W B Yeats, Nobel prize winning poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature
Profile by Lucinda MacPherson
Chiswick-based Irish poet, Cahal Dallat, is a man with a mission: to remind Chiswick, in a tangible and permanent fashion, of its major role in the history of English Literature in fostering the poetic/dramatic genius of early Bedford Park resident WB Yeats, the only poet writing in English and brought up in Great Britain to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yeats died 80 years ago ( January 28th 1939) and while his place as one of our most popular poets has never been more assured (his poems When You Are Old, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Easter 1916 always feature in ‘best-loved’ lists) his standing as theatrical innovator and founder of a national theatre, and his reputation as a Modernist poet, a political poet, and a visionary, has increased exponentially in international academic circles over those eight decades.
A number of Yeats favourites were actually written in his Bedford Park years. Though born in Dublin he spent two-thirds of his first three decades in London, the majority of that time at two addresses in Woodstock Road and Blenheim Road.
And his interest in drama began with amateur dramatics in the Bedford Park Club (now the London Buddhist Vihara) and became a reality with his first West-End-staged play, Land of Heart’s Desire, written as a favour for actress Florence Farr, a Bedford Park neighbour.
Most Yeatsian academics and biographers are aware the Yeatses lived in Bedford Park, variously described as the first garden suburb or that Bohemian artists’ colony: but most concentrate on his Irish background and his interest in the landscape, legends and lore of his mother’s native County Sligo, side-lining the significance of Bedford Park in the development of this major international literary figure.
That’s something that Cahal’s WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project will put right, he says. Known to BBC Radio 4 audiences for his regular Saturday Review contributions, to the literary world as a critic, poet, and resident musician at London’s famous Troubadour Earls Court Coffee-House #poetrymondays organised by his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, (a former chair of the nationwide Poetry Society and both of them also well-known for their jointly-hosted Bedford Park Festival Poetry Nights) Cahal has explored, and expounded on, the impact on Yeats of Bedford Park’s aesthetic, avant-garde and occasionally anarchist attitudes, at academic and literary conferences, festivals, universities and colleges all over Britain, Ireland and the USA over many years. It’s a story of Chiswick influences and interconnections that he also re-tells regularly on foot, on what Yeats described as London’s pavements grey around the many Bedford Park, Chiswick and Hammersmith locations that played a major part in the poet’s early poems.
But Cahal does admit to a personal angle: most people discover Yeats at school, he says, but Cahal had already grown up with the poems and songs before realising they belonged to the world of the A-level syllabus. His maternal grandfather, like Yeats’s, was from Ballisodare in County Sligo, and when Cahal and Anne-Marie first visited London after a Paris trip, it was to call on Glens of Antrim friends who were, as it happens, cousins of Yeats’s famous love-rival Major John McBride, who married the beautiful Maud Gonne who had troubled Yeats’s heart since their first meeting in Bedford Park in 1888.
As Irish writers choosing to bring up their family in London, Cahal says, he and Anne-Marie can understand why Yeats’s painter father, John Butler Yeats, wanted to be at the cultural centre of things. Hence his move to Bedford Park where, with the development of the new Turnham Green District Line Station allowing him to pop into the West End or Westminster to paint portraits of actors and aristocrats, his young Irish family could enjoy a healthy pastoral atmosphere, walks by the river and, in the case of the young Willie Yeats, when he wasn’t walking to Godolphin (then a boys’ school) in Hammersmith, the chance to play at cowboys or pirates among the foundations and half-built houses of the world’s first garden suburb, or simply to dream in winding, leafy avenues.
What John Butler Yeats can’t have imagined is quite how much this new speculative housing development (dreamt up by Dublin-born Jonathan Carr) would influence his growing sons, Jack, who became Ireland’s leading twentieth-century painter and Willie, for whom Chiswick’s incredible cultural diversity (Indian gurus, Russian anarchists, German socialists, American Utopian philosophers, Scottish story-tellers, Icelandic folklorists…) and his father’s well-placed Bedford Park friends (including, poetry publishers, newspaper editors, engravers, actors, set-designers, playwrights, translators, and political thinkers) would foster his early poetic ambitions.
