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Beautiful Lofty Things -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #511) Beautiful Lofty Things
 Beautiful lofty things; O'Leary's noble head;
 My father upon the Abbey stage, before him a raging crowd.
 "This Land of Saints", and then as the applause died out,
 "Of plaster Saints"; his beautiful mischievous head thrown back.
 Standish O'Grady supporting himself between the tables
 Speaking to a drunken audience high nonsensical words;
 Augusta Gregory seated at her great ormolu table
 Her eightieth winter approaching; "Yesterday he threatened my life,
 I told him that nightly from six to seven I sat at this table
 The blinds drawn up"; Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,
 Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head;
 All the Olympians; a thing never known again.
-- William Butler Yeats
In light of the recent Larkin poem somebody contributed, "MCMXIV," I think
Yeats' last line might be taken as a precedent for the English poet's
conclusion, "Never such innocence again." I can't say whether "Beautiful Lofty
Things" had a direct bearing on the Larkin poem (both lyrics cap a charming
catalogue of reminiscences with the rueful "never again"), but if somebody can
dig up Larkin's 1973 Oxford Anthology of English Verse, perhaps he or she can
settle the question. I am confident, however, that Larkin featured other late
Yeats poems in his collection; these are often elegaic pieces about W.B.'s Irish
associates. (For example, I recall Larkin's inclusion of "In Memory of Eva
Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz" and "The Municipal Gallery, Revisited.")

But focus on "Beautiful Lofty Things" (circa 1938) for its plainspoken evocation
of the characters, scenes and events that mattered most to the poet. Or it may
not be that they "mattered most," necessarily, but at any rate the images assail
him like a torrent, line for line, ending with the solitary vision of his
unrequited love, Maude Gonne. Even the act of "waiting a train" seems to echo
the poet's longing at the end of life.

Other images: John O'Leary was an Irish patriot (1830-1907), mentioned in an
earlier Yeats poem, "September 1913," with the refrain: "Romantic Ireland's dead
and gone;/It's with O'Leary in the grave." The poet's father, J.B. Yeats, is
quoted as defending John Synge's play, "The Playboy of the Western World,"
before a jeering mob at Abbey Theatre. (Consult the collected letters between
father and son for a profile of this remarkable man -- a painter and lecturer
who died in New York .) Standish O'Grady was an Irish historian and novelist.
Augusta Gregory, herself a playwright and folklorist, was connected with Yeats
and the Celtic Revival from its earliest days. She died in 1932. According to
Yeats editor Richard J. Finneran, the quote within the poem refers to Lady
Gregory's response when threatened by a tenant during the Irish Civil War.

The references to "Pallas Athena" and "All the Olympians" apotheosize this
gallery of heroes into Greek divinities. It is not often appreciated how
seriously Yeats took friendship, but we have only to cite his oft-quoted verses
from another gallery ("Municipal"):

"Think where man's glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends."

Sunil Iyengar.

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