30 April 2006

All that remains

As promised, here is Brian Phillips' essay on Yeats (including more "stranger than fiction" facts):
On the same day that Yeats’s friends gathered around the makeshift grave in Roquebrune, Hitler stood before the German Reichstag and prophesied the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. In September, the month George had settled on as the best time to transfer the remains, France declared war on Germany, forcing the poet’s family and friends to postpone the removal indefinitely.

But the end of the war brought a bizarre and unwelcome surprise. The body had disappeared. When Yeats’s last lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, returned to Roquebrune to visit the grave, she found that the grave was gone. A confused exchange of correspondence between the priest at Roquebrune, the undertaker’s office, and a small group of Yeats’s friends revealed that, apparently due to a clerical error and the priest’s ignorance of Yeats’s identity, the grave had been dug up and the poet’s remains taken to the ossuary, where anonymous bones were kept. It would be difficult to find the poet’s skeleton: in the ossuary skulls and limbs were stored separately.

A macabre comedy followed these strange revelations. Heald and a few of the poet’s English friends decided to cover up the disappearance and keep it secret from Yeats’s family in Ireland. They began implementing an elaborate and farcical scheme, swearing the priest to secrecy and designing a substitute gravestone (it portrayed a unicorn flying to the stars), while at the same time, George Yeats and the Irish authorities were conferring about the best way to bring the poet’s body to Sligo, to the landscape he had known as a boy, and the best way to stage an Irish funeral. In the end, the English contingent, which discovered the plan to return the remains to Ireland by way of an article in the Times, had no choice but to confess the case to George, who took it up with the French government. Authorities from Paris descended on Roquebrune, hastily identified and reassembled the poet’s bones, and arranged a ceremony in which the new coffin, draped in the Irish flag and escorted by a French guard of honor, was driven to Nice, where it joined an Irish naval vessel bound for Galway. Here it was met by the poet’s family and taken ashore before a large crowd. At Sligo, where it was escorted by a pipe band, it met another guard of honor, this one Irish, and lay in state for an hour before an enormous throng in front of the Town Hall. Then, finally, on September 17, 1948, Yeats was buried for the last time, in Drumcliff churchyard overlooking the dramatic peak of Ben Bulben. Down to the epitaph on his headstone, the situation of the grave was just as Yeats inscribed in his great death-anticipating poem “Under Ben Bulben”[.]
This Phillips piece is really a very reasoned review of R.F. Foster's biography, W.B. Yeats: A Life Volume II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939. The reconciliation between life and art is beautifully analyzed:
There are always the poems, where the ungainly aggregations of the life are distilled into moments of airy and bluff and sweet and impossible beauty, and as long as the poems exist, the last word will be theirs. To laugh at Yeats’s life is to find oneself softly checkmated. The poems are things of such constant astonishment that they dismay description; flocks of adjectives graze on them and never see the ground. Reading the fourth section of “Vacillations” makes one understand very well how the split sense of the burial story could have come into existence, how the poet could appear simultaneously as a helpless collection of bones and a powerful guiding spirit. Its ten plain lines show how accident can be transfigured by inspiration.
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.

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