ON the 150th anniversary of WB Yeats’ birthday Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid reveals his favourite poem by the iconic Irish writer.
A well-respected wordsmith himself, the Derry-born rocker – who now lives in Los Angeles with his fiancée, former Friends star Courteney Cox – first left his homeland to pursue his music career at the tender age of 17.
This week he told The Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool, where his sister was a student, and The Irish Post, how he will remember Yeats today – on the 150th anniversary of his birth – and how the poet has impacted the musician’s life so far.
Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid has been a WB Yeats fan from a young age
“I am from Derry which some people call Londonderry, where from an early age the idea of separateness was very present.
“I didn't understand it, but they taught us to take note of it, to feel it, to embrace it. Neil Young once said that there would be peace on earth if aliens attacked our world. Until then, we will live in insular pockets, like some leftover prehistoric mechanism that battens down the hatches around our ideas.
“I came across Yeats when I was studying literature at school. I was drawn to Among School Children. In it, I found comfort in a man battling with the idea of separateness and reconciling that we are indeed a sum of our parts. “Oh Body swayed to music, oh brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?
“While we are quanta co-existing and functioning separately, we are more than this, a greater more beautiful experience when we resign to the thought that our certain death comes as a caveat to the blessing of this one life. Yeats drew a thread from the beginning to the end. At the time, I was a schoolchild, now I am a man, an individual being made up of millions of experiences. I play in a band with four other individuals, each on their own path towards their ultimate end, living in connection with each other and to those who experience our music.
“How can we know the poet from her words, the band from their music, the thought from the mind or this moment from the life in which it finds itself contained? How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Among School Children, by William Butler Yeats (from The Tower, 1928)
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?