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  • "Reversing the Cinematograph?":Yeats, Autobiography, and the Medium of Film*
  • Lance Pettitt (bio)

"I have spent all of my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone."1

"I think Yeats has done what he hoped might happen. He hoped that his words might become current. He actually wanted his songs to be overheard like Dante's."2

This essay analyzes the different ways in which the work and life of W. B. Yeats (hereafter WBY) have been treated on film. It does so by reflecting on a selection of moving-image material from newsreel and amateur footage, through to the much celebrated documentary "tribute" films, and on to the most recent treatments for television, online, and art/installation exhibitions, some of which constituted Yeats 2015 in 2015. Events associated with these 2015 celebrations confirmed what we all knew. A hundred and fifty years after his coming into this [End Page 216] world and three-quarters of a century after he passed into another, Yeats made his presence felt as "contemporary": flickering on the screen, crackling in our ear, haunting us. From the past his spirit spoke from the other side through the sound of his recited words as they were voiced through the digital memory of the last machine and extended into the Your Yeats project for 2015.3

This essay shows how WBY's afterlife has been rendered into the contemporary through film at different historical moments. Considering initially the vast array of commentary on WBY's letters, essays, and memoir-writing, in addition to his poetry, this essay suggests that there is a significant body of film material that has in its own ways been highly influential in offering a visual frame of reference for popular understandings of the poet, and has provided a counterpoint to more conventional forms of biographical writing. But in addition, I argue that film, beyond the process of photo-chemical reproduction, has acted as a medium in a psychic-spiritualist sense. Through different film treatments of WBY's life, his presence is manifested as part of a wider cultural and spiritual memory. His study of and belief in the occult and spiritualism led him to think that what he termed the "age-long memoried self"4 had the power to connect "many minds [that] can flow into one another … and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy" that forms part of "one great memory, the memory of Nature herself," and that this "great memory can be evoked by symbols."5 For WBY, creative inspiration comes not from within us as discrete individuals as such, but from beyond us, from a collective greater mind.6 Systems of the hidden knowledge of the occult or "magic," theosophy, and spiritualism, combined with his study of Irish folklore, came into focus for WBY and a circle of his [End Page 217] friends in the same period, but as a direct alternative to the advances of Victorian and Edwardian modernity, whose technologies included telegraphy, cinematography, and radio. It was a millennial moment that, as some commentators have observed, is echoed in our current generation's televisual, digital, and cyber technologies, epitomized by the World Wide Web.7 WBY disdained the trappings of cinematic modernity and its moving images, but it is this technology and its contemporary manifestations that have become an important medium for WBY. And it is in this sense that he might be thought of as the ghost in the machine.8 Indeed, at a recent film festival in Brazil entitled Irish Lives,9 I encouraged delegates present in the auditorium to consider their viewing experience of Alan Gilsenan's A Vision (2014) as much séance as screening.

Before we begin examining the body of film treatments of WBY's biography, we should consider his own views on the audiovisual realms of his life and afterlife. As he liked to stress, WBY was a poet driven to create verse and drama that were attuned to the ear and the voice, to the "clearing out" of eye-catching imagery. Given this insistence on the aural rather...


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pp. 216-243
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