Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round . . .
-- from "A Prayer for My Son" by William Butler Yeats.
Michael Yeats, the Michael of the poem, can't help wincing at the sight of it. He stiffens when a copy of his father's verse is thrust under his nose.
"Awful memories," he says, laughing a rueful laugh. "The boys at school, you see, discovered the poem, and they used to call out, 'Bid a strong ghost!' -- knowing that it would inflame me. Later they shortened that, to save trouble, to just: 'B-A-S-G!' Of course, if I'd had sense enough not to react, it would have stopped. But I didn't."
He adds a piece of urgent advice for the world's aspiring literary geniuses: "Never, never write poems about your children. It's not fair."
The son of William Butler Yeats, the immortal Irish poet, is a white-haired man of 64, and despite a jolly cast to his face, he looks eerily like the versifier, who died in 1939 at the age of 73.
These days he's a lawyer, a sometime music critic and, among other accomplishments, a leading authority on Irish folk music -- and last night at the Hirshhorn Museum, he lectured to a sellout crowd on the uses of music in W. B. Yeats' poetry and plays. What's more, he has enjoyed a distinguished political career, including two decades in the Irish Senate followed by nearly a decade in the European Parliament, from which he retired a few months ago as the director of its Council of Ministers.
And yet, by the lights of the world at large, none of this is enough.
"I don't know whether the word 'burden' is right," Michael Yeats says with a pensive grin. "But, obviously, you can never escape from the shadow."
A well-done hamburger before him, and his wife of 37 years, Gra'inne O'Hegarty Yeats, beside him, he is sitting in a hotel restaurant, grappling with the inescapable.
"Even when I was a child," he says, "people who didn't know me at all -- American professors and so on -- would say, 'Ah! You're Michael Yeats!' Simply on the strength of some photograph they'd seen of 'the young Yeats.' "
Gra'inne (pronounced "Grawn-ya") Yeats, a renowned Irish harpist and singer who was also on last night's program, sponsored by the International Poetry Forum, listens patiently at first. But soon the inevitable questions are being popped one after another, and she begins to drum her fingers on the table. As the interrogation persists, she starts humming herself a tune. Finally, when Michael Yeats is asked to name a few of his favorite poems by W. B., she unglazes her blue eyes and lunges to her husband's defense.
"You're expecting the son of the poet to be a poet himself," she says -- a delicately pretty woman who suddenly looks quite stern. "That is not reasonable. Because he's his own man. And he is a politician. A practical man. And poetry is just not his field."
Mere biology, it turns out, is of little consequence to the Muse. William Butler may have been a visionary mystic, but Michael is "a practical man" -- and Michael's son Padraig, 26, is an air conditioning engineer in Phoenix. Thus the Yeats line ("turning and turning in the widening gyre") has gone from the poetic to the prosaic. They have three grown daughters and none of them writes poetry either.
"I think I reacted in early youth rather sharply against the literary life," says Michael. "Went perhaps a bit overboard in bristling in my dislike of it. I think I took up music simply because none of the family had ever been involved in it."
Except that he didn't really take up music as fully as he might have liked. His mother, an Englishwoman named George Hyde-Lees, with whom W. B. also produced a daughter, Anne, had other priorities. The poet married her in his early fifties, and together they pursued spiritualism, mysticism and verse.
"A formidable woman," Gra'inne Yeats says.
"I have a sort of feeling," says Michael, "that my mother didn't have me taught any musical instrument because she thought that The Great Man's concentration might be upset by the noise of practicing. The house revolved very much around William Butler."
To his children, the poet was a remote figure -- amiable but abstracted. "He was old, and not in terribly good health," his son says. "So that as far as I was concerned, he could have been a rather elderly grandfather. My mother always said about my father that he had no interest in people as such. Only what they did or stood for, you see.
"He wasn't one for romping with the children. I think small children didn't really mean much to him. There were times when he put himself out, as it were, to entertain. He was an extremely good storyteller, and had a very pronounced sense of humor. So occasionally, when you were eating with him, he would start telling amusing stories -- I suspect for the benefit of the children."
"I always thought Michael's upbringing was extraordinary," Gra'inne puts in. "You see, I had a normal family upbringing: three children and two parents and an aunt who lived with us. We just had a normal, happy family life."
"I was 17 when he died," Michael says. "Towards the very end we had rather animated discussions on the politics of central Europe, and I felt for the first time that I was getting to know him. But before that, not really."
If Michael's memories of his father are scant, the vision of his mother looms large. A boon to Yeats scholars, she kept every scrap of the poet's work, even to the point of rescuing bits of paper from wastebaskets. She died in 1968.
"She acted as my father's secretary and typed his drafts," Michael says. "She looked after him, particularly when he got older, and made sure that nothing happened to interrupt his work. She kept people away from him, including the children. And she fed him."
Georgie Yeats also raised the children -- a task she took as seriously as her responsibility to her husband's art.
"Don't you think your mother really worked wonders and provided some sort of normality?" asks Gra'inne Yeats.
"I think she spent quite a lot of time ensuring that we didn't turn out like my father," Michael replies.
Yet the marriage, it seems, was a happy one.
"It's perhaps typical of him," Michael says of his father, "that he wrote a vast number of poems about unrequited love, but nothing at all about my mother."
"That's the way poets are," Gra'inne says. "It's the ones they don't get that they write about."
Chief among these was Maud Gonne, a willowy, red-haired beauty with whom Yeats fell in love as a young man. She was an actress as well as a fervent Irish nationalist. She married John MacBride, a revolutionary soldier, and kept the poet at bay, even after she became a widow. Yeats tormented himself with the relationship for well nigh 30 years.
"My mother was quite calm about Maud Gonne," says Michael. "She knew all about it, naturally. And we always kept in touch with Maud Gonne.
"As a child I remember being sent on my bicycle with messages from the family to Maud Gonne -- from my father or my mother -- 'Would you come along to tea next Monday?' and so forth. I used to arrive at the gate of the Gonne household and meet these enormous Irish wolfhounds towering above me, even on the bicycle, making my way to the door with my message, you see, and surrounded by these vast dogs.
"I don't think my mother particularly liked Maud Gonne."
"Lots of people didn't like Maud Gonne," says Gra'inne.
"She was sort of a permanent -- to the end of her days -- revolutionary," Michael says. "The cause was everything. The method was immaterial."
The Yeatses of Ireland were an awe-inspiring lot. Michael's grandfather John Butler was a famous painter, as was his uncle Jack. His older sister, Anne, who today lives five minutes down the road from him in Dalkey, south of Dublin, still is a famous painter -- although she may be equally well known for having inspired W. B.'s much-studied "A Prayer for My Daughter" on her birth in 1919.
Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on . . .
"The poem he wrote for Anne is worse than mine," says Michael, "because that's one of the milestones of literature. I don't think anyone ever paid much attention to the one about me -- except for the boys at school."