The poems, prose, and drama gathered in When You Are Old present a fresh portrait of the Nobel Prize–winning writer as a younger man: the 1890s aesthete who dressed as a dandy, collected Irish folklore, dabbled in magic, and wrote heartrending poems for his beloved, the beautiful, elusive Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. Included here are such celebrated, lyrical poems as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” as well as Yeats’s imaginative retellings of Irish fairytales—including his first major poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” based on a Celtic fable—and his critical writings, which offer a fascinating window onto his artistic theories. Through these enchanting works, readers will encounter Yeats as the mystical, lovelorn bard and Irish nationalist popular during his own lifetime.
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About the Author
ROB DOGGETT is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Geneseo. He is the author of Deep-Rooted Things: Empire and Nation in the Poetry and Drama of William Butler Yeats.
Read an Excerpt
READING THE EARLY YEATS: THEN AND NOW
The first time that W. B. Yeats read his verse on the radio as part of “An Irish Programme” for the BBC that aired at 9:10 p.m. on September 8, 1931, Ireland’s Nobel Prize–winning poet and, at the age of sixty-six, its most recognizable literary figure announced to his audience, “I am going to begin with a poem of mine called ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ because, if you know anything about me, you will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is widely known.”1 He may have sounded a little petulant, but he wasn’t wrong. Although The Tower (1928), now regarded as among the defining poetry volumes of the twentieth century, was released just three years earlier and to considerable critical acclaim, Yeats’s popular reputation up until his death in 1939 rested mainly on the poetry and drama he wrote in the late nineteenth century. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which he composed in 1888 at the age of twenty-three, was his signature piece, and his early collection Poems (1895), revised and reprinted fourteen times during his life, was his best-known and best-selling book. All of which was a source of considerable annoyance to the elder Yeats who, as his patron Lady Gregory once remarked, would always pull a face “when you find the play or poem some charming lady is gushing about is either Land of Heart’s Desire or Innisfree.”2 Nevertheless, Yeats begins his radio program with selections from the early verse not because of any real need to satisfy popular taste—which he was never shy about defying—but because these poems, as his fans knew then and as we know today, are astonishingly good. Eighty years after that first radio broadcast, at a time when Yeats’s late poems are studied in high school English classes and when his apocalyptic “The Second Coming” has surpassed “Innisfree” as his most frequently quoted work, a depressing indication indeed of our own state of affairs, we still return to these beautiful and moving early poems—“Down by the Salley Gardens,” “The Stolen Child,” “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” “The Fiddler of Dooney,” “When You Are Old,” “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” and so many others.
The fact that we cherish the same poems as his first readers does not, however, mean that we read them in the same exact way. A poetic fantasy from the nineteenth century about living in a cabin on a remote island in western Ireland resonates differently in a world of mobile phones, Internet connectivity, and rapid global transit. This is true, of course, for all literary productions, but the issue is more complicated with Yeats. For one, the poems we read now are in some cases literally different because he consistently revised his published works, including many of his earliest poems, which he believed were written in a “style” that, in retrospect, “seemed too elaborate, too ornamental.”3 For another, we usually encounter his verse in complete editions of the poetry that were assembled after Yeats’s death, and these chronologically arranged books, by their very nature, encourage us to see the early poems as a kind of necessary scaffolding that enabled his later poetic achievements. Most important, though, we live in the shadow of Yeats the literary critic, who, in his Autobiographies (1916–1935) and extensive critical writings, did more than perhaps any other modern author to define how future readers should approach his works. The youthful poems and plays, at their worst, suffered from what he called “an exaggeration of sentiment and sentimental beauty.”4 His full commitment to the theater in the early 1900s introduced a bolder, “less dream-burdened will into [his] verses,”5 and, in the end, his entire career could best be understood as an ongoing process of self-refashioning that culminated in a final, totalizing aesthetic vision. As Yeats wrote in a late essay that was meant to introduce his complete works, the poet “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.”6 What we gain from this perspective is the certainty of progression and the assurance of an overarching design. What we lose, though, is the sense of mystery and unforeseen delight that comes when we encounter a new and powerful poetic voice without any retrospective knowledge of how it will develop. The opportunity is to see Yeats from a different vantage that is not bound to his own critical legacy but is closer to that of his early reviewers, many of whom were immediately entranced by what Lionel Johnson characterized as the “haunting music” in Yeats’s poems, “which depends not upon any rich wealth of words, but upon a [subtle] strain of music in their whole quality of thoughts and images, some incommunicable beauty, felt in the simplest words and verses.”7
When You Are Old: Early Poems, Plays, and Fairy Tales is meant as a fresh introduction to that Yeats—the poet, dramatist, and folklorist whose writings from 1886 through 1902 first captivated a generation of readers. The volume’s limited temporal frame, incorporation of multiple genres, and reliance on early editions are designed to evoke a different age and literary context, so that fans today can experience something of that immediate charm, haunting music, and quality of thoughts and images. Consider, for example, the opening quatrain of Yeats’s 1892 poem “The Sorrow of Love,” as it now appears in editions of the collected poems:
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.
