Kathleen Raine, Introduction to The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats [1893, 1902] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1981), pp.7-29

Extra: see Stephen Spender’s remarks on Raine’s reading of T. S. Eliot’s East Coker, infra.

The Celtic Twilight, part chronicle, part autobiography, and all drawn from Yeats’s early memories of the west of Ireland, was first published in 1893, when the poet was twenty-eight. He had already published in 1888 Fairy and Folk Tale of the Irisb Peasantry; Representative Irish Tales in 1891, and a year later Irish Fairy Tales. All these involved much reading and were more or less hack work undertaken for money. But in The Celtic Twilight Yeats writes not from books but from life; memories of things heard, seen, and felt in his native county Sligo, the home of his family, that beautiful part of Connaught that lies between Knoc-na-rea and Ballisodare in the south, Ben Bulben and Rosses Point in the north. In 1902 he published an enlarged edition containing additional stories collected in Galway. Yeats had now met Lady Gregory, and she herself, inspired by the poet, set about collecting the folk-lore of the neighbourhood of Kiltartan, Coole and Ballylee, where many years later Yeats was himself to, live in the old Norman tower.

The present edition contains the text of the earlier version (1893) but with the additions of the later stories also-those dated 1902 in the second edition.

The second edition is undoubtedly the better book; besides a few minor changes (a little rewriting in the first section, "This Book" and more extensive changes and omissions in the chapter about AE, "A Visionary") there is much new material, most of it of a better quality, closer to the people of Ireland and their world, than any in the first version. It contained, however, one important section omitted from the [7] second edition, "The Four Winds of Desire". This is in the nature of a critical essay and although not without interest it is not a first-hand record and this is no doubt why in the second version Yeats substituted the short but very beautiful apology for oral tradition, "By the Roadside". Some of the 1902 material comes from Mary Battle, housekeeper to Yeats’s uncle George Pollexfen, who told of her visions of Queen Maeve and her women on Knoc-na-rea; but most he owed to his friendship with Lady Gregory and his visits to County Galway. "Dreams that Have no Moral" was given to him by Lady Gregory herself, who had taken it down from an old man in Gort Workhouse; other sections, like those relating to the memories of the poet Raftery and Mary Hynes were told to Yeats himself, but through Lady Gregory’s introduction, and usually in her company. The story of the two souls serving their term in purgatory in a windy bush in County Mayo is a later addition to "Concerning the Nearness Together of Heaven, Earth and Purgatory" - an image Yeats was later to use in The Dreaming of the Bones.

The first version, which is mainly a record of Yeats’s own memories and conversations and experiments in magic certainly does not show him to be particularly gifted as a collector of folklore. The "Kiltartanese" dialect characteristic of Lady Gregory’s writings (and exemplified in "Dreams that have no Moral") has of recent years been much decried by the critics. Doubtless Douglas Hyde’s transcriptions and translations of Irish speech are more authentic and less touched up; certainly the artistry of Synge made more memorable use of that speech. Nevertheless Yeats’s interest in the speech of the country people, as it developed between the first and second editions of The Celtic Twilight, marks an important development also in his development as a poet. That language was not merely a debased dialect of English but an English enriched by the idiom of Gaelic grammar which underlies it; by turns of phrase and turns of thought alien and new, from the standpoint of writers in English, and an undoubted enrichment. It was from the Irish country people that Yeats heard a language purely oral, language as it [8] is for men and women who do not read or write, but speak their words. It was from the son of the farmer who had taught Lady Gregory and Douglas Hyde their Irish grammar that I heard how, many years later, Yeats himself used to walk past that farm along the road between Coole and Ballylee, saying over his poems to himself as he walked and, as the countryman put it, "humming like a swarm of bees". Yeats too had learned to test his poetry by the ear.

Yeats was never himself a folklorist in the sense in which his friend Douglas Hyde was a gatherer of stories, or the Scottish folklorist Campbell, collector of Tales of the Western Highlands, or Alexander Carmichael, collector of the Carmena Gadelica; but, himself doubtless inspired by these older predecessors, became in his turn an inspirer of others, including the American, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, whose book The Fairy-faith in Celtic Countries is dedicated to Yeats and to AE, who had been his guides and advisors when he had visited Ireland in 1909-10. The story of Yeats sending John Millington Synge home to Ireland from Paris to learn his art from the people of the Aran Islands is known to all.

