John Flaus in conversation on WB Yeats
You will have seen John Flaus in many Australian films - Crackerjack, The Castle, The Dish, Spotswood... but's he's a writer as well, and a passionate lover of Irish literature. He spoke to Caleb Cluff at length.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of great Irish poet WB Yeats.
Local actor and writer John Flaus joined ABC Central Victoria's Caleb Cluff for a conversation about his admiration for the work of Yeats.
Caleb Cluff: "John, it's Yeats Day on Saturday, which is a kind of corruption of Bloomsday."
John Flaus: "A corruption? I'd say a..."
CC: "A celebration?"
JF: "You've got it."
CC: "WB Yeats, William Butler Yeats is recognised as one of the great poetic, lyric voices of the 20th Century; as a great Irish voice. How did you come to be under his spell?"
JF: "I went to Catholic school, although Yeats was a Protestant; and we read a great deal there. Later, as a student, as a student of literature, I came to read him more and more, and to see his beauty."
CC: "There's a lot in Yeats that's recognised by the modernists, it's taken by people like Eliot, people like Auden, even Joyce..."
JF: "Even Joyce was Protestant."
CC: "I think Flann O'Brien was Catholic. The Irish Catholics often had a lack of physical literacy, of being able to write or to read, but there's a making up for that in the ability to relate and to tell stories.
"But of Yeats - you're reading some of his work tomorrow at both Bendigo and Castlemaine libraries. When you were choosing, which poems leapt out at you? Which poems speak to you?"JF: "Oh, the Ballad of Moll Magee - it's an early one."
Come round me, little childer;
There, don't fling stones at me
Because I mutter as I go;
But pity Moll Magee.My man was a poor fisher
With shore lines in the say;
My work was saltin' herrings
The whole of the long day.And sometimes from the saltin' shed
I scarce could drag my feet,
Under the blessed moonlight,
Along the pebbly street.I'd always been but weakly,
And my baby was just born;
A neighbour minded her by day,
I minded her till morn.I lay upon my baby;
Ye little childer dear,
I looked on my cold baby
When the morn grew frosty and clear.A weary woman sleeps so hard!
My man grew red and pale,
And gave me money, and bade me go
To my own place, Kinsale.He drove me out and shut the door,
And gave his curse to me;
I went away in silence,
No neighbour could I see.The windows and the doors were shut,
One star shone faint and green,
The little straws were turnin' round
Across the bare boreen.I went away in silence;
Beyond old Martin's byre
I saw a kindly neighbour
Blowin' her mornin' fire.She drew from me my story--
My money's all used up,
And still, with pityin', scornin' eye,
She gives me bite and sup.She says my man will surely come
And fetch me home agin;
But always, as I'm movin' round,
Without doors or within,Pilin' the wood or pilin' the turf,
Or goin' to the well,
I'm thinkin' of my baby
And keenin' to mysel'.And sometimes I am sure she knows
When, openin' wide His door,
God lights the stars, His candles,
And looks upon the poor.So now, ye little childer,
Ye won't fling stones at me;
But gather with your shinin' looks
And pity Moll Magee.
JF:"It's about domestic violence!"
CC:"Which was not uncommon..."
JF:"But Yeats wrote about it. It was not acknowledged, not written about."
CC:"It's a great example of Yeats taking the local language, the local patois..."
JF "And that's why I'm worried about doing it live - there are so many Irish accents, and there'll be Irish people listening - can I do it justice?"
CC: "He was not only a great cultural source finder, he was a great romantic. His love affair with Maud Gonne, the great Irish beauty - and great political force, she was a nationalist..."
JF: "He became political through love."
CC: "Which is a dangerous and curious thing to do."
JF: "What are you saying? If he had joined on principle, that'd be safer?"
CC: "Either way you're likely to get one between the eyes, yes, you're correct. But he loved a woman who did not love him."
JF: "She did not love him no, no. But what was it that Maud got from this man? Vision. Passion."
CC: "Maud Gonne wrote, 'you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.' Which was a little self-serving."
JF: "As she was."
CC: "He writes eloquently about the point between life and death - An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, for example.
I KNOW that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
CC:"Other writers cannot achieve that."
JF: "That poem was the 'unidentified' poem in the exams at Sydney University in the late 1950s."
CC: "Really? It's so striking! How did you analyse it?"
JF: "Well - because I knew it. I'd seen it. It's unforgettable.
CC: "Sailing to Byzantium is a great poem. While he's known for others - The Wild Swans At Coole, The Second Coming, Michael Robartes and the Dancers - we might look at Sailing to Byzantium and its striking introduction...
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
CC: "It's hard to imagine two more magisterial stanzas in literature."
JF: "Yes, yes. Almost perfect. 'An aged man is but a paltry thing/a tattered coat upon a stick'. He can see the end in himself, in his world.
Published June 12, 2015
Written for ABC Central Victoria