Revised for publication in 1925, the stanza exhibits many of the characteristics of Yeats’s late poetry. The opening gerund is direct and powerful, the images are romantic but rendered with specificity, and the tone is confident, almost urbane—“all that famous harmony of leaves.” By contrast, the version that appears in this book, taken from the 1895 edition of Poems, relies upon a languid, hypnotic rhythm. The images are more evocative than descriptive, and the overall tone is wistful, dreamy, and melancholic:
The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon and the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.
Reading this version is a very different experience, and part of what makes it feel so different is that it awakens an aesthetic sensibility that can seem to us both foreign and familiar. Foreign, in the sense that the adjectives that immediately spring to mind—wistful, dreamy, melancholic, delicate, ornamental, elusive, ephemeral, or even sentimental—are normally used today as terms of disparagement, reserved for poems that are deemed inferior because they lack precision and intellectual complexity. Familiar, in the sense that these adjectives strike exactly the right note, reminding us of those moments when lush imagery, dreamy associations, and hypnotic rhythms linger in our minds, evoking a mood that we can sense but cannot fully describe. To read this version of “The Sorrow of Love” or any of his other early writings as part of one discrete group—the poems, plays, and fairy tales all in dialogue with one another—is to rediscover that familiar experience, when the artist’s words resonate in what Yeats calls in his signature poem “the deep heart’s core,” against the backdrop of a foreign age, when sentiment, euphony, delicacy, sensitivity, and beauty were the primary markers of literary quality. It is, in other words, to recognize that these works can stand on their own, not because they are necessarily superior to his other writings (that question is best left to the reader) but because, more than a century later, they continue to move, challenge, and inspire us.
When You Are Old begins with selections from Yeats’s edited collection Irish Fairy Tales (1892), which are designed to provide readers with a context for exploring his work in light of his commitments to folklore, spiritualism, and cultural nationalism. These are followed by complete first editions of Poems (1895), which was chosen for its lasting popularity, and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), a volume that, perhaps more than any other, has come to define the avant-garde symbolism of the fin de siècle. Poems also includes two underappreciated early plays, The Countess Cathleen (1892, originally spelled “Kathleen”) and The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894). The concluding selections of fairy and folk tales have been chosen from The Celtic Twilight (1893, rev. 1902), a title that has become synonymous with the Celtic Revival. The absence of a strict thematic organization is meant to encourage readers to examine these volumes in dialogue with one another, while the incorporation of multiple genres is intended to mirror Yeats’s own arrangement practices and to provide a sense of his varied artistic pursuits and interests during this incredibly productive time in his life. One place to start is with the fairy tales, which had an influence going back as far as the first two poems he published under his own name, “Song of the Faeries” and “Voices,” in the March 1885 issue of the Dublin University Review.
THE FAIRY TALES
Although Yeats had listened with fascination as a boy in the western Irish village of Sligo to his mother’s stories about ghosts, fairies, and other supernatural encounters, his interest in fairy tales, and in folklore more generally, was spurred during the late 1880s primarily by his involvement in theosophy and other forms of spiritualism. Yeats was Protestant by birth, but his father, the painter John Butler Yeats, was a Victorian agnostic who instilled in his eldest son a skeptical attitude toward Ireland’s two mainstream religions. Yeats did not, however, share his father’s commitment to scientific materialism. He believed instead in the theosophist notion that deeper truths, woven throughout all of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions, are only accessible when individual thought transcends rationality and merges with the collective mind, ultimately reaching back to what he called the “one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.”8 In his travels throughout County Sligo, where ghosts and fairies were a part of everyday conversation (“I always mind my own affairs and they always mind theirs,” says old Biddy Hart in Irish Fairy Tales), Yeats found confirmation of a spiritual realm that exceeded logical thought, and in the stories he heard and retold proof that all manifestations of true creativity spring from one primal source. “Folk-lore,” he proclaimed in 1893, “is at once the Bible, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer, and well-nigh all the great poets have lived by its light.”9
Folklore also had a more pragmatic function. In 1885, just as he was immersing himself in theosophy, Yeats met the former Irish revolutionary John O’Leary. Though only in his fifties, O’Leary seemed to the young poet a romantic figure from an earlier, heroic age, and his teachings prompted Yeats to embrace the cause of Irish nationalism. Initially this meant a brief interest in, if not a deep commitment to, revolution by physical force, but for the most part Yeats followed O’Leary’s lead in promoting the notion that independence from England could best be achieved through cultural transformation. If Ireland featured in British popular media as a backward land plagued by ignorance, superstition, and drunkenness, unfit for self-government because it had not produced great artistic achievements like other Western countries, cultural nationalism sought to reawaken a sense of pride in the Irish people by reminding them of an oral tradition that had always been a vital feature of rural life. As a nationalist of Protestant heritage who did not speak Gaelic, Yeats felt that this tradition, because it was rooted in the great memory, represented a model of communal unity that could transcend modern sectarian divisions. His early folklore collections were, in this sense, one aspect of a broader program designed to establish in material form a canon of Irish literature that would be accessible to contemporary readers, helping, as he put it in 1892, “to build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit from being English in language.”10