But for Yeats the stories he heard in his boyhood were not folk-lore: they were the stuff of his own daily life, the soil in which his genius was to grow, the source of the themes and symbols of his greatest work. Yeats’s family, on both sides, belonged to the Protestant Anglo-Irish; he knew little of the Catholic religion, yet it was above all from the Catholic country-people, tenants or servants of the family, farmers and fishermen, that he derived his first real knowledge and belief in another world: not the Christian religion but the age-old "fairy faith"; which may have been (so argues EvansWentz, who most likely took the idea from Yeats) a remote heritage of the religion of the Druids, and is in any case immemorially old. Yeats’s father, son of the Rector of Drumcliff, was himself a sceptic and this may have made it easier for his son to follow without conflict on religious grounds his heart, whose "secret fanaticism" led him into the imaginative world of a race whose lives were tinctured by the daily and nightly presence of the supernatural. It was not merely a [9] different set of opinions Yeats discovered in these people but a different awareness, a different mode of consciousness from that of the deist Protestantism or more explicit rationalism of the educated classes.

On an everyday level supernatural events, "the little stitches that join this world and the other", are the experiences of the country-people themselves, for whom the earth is by no means the lifeless material object of scientific knowledge, but populous with lives of many kinds, visible and invisible, beautiful and terrible. A girl in a field close to her home finds herself "astray" out of normal time, in the faery-world where a year is only a moment, or a moment a year. A farmer may meet on the road that terrible beast the Pookah, or be chased by a hairless black pig. Yeats himself, with some cousins, watched strange "lights" coming and. going over the site of a former village. Faery-music, rappings and moving objects, "wee folk, good folk, trooping all together" as in William Allingham’s poem, besides all the usual ghosts and apparitions whose record is world-wide, were as much part of the life of Sligo as births, marriages, deaths and market-fairs. Whether or not realities of the natural world these were, and remain, realities of the imagination.

The native Irish race inherits, besides, a true mythology. The ancient gods of Ireland still inhabited the great megalithic burial-sites, Aengus of the Birds his Dun at Brugh na Boyne, and other gods at Knowth and elsewhere. The legendary Queen Maeve who led her armies against Ulster’s champion Cuchulain is said to be buried under the cairn on the summit of Knoc-na-rea, visible to all Sligo, and to this day unexcavated. Mary Battle, housekeeper to Yeats’s uncle George Pollexfen, told how she "was standing at the window looking over to Knoc-na-rea where Queen Maeve is thought to be buried, when she saw, as she told me, ’the finest woman you ever saw travelling right across from the mountain straight to her." The woman had a sword by her side and a dagger lifted up in her hand, and was dressed in white, with bare arms and feet. She looked strong, but not wicked-that [10] is, not cruel." She was "handsomer than anyone you ever saw". Of others, riding the hills with short dresses and buskins, she said that "there is no such race living now, none so finely proportioned."

Yeats had loved such stories, as child and boy, because they were interwoven with places he knew and loved, places where he fished, collected beetles, or wandered by day or night for the sheer love of his native earth. Ben Bulben "sets the scene" of inner and outer worlds alike; and for childhood these are one and indivisible, as they were for the Irish poor. It was of his own country Yeats was reminded when he came upon boys and girls at a wide space by the road at Kiltartan:

... then some of the men stood up and began to dance, while another lifted the measure they danced to, and then somebody sang "Eibhlin a Rúin", that glad song of meeting which has always moved me more than other songs, because the lover who made it sang it to his sweetheart under the shadow of a mountain I looked at every day through my childhood. The voices melted into the twilight, and were mixed into the trees, and when I thought of the words they too melted away, and were mixed with the generations of men. Now it was a phrase, now it was an attitude of mind, an emotional form, that had carried my memory to older verses, or even to forgotten mythologies. I was carried so far that it was as though I came to one of the four rivers, and followed it under the wall of Paradise to the roots of the trees of knowledge and of life.

