The Poet, the President, and the Power of Art

Bain News Service / Library of Congress

Looking through the Atlantic archives on William Butler Yeats’s birthday—the legendary Irish poet was born on June 13, 1865—I stumbled upon a funny anecdote from our May 1919 issue. In a remembrance written shortly after the death of his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Maurice Francis Egan recounts how the president, an avid reader of Irish literature, arranged a meeting with Yeats:

The Celtic poet seemed very happy, but he was silent. President Roosevelt beamed through his glasses, and tried to draw him out.  Suddenly Yeats said, “It’s the Little People we must consider.”

“Oh, yes,” the President rejoined, rather surprised, “I believe with all my heart in the preservation of the little nations.”

Yeats looked astonished, and I said, “By the ‘Little People’ he means the Irish fairies.”

It was President Roosevelt’s turn to look astonished. “Mr. Yeats, have you ever seen an Irish fairy?” he asked, with a glint in his eye.

“Many times,” Yeats said solemnly. “Sure, not only I, but every Irishman, especially the old ones that mow the hay in the twilight, have seen the Little People many and many a time; but they are not small insignificant creatures, like the English fairies; they are giants, the old gods come back again.”

The president was bowled out, but [Roosevelt’s] children found themselves on congenial ground.

What a delightfully awkward encounter between two historical giants. But that’s Yeats, apparently—someone who could be introduced to the president of a foreign nation and feel quite comfortable chatting about fairies. According to a profile of the poet by Louise Bogan for our May 1938 issue:

William Butler Yeats first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses. The young man's more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer. But it was during these early years that Yeats was building himself, step by step, into a person who could not only cope with reality but bend it to his will.

Surely that’s something Roosevelt, arguably the most imperial U.S. president, could get behind; as he famously said himself, bending the world to one’s will requires soft words as well as a big stick. Yet Yeats’s most famous fairy poem, “The Stolen Child,” seems less about transforming reality than escaping it:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light …
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

After a weekend full of weeping, it’s worth thinking about the kinds of questions Yeats and Roosevelt’s awkward exchange brings to mind: about the place of art, and imagination, and innocence, in governance. About the need to protect the little people, including those made to feel small by forces like homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any kind of hate. It’s a time to remember that no one is insignificant. To remember, too, that humans are capable of beauty as well as of harm. As David Sims wrote about last night’s Tony Awards:

Even at the best of times, there’s very little more frivolous than an awards show, but rather than feeling tonally jarring, the revelry ended up being a perfect answer to the misery of the day, its mere existence offering a counterpoint to an act of hatred. It was the kind of night where the Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda could accept a trophy with a sonnet in praise of love and have it not feel corny, but necessary.

Necessary, because it’s a reminder of what art can do: the solace it can provide, and the love it can promote. In art, we bend reality to our will. In reality, we will ourselves to something better.