In his early folk collections, this Irish spirit is usually associated with place, but in his most popular collection of folklore and fairy tales, The Celtic Twilight, it is primarily associated with character. Passionate or melancholy, simple or wise, the people in these stories entrance us more than the fairies, for they intuitively embrace all that is extraordinary in the world and that cannot be encompassed by the dictates of Enlightenment thought. “When all is said and done,” asks Yeats in “Belief and Unbelief,” “how do we not know that our own unreason may be better than another’s truth? [F]or it has been warmed on our hearths and in our souls, and is ready for the wild bees of truth to hive in it, and make their sweet honey. Come into the world again, wild bees, wild bees!” Not coincidentally, Yeats was living in London when he expressed these sentiments, and they align neatly with the core convictions he discovered in the artists who occupied his attention: the Romantic poets Blake and Shelley, the mid-century Pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings recalled the styles of the Middle Ages, and William Morris, who inspired the Arts and Crafts movement. For Yeats, the modern age was characterized by a deadening adherence to mechanized logic. He believed that London, with its newspapers, factories, and slums, was the inevitable result of this mind-set, and he regarded those who stood in opposition as radical visionaries championing art, the imagination, and universal spiritualism. What Yeats offered in The Celtic Twilight was thus not simply an oral tradition that might serve as an object of national pride in Ireland but an entirely different mode of being or way of existing in the modern world. Although most of his readers would never live among the peasants, they could emulate this imaginative Celtic temperament by following Yeats’s own lead: “You too meet with like imagination, doubtless, somewhere, wherever your ruling stars will have it, Saturn driving you to the woods, or the Moon, it may be, to the edges of the sea.” Like many other mystical thinkers, Yeats believed that the turn of the century signaled the beginning of a new spiritual age, and The Celtic Twilight offered readers a guide. Beauty is the gateway to this realm of light and shadow, where reason is cast away and our thoughts move freely between the seen and the unseen, the mundane and the magical.
As is the case with folklore, Yeats’s early commitment to drama was rooted in spiritualism, cultural nationalism, and a broader desire to revitalize the arts in an imaginatively bankrupt modern age. This unconventional dramatic vision put him at odds with the dominant trends in late-nineteenth-century Irish theater. Most productions in Dublin featured works that were popular in London and that were often staged by English touring companies, including the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, contemporary social realism, English melodramas, and, of course, Shakespeare. Yeats generally viewed these types of drama, with the notable exception of Shakespeare’s works, as examples of what we would today call cultural imperialism, in that they either ignored Ireland altogether or merely used Irish characters for comic purposes, part of a long tradition of drunken, boisterous, and teary-eyed “stage Irishmen.” Yeats, though, was equally hostile to the productions at the Queen’s Royal Theatre in Dublin, which, beginning in the 1880s, sought to boost ticket sales by featuring patriotic Irish melodramas (and, according to George Bernard Shaw, by serving “as a market for ladies who lived by selling themselves”).11 Although Yeats would later overstate his willingness during this period to champion artistic quality over nationalist sentiment, his suspicion of patriotic melodrama underscores an important point. Yeats’s dramatic vision was less about what is represented onstage and more about how it is represented. Plays that relied upon elaborate plots, multiple character interactions, or dialogue and scenery intended to mimic real life—the basic elements, that is, of theatrical realism—would inevitably reinforce the empty superficiality of modern existence because they appealed mainly to the rational mind and not the imagination. For Yeats, patriotic melodrama, though Irish in theme, was thus essentially English in spirit. True cultural transformation required a fundamentally different theatrical approach.
The core aspects of this new approach are evident in The Land of Heart’s Desire, which Yeats completed in early 1894. Set in an Irish peasant cottage during the late 1700s, the play focuses on Maire, a newly married bride who is instinctively drawn to a life of the imagination, even as the other characters stress her duties to the home and to the Catholic Church. Although operating mainly within the parameters of realism, the play has little in common with commercial theater. Indeed, just after completing The Land of Heart’s Desire, Yeats traveled to Paris for the premiere of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s decadent symbolist play Axel, and he immediately recognized a kinship, claiming that Villiers’s work was part of a “new current” in drama that would inspire all those who “have grown tired of the photographing of life, and have returned by the path of symbolism to imagination and poetry, the only things which are ever permanent.”12 In his deceptively simple peasant folk drama, Yeats was already traveling down the same path. All of the props, including the yellow book of ancient Irish legends and the crucifix, are symbolically charged, suggestive of the opposing forces acting upon Maire’s heart. The stage space fixes our attention upon the cottage door, which marks a boundary between the realms of ordinary human consciousness and the supernatural, while the plot is advanced by repeated patterns of movement and poetic language. Each time that Maire goes to the door, scattering primroses or offering milk and turf to unseen travelers, the play takes on an increasingly ritualized quality that culminates in the dance of the fairy child. As the curtain falls and we are left contemplating the song of the fairies, the audience is momentarily brought into a liminal space, at the threshold between the known and the unknown, where all that we can imagine is as real as anything that we merely see.