Indeed the other world (if not Paradise itself) was near at hand:

A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain, is a small white square in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand; no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it. There is no more inaccessible place on earth, and few more encircled by awe to the deep considering. It is the door of fairyland. In the middle of the night it swings open, and the unearthly troop rushes [11] out. All night the gay rabble sweep to and fro across the land.

It is to be understood that in Celtic countries the faery world is dreaded; not far removed from the country of the dead, or that world itself, beautiful as it may be, it is "the world’s bane". The passage continues:

... the unearthly troop do not always return emptyhanded. Sometimes a new-wed bride or a new-born baby goes with them into their mountains; the door swings to behind; and the new-born or new-wed moves thenceforth in the bloodless land of Faery; happy enough, but doomed to melt out at the last judgement like bright vapour, for the soul cannot live without sorrow.

This theme, common both in Ireland and in Scotland gave Yeats the matter of several poems and his early play, The Land of Heart’s Desire. "The Host of the Air" is a ballad conceived and written much in the spirit of the narrators from whom he heard the story; but in the play, as in the poem "The Stolen Child", the deep attraction the "other" world exerted upon Yeats is already clear:

Come, faeries, take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.

More terribly, more profoundly, the theme is used again in The Only Jealousy of Emer; in which Cuchulain is drawn away from the world by the faery-woman, Fand, whose attraction had already captured him in an earlier play, At the Hawk’s Well. Emer wins Cuchulain back from death by renouncing his love. The chorus, in At the Hawk’s Well, recoil from the superhuman world that draws Cuchulain, as it drew Yeats, with irresistible attraction:

Come to me, human faces,
Familiar memories;
I have found hateful eyes
Among the desolate places,
Unfaltering, unmoistened eyes. [12]

.
"The man that I praise",
Cries out the empty well,
"Lives all his days
Where a hand on the bell
Can call the milch cows
To the comfortable door of his house.
Who but an idiot would praise
Dry stones in a well?"

That question remained, for Yeats, open to the end; Plato’s question, "For who knows whether to live be not to die, and to die to live?" The gods, in any case, are immortal:

Time drops in decay
Like a candle burnt out,
And the mountains and woods

Have their day, have their day,
Not one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Shall pass away.

(The first draft of this poem was prefaced to both editions; it is much inferior, but the phrase in.l.5, "the kindly old rout", closer to the folk-material which is the poet’s inspiration.)

That world of memories of which The Celtic Twilight is the record was the more passionately loved because Yeats spent his school years in the London suburb of Bedford Park, and Sligo took on the colouring of his dreams; and he longed to have even one sod of Sligo turf that could give reality to his memories. It was the sight of a window-display in Fleet Street that was the occasion of Yeats’s writing the poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" - a ping-pong ball balanced upon a little jet of water. The reality of his early attempt to live on that isle had been less fortunate - a sleepless night on a rock in fear of being chased away by the woodranger, "I came home unimaginably tired and sleepy having walked some thirty miles partly over rough and boggy ground. For months [13] afterwards if I alluded to my walk my uncle’s general servant ... would go into fits of laughter." Perhaps the sense of exile is the strongest of all poetic urges, since it compels us to re-create for ourselves the lost country; which carries in it always in some measure the symbol of lost Paradise. So, as with Horace’s fons Bandusiae or Wordsworth’s or Beatrix Potter’s Lake District, or Israel’s’ or any other Holy Land, it is in exile that Yeats’s memories were to undergo that transmutation that is generated in the space between desire and fulfilment. That Paradise must always be a state of being, of imaginative consciousness, which is natural to childhood, and to which we all seek to return, or to attain; a timeless "eternity" which a few mystics attain and poets glimpse afar off. If Yeats’s master Blake was such a mystic, Yeats was such a poet. By the good fortune which at once gave him, and withheld from him throughout his unhappy schoolboy years in London, County Sligo, the country denied him in time was restored to him in the imagination of the poet.

