our physical and mental predicament during Covid-19 lockdowns. The poem embodies its author’s determination not to be unhappy or bitter or lose all sense of the beauty of nature, and instead summon metaphorical honey-
bees to build in the empty house of the stare.

Eavan Boland’s 1967 poem ‘Yeats in Civil War’ beautifully captures Yeats’s achievement in a way that highlights its continuing pertinence. The poem addresses Yeats directly, first situating him closed in by his tower, then describing his miraculous escape via the creative imagination:

Somehow you arranged your escape
Aboard a spirit-ship which every day
Hoisted sail out of fire and rape,
And on that ship your mind was stowaway.

After recounting how the wind blew the smell of nonexistent honey in Yeats's face, Boland’s poem concludes:

... Whatever we may learn

You are its sum, struggling to survive –
A fantasy of honey your reprieve.

'The end of art is peace...'

In his 1901 essay 'Ireland and the Arts', Yeats appropriated a line from Coventry Patmore to define the poet’s goal in terms of the redress of poetry. The poet, he wrote,

must make his work a part of his own journey towards beauty
and truth ... for there is only one perfection and only one search
for perfection, and it sometimes has the form of the religious life
and sometimes of the artistic life; and I do not think these lives
differ in their wages, for ‘The end of art is peace.’

Seamus Heaney's adoption of this same phrase in 'The Harvest Bow’ is another reminder of the recurring power of a poet’s words to give memorable expression to an important idea.

Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life (published by Lilliput Press) is out now and available to purchase here