There are only so many artists who are able to leave their mark so indelibly on the world that it ripples through the pop culture of generations. Only figures with the lasting power of Andy Warhol get tote bags and punny band names for the rest of time. But regardless of how cheap the reference, it remains a testament to an artist’s life and through it, however mangled or maligned, their work endures. William Butler Yeats, the famed Irish poet, is one of these artists.
The first time I committed to reading his work, all of it felt familiar. Yeats was a fantastic writer, and for generations, people have been using his lines as book titles and quoting him in movies and TV shows. Even a line like “A terrible beauty is born” from the poem “Easter, 1916” was somehow laced into the back of my brain, like a earworm melody that lies dormant in your mind, planted by school dances or supermarket shopping trips. You don’t choose it, but it’s part of you.
So whether you like Yeats, love him or could do without him, here’s a short timeline of the poet’s pop culture permeation to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a little nod to a man who left a mark on generations, and much of it will be vaguely reminiscent, sort of like the morning after:
1953: Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun
Bradbury might have been the only science fiction writer to title an entire story collection after a Yeats poem. He borrowed the title from a line from “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and even quotes it in the title story of the collection, crediting Yeats while grouping him with the likes of Shakespeare:
"When you travel on down toward the sun," replied the captain, "and everything gets yellow and warm and lazy, then you're going in one direction only." He shut his eyes and thought about the smoldering, warm, faraway land, his breath moving gently in his mouth. "South." He nodded slowly to himself. "South."
Their rocket was the Copa de Oro, also named the Prometheus and the Icarus and their destination in all reality was the blazing noonday sun. In high good spirits they had packed along two thousand sour lemonades and a thousand white-capped beers for this journey to the wide Sahara. And now as the sun boiled up at them they remembered a score of verses and quotations:
'"The golden apples of the sun'?"
"'Fear no more the heat of the sun'?"
"Shakespeare, of course!"
"Cup of Gold?’ Steinbeck. 'The Crock of Gold'? Stephens. And what about the pot of gold at the rainbow's end? There's a name for our trajectory, by God. Rainbow!”
1958: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
The title of Achebe’s famous first novel comes from a line in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” which is, well, about an apocalypse of sorts. The greatest factoid about this cultural influence? Achebe told The Paris Review that he simply loved the line and named his book after it before he knew what Yeats meant, saying:
… I liked Yeats! That wild Irishman. I really loved his love of language, his flow. His chaotic ideas seemed to me just the right thing for a poet. Passion! He was always on the right side. He may be wrongheaded, but his heart was always on the right side. He wrote beautiful poetry. ... I used to make up lines with anything that came into my head, anything that sounded interesting. So Yeats was that kind of person for me. It was only later I discovered his theory of circles or cycles of civilization. I wasn’t thinking of that at all when it came time to find a title. That phrase “things fall apart” seemed to me just right and appropriate.
1968: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Even these days, people have all sorts of utopian ideals about sunny California, the flower children of 1960s counterculture and the enchanted city of New York. Didion’s famous essay collection serves readers an honest, grim view of the realities of her time and the realities of these subjects. Even Didion prefaces the collection with a nod to the staying power of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:
... for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.
Diane Chambers is the classic literary snob. In the pilot episode of Cheers, she’s proposed to by the English professor she assists in the midst of some serious reading. Professor Sumner Sloan explains to their bartender, Sam (Ted Danson): “Now today I was sitting in my office with Diane — I looked up from my Proust, she had her nose in her Yeats — and I said to myself, ‘I would be crazy to let this girl get out of my life.’ So right there on the spot, I said lets get married.”
1986: The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates”
Who better to have poetic influence over than Smiths fans? Angsty teenagers generation after generation have turned to the crooning of Morrissey, and even though we all know (SPOILER ALERT) that he chooses Wilde over Keats and Yeats, there’s no doubt Yeats had at least a little influence to earn a shoutout.
1987: 84 Charing Cross Road
Yes, a slightly younger, pre-horrifying Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins had an on-screen moment with poetry. That’s just the power of Yeats. In the film 84 Charing Cross Road, Hopkins reads “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” to himself and seems human (rather than lusting for human flesh).
1987: Wall Street
When most people read Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” they don’t typically think of the New York Stock Exchange or Charlie Sheen, but this classic ‘80s film echos Yeats’ line, proving its strange versatility when greedy Wall Street big shot Gordon Gekko says, “So the falcon's heard the falconer, huh?”
1991: Joni Mitchell’s “The Second Coming”
When a pro songwriter like Mitchell writes a whole tune around the lines of a famous poem, you know it’s good stuff. This song came out on Mitchell’s album Night Ride Home, and like so many great book titles, was based off of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Leave it to Joni to bring the poem to life in a new way that probably would have brought Yeats to tears.
Did you know that Robin Williams had a voice cameo in Steven Spielberg's dystopian film? Not only does he voice a computer named “Mr. Know,” he whispers a few lines of Yeat’s “The Stolen Child” to Haley Joel Osment in a frightening monotone: “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.”
2001: Bono Being Bono
In an interview with ASCAP Playback in October of 2001, Bono explained that Yeats played an essential role in teaching him how to overcome writers block and basically credited that to what U2 had been doing for years:
I remember as a child, growing up in Ireland, we were taught the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I must have been ten years old. The teacher said, "and then Yeats went through his dry period. He had a writing block and he couldn't write about anything." I remember putting up my hand, and saying "Well, why didn't he write about that?" And the teacher just looked at me and said, “Oh, be quiet.” But that is exactly the answer to the writing block. You write about your own emptiness, and we’ve done that for years now.
Yet another film that features Yeats’s “He Wishes for Cloths in Heaven!” This lesser-known sci-fi action movie features Christian Bale — not exactly the kind of film you’d imagine Yeats’s poetry making a cameo in, but it happens. Sean Bean’s character even uses his volume of Yeats to shield himself from a bullet after reading a few lines from the poem. No luck, though; Yeats’s work is only so powerful.
2005: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men
No one has made a darker allusion to Yeats’s poetry than McCarthy (and you can double that darkness if you consider the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of his novel). The line comes straight from “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of Yeats’s poems about death and the frightening burden of old age. Though the poet leaves readers with some hope of what is to come, McCarthy, well, he never has much mercy for anyone.
2007: Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness
It’s interesting just how far people will go in abstracting Yeats’s lines from “The Second Coming.” In this case, Saks uses his line “the center cannot hold” to capture the chaos of living with schizophrenia. A hellishly different sort of apocalypse than Yeats implied, but the kind of darkness and hallucinations involved in Saks’ book could not have been described better than with Yeats’s circle theory.
2010: Joe Biden
In a speech regarding foreign policy and financial crisis in Brussels, Biden made a point of quoting “Easter, 1916” by William Bulter Yeats: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Not only does he quote and credit the poet, but he uses the line over and over, changing its form to make his argument and build sympathy, using it as the founding structure to his speech so that it inevitably plants Yeats’ famous line in your head.
Are there any bizarre pop culture references to Yeats that we forgot to mention? (Surely, there must be!) Any fun-facts about the great Irish poet that you want to share? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
KEEP READING: More on History