leonard cohen yeats

Tower Of Song: From Leonard Cohen To Arcade Fire And Beyond – Yeats’ Influence On Modern Music

The finest verse, according to W.B. Yeats was one which filled the reader with the urge to read it out loud. Inspired by the oral tradition of the ancient Irish bards, he set out to keep his poetry clear of ‘every phrase written for eye’,  leaving only what was ‘for the ear alone’. It is not surprising then that he has inspired so many poets and lyricists over the years, many of whom have been compelled to read his verse aloud (we we are inviting you to do with Your Yeats) , or put it to music. We asked Irish Music Journalist Eamon Sweeney to explore the rich connections between Yeats and musicians the world over.

William Butler Yeats’ influence extends far beyond the world of literature. He remains a true blue pillar of Irish poetry and letters, having crafted some of the most enduring poems about love, life and death ever written. Yeats also profoundly inspires popular culture and modern music.  

In the final line of ‘Among School Children’, Yeats famously asks, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Similarly, poetry and lyrics can sometimes be hard to differentiate. 

Lyrics tend to be accompanied by music, while poetry is not, but both constantly blur and cross-pollinate. Singer-songwriter Will Oldham (also widely known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) opened an essay for The Poetry Foundation with the reflection, “The difference between lyrics and poetry is that I don’t understand poetry.” 

Leonard Cohen is a classic example of a highly accomplished poet and lyricist. In addition to a peerless canon of timeless songs, Cohen has authored two novels and several collections of poetry. Rufus Wainwright hails Cohen as “the greatest living poet on earth.” Unsurprisingly, Cohen is a massive WBY fan. 

The Canadian icon has been a regular visitor to Ireland since 2008. In summer 2010, Cohen performed two unforgettable concerts at Lissadell House, where he read from Yeats’ ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’. 

Van Morrison has referenced Yeats numerous times throughout an extraordinarily prolific career. On his 1985 album, A Sense of Wonder, Morrison recorded a musical version of the poem ‘Crazy Jane on God.’ 

Mike Scott and The Waterboys are perhaps the best known modern musical interpreters of Yeats. Their classic 1988 album, Fisherman’s Blues, closes with a well known version of ‘The Stolen Child’ featuring sean nós singer and poet Tomás Mac Eoin

In 2011, The Waterboys released an entire album inspired by Ireland’s most iconic poet entitled An Appointment with Mr Yeats. Mike Scott described the process of making the album “as if Yeats was in the room collaborating with me.”

Several seminal musical heroines have also paid homage to Mr Yeats. American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist Patti Smith opened a 2012 Abbey performance  alongside Sam Shepard by reading Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’. Sinéad O’Connor launched her astonishing career back in 1987 with a debut single entitled ‘Troy’, which was inspired by Yeats’ ‘No Second Troy’. You can actually hear O’Connor recite this poem, along with ‘Easter 1916’, in the Yeats exhibition  currently running at the National Library of Ireland. 

Recently, Will Butler of Arcade Fire also cited Yeats as a massive influence. “When you think about it, Yeats’s career is the ultimate benchmark,” he told me in an interview for the Irish Times. “He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he continued to get better and kept writing great stuff. It’s a tall order, but that’s my goal.”

The aptly named Will Butler is just the latest musician to tap into Yeats’ rich well for inspiration. You can be sure he won’t be the last. 


This article was originally published for Yeats2015; a year-long celebration for WB Yeats 150th birthday in 2015.

About the Author: Eamon Sweeney (@Swench) is a freelance journalist and writer from Dublin who contributes to The Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Business Post and Hot Press. He is also a volunteer for the Friends of Joyce Tower Society in Sandycove. You can follow Eamon on twitter @Swench and you can read more of his work online here.

Image Credits:
Leonard Cohen image Nathan Wind under Creative Commons
Waterboys image via Kewl Kela under Creative Commons