And yet the real Ireland (if that is the word-for some might consider the Ireland of the travelling scholars, the saints and the political exiles, or of the self-banished exile James Joyce, of all those "wild geese" who have given to "holy Ireland" its imaginative identity the more real) never became for Yeats so remote as to lose its clear and distinct outline, or for its people to pale into ghosts. He returned for all his holidays to stay with grandparents and cousins, often enough for love and memory to be renewed, and was absent for long enough for transmutation of the actual into the imagined to be accomplished. Sligo gave him, therefore, images which were to become also symbols without ever losing anything of their concreteness of "a local habitation and a name". In The Celtic Twilight and in his other early writings, Stories of Red Hanrahan and the rest - we already find most of those themes in a form relatively untransmuted, although already illuminated by the light of imagination. In his latest, grandest and most symbolically resonant verse we find still the same images, the same names. The ghosts of [14] Dermot and Dervorgilla seen by Red Hanrahan give Yeats the theme of The Dreaming of the Bones; Baile and Ailinn, Cuchulain and Fand, Cruachan’s windy plain and the well whose waters ebb and flow near the hill called Slieve do ain (the mountain of the two birds) are places of the real world raised by Yeats into places of the imagination. The megalithic warrior whose bones were found in a tomb near Sligo, guards "The Black Tower":

There in the tomb stand the dead upright
But the winds come up from the shore:
They shake when the winds roar,
Old bones upon the mountain shake.

Even that resounding line -

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea

- from "Byzantium" describes the way west-of-Ireland fishermen attract the fish by the beating of a gong. Ben Bulben, first and last, "sets the scene".

Thus the raw material of Yeats’s poetry is taken to a far greater degree than for most poets of the imagination, not from literature or from introspection but from life. He was of course widely and deeply read in the literature and philosophy of all cultures; his work is permeated with the thought of Plato, Plotinus and the Upanishads. But when we read his poetic and dramatic works we could hardly guess that Yeats lived more in England than in Ireland and spent much time in France.

Yeats built upon the foundation of his earliest love, but the choice was also deliberate. We can only guess at the kind of poet he might have become, but for that deliberate choice, from some early work later suppressed. In an essay on Ireland and the Arts Yeats recalls a time when he was "without any decided impulse to one thing more than another, and especially to those who are convinced, as I was convinced, that art is tribeless, nationless, a blossom gathered in No Man’s Land." Such is Mosada, a dramatic fragment set in Moorish Spain, and that other early poem Gerard Manley Hopkins called "a strained and unworkable allegory about a young man and a sphinx on a rock in the sea (how did they get there? what did they eat?) and so on: people think such [15] criticisms very prosaic; but commonsense is never out of place anywhere, neither on Parnassus nor on Tabor nor on the Mount where our Lord preached." (Letter to Coventry Patmore, November 7th 1886).

Yeats was to reach for himself the same conclusion:

When I first wrote I went here and there for my subjects as my reading led me and preferred to all countries Arcadia and the India of romance, but presently I convinced myself for such reasons as those in Ireland and the Arts, that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold that conviction to the end.

This resolution he kept; and in so doing became not merely a poet of talent but the voice of the imagination of Ireland. As a boy he had listened to the voice of that imagination spoken in "the desolate places" by the poor and dispossessed and illiterate; as a mature poet he made that voice heard throughout the world. In the same essay he had written:

The Greeks, the only perfect artists of the world, looked within their own borders, and we, like them, have a history fuller than any in modern history of imaginative events; and legends which surpass, as I think, all legends but theirs in wild beauty, and in our land, as in theirs, there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend. ... I would have Ireland recreate the ancient arts, the arts as they were understood in Judaea, in India, in Scandinavia, in Greece and Rome, in every ancient land; as they were understood when they moved a whole people and not a few people who have grown up in a leisured class and made this understanding their business.

"Have not all races had their first unity from a mythology that marries them to rock and hill?" Yeats asked.

If Yeats’s first intention was to strengthen his own poetry that intention had soon become a much greater one, to create "an Irish literature which, though made by many minds, would seem the work of a single mind, and turn our places of beauty or legendary association into holy symbols." [16]

