And say my glory was I had such friends.”—William Butler Yeats, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (1996)
On this day in 1937, poet William Butler Yeats delivered a speech before the Irish Academy of Letters in which he described his visit to the Municipal Gallery (now Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane). For a long time, he noted, he hadn’t visited the art institution. Then, “I went there a week ago and was restored to many friends. I sat down, after a few minutes, overwhelmed with emotion."
The “many friends” to which the Nobel laureate referred were great figures in Ireland’s cultural revival and/or movement toward independence, all captured and, in effect, memorialized on the walls of the gallery: soldiers or politicians (e.g., Roger Casement, Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins), as well as his associates in Ireland's famed Abbey Theatre (Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge). Overcome by the losses of all these friends, the 72-year-old poet sank down, “My heart recovering with covered eyes,”as he later related
Yeats put his emotion into more lyrical form in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” one of his last great poems before his death in 1939. It vividly confirmed that his creativity had not been diminished by his advancing age, but that it had, in fact, deepened, as he moved toward a final accounting of his life.
Yeats’ final epiphany of pride lies not in his own very real literary achievements, but in the fact that he knew such good and great men and women. Most of us who come to his work today might not know such celebrated people, but the richness of our lives, like his, lies in the infinite value of our friends. They represent for us, as they did for him, the “glory” of our lives.
(Photograph of William Butler Yeats taken on February 7, 1933, by Pirie MacDonald, from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division.)