The Land of Heart’s Desire was written for the actress and bohemian “New Woman” Florence Farr, whose unconventional lifestyle Yeats greatly admired, but the primary inspiration for so many of his works during this period, including The Countess Cathleen, was Maud Gonne. Tall and classically beautiful, the wealthy daughter of a British army officer, yet an ardent nationalist, a commanding speaker, interested in spiritualism, and deeply invested in women’s rights, Gonne was not simply unconventional; she was otherworldly. Or at least that is how she seemed to Yeats when they first met on January 30, 1889:
Presently a hansom drove up to our door at Bedford Park with Miss Maud Gonne, who brought an introduction to my father from old John O’Leary, the Fenian Leader. . . . To-day, with her great height and the unchangeable lineaments of her form, she looks the Sibyl I would have had played by Florence Farr, but in that day she seemed a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation “She walks like a goddess” made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window.13
This overtly theatrical passage from his Autobiographies, which includes the unlikely detail of apple blossoms in January, highlights an obvious but important point. Maud Gonne the muse, the offstage presence in so many of his early works, is only tangentially related to Maud Gonne the human being, the complex person who was such a force in Yeats’s day-to-day life. Where art is concerned, Yeats was always reinventing Gonne as a symbol or persona in order to reawaken his own creativity. When writing The Countess Cathleen, Yeats was directly motivated by Gonne’s efforts on behalf of the poor in Donegal but indirectly by his sense that her commitment to political causes, though indicative of a noble selflessness, belied a yearning for the solitary realms of art and the imagination. His assessment of her character hardly squares with the historical woman who seemed energized by political activism, yet this romantic vision of Gonne enabled Yeats to transform what would initially seem an unpromising melodramatic plot—an aristocratic heroine sells her soul to the devil in order to save her starving peasants—into a stirring meditation on Celtic spiritualism. Although God ultimately redeems Cathleen’s sacrifice, her melancholic “longing for a deeper peace” among the pagan lands of the fairy “Shee” generates some of the most haunting passages in all of Yeats’s works, including the lyric “Who Goes with Fergus?” which so moved a young James Joyce that he sang it to his dying mother. This does not mean that we must uncritically accept the way that Yeats’s play limits female power to an expression of noble self-sacrifice, a far cry from Gonne’s own belief that women should take an active role in transforming society. It does, however, remind us that Yeats’s aesthetic vision was, from the start, rooted in drama. Art was meaningful precisely because it turned ordinary existence into a formalized performance, thereby exposing those deeper emotions and spiritual truths that we cannot grasp amid the chaos and incoherence of our daily lives.
Yeats’s 1895 collection Poems brings together, in revised forms, early works drawn mainly from The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892). As is always the case with Yeats, the ordering is crucial. Throughout his life, Yeats usually opened his collected editions with either “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” or “The Wanderings of Oisin” (spelled “Usheen” in the 1895 collection). The former is set in a dying pastoral realm, where the earth no longer “dreams,” no longer gives birth to gods and spirits, because the “Gray Truth” of Enlightenment thought has now become “her painted toy.” The shepherd, though, is joyful, for he sings,
But ah! She dreams not now—dream thou!
For fair are poppies on the brow:
Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.
Humble peasant, visionary artist, or any reader of this poem, all who embrace the power of the imagination and live with poppies on the brow, irrespective of any national ties, have the capacity to reawaken an ancient spiritualism in a world dominated by modern logic. In the 1895 collection, however, Yeats signals his more immediate commitment to cultural nationalism by beginning with “The Wanderings of Usheen,” an epic poem rooted in Irish mythology. The volume’s middle section of symbolist and mystical poems, which he titled The Rose, reinforces this commitment, as the speaker declares in the opening lyric that he will “Sing of old Eri [i.e., Ireland] and the ancient ways.”14 The book then concludes with a section titled Crossways, in which “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” introduces a group of lyrics with Arcadian and Eastern settings. Taken as a whole, the volume offers a retrospective of Yeats’s career to this point, but more important the arrangement communicates a set of fundamental beliefs: transformation of Irish culture is the primary goal, mystical poetry focused on Irish myths and legends provides the means, and universal spiritualism, which transcends national boundaries, is the source.
Although the poems in both major sections are part of an overarching narrative, they are different in approach. In Crossways, as Yeats notes in his preface, the young artist had “tried many pathways,” while in The Rose “he has found, he believes, the only pathway whereon he can hope to see with his own eyes the Eternal Rose of Beauty and of Peace.” The former introduces a central theme in Yeats’s art—creativity born out of the tension between opposites, where fulfillment of desire always gives way to further yearning. If “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” affirms the power of the individual imagination to remake the world through poetic language, its Blakean companion, “The Sad Shepherd,” transforms this romantic dream into a solipsistic nightmare, as the speaker is unable to sustain his own identity in the face of nature’s power, his attempts at song echoing back as an “inarticulate moan.” In “The Stolen Child,” the most famous poem in this section, the fairy realms that seduce the boy are characterized by abundance and the joyful dances of creatures who are indifferent to mortal cares, yet the child departs “solemn-eyed,” having left behind those humble comforts of ordinary human existence, the sounds of young cows “lowing . . . on the warm hillside / Or the kettle on the hob” that “sing peace into his breast.”
The Rose, by contrast, introduces another central theme—creativity born out of the attempt to unify opposites. Having joined the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890, an occult society that was steeped in Rosicrucian philosophy, Yeats believed that multiple levels of reality, extending from the visible world to the spiritual world, could be momentarily apprehended as one through sustained contemplation of symbols—a more active form of magical incantation than he had practiced during his earlier studies of theosophy. The lush and rhythmic poems in The Rose are designed to induce this meditative state, with the rose functioning as an object of contemplation that evokes and brings into being, among many other things, a once and future Ireland, mystical wisdom, peace, and multiple forms of ideal beauty, all of which are associated with Maud Gonne. The rose, though, does not directly symbolize any of these ideals. Instead, the rose is a symbol of symbolism itself—the point at which art brings into harmony two separate orders of reality. In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” beauty and infinite pity blossom on the cross of human suffering and mortal, time-bound existence. In “The Rose of the World,” ancient “beauty [that] passes like a dream” simultaneously manifests itself in the “lonely face” and “wandering feet” of an idealized woman, presumably Gonne. This unifying aesthetic operates even in those poems that do not directly reference the rose. In “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the speaker, walking “the pavements grey” of the modern city, conjures up a remote geographical location where peace and the essence of beauty are imagined as physical qualities of the landscape. Although the speaker declares that he “will arise and go now” to this magical place, the journey is purely metaphysical, in that the speaker longs to ascend into that contemplative state where a fusion of the real and ideal can be felt in the depths of the heart.
In this sense, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is more about the desire for spiritual unity than its actualization, and this expression of longing becomes one of the central issues that Yeats explores in The Wind Among the Reeds. Here, though, desire is primarily directed toward emotional and erotic fulfillment, a reflection of Yeats’s complex personal life during the mid-1890s. Having been repeatedly rebuffed by Maud Gonne, who had moved to Paris in 1893, Yeats began an affair with a married woman, Olivia Shakespear, in 1895. This was Yeats’s first sexual relationship, and in his Memoirs he confesses to feelings of insecurity, embarrassment, painful yearning, and awkward excitement before his more experienced lover. Gonne, though, had already returned to his life, and he soon abandoned the reality of an actual woman for the fantasy of an ideal beloved, unaware that throughout this time Gonne was in a relationship with a French newspaper editor, Lucien Millevoye, an older, married man with whom she had had two children (one dying in infancy). In The Wind Among the Reeds, these experiences shape his diverse representations of the lover’s attitude toward the beloved, where the prospect of fulfilled desire is often associated with entanglement, a loss of identity, or even death, while the prospect of unfulfilled desire is often associated with intense fidelity, frustrated longing, or suicidal self-abasement. It is important, however, to keep in mind that these are not confessional poems. Unlike later, revised editions of this volume, where the titles refer to “He” or “The Lover,” the speakers in this first edition, like the various depictions of the beloved, are a series of characters, representing different imaginative temperaments and the varying, conflicted attitudes of a lover, all couched in the decadent symbolism that Yeats discovered in his reading of French authors, including Villiers. The Wind Among the Reeds is, in this respect, a carefully designed performance, in which Yeats incorporates a variety of personas and symbols to dramatize the complexities of human sexuality, emotion, fantasy, and desire.
Just four months before the publication of The Wind Among the Reeds, Maud Gonne met with Yeats on December 8, 1898, at the Crown Hotel in Dublin and told him about Lucien Millevoye. It was the first in a series of events that, over the next decade, would prompt Yeats to reassess his personal beliefs and aesthetic assumptions, to the point that he came to regard his first works as a phase that had to be cast aside before he could discover his mature poetic voice and artistic vision. Or, to quote W. H. Auden’s more sardonic assessment, “Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet.”15 But Auden was wrong—as readers of When You Are Old will quickly discover. In these pages, they will have the opportunity to see the early folklore, drama, and poetry from a fresh perspective that reveals a very different Yeats. Not the bitter elitist railing against the middle classes during the 1910s or the self-assured high modernist of his late phase, but the young aesthete who dressed as a dandy, founded literary societies in Dublin and London, collected Irish folklore, penned dramatic works about ancient Ireland and the fairies, dabbled in magic, and wrote beautiful poems for Maud Gonne—the Yeats that people first came to know, that some loved, and that nearly all admired.
1. W. B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Later Articles and Reviews, vol. 10, ed. Colton Johnson (New York: Scribner, 2000), p. 224.
2. Quoted in R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 362.
3. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Autobiographies, vol. 3, ed. William H. O’Donnell and Douglass N. Archibald (New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 279.
4. Yeats, The Letters, ed. Allan Wade (London: Hart Davis, 1954), p. 434.
5. Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 814.
6. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Later Essays, vol. 5, ed. William H. O’Donnell (New York: Scribner, 1994), p. 204.
7. Quoted in A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), pp. 80–81.
8. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 28.
9. Yeats, Uncollected Prose, vol. 1, ed. John P. Frayne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), p. 284.
10. Ibid., p. 255.
11. Quoted in Stephen Watt, “Late Nineteenth-Century Irish Theatre,” The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama, ed. Shaun Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 19.
12. Yeats, Uncollected Prose, pp. 322–23.
13. Yeats, Autobiographies, pp. 119–20.
14. See “A Note on the Text” regarding the spelling of Eri and Eire.
15. Quoted in James Fenton, “A Voice of His Own,” The Guardian, February 2, 2007.
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
When You Are Old: Early Poems, Plays, and Fairy Tales brings together works that reflect Yeats’s creative interests and artistic styles during the period from 1886, when he began composing “The Wanderings of Oisin,” his first major poem, through 1902, which saw the publication of a revised and expanded edition of The Celtic Twilight (1893), a title that became synonymous with the revival of Celtic culture in turn-of-the-century Ireland. The opening selections are from his edited collection Irish Fairy Tales (T. Fisher Unwin, 1892) and are designed to provide readers with a context for exploring his work in light of his commitments to folklore, spiritualism, and cultural nationalism. These selections are followed by a complete first edition of Poems (T. Fisher Unwin, 1895), which contains, in revised forms, verse and drama that Yeats culled from The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892). For most readers during his lifetime, this best-selling collection was their earliest introduction to Yeats. The next volume, a first edition of The Wind Among the Reeds (Elkin Mathews, 1899), is also presented in complete form. It includes initial versions of some of his most famous poems, all arranged according to Yeats’s original design and accompanied by his (illuminating and bewildering) explanatory notes. When You Are Old concludes with The Celtic Twilight (A. H. Bullen, 1902), a volume that remained a source of pride for Yeats throughout his life and that defined his legacy for a generation of readers.
Since this volume brings together multiple texts that are, for the most part, first editions, some minor changes were required to maintain consistency and to address misprints in the originals. For example, titles were edited to follow modern capitalization practices throughout, while poems that originally appeared in more than one individual volume—“The Hosting of Sidhe” and “Into the Twilight”—are printed once. In the case of misprints, changes were made only when indicated by errata slips or obvious corrections in subsequent reprintings. As a rule of thumb, though, such editorial changes were kept to a minimum so as to preserve the look and feel of the early editions. Thus, readers will encounter the ancient name of Ireland spelled as “Eri” in Poems and as (the conventional) “Eire” in The Wind Among the Reeds. Scholars and readers who are interested in the textual history of these volumes should consult The Cornell Yeats Series, which provides the manuscripts for each volume, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, edited by Peter Allt and Russell Alspach, and Allen Wade’s A Bibliography of the Writings of W. B. Yeats. These works and other resources are listed under the heading “Suggestions for Further Reading.”
IRISH FAIRY TALES
An Irish Story-teller
I am often doubted when I say that the Irish peasantry still believe in fairies. People think I am merely trying to bring back a little of the old dead beautiful world of romance into this century of great engines and spinning-jinnies. Surely the hum of wheels and clatter of printing presses, to let alone the lecturers with their black coats and tumblers of water, have driven away the goblin kingdom and made silent the feet of the little dancers.
Old Biddy Hart at any rate does not think so. Our bran-new opinions have never been heard of under her brown-thatched roof tufted with yellow stone-crop. It is not so long since I sat by the turf fire eating her griddle cake in her cottage on the slope of Benbulben and asking after her friends, the fairies, who inhabit the green thorn-covered hill up there behind her house. How firmly she believed in them! how greatly she feared offending them! For a long time she would give me no answer but ‘I always mind my own affairs and they always mind theirs.’ A little talk about my great-grandfather who lived all his life in the valley below, and a few words to remind her how I myself was often under her roof when but seven or eight years old loosened her tongue, however. It would be less dangerous at any rate to talk to me of the fairies than it would be to tell some ‘Towrow’ of them, as she contemptuously called English tourists, for I had lived under the shadow of their own hillsides. She did not forget, however, to remind me to say after we had finished, ‘God bless them, Thursday’ (that being the day), and so ward off their displeasure, in case they were angry at our notice, for they love to live and dance unknown of men.
Once started, she talked on freely enough, her face glowing in the firelight as she bent over the griddle or stirred the turf, and told how such a one was stolen away from near Coloney village and made to live seven years among ‘the gentry,’ as she calls the fairies for politeness’ sake, and how when she came home she had no toes, for she had danced them off; and how such another was taken from the neighbouring village of Grange and compelled to nurse the child of the queen of the fairies a few months before I came. Her news about the creatures is always quite matter-of-fact and detailed, just as if she dealt with any common occurrence: the late fair, or the dance at Rosses last year, when a bottle of whisky was given to the best man, and a cake tied up in ribbons to the best woman dancer. They are, to her, people not so different from herself, only grander and finer in every way. They have the most beautiful parlours and drawing-rooms, she would tell you, as an old man told me once. She has endowed them with all she knows of splendour, although that is not such a great deal, for her imagination is easily pleased. What does not seem to us so very wonderful is wonderful to her, there, where all is so homely under her wood rafters and her thatched ceiling covered with whitewashed canvas. We have pictures and books to help us imagine a splendid fairy world of gold and silver, of crowns and marvellous draperies; but she has only that little picture of St. Patrick over the fireplace, the bright-coloured crockery on the dresser, and the sheet of ballads stuffed by her young daughter behind the stone dog on the mantelpiece. Is it strange, then, if her fairies have not the fantastic glories of the fairies you and I are wont to see in picture-books and read of in stories? She will tell you of peasants who met the fairy cavalcade and thought it but a troop of peasants like themselves until it vanished into shadow and night, and of great fairy palaces that were mistaken, until they melted away, for the country seats of rich gentlemen.
Her views of heaven itself have the same homeliness, and she would be quite as naïve about its personages if the chance offered as was the pious Clondalkin laundress who told a friend of mine that she had seen a vision of St. Joseph, and that he had ‘a lovely shining hat upon him and a shirt-buzzom that was never starched in this world.’ She would have mixed some quaint poetry with it, however; for there is a world of difference between Benbulben and Dublinised Clondalkin.
Heaven and Fairyland—to these has Biddy Hart given all she dreams of magnificence, and to them her soul goes out—to the one in love and hope, to the other in love and fear—day after day and season after season; saints and angels, fairies and witches, haunted thorn-trees and holy wells, are to her what books, and plays, and pictures are to you and me. Indeed they are far more; for too many among us grow prosaic and commonplace, but she keeps ever a heart full of music. ‘I stand here in the doorway,’ she said once to me on a fine day, ‘and look at the mountain and think of the goodness of God’; and when she talks of the fairies I have noticed a touch of tenderness in her voice. She loves them because they are always young, always making festival, always far off from the old age that is coming upon her and filling her bones with aches, and because, too, they are so like little children.
Do you think the Irish peasant would be so full of poetry if he had not his fairies? Do you think the peasant girls of Donegal, when they are going to service inland, would kneel down as they do and kiss the sea with their lips if both sea and land were not made lovable to them by beautiful legends and wild sad stories? Do you think the old men would take life so cheerily and mutter their proverb, ‘The lake is not burdened by its swan, the steed by its bridle, or a man by the soul that is in him,’ if the multitude of spirits were not near them?
W. B. YEATS.
CLASSIFICATION OF IRISH FAIRIES
Irish Fairies divide themselves into two great classes: the sociable and the solitary. The first are in the main kindly, and the second full of all uncharitableness.
THE SOCIABLE FAIRIES
These creatures, who go about in troops, and quarrel, and make love, much as men and women do, are divided into land fairies or Sheoques (Ir. Sidheog, ‘a little fairy,’) and water fairies or Merrows (Ir. Moruadh, ‘a sea maid’; the masculine is unknown). At the same time I am inclined to think that the term Sheoque may be applied to both upon occasion, for I have heard of a whole village turning out to hear two red-capped water fairies, who were very ‘little fairies’ indeed, play upon the bagpipes.
1. The Sheoques.—The Sheoques proper, however, are the spirits that haunt the sacred thorn bushes and the green raths. All over Ireland are little fields circled by ditches, and supposed to be ancient fortifications and sheepfolds. These are the raths, or forts, or ‘royalties,’ as they are variously called. Here, marrying and giving in marriage, live the land fairies. Many a mortal they are said to have enticed down into their dim world. Many more have listened to their fairy music, till all human cares and joys drifted from their hearts and they became great peasant seers or ‘Fairy Doctors,’ or great peasant musicians or poets like Carolan, who gathered his tunes while sleeping on a fairy rath; or else they died in a year and a day, to live ever after among the fairies. These Sheoques are on the whole good; but one most malicious habit have they—a habit worthy of a witch. They steal children and leave a withered fairy, a thousand or maybe two thousand years old, instead. Three or four years ago a man wrote to one of the Irish papers, telling of a case in his own village, and how the parish priest made the fairies deliver the stolen child up again. At times full-grown men and women have been taken. Near the village of Coloney, Sligo, I have been told, lives an old woman who was taken in her youth. When she came home at the end of seven years she had no toes, for she had danced them off. Now and then one hears of some real injury being done a person by the land fairies, but then it is nearly always deserved. They are said to have killed two people in the last six months in the County Down district where I am now staying. But then these persons had torn up thorn bushes belonging to the Sheoques.
2. The Merrows.—These water fairies are said to be common. I asked a peasant woman once whether the fishermen of her village had ever seen one. ‘Indeed, they don’t like to see them at all,’ she answered, ‘for they always bring bad weather.’ Sometimes the Merrows come out of the sea in the shape of little hornless cows. When in their own shape, they have fishes’ tails and wear a red cap called in Irish cohuleen driuth. The men among them have, according to Croker, green teeth, green hair, pigs’ eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful, and sometimes prefer handsome fishermen to their green-haired lovers. Near Bantry, in the last century, lived a woman covered with scales like a fish, who was descended, as the story goes, from such a marriage. I have myself never heard tell of this grotesque appearance of the male Merrows, and think it probably a merely local Munster tradition.
THE SOLITARY FAIRIES
These are nearly all gloomy and terrible in some way. There are, however, some among them who have light hearts and brave attire.
1. The Lepricaun (Ir. Leith bhrogan, i.e. the one shoe maker).—This creature is seen sitting under a hedge mending a shoe, and one who catches him can make him deliver up his crocks of gold, for he is a miser of great wealth; but if you take your eyes off him the creature vanishes like smoke. He is said to be the child of an evil spirit and a debased fairy, and wears, according to McAnally, a red coat with seven buttons in each row, and a cocked-hat, on the point of which he sometimes spins like a top. In Donegal he goes clad in a great frieze coat.
2. The Cluricaun (Ir. Clobhair-cean in O’Kearney).—Some writers consider this to be another name for the Lepricaun, given him when he has laid aside his shoe-making at night and goes on the spree. The Cluricauns’ occupations are robbing wine-cellars and riding sheep and shepherds’ dogs for a livelong night, until the morning finds them panting and mud-covered.
3. The Gonconer or Ganconagh (Ir. Gean-canogh, i.e. love-talker).—This is a creature of the Lepricaun type, but, unlike him, is a great idler. He appears in lonely valleys, always with a pipe in his mouth, and spends his time in making love to shepherdesses and milkmaids.
4. The Far Darrig (Ir. Fear Dearg, i.e. red man).—This is the practical joker of the other world. The wild Sligo story I give of ‘A Fairy Enchantment’ was probably his work. Of these solitary and mainly evil fairies there is no more lubberly wretch than this same Far Darrig. Like the next phantom, he presides over evil dreams.
5. The Pooka (Ir. Púca, a word derived by some from poc, a he-goat).—The Pooka seems of the family of the nightmare. He has most likely never appeared in human form, the one or two recorded instances being probably mistakes, he being mixed up with the Far Darrig. His shape is usually that of a horse, a bull, a goat, eagle, or ass. His delight is to get a rider, whom he rushes with through ditches and rivers and over mountains, and shakes off in the gray of the morning. Especially does he love to plague a drunkard: a drunkard’s sleep is his kingdom. At times he takes more unexpected forms than those of beast or bird. The one that haunts the Dun of Coch-na-Phuca in Kilkenny takes the form of a fleece of wool, and at night rolls out into the surrounding fields, making a buzzing noise that so terrifies the cattle that unbroken colts will run to the nearest man and lay their heads upon his shoulder for protection.
6. The Dullahan.—This is a most gruesome thing. He has no head, or carries it under his arm. Often he is seen driving a black coach called coach-a-bower (Ir. Coite-bodhar), drawn by headless horses. It rumbles to your door, and if you open it a basin of blood is thrown in your face. It is an omen of death to the houses where it pauses. Such a coach not very long ago went through Sligo in the gray of the morning, as was told me by a sailor who believed he saw it. In one village I know its rumbling is said to be heard many times in the year.
7. The Leanhaun Shee (Ir. Leanhaun sidhe, i.e. fairy mistress).—This spirit seeks the love of men. If they refuse, she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life. Most of the Gaelic poets, down to quite recent times, have had a Leanhaun Shee, for she gives inspiration to her slaves and is indeed the Gaelic muse—this malignant fairy. Her lovers, the Gaelic poets, died young. She grew restless, and carried them away to other worlds, for death does not destroy her power.
8. The Far Gorta (man of hunger).—This is an emaciated fairy that goes through the land in famine time, begging and bringing good luck to the giver.