It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this blog is in existence because of WB Yeats (born June 1865, died Jan 1939). In fact, all of my writings can be traced back to this poet. It’s true that I was an avid reader before reading Yeats for my finals at school. But it was Yeats’ poetry that ignited my interest in literature and inspired me to experiment with my own poetry. Well before my English teacher had unveiled Yeats’ meaning behind those wild and beaten down words, I knew what Yeats meant. I knew what he felt. Nothing touched the fire of emotion in me more than Yeats’ poetry, which seemed created especially to speak to those in conflict, the throes of unrequited love and the united passion of friends. Throw in the occasional reference to mysticism and the occult and you’ve hooked my adolescent self.
That’s not saying that there is anything adolescent about Yeats’ poetry, only that his poems can’t fail to speak to that side of us that is forever caught up in the turbulence of life. And that’s exactly what I think of when remembering his poetry— turbulence, a turbulence that has a fractured sense of vulnerability tucked neatly behind symbolism and metaphor. Whilst I can appreciate and love other poets now, when I was younger I thought none reached into the soul better than Yeats. As I learned more about his life, I imagined the tragedy of his obsession with Maud Gonne. I saw her as untamed as the wind and to me their love story was one of the greatest untold. Now as I research both of their lives for my next novel (Waking Tara), I understand how well he has captured her spirit between the lines. I understand that his references to Helen of Troy were not simply a tribute to her beauty but a reference to her cunning and the suggestion that inside her there lay an army waiting for war.
Gonne lived a somewhat unconventional life for the times she occupied and you get the feeling that Yeats not only loved her but I think, at times, envied her steadfastness and the single-minded way she went after what she believed in. Yeats, to my mind, wanted so much to believe in what she did with a similar conviction but I don’t think he could rouse the same assuredness in himself that she possessed.
His achievements were great. Not only was Yeats a Nobel Prize winning poet, but he was also a dramatist, writing many plays including, Cathleen Ni Houlihan. He was responsible, along with Lady Gregory, for the Literary Revival in Ireland and together the pair set up The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He hated the fact that he could not speak Gaelic fluently and could not get his mind to hold onto it, although Irish legends, superstitions and mysticism seemed to be a frequent attraction throughout his life. In this way, his continued friendship with Lady Augusta Gregory makes sense. Her writings on the beliefs and superstitions of the Irish makes some very interesting reading. In fact, her book features near the end of my novel, Dawn Solstice, where my character, Dawn, finds a copy in an old bookshop and sets about researching the Irish legend of the banshee.
From Cúchulain’s day, or it may be from a yet earlier time, that keening woman of the Sidhe has been heard giving her lamentable warning for those who are about to die…It was she or one of her race who told King Brian he was going to meet his death at Clontarf…(Visions & Beliefs in the West of Ireland: Lady Gregory)
To finish, let me share with you my favourite of Yeats’ poems.
This poem’s simplicity lends it a purity that is reflected in its subject matter. It encapsulates everything I love about Yeats’ poetry: regret, passion, unrequited love, a sense of pressure and that precise wildness that Yeats was so good at. It was written by Yeats in August 1912, when he was 47, and it is widely known that the child in the verses was inspired by Iseult Gonne (Maud Gonne’s daughter). He added a further two verses, two years later, turning the poem around to study the ‘narrator’ in more detail.
To a Child Dancing in the Wind
By WB YEATS
Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?
Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn’d?
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.
O you will take whatever’s offered
And dream that all the world’s a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.
Olivia Kiernan is author of Dawn Solstice.
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