Feature Articles

W B YEATS: WORKS AND DAYS by Catherine Fahy

(Poetry Ireland News, July/August 2008)

The Yeats collections in the National Library of Ireland comprise the manuscripts and library of the poet William Butler Yeats, mostly donated to the Library by the poet’s WB Yeatsfamily. They have been used by Yeats scholars for many years but are not well known to the general public. The quality and significance of the collections, and our wish to bring them to the public as part of the national heritage, led us to decide to put on a major Yeats exhibition, which opened in May 2006 and is due to run until Spring 2009.

We received a great deal of help and support from the Yeats family, in particular from Mícheál Yeats, son of the poet, Mícheál’s wife Gráinne, and his daughter Síle. (Sadly, both Mícheál and Síle Yeats died during the two years following the opening of the exhibition).  They lent many significant objects, including pastel paintings by Yeats of Coole Park, the psaltery (a stringed instrument used to mark time) given to Yeats by his friend Florence Farr, the lapis lazuli on which Yeats based a poem, and a painted shell given to Yeats by Dorothy Wellesley bearing an inscription saying it belonged to the English Renaissance poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42).  

Anna MacBride White, grand-daughter of Maud Gonne, was also very generous and lent artwork and photographs belonging to her grandmother, including matching ‘photochroms’ of Yeats and Maud Gonne, a portrait sketch by Maud Gonne of the young Yeats, whom she depicts as looking curiously myopic (he generally tried to conceal his eye problems), and a pastel of Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult

Our main challenge was to find a way of presenting a writer, Yeats, who was very prolific and who led a very active and controversial life.  Key questions were whether to focus on the life or the work (hard to separate with Yeats), whether to take a chronological or thematic approach, and how to present controversial aspects such as his fascination with the occult and his associations with fascism in the 1930s.

And above all else, we wanted to encourage people to have their own encounters with Yeats, to listen to and read his poems, and to engage with his creative process.

After much discussion between the Library’s curatorial team and the exhibition designers, Martello Media, we agreed on an organising principal which was a movement from outer to inner, both in physical space and through interactive technology. 

The outer path round the perimeter of the exhibition area is a non-rigid chronological progression through Yeats’s life, with thematic clumps; an associated inner path shows manuscripts of his best known literary works.  

An internal space at the entrance to the exhibition, entitled ‘verse and vision’, offers an immersive experience where visitors can listen to readings of poems accompanied by images – this is one of the most popular parts of the exhibition. 

A large mock ‘book’, The Tower, encloses a space where visitors can spend time studying Yeats’s working methods, and his use of book art.

Four ‘evocation’ spaces evoking Yeats’s study in London, a theatre, a room in Thoor Ballylee, and his Library, serve as resting places where visitors can watch films on major themes in Yeats’s life: his relationships with women, his involvement with the theatre, his occult activities, and his politics. 

Each display case in the exhibition is accompanied by a touchscreen where visitors can explore the objects in the case in more detail – look at the back of a page, see the inside of an object, see an object in close up, look through more pages of a volume or see associated volumes, and also consult a substantial biographical timeline.

Our designers, Martello Media, paid close attention to the general feel of the exhibition, using colours and graphics to convey mood, guided by Yeats’s own remark that the early part of his life was ruled by the moon, the later part by the sun. As Mark Leslie of Martello puts it, visitors can absorb a lot by drifting through the exhibition in a Yeatsian trance, but the overall layered approach enables them to discover more, indeed as much as they want, about Yeats’s work and his life. 

A selection of visitor comments:
‘Wonderful tribute to Yeats’ ,  ‘Super exhibition of one of Ireland’s greatest geniuses’, ‘Evocative, enlightening, takes me back to my student days’, ‘The individual rooms were especially remarkable. Yeats brought to life!’, ‘Outstanding exhibition will certainly revisit’, ‘Very insightful – discussed many significant points about Yeats well’, ‘Brilliant exhibition! Especially very good scenography.’

If you can’t visit the exhibition, or want to refresh your memory, much of it, apart from the films and some of the ‘Turning the page’ digital installations, is now online at www.nli.ie/yeats.

The films, and a book accompanying the exhibition W B Yeats: Works and Days can be purchased online from the Library shop at www.nli.ie.

Catherine Fahy, Keeper –  Outreach and Preservation,  The National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, D2.

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