ON a blustery day in Shoreham W.B Yeats enthusiasts convened for a special workshop organised by WordFest on the life and work of the poet.
In the spacious auditorium of the Ropetackle Centre, Little High Street, Janet Pressley began her three-hour comprehensive and engaging workshop on Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
Janet Pressley is a Sussex literature graduate and taught English for many years to A-Level pupils but she now teaches literature and creative writing to adults.
She commented on her nerves before the event began but no one would have guessed her worry from her calm, focused and involved workshop which chronologically galloped through Yeats’ tumultuous life and intricate poetry.
The audience were all armed with an anthology of poems to jot notes on and enjoyed readings of poems from Yeats himself as well as the in-house assigned readers.
Described by Seamus Heaney as a ‘poetic genius’ he was in his life-time a figure of fun, for his idiosyncratic ways, loud speech, voracious appetite and focus on the occult.
He was, in fact, nick-named ‘silly willy’ by his Irish compatriots.
However, he was seeking to create a new Irish literary identity.
Born in 1865 in Ireland, at the age of four he moved to London as his father stopped practising law and became an artist.
The Yeats family were thrown into abject poverty and all four children including William B. Yeats knew hardship.
Janet outlined three icons of his poetry from the outset, which were imagination, vision and soul.
As a teenager, he was lonely and anguished and his work was a dramatisation of his life.
Yeats was an autodidact soaked in the myth and folklore of Ireland and learnt by his imagination. He regularly visited Ireland during his youth and it was the base of his creation and invention.
He very much lived by Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Every man may invent his own myth.”
A focus of many of his poems was the beautiful activist Maude Gonne, with whom he was in love with much of his life, though his love was unrequited. Yeats frequented Sussex on many occasions and stayed in Ashdown Forest with Ezra Pound and even on his honeymoon, with wife Georgiana.
He raged into old age with regret over wasting time,unhappy because of Maude, and, therefore, began a string of affairs with young women.
A particularly famous fling of Yates’ was with Edith Shackleton Heald, at Chanctonbury House, Steyning.
The workshop was a detailed and enlightening exploration of Yeats’ life, times and poetry.
We sailed through many poems but perhaps the poem most vivid and compelling was Byzantium about the passing of spirits in Yeats’ idealised eerie place where the witching hour of midnight acts as the gateway for the spirits to travel along the ‘gong-tormented sea’.
We rounded off hearing of the death of Yeats in 1939 in France and with W.H Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats.