Tuesday, 17 December 2013

William Butler Yeats Day

Today is William Butler Yeats Day.  Not everywhere.  Just on this blog.

I blame The Waterboys, but more of that later.  First to WB himself.  He was an Irishman, born in 1865 and living until 1939.  He is, perhaps, the greatest literary figure in Ireland's history, leading (after a fashion) a revival in Irish culture which went along with the revival of Irish nationalism and the independence which he lived to see.  He even served as a senator in the first independent Irish parliament.

When I was a young man dabbling in literary studies we were taught that there were two pillars of twentieth century English poetry, Yeats and TS Eliot.  I have to confess that at the time I preferred the austere Eliot.  I loved to immerse myself in the beautiful cadence of his verse.

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Even when I had no idea what he was talking about - and that was often - I still loved the sounds and the pictures he created.  Yeats, by contrast, seemed soppy, full of odd ideas and cheap romantic tricks, a throwback to the likes of William Wordsworth who I also found a little nauseating.

What I didn't understand at the time, but have learned amply since, is just how broad was Yeats' appeal.  Not only was he a pillar of highbrow literature, a Nobel laureate and required reading for students across the English-speaking world.  His songs are sung in pubs and folk clubs across Ireland and around the world, rendered in various versions with different tunes by some of the giants of folk music.

The most famous and most widely covered is his love song, Down by the Salley Gardens.  Appropriately, this poem was based on a folk song he heard in his childhood.  He turned his fragmentary memory into a simple and profound piece of verse expressing the sorrow of life.

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.   

So many famous people have covered this song that I just have to give you a less famous one, sung by Maura O'Connell with harmonies from Karen Matheson.

This sorrow flowed through all of Yeats' poetry and indeed through the whole literature of the 20th century.  Two world wars will do that to you.  It wasn't just the people who died, but the overturning of everything we held to be certain.  Yeats' true love, Maude Gonne, turned him down repeatedly before marrying another man.  His broken heart never quite healed.  But behind this very personal pain is the sorrow of a culture losing its spiritual compass and its faith in the certainties that once governed it, trying to find its way in a world turned on its head. No wonder Yeats dreamt of escape.

While in his political life he dreamt of an independent Ireland, in his verse he dreamt of a shadow realm, the realm of faeries where the sorrows of this world would just be a dim echo.  Told like that it sounds silly, but told by Yeats it is yearning and beautiful, a still twilight or pre-dawn when no-one is awake and silent feet slip through the house beckoning the waking child.

Where dips the rocky highland 
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, 
There lies a leafy island 
Where flapping herons wake 
The drowsy water rats; 
There we've hid our faery vats, 
Full of berrys 
And of reddest stolen cherries. 
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.

 You can, if you like, be spared this weeping by going with the faeries, but it comes at a cost.

He'll hear no more the lowing 
Of the calves on the warm hillside 
Or the kettle on the hob 
Sing peace into his breast, 
Or see the brown mice bob 
Round and round the oatmeal chest. 
For he comes, the human child, 
To the waters and the wild 
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping 
than he can understand.

The Waterboys recorded a version of this song which reminded me once again of Yeats, and which encapsulates everything that is brilliant and frustrating about their mid-80s flirtation with Irish music.  Tired of rock'n'roll they shifted to Ireland and immersed themselves in its folk music, swapping their drums and jangly keyboards for fiddles, mandolins and whistles.  Over two years they recorded literally hundreds of songs.  Some are brilliant, some are downright annoying.  Their version of The Stolen Child is both.  A lovely melody on the refrain is accompanied by soulful tin whistles.  It's so beautiful I almost shared it with you, but they kill it by getting someone to read the verses in the most annoyingly cheesy Irish accent.  So instead I'll share a version by Loreena McKennitt, someone who really understands Irish music.

The dream of escape really is an illusion, but Yeats' faeries give us another option.  They open up a world that allows us to dream of something beyond ourselves, to keep on searching even when the search seems foolish and hopeless.  In The Song of Wandering Aengus he offers us just such a glimpse. a fleeting moment of possibility which drives him on.

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 a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one 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.
I don't love the tune that is often attached to this song, recorded by Donovan among others, so despite only being able to find a version with annoying time-lapse images I'm going to share the tune that grabbed me from the moment I heard it, by American songstress Jolie Holland. Dream on!


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