W.B.Yeats: Appeasing Plato’s Ghost, with Professor Timothy Webb

Or… what’s the point of being a poet?

Yeats was, as T.S. Eliot said, 'one of those few 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.'


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Who was W.B.Yeats? The Greatest Poet of the Age, Irishman, nationalist, revolutionary, Nobel laureate, dramatist, mystic, visionary, lover, critic, essayist, statesman, senator, founder of movements & societies...

The Ebenezers are delighted to welcome Timothy Webb, Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Bristol University. He is the editor of Penguin's Selected Yeats, and recognized internationally as one of the leading authorities on Yeats.

In this illustrated talk, he will examine Yeat’s poetry by referring constantly to the poet’s life and times, the significant events which formed his character and career, and of course to the poetry itself Appeasing Plato's Ghost, from the title of the lecture, comes from a late poem in which Yeats wrestles with 'the point' of poetry). His was a poetry of paradox: one of the great moderns, though not a “modernist” like Eliot or Pound, his language was lyrical, ambiguous, subtle & complex and reflected the stages of his life, from romantic lyricism and narrative verse to symbolism & heroic despair.

Yeats’s language has become our own, his words a reflection of our own times as much as his:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was, many would say, the greatest poet of the last century and certainly a major force in the evolution of an Irish cultural identity. Born a subject of Queen Victoria, he became involved in Irish revolutionary politics, particularly because of his love for the formidable Maud Gonne, whom he pursued unsuccessfully for years (eventually, he proposed, also unsuccessfully to her daughter). Yeats took a special interest in the occult and his concern with the spirit-world played a large part in his relations with his wife, Georgina (whom he married at the age of 52), and in his essays and poetry.

Partly because of nationality, partly because of his age, Yeats was at a distance from the First World War; but could not avoid contact altogether when a close family friend, Major Robert Gregory, was shot down by mistake in 1918. The Second Coming memorably investigates what Yeats saw as the collapse of Europe after the War. Yeats's visionary interpretation of politics and history was soon followed by 'The Troubles' and the Irish Civil War (Meditations in Time of Civil War captures the violence and the difficulties of that time with passionate and highly personal expressiveness).

Yeats was never a modernist like Joyce, Pound or Eliot, though his style, technique and challenging modernity constantly adjusted to take note of the mounting disruption and uncertainties of the Thirties. Yeats became and remains a significant poet because he scrupulously attended both to his own life as well as to the world around him.


Timothy Webb

Timothy is the editor of Penguin's Yeats' Selected Poems. At Bristol University, he is today Emeritus Professor where he was for many years Head of the Department of English and Winterstoke Professor. He has worked at the Universities of Leeds, Michigan State, York, Bologna, Malta and he is a regular lecturer and tutor at the Yeats International Summer School. Timothy serves on the boards of many journals & academic institutions in the United States, Italy, the Czech Republic, Greece, Scotland, and has edited two periodicals. He has delivered more than 150 lectures and papers on a wide range of subjects in many countries. Works in progress include a large study of Ireland and the English Romantics and The Book of Stones.

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Timothy Webb’s works include:

• Yeats: Selected Poetry, Penguin Poetry Library, Penguin Books (1991), 318pp.; revised and corrected editions (2000; 2003 (planned)).

• Shelley: Selected Poems, Everyman's University Library, J.M.Dent (1977; revised and corrected edition, 1983), 232pp.

• Shelley's "Devils" Notebook, The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, vol. xiv (edited with P.M.S.Dawson), Garland Publishing (New York) (1993), xli + 293pp.

• Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poems and Prose, Everyman, J.M. Dent (1995), xxxv + 552pp.

2013Martin Keeley