Whereas an English poet writing at the end of the nineteenth century must have felt himself overshadowed by the great tradition of English literature and English culture, for an Irish poet there was at that time little to build on. There was the oral tradition of the Irish poor, and an ancient literature written in a language now spoken only by a largely illiterate class; and there was a totally unrelated Anglo-Irish culture belonging to Yeats’s own class, the Protestant ascendancy, whose great names - Burke and Grattan, Swift and Goldsmith and Berkeley - were unknown to the Gaelic tradition. In "Four Years (1887-1891)" Yeats tells how he had realized that he must build a new tradition; "there was no help for it, seeing that my country was not born at all." He succeeded, in his poetry, in accomplishing what history itself had hitherto failed to bring about, in uniting the culture of the Anglo-Irish - of Yeats and his friends, Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge and Maude Gonne and all those others among his contemporaries and fellow-countrymen whom his poetry has immortalised and his example inspired - names he has made a part of Ireland’s inheritance, united with that other tradition, of Mary Battle and Biddy Early and all the "henwives and queer old men" who told him stories. In retrospect it looks as if Ireland had already possessed that "unity of being" which comes from "some inherited subject matter known to the whole people"; but that - is an optical illusion, for it was Yeats himself, and the literary movement he led and inspired, the national theatre he created, that revived a dying tradition and united the shattered fragments into "a symbolical, a mythological coherence." The tradition of "dark Raftery" and O’Carolan, last of the bards, had dwindled to little more than a legend and the oral tradition of a poor and despised peasantry, that three generations would have sufficed to make irrecoverable; as has now come about in neighbouring Scotland.

In his purpose so to "deepen the political passion of the nation, that all, artist and poet, craftsman and day-labourer would accept a common design" so that "Perhaps even those images, once created and associated with river and mountain, [17] the Irish nation to whom Yeats listened the memory of "dark" (that is, blind) Raftery was dear. It was in Gort Workhouse that Yeats heard an old man describe the poet: "He was a big man, and his songs have gone through the whole world. I remember him well. He had a voice like the wind." An old woman of Ballylee remotely recalled the rôle of the bard when she said of Raftery

If you treated him well he’d praise you, but if you did not he’d fault you in Irish. He was the greatest poet in Ireland, and he’d make a song about that bush if he chanced to stand under it. There was a bush he stood under in the rain, and he made verses praising it, and then when the water came through he made verses dispraising it.’ She then sang the poem to a friend and to myself in Irish, and every word was audible and expressive.

Raftery died in a leaky cottage where the neighbours remembered that "all night long a light was streaming up to heaven from the roof of the house where he lay, and that was the angels who were with him...they gave that honour to him because he was so good a poet, and sang ’such religious songs." No less remembered was Mary Hynes, the woman Raftery celebrated in his poems. She too lived at Ballylee; and Yeats remembers:

An old man brought me a little way from the mill and the castle, and down a long narrow boreen that was nearly lost in brambles and sloe bushes and he said ’That is the little old fountain of the house, but the rest of it is taken for building walls, and the goats have ate those bushes that are growing over there till they have got cranky, and they won’t grow any more. They say she was the handsomest girl in Ireland.’

So she may have been; but it is oral tradition, "the book of the people", that has made her so. An old woman remembered:

As many as eleven men asked her in marriage in one day but she wouldn’t have any of them. There was a lot of men up beyond Kilbecan one night sitting together drinking and talked of her, and one of them got up and set out to [20] go to Ballylee and see her; but Cloon Bog was open then, and when he came to it he fell into the water, and they found him dead there in the morning. She died of the fever that was before the famine.

So the imagination of the people transmutes fact into legend; and that legend, recorded in The Celtic Twilight just as Yeats heard it, he raised to a greater grandeur in "The Tower". It was Raftery’s rhymes that had given its power to the beauty of Mary Hynes:

And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day
Music had driven their wits astray
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.

And Yeats goes on to compare the blind Irish bard with Homer:

Strange, but the man who made the song was blind;
Yet, now I have considered it, I find
That nothing strange; the tragedy began
With Homer that was a blind man
And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.

Beauty is a quality of the imagination, not of fact; and Yeats found in the West of Ireland a world like that of Homer, "sweetest of singers" whose island home was "rocky Chios". But before Yeats none of his race or class had recognised that in the Irish peasantry ("their" tenants) the Homeric world lived on; in men like Paddy Flynn, "a little bright-eyed old man who lived in a leaky one-roomed cabin in the village of Ballisodare." Yet such people, tinkers and beggars and the unregarded poor, were the true heirs of the Ireland of the kings and the bards. Paddy Flynn was "a great teller of tales" who

. knew how to empty heaven, hell and purgatory, faeryland [21] and earth to people his stories. He did not live in a shrunken world, but knew no less ample circumstances than did Homer himself. Perhaps the Gaelic people shall by his like bring back the ancient simplicity and amplitude of imagination.

