“It was all ‘father, oh father’,” Bob Geldof says, mimicking a pious voice addressing a priest. Then in his own voice: “F**k off, you’re not my father.”
Geldof is railing against the the Irish State and its grovelling to Roman Catholicism in Fanatic Heart, an RTE documentary about the life and work of Ireland’s great poet (and subject of my most recent novel), William Butler Yeats.
Geldof argues that Yeats, as a poet and statesman of the cultural revolution that was the Irish literary revival of the 1890s and 1900s, brought about immense change in Ireland’s struggle for independence, without firing a bullet. And that his poetic national vision was betrayed by the Roman Catholic nation-state that emerged after the independence treaty was signed in 1921.
It was not until the election of Mary Robinson, 50 years after the poet’s death, that the country began to take the shape he had envisaged, when calling it into being through poetry and myth.
As an argument, it’s not wrong but as an attempt to explain Yeats’s life and work, I found it one-dimensional.
For him the blood sacrifice of the 1916 leaders was just plain wrong. “It’s easy to die,” he says. “I’ve been around this.” Making us think, as we are surely meant to, of his wife Paula Yates. It’s much harder to live for a cause, he says, to work for it day by slow and difficult day, than to die for it.
Well yes, but again it seems misplaced to compare his personal, private tragedy to the public, sacrificial martyrdom of the 1916 leaders.
The name of this documentary which he wrote as well as presented, is taken from a Yeats’s poem “Remorse For Intemperate Speech”. Decades ago, Geldof took the “fanatic heart” lines as epigraph for his own autobiography:
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
In this film, Geldof is still the punk rebel who hasn’t come to terms with his anger against the theocratic Ireland in which he (and I) grew up, his own fanatic heart.
There is much to admire in the documentary — and much omitted, which is understandable. Yeats was such a complex person, and such a wide-ranging writer, that no two-hour film could possibly capture it all. Geldof refers to him only as a poet, for example, but he also wrote 26 plays.
More significantly, the over-emphasis on the relationship with Ireland and Irish nationalism shortchanges the true heart of Yeats life and the importance of women, sex and Love in his creative process.
Geldof reduces Yeats attraction to Iseult Gonne to a bad joke, and fails to figure her affect on his poetry, and the autobiography he was writing, at that time. He dismisses the women of Yeats’s later years as “a gaggle”, displaying the blindness and poor-judgement that always accompanies such sexism. Ditto, his misreading of Maud Gonne’s performance of the symbolic play, Caitlin ni Houlihan. And, indeed, his mockery of the pious. All this anger keeps getting in the way of the film.
But many readings of Yeats poetry balance this out. Particularly fine are Liam Neeson, Bono (yes, I was surprised too!) and Ambassador Dan Mulhall. Everyone’s favorite Yeats illustrator, Annie West, also makes an appearance.
To finish the film, Geldof tackles “Plato’s ghost“. After all his successes, all the love affairs, the adoring young wife, the two beautiful children, the many glorious friends and all his ambitions met beyond his imaginings, including a Nobel prize for literature, Willie was still seeking — and still, in the words of another great Irish anthem of spiritual doubt, hadn’t found what he was looking for.
…I swerved in naught
something to perfection brought
but louder sang that ghost: “What then?”
Geldof answers with one word: Ireland. This is a nonsense, a travesty, actually.
Yeats’s heart ached until he died not for Ireland, but for love itself. Love was something he managed only during peak experiences of sex and spiritual experimentation and poetry. The give-and-take intimacy of everyday love, the ordinary, love which is, in spiritual or carnal form, the most extraordinary of all, was never his.
He knew it and he never got over it.
That was the true longing of his fanatical, complex, aching, beautiful heart, out of which he made such achingly beautiful art.
My Yeats-Gonne biographical novel, HER SECRET ROSE has started to take off on Amazon. As I write it’s at #58 in the Irish Literary Historical Fiction category on Amazon.com.
Can you help me to take it higher?
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