Since Celtic Guide’s July issue is themed “Heritage,” I have chosen a Celtic poet who really embodies the essence of that word, William Butler Yeats. Hailing from Ireland, Yeats truly embraced his native culture with pride and a strong sense of patriotism.
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865 to an Anglo-Irish family. It has been noted that the Anglo-Irish in Ireland at the time were separated from the majority of the Irish due to their English background and Protestant religion. As such, many of the people within this group identified as English people who were born as Ireland. Yeats, however, remained staunchly resolute throughout his life that he was an Irish national by birth, and proud to be one.
As a lawyer, Yeats’ father was able to provide his son with a proper education, and he studied in both Dublin and London. While he reveled in the arts and theatre society in London, young William never forgot his Irish roots. In fact, he was active in Irish literary societies which aimed to bring attention to Ireland’s great literary tradition. Yeats also befriended the famous Lady Gregory, who was one of the earliest folklorists, collecting and publishing Irish folk tales. Together they founded the Irish Theatre (the name was later changed to Abbey Theatre).
In 1917, Yeats married the much younger Georgie Hyde-Lees. It seems to have been a rushed marriage, and one that Yeats had long standing reservations about.
Yet, he was in his 50s and determined to produce an air. Together, Georgie and William delved into the occult and began experimenting with automatic writing, claiming to be in contact with numerous spirits and guides. Yeats found this to be exceptionally inspirational and said in letters that it had a profound positive impact on his writing.
In his later years, Yeats achieved yet more status when he was appointed to two terms in the Irish senate. Due to his strong way with words, Yeats delivered many speeches that gave voice to Irish Protestants, particularly on the issue of the legality of divorce. The Catholic Church’s refusal to engage in an honest debate and dig in their heels with the position that divorce should remain difficult to obtain, and that divorce parties are banned from remarriage, incensed Yeats. This was a turning point for him, and he decided to begin addressing religion head on.
THE FIDDLER OF DOONEY
When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.
When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:
And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the sea.
Could we but give us wholly to the dreams,
And get into their world that to the sense
Is shadow, and not linger wretchedly
Among substantial things.
Below are four poems by William Butler Yeats, selected for their cultural representation of Ireland, the land he loved so much.
I have heard the pigeons of the Seven Woods
Make their faint thunder, and the garden bees
Hum in the lime tree flowers; and put away
The unavailing outcries and the old bitterness
That empty the heart. I have forgot awhile
Tara uprooted, and new commonness
Upon the throne and crying about the streets
And hanging its paper flowers from post to post,
Because it is alone of all things happy.
I am contented for I know that Quiet
Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart
Among pigeons and bees, while that Great Archer,
Who but awaits His hour to shoot, still hangs
A cloudy quiver over Parc-na-Lee.
- August, 1902.
The old brown thorn trees break in two high over Cummen Strand
Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand,
Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies;
But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes
Of Cathleen the daughter of Houlihan.
The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea
And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.
Angers that are like noisy clouds have set our hearts abeat;
But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet
Of Cathleen the daughter of Houlihan.
The yellow pool has overflowed high up on Clooth-na-Bare,
For the wet winds are blowing out of the clinging air;
Like heavy flooded waters our bodies and our blood;
But purer than a tall candle before the Holy Rood
Is Cathleen the daughter of Houlihan.
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.