The prophecies of great poets are themselves events that have already happened; Yeats was a bard in the old sense, giving Ireland’s story its place in the record of the imagination of the world. And those two qualities he admired - simplicity and amplitude - are surely the marks of his own greatest poetry.

But Yeats avoided the fallacy - if fallacy it was - of Wordsworth’s search to imitate the speech of the common man in a mode which made some of his Lyrical Ballads simple to the point of absurdity. After a few early attempts in ballad style made in his first resolve "to write always out of the common thought of the people" Yeats quickly realised that it is not from "the market-place, the songs of the workmen" that the thought of the people is to be discovered, but in "some Ogham on a stone, or the conversation of a countryman who knows more of the Boar without Bristles than of the daily paper." (The boar without bristles doubtless is a remote echo of the shape-changing Druids who turned themselves into swine, and a relation of the Truich Truith, the wild boar hunted in the Mabinogion in neighbouring Wales.) Nothing, Yeats understood, is more venerable than the records of unwritten tradition; and in The Celtic Twilight he wrote:

... though one can know but little of their ascent, one knows that they ascend like mediaeval genealogies through unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world. Folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought, and because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted.

He found in such men as the "roaring tinker" the highest of [22] aristocracy, divine descent; whose name, Mannion, comes from Mannanan, the sea-god of the Celts:

All Mannions come from Mannanan,
Though rich on every shore
He never lay behind four walls
He had such character,
Nor ever made an iron red
Nor soldered pot or pan.

indeed it is from the masks of his "henwives and queer old men" that Yeats speaks his profoundest thoughts; nor was this a mere literary device, for from them he learned his deepest wisdom. There is in The Celtic Twilight a fairytale of nearly twenty pages transcribed in a workhouse by "a friend" (Lady Gregory) who had

... found the old people cold and wretched, ’like flies in winter’, she said: but they forgot the cold when they began to talk. A man had just left them who had played cards in a rath with the people of faery, who had played ’very fair’; and one old man had seen an enchanted black pig one night, and there were two old people my friend had heard quarrelling as to whether Raftery or Callanan was the better poet.

The faery-cards Yeats used as the opening theme of his Stories of Red Hanrahan; and it was to the poor and despised that Hanrahan in his turn was to sing his songs and tell his stories. Hanrahan met on the road to Collooney an old woman who was surely in the later poems to become Crazy Jane the beggar-woman in the dignity of her dreams and memories, an embodiment of Ireland’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, in her guise of the "Poor Old Woman" the séan van vocht; as she appears in Yeats’s play that bears her name.

... one Margaret Rooney, a woman he used to know in Munster when he was a young man. She had no good name at that time, and it was the priest routed her out at last. He knew her by her walk and by the colour of her eyes, and by a way she had of putting back the hair [23] off her face with her left hand. She had been wandering about, she said, selling herrings and the like, and now she was going back to Sligo to the place in the Burrough where she was living with another woman, Mary Gillis, who had much the same story as herself. She would be well pleased, she said, if he would come and stop in the house with them, and he singing his songs to the bacachs and blind men and fiddlers of the Burrough ... and all the bacachs and poor men that heard him would give him a share of their own earnings for his stories and his songs while he was with them, and would carry his name into all the parishes of Ireland.

(The Burrough was Sligo’s disreputable district; it lay just outside the town on the road that runs north towards Drumcliff and Rosses; the Burrough has since been destroyed and rebuilt.) Hanrahan stays with these people, outcasts of an ancient race, who hold the bard still in honour; and like Raftery’s, "the sound of his voice was like the wind in a lonely place." He sings Yeats’s poem to "Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan";

... while he was singing his voice began to break, and tears come rolling down his cheeks and Margaret Rooney put down her face into her hands and began to cry along with him. Then a blind beggar by the fire shook his rags with a sob and after that there was no one left of them all but cried tears down.

