This video segment from Poetry Everywhere features jazz musician Wynton Marsalis reading the poem "The Wild Old Wicked Man" written by his favorite poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats was the most respected of all Irish poets by the time he reached old age. Throughout his career he avoided the “low” subject matter of many other Irish poets, focusing on classical allusions and themes. But in his old age, he found a voice for the lowly thoughts and emotions inside himself—the Wild Old Wicked Man.
For a biography of the poet William Butler Yeats please visit the Poetry Foundation Web site.
Yeats grew up in a time of political upheaval in Ireland. During the decades leading up to the revolution and the civil war that established the Republic of Ireland in the 1920s, young Irish writers and poets embraced realism, a literary movement that called for representing people just as they are.
For much of his career, Yeats avoided both politics and realism in his poetry. He wrote about Irish mythological or historical characters, and led a movement to rediscover ancient Celtic culture and folklore. His poetry was classical, beautiful, and a little remote—far from the passionate and often grimy realism of other Irish writers.
But as he grew older, Yeats’ style changed. He began writing about what he considered the “low” elements of society, and this came out most clearly in two characters he created: Crazy Jane and the Wild Old Wicked Man.
In “The Wild Old Wicked Man,” Yeats creates a character who is both comic and tragic. The old man is alone, poor, and unable to take comfort in God. But he is also full of life, and desire, and ready to joke about how the comforts of religion are no match for the comforts of human love. Readers feel a little scared of the old man, who comes right over to talk to those he meets, but at the same time, we can’t help appreciating his thoughts on life, death, and love.
In the first two stanzas, the old man is speaking to a woman, asking her for her company through the night. He is bragging about what he has to offer. He closes by saying that he knows religious devotion could bring him some peace, (“That some stream of lightning/From the old man in the skies/Can burn out that suffering/No right-taught man denies”), but he will choose “second-best”—human contact, physical love—that we know he does not really see as second-best but as much better than the cold, isolated spiritual life.
Read a biography of the poet William Butler Yeats at Poetry Foundation Web site.
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