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William Butler Yeats in the virtual world

October 3, 2008 |  5:41 am


Since May 2006, Ireland's National Library has hosted a popular exhibit on William Butler Yeats. Over the recent week I spent wandering around drizzly Dublin, I found this Nobel laureate hard to shake.

A middling Yeats fan of the "Slouches Towards Bethlehem" variety,  I'd originally planned a drive-by, allotting him less than an hour. I was shortly back for an additional two.

The National Library, which holds thousands of Yeats artifacts donated by the family, has constructed a tightly packed, innovatively multimedia exhibit. The cumulative effect of all these flickering slides, murmuring voices and frenetic notebooks is hypnotic, a little bit, I suppose, like the presence of the poet himself.

Yeats, of course, said he hoped to write the poetic equivalent of folk songs, and the exhibit thusly welcomes visitors reverently, with poems like "The Stolen Child," "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Easter 1916," read by the likes of Seamus Heaney and Sinead O'Connor, as well as the man himself, in a multi-screen enclosure animated by texts and images of Ireland (so that's the Innisfree he was waxing on about) and the Irish.

Ringing the main room are four snug side chambers -- a study, a library, a backstage recess to the Abbey Theater (which Yeats helped found) and an alcove evoking Thoor Ballylee, the 16th century Norman tower he renovated into a home after marrying Georgie Hyde-Lees in his 50s -- each well crafted and looping a short film exploring the themes, such as women or nationalism, which go such a long way toward explaining the man and his work. (There is also throughout, as there must be, much of Maude Gonne, the statuesque beauty who so vexed and inspired him, as well as the related question of his occultish mysticism. Yeats saw books themselves as "talismanic" objects, and a glass case of his gilded volumes helps make that point.)

The exhibit likely continues through the end of the year. Word is the Library hopes to then move it over to our side of the pond early next year, venue willing.

-- Mindy Farabee

Photo credit: Oxford University Press