And this story is echoed (with no doubt a memory also of Mary Battle’s visions of Queen Maeve and the Sidhe riding from Knoc-na-rea and Ben Bulben) in one of his late poems, Crazy Jane on the Mountain; she too having been routed out by the priests:

I am tired of cursing the Bishop
(Said Crazy Jane)
Nine books or nine hats
Would not make him a man.
I have found something worse
To meditate on. [24]
A king had some beautiful cousins,
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.
Last night I lay on the mountain
(Said Crazy Jane)
There in a two-horsed carriage
That on two wheels ran
Great-bladdered Emer sat,
Her violent man
Cuchulain sat at her side;
Thereupon,
Propped upon my two knees,
I kissed a stone;
I lay stretched out in the dirt
And I cried tears down.

The king and his "beautiful cousins" refers to Conchubar and the Sons of Usna, whom he treacherously murdered because of Deirdre, who had preferred Naoise to himself.

As for the Irish passion for "the Unseen Life", Yeats discovered in a culture which literacy and the mass media had not yet touched the traces of a primordial tradition as old as the world itself, and in no way differing from the learned traditions of Platonism and the Upanishads. it was, he believed, Western materialism that is a provincial heresy from this universal knowledge, whose end he foresaw and did all in his considerable power to bring about. When in 1920 Lady Gregory published her Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland Yeats contributed an: important essay entitled "Swedenborg, Mediums and the Desolate Places".

He had over the years read deeply in those Neoplatonic and Far Eastern books whose philosophy is grounded in the premise that mind, or spirit, is the ground of what we call reality. He had also made practical studies of the Western [25] esoteric tradition of magic, and serious and highly critical experiments in psychical research. He had now come to hold a "doctrine of souls", whose first traces he had discovered in his Sligo boyhood. Yeats had found that most of the phenomena of séances and other phenomena studied by psychical research had their counterpart in the folk-beliefs of "the desolate places".

I was amused to make Holloway interpret Aran, and constantly comparing my discoveries with what I have learned of mediaeval tradition among my fellow students with the reveries of a Neoplatonist, of a seventeenth-century Platonist, of Paracelsus or a Japanese poet.

In the writings of Swedenborg (known to him as a boy, but now re-examined in a more scientific spirit) he found doctrines which gave coherence to the knowledge which, over the years, he had gathered in areas of study superficially remote from one another, and confirmation of much he had himself seen and heard. In the light of Plato and Plotinus, Porphyry and the Upanishads, he was able to see Swedenborg himself in the larger context of a universal tradition of spiritual knowledge. He wrote of Swedenborg’s system according to which after death

... the soul lives a life so like that of the world that it may’ not even believe that it has died... It is the other world of the early races, of those whose dead are in the rath or the faery hill, of all who see no place of reward or punishment, but a continuation of this life, with cattle and sheep, markets and war. This earth-resembling life is the creation of the image-making power of the mind, plucked naked from the body, and mainly of the images in the memory.

This was a world he had known from childhood; all he had lacked was a philosophy to give it meaning.

This is the world to which the great Islamic scholar Henry Corbin has given the name of the "Imaginal" (in contrast to the pejorative "imaginary ")-the mundus imaginalis or imaginatio vera, whose "place" is the mind itself. It is the earth of Hûrqalyâ described by the Islamic mystical theologians as the "real" earth of the soul, as this world is real [26] to the body. Corbin writes:

l’éveil à la conscience de Hûrqalyâ annonce un nouveau mode de Iâ’me avec I’étendue, avec tout ce qui est corporel et spatial, relation qui ne peut être un rapport de contenu et contenant. Le mode de vision de la Terre est le mode même de la vision de l’âme, le vision en laquelle elle se perçoit; ce peut être son paradis, et ce peut être son enfer.

(The awakening of the awareness of Hûrqalyâ preludes a new mode of relationship with extension, with whatever is corporeal and spatial, a relationship which cannot be that of contained and containing. The earthly mode of vision is the mode also of the soul’s vision, the vision in which the soul perceives itself; it may be its paradise, or it may be its hell.)

It is into this " terre de vérité", the world of its own truth, that the soul "plucked naked from its body" is "resurrected" at death; an intermediate world of imaginal forms.

... c’est le monde par lequel se corporalisent les esprits et par lequel se spiritualisent les corps. Ce monde intermédiatrice n’est accessible qu’à l’iagination active, àla fois instauratrice de son univers propre et transmutatrice des donnés sensibles en symboles.

( ... it is the world by whose means spirits are corporealised and bodies spiritualised. This intermediate world is accessible only to the active Imagination, at the same time establishing it in its proper universe, and transmuting sense-date into symbols.)

Corbin himself greatly admired Yeats’s two masters, Blake, and Swedenborg of whom Blake was himself a follower; but was not, so far as I know, acquainted with Yeats’s remarkable essay in which he could have found rich confirmation of what he had himself found in the learned tradition of Iranian mystical theology.

So heaven and hell are built always anew and in hell or heaven all do what they please and all are surrounded by scenes and circumstances which are the expression of their natures and the creation of their thought.

Such are the little hurley-players watched by some workmen in a field; the huntsmen and the fairy hounds, the [27] buskined women who ride from Ben Bulben’s white door. All live in that world the Iranian mystics call Hûrqalyâ, the Irish country people the world of faery, and Blake the Imagination. "It is the real world" Blake had written "into which we shall all go after the death of this mortal body." It is in this world where thoughts are things that the poets of the Imagination - Imaginatio vera - find their "images of wonder".

In many of his early poems - The Happy Townland", "The Man Who Dreamed of Faery-land", "The Host of the Air" - Yeats describes this world of images where the simple dreams of the poor are realities:

Boughs have their fruit and blossom
At all times of the year;
Rivers are running over

With red beer and brown beer.
An old man plays bagpipes
In a golden and silver wood;
Queens, their eyes blue like ice
Are dancing in a crowd.

Here Yeats is putting into verse the material of folk-themes much as he found it. In his latest and grandest work the same material was to be wrought into poetry of unsurpassed depth of meaning. In The Dreaming of the Bones the unlaid ghosts of Dermot and Dervorgilla, whom Red Hanrahan had seen on Ben Bulben, become the theme of a play of the supernatural based on the No theatre of Japan; whose themes are usually enacted in the "twilight" between inner and outer worlds. In this play Yeats has used many details taken from The Celtic Twilight, like the souls who do penance in a thorn-bush; and so in Purgatory, last and greatest of his plays of the supernatural. In "Swedenborg, Mediums and the Desolate Places" Yeats writes of a No play in which a priest marries the ghosts of two country lovers long dead, and of the same story (it is told by Lady Gregory), of lovers who came to a priest for marriage after death, from the Aran islands. He did not himself write a play upon this theme; but in one of his last collections, Supernatural Songs, Ribh at the Tomb of [18] "Baile and Ailinn" recalls the story known since boyhood of two lovers who died in sorrow each thinking the other dead. In no poem has Yeats given more profound and complete expression to his own and ancient Ireland’s doctrine of souls. Dead lovers and holy man have alike in their spiritual bodies attained their "celestial earth":

Here in the pitch-dark atmosphere above
The trembling of the apple and the yew,
Here on the anniversary of their death,
The anniversary of their first embrace,
Those lovers purified by tragedy
Hurry into each other’s arms; these eyes,
By water, herb and solitary prayer
Made aquiline, are open to that light,
Though somewhat broken by the leaves, that light
Lies in a circle on the grass; therein
I turn the pages of my holy book.

[END]

Stephen Spender, ‘Sensuousness in Modern Poetry’, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (March 1943), pp.118-26; p.118.

[...] A critic as serious as Miss Raine, does not seem quite easy herself with the method she employs of extracting what is really a message from Eliot's Poetry and then judging the poetry by it. This is not an unfair way of describing what she does in the following sentences:

East Coker is a stern and dark, but not a tragic poem. Its darkness is the darkness of Dante’s hell, or purgatory, that, implies the light and the love of paradise. An implicit acceptance of the inherent rightness of the laws that decree also death, darkness, and change, sustains the poem. It is written by a poet who believes that man is a spiritual being.

This kind of writing would do equally well as a programme note to music such as Liszt’s Faust Symphony or Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantasque, if one simply replaces East Coker by [118] the name of either symphony and the word poet in the last sentence by the word musician. [...] It seems to me highly desireabl that there should be some attempt to establish standards by which poetry can be judged quite apart from the literary, political, philosophical or theological programme which the poet sets himself. [... &c.] (pp.118-19.)

 

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