It’s a complex, fascinating, multi-faceted story, Cahal admits, and in his two-and-a-half-hour walks, from Hammersmith by way of William Morris’s house and Old Chiswick Churchyard to the winding avenues, artists’ studios and Queen Anne architecture of Bedford Park, he can only sketch the many fertile interconnections and relationships in what was the hub of an dazzling nineteenth-century social network with amazing implications for twentieth-century politics and art.
A multi-faceted project too, as the story, and the proposed artwork, aren’t simply about acknowledging Yeats’s genius or celebrating Bedford Park’s pride in the progressive and aesthetic ideas and aspirations that fostered that genius, but about recognising, for example, how a supportive community can bring out the creative best, especially in the young; how well planned neighbourhoods – even trendy, speculative nineteenth-century housing developments – allow individuals to achieve their full potential; how migrants like the Yeatses have found in cities, in multi-cultural London in particular, not just economic opportunity but the cultural networks that have allowed them to enhance the host culture – London’s creativity being a microcosm of world culture – and to give something back to their own culture as Yeats’s poetry and drama, flourishing in a West London garden suburb, sparked a major cultural revival in Ireland, a key part of his home country’s growth to political independence in the twentieth century.
Not least among the artwork’s aims is to suggest to tomorrow’s schoolkids and college students, heading from their Bedford Park or Chiswick homes to tube station or bus stop en route to school, that like one young local schoolkid 140 years ago, they might dream of becoming an artist, a writer, a poet, might even win a Nobel Prize and be remembered as Yeats will now be, properly remembered!
With a committee of Bedford Park residents including Chiswick Book Festival Director, Torin Douglas, St Michael and All Angels Vicar, Fr Kevin Morris, councillor Gerald McGregor and author Polly Devlin, together with academic Matthew Fay whose great-grandfather, actor Frank Fay co-founded the world-famous Abbey Theatre with Yeats, and with patrons including Rowan Williams, poet and former archbishop, Chiswick journalist Fergal Keane, actor Ciarán Hinds, Marie Heaney, poet Eavan Boland and Sligo’s Yeats Society Honorary President, Martin Enright, the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project has already begun receiving donations and commitments from a number of organisations, and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The committee have spent recent months looking at potential artwork locations at the entrance to Bedford Park, viewing recent public art in Britain and Ireland, especially examples associated with literary figures and major heritage sites as Bedford Park certainly is, and discussing with likely artists how the complex synergies and synchronicities of Nobel-Prize-winning WB Yeats’s Bedford Park life might be expressed visually. So watch this space!
[Line-up for November’s lecture, On the Pavements Grey: WB Yeats in Utopian Bedford Park, the official launch of the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project, hosted by the Embassy of Ireland in Grosvenor Place and sponsored by the Irish Literary Society (estd. 1892, in the Yeatses’ Blenheim Rd, Bedford Park home, and still going strong!)
From left, lecturer, project founder/organiser, and local Chiswick poet/musician, Cahal Dallat; with his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, who read excerpts from Yeats’s letters and autobiography; actor Ciarán Hinds (centre, fresh from his National Theatre run in Brian Friel’s Translations but also well-known to Game of Thrones fans) who gave moving and impassioned readings of some great Yeats poems; Irish Literary Society chair, Shevaun Wilder; and Ireland’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Adrian O’Neill, who hosted the lecture, launch and reception after having taken the annual WB Yeats Bedford Park Walk last summer with Cahal and having become, along with a number of Chiswick and Bedford Park organisations, as well as poets, artists, actors, historians, politicians, writers and academics, a keen supporter of the project.
The poet WB Yeats was the subject of a session at the 2019 Chiswick Book festival, to mark the 80th anniversary of his death.