Yeats’s commentary on the poem “Parnell’s Funeral”, in King of the Great Clock Tower (Cuala 1934; Macmillan 1935)

[ Source: quoted fully in A. N. Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan 1984), pp.333-35. Pagination in square brackets refers to Jeffares's reprint. the poem first appeared in the Spectator (19 Oct. 1934) where the first section was called “A Parnellite at Parnell's Funeral” and the second “Forty Years Later”. The second section was untitled in King of the Great Clock Tower, and thereafter. ]

I
When lecturing in America I spoke of Four Bells, four deep tragic notes, equally divided in time, so symbolising the war that ended in the Flight of the Earls; the Battle of the Boyne; the coming of French influence among our peasants; the beginning of our own age; events that closed the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My historical knowledge, such as it is, begins with the Second Bell.

II
When Huguenot artists designed the tapestries for the Irish House of Lords, depicting the Battle of the Boyne and the siege of Derry, they celebrated [332] the defeat of their old enemy Louis XIV, and the establishment of a Protestant Ascendancy which was to impose upon Catholic Ireland an oppression copied in all its details from that imposed upon the French Protestants. Did my own great-great-grandmother, the Huguenot Marie Voisin feel a vindictive triumph, or did she remember that her friend Archbishop King had been a loyal servant of James II and had, unless greatly slandered, accepted his present master after much vacillation, and that despite episcopal vehemence, his clergy were suspected of a desire to restore a Catholic family to the English throne. The Irish House of Lords, however, when it ordered the Huguenot tapestries, probably accepted the weavers’ argument that the Battle of the Boyne was to Ireland what the defeat of the Armada had been to England. Armed with this new power, they were to modernise the social structure, with great cruelty but effectively, and to establish our political nationality by quarrelling with England over the wool trade, a protestant monoply [monopoly]. At the base of the social structure, but hardly within it, the peasantry dreamed on in their medieval sleep; the Gaelic poets sang of the banished Catholic aristocracy; ‘My fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified’ sang one of the most famous. Ireland had found new masters, and was to discover for the first time in its history that it possessed a cold, logical intellect. That intellect announced its independence when Berkeley, then an undergraduate of Trinity College, wrote in his Commonplace Book, after a description of the philosophy of Hobbes; Newton and Locke, the fashionable English philosophy of his day, ‘We Irish do not think so.’ An emotion of pride and confidence at that time ran through what there was of an intellectual minority. The friends who gave Berkeley his first audience, were to found ‘The Dublin’ now ‘The Royal Dublin Society,’ perhaps to establish that scientific agriculture described and praised by Arthur Young. The historical dialectic trampled upon their minds in that brutal Ireland, product of two generations of civil war, described by Swift in a well-known sermon; they were the trodden grapes and became wine. When Berkeley landed in America, he found himself in a nation running the same course, though Ireland was too close to England to keep its independence through the Napoleonic Wars. America, however, as his letters show, had neither the wealth nor the education of contemporary Ireland; no such violence of contraries, as of black upon white, had stung it into life.

III
The influence of the French Revolution woke the peasantry from the medieval sleep, gave them ideas of social justice and equality, but prepared for a century disastrous to the national intellect. Instead of the Protestant Ascendancy with its sense of responsibility, we had the Garrison, a political party of Protestant and Catholic landowners, merchants and officials. They loved the soil of Ireland; the returned Colonial Governor crossed the Channel to see the May flowers in his park; the merchant loved with an ardour I have not met elsewhere, some sea-board town where he had made his money, or spent his youth, but they could give to a people they thought unfit for self-government, nothing but a condescending affection. They preferred frieze-coated humanists, dare-devils upon horseback, to ordinary men and women; created in Ireland and elsewhere an audience that welcomed the vivid imaginations of Lever, Lover, Somerville and Ross. These writers, especially the first have historical importance, so completely have they expressed a social phase. Instead of the old half medieval peasantry came an agrarian political [333] party, that degraded literature with rhetoric and insincerity. Its novels, poems, essays, histories showed Irish virtue struggling against English and landlord crime; historical characters that we must admire or abhor according to the side they took in politics. Certain songs by Davis, Carleton’s Valentine McClutchy, Kickham’s Knocknagow, Mitchel’s History of Ireland, numberless forgotten books in prose and verse founded or fostered a distortion we have not yet escaped. In the eighties of the last century came a third school: three men too conscious of intellectual power to belong to party, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, George Moore, the most complete individualists in the history of literature, abstract, isolated minds, without a memory or a landscape. It is this very isolation, this defect, as it seems to me, which has given Bernard Shaw an equal welcome in all countries, the greatest fame in his own lifetime any writer has known. Without it, his wit would have waited for acceptance upon studious exposition and commendation.

IV
I heard the first note of the Fourth Bell forty years ago on a stormy October morning. I had gone to Kingsto[w]n Pier to meet the Mail Boat that arrived about 6 a.m. I was expecting a friend, but met what I thought much less of at the time, the body of Parnell. I did not go to the funeral, because, being in my sensitive and timid youth, I hated crowds, and what crowds implied, but my friend went. She told me that evening of the star that fell broad daylight as Parnell’s body was lowered into the grave - was it a collective hallucination or an actual event? Years after Standish O’Grady was to write:

‘I state a fact - it was witnessed by thousands. While his followers were committing Charles Parnell’s remains to the earth, the sky was bright with strange lights and flames. Only a coincidence possibly, and yet persons not superstitious have maintained that there is some mysterious sympathy between the human soul and the elements, and that storm, and other elemental disturbances have too often succeeded or accompanied great battles to be regarded as only fortuitous. .. Those flames recall to my memory what is told of similar phenomena, said to have been witnessed when tidings of the death of Saint Columba overran the north-west of Europe.’

I think of the symbolism of the star shot with an arrow, described in the appendix to my book Autobiographies. I ask if the fall of a star may not upon occasion, symbolise an accepted sacrifice.

Dublin had once been a well-mannered, smooth-spoken city. I knew an old woman who had met Davis constantly and never knew that he was in politics until she read his obituary in the newspaper. Then came agrarian passion; Unionists and Nationalists ceased to meet, but each lived behind his party wall an amiable life. This new dispute broke through all walls; there were old men and women I avoid because they have kept that day’s bitter tongue. Upon the other hand, we began to value truth. According to my memory and the memory of others, free discussion appeared among us for the first time, bringing the passion for reality, the satiric genius that informs Ulysses, The Playboy of the Western World, The Informer, The Puritan and other books, and plays; the accumulated hatred of years was suddenly transferred from England to Ireland. James Joyce has no doubt described something remembered from his youth in that dinner table scene in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when after a violent quarrel about Parnell and the priests, the host sobs, his head upon the table; ‘My dead King.’ [334]

We had passed through an initiation like that of the Tibetan ascetic, who staggers half dead from a trance, where he has seen himself eaten alive and has not yet learned that the eater was himself.

V
As we discussed and argued, the national character changed, O’Connell, the great comedian, left the scene the tragedian Parnell took his place. When we talked of his pride; of his apparent impassivity when his hands were full of blood because he had torn them with his nails, the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie, seemed to grin through a horse collar. He was the symbol that made apparent, or made possible (are there not historical limbos where nothing is possible?) that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation; the spring vegetables may be over, they have not been refuted. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s: ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary.’

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