Echoes: Once More to the Lake

W.B. Yeats at Notre Dame

Author: Thomas O’Grady ’85Ph.D.

Gcsc 03 40 02r Web William Butler Yeats and Notre Dame President Rev. Charles L. O’Donnell, CSC, in 1933.

By the time the Irish poet William Butler Yeats paid his second visit to Notre Dame, in January 1933, he was a Nobel laureate and well-established as the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” he had written into a poem a few years earlier. In fact, Yeats was almost 70. 

Having toured America four times previously to raise funds for personal use and for cultural projects in Ireland, the poet was a seasoned veteran of the lecture circuit. His tours included stops ranging from Maine to San Francisco — some sponsored by colleges and universities, some by Irish American clubs and societies — and he generally drew enthusiastic audiences eager to get “the news from Ireland” delivered by an established figure in the landscape of “the old country.”

Coverage of that 1933 visit in the South Bend Tribune notes that Yeats spoke broadly on contemporary Irish politics and economics. A brief, unsigned report published in The Notre Dame Scholastic student magazine indicates his talk centered on the Irish literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, paying specific tribute to Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge, his most important collaborators in the early years of what would become known as the Abbey Theatre.

The Scholastic also suggests the distinguished guest expressed “some decidedly set views which must not always mesh perfectly with the more developed Catholic mind,” though a photograph in the magazine shows Yeats seated comfortably in the company of Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Charles O’Donnell, CSC, Class of 1906, and former president Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, CSC, along with English professor Charles Phillips and the poet’s traveling secretary.

Yeats’s first visit to Notre Dame in January 1904 received much more thorough treatment from the Scholastic. In fact, in the issue preceding the three-day visit, an editor — Patrick J. MacDonough, a 1903 graduate — primed the campus community not only with an enthusiastic six-column introduction, headlined “The Poet of the Gael,” but also with an ode of welcome that begins: “Hail! minstrel from my fathers’ land.” Quoting at length from Yeats’ first three volumes of poems, MacDonough, an émigré from County Sligo, where Yeats spent boyhood summers, built up high expectations indeed.

By MacDonough’s account in the next issue of the Scholastic, the poet lived up to his billing. Introduced by the Irish-born president Rev. Andrew Morrissey, CSC, Yeats delivered a Friday afternoon lecture in Washington Hall in which he celebrated the hereditary richness of Irish literature and folklore and explained how the current “Gaelic movement” aimed to “preserve and perpetuate this old life of culture and poetry and the fine ideals that accompany it.”

On Saturday evening, he lectured on “The Modern Stage” and seems, by MacDonough’s paraphrase, to have echoed the “manifesto” for the Irish Literary Theatre he co-founded in 1899:

We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory, and believe that our desire to bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland will ensure for us a tolerant welcome and that freedom of experiment which is not found in theatres in England, and without which no new movement in art and literature can succeed.

In a letter to Lady Gregory, Yeats mentions that he also spoke at neighboring Saint Mary’s College. But according to MacDonough, “the most enjoyable and interesting address” Yeats gave during his 1904 visit was a Saturday afternoon talk on poetry with “the students of the higher English classes” assembled in the St. Cecilia Society clubroom in Washington Hall. The poet’s focus settled on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” still arguably his best-known poem: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made . . .”

MacDonough reports that Yeats shared with students the poem’s origins in a particular longing for Ireland he had experienced in London, which he would later recount in his Autobiographies:

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water.

Notre Dame was one of more than 60 stops Yeats made on his first tour of America, which began in November 1903 and continued to the following March. Some scholars believe he undertook the tour to assuage his despair over the marriage of his beloved Maud Gonne to Major John MacBride, whom he would later immortalize as a “drunken, vainglorious lout.” 

If so, then he certainly seemed happily distracted by his time at Notre Dame. In a note excerpted in the Scholastic in March 1904 — probably addressed to MacDonough, who would maintain a long friendship with the poet — Yeats writes: “I think I enjoyed my time at Notre Dame more than at any place I have stayed on my travels here.” 

Writing to his American patron John Quinn in the immediate wake of his visit, Yeats elaborates: “The Fathers were a delight, big merry Irish priests who told me fairy stories & listened to mine & drank punch with me on Friday night.” To Lady Gregory he described the priests as “a delight — big children & all over six feet.”

Today Yeats is returning to Notre Dame once more by way of the Yeats Initiative. Sponsored by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, the project invites scholars and students to engage with Yeats’ longstanding and ongoing literary influence in Ireland and around the world.

Patrick Griffin ’87, the institute’s director and Madden-Hennebry Professor of History, describes the range and the reach of the undertaking: “After our success with a deep look at the work of James Joyce, we are now turning to a figure who allows us to consider Ireland’s cultural complexities and literary legacy in compelling ways.” 

With a wealth of Yeats-related materials housed in the Hesburgh Library and wonderful facilities and resources in Ireland, Notre Dame is well positioned to advance worldwide appreciation and understanding of a central figure in Ireland’s vast literary pantheon.

Thomas O’Grady is scholar-in-residence at Saint Mary’s College and a professor emeritus of English and former director of Irish studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.