Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Yeats's ghosts and curses - A whistling seal sank a ship the other day - Mythologies

A little way from this lake I heard a beautiful and mournful history of faery kidnapping.  I heard it from a little old woman in a white cap, who sings in Gaelic, and moves from one foot to the other as though she remembered the dancing of her youth.  (The Celtic Twilight, “Kidnappers,” 73)

The Irishness of early William Butler Yeats has never meant much to me.  As, in his later years, he becomes one of the greatest poets of English, he abandons much of his early interest in Irish mythology and folklore.  So I never cared much that I did not care much.  I guess I cared enough, though, to read the early prose books of Yeats, The Celtic Twilight (1893), The Secret Rose (1897), The Stories of Red Hanrahan (1897), and some other stuff, much augmented and rearranged over time and eventually crammed together in the 1959 Mythologies – page numbers refer to that book.

The early prose is a lot of fun.  Yeats is a great writer; gee, who knew.  The Celtic Twilight is mostly a collection of anecdotes about ghosts, fairies, and other Irish weirdness as told to Yeats by a series of ancient people, and occasionally as experienced himself.  The quotation above, from a chapter that collects a bundle of stories about fairy kidnappers, shows how meeting the tale-tellers is as enjoyable as hearing the tales.

The dancing returns, too, at the end of the chapter:

There is hardly a valley or mountain-side where they cannot tell you of some one pillaged from amongst them.  Two or three miles from the Heart Lake lives an old woman who was stolen away in her youth.  After seven years she was brought home again for some reason or other, but she had no toes left.  She had danced them off.  (76)

The tone of the whole book is like this – casual, conversational:

Drumcliff and Rosses are choke-full of ghosts.  By bog, road, rath, hillside, sea-border they gather in all shapes: headless women, men in armour, shadow hares, fire-tongued hounds, whistling seals, and so on.  A whistling seal sank a ship the other day.  (92)

The other day!  I’ve not been to Ireland, but if I ever go I would reread The Celtic Twilight to prepare myself for encounters with ghosts.

The Secret Rose and the Red Hanrahan stories are more of a hodgepodge.  Some are written like fairy tales of the Grimm variety, some more like short stories, magazine fiction.  They are quite brutal, even violent – a bard executed, crucified, for no reason (“The Crucifixion of the Outcast”), or a Crusading knight sacrificing himself to recover some pigs (“Out of the Rose”).  A lot of murders; a lot of curses.  Red Hanrahan is a schoolteacher who violates some supernatural rule and is cursed to become a bard, a story-teller.  He is given powers, but also burdens, and it is never clear why.  The uncertainty creates a sort of tragic sublimity.

A great terror had fallen upon Hanrahan, and lifting his arms above his head he screamed out loud three times, and the cattle in the valley lifted their heads and lowed, and the birds in the wood at the edge of the mountain awaked out of their sleep and fluttered through the trembling leaves.  But a little below the edge of the rock, the troop of rose-leaves still fluttered in the air, for the gateway of Eternity had opened and shut again in one beat of the heart.  (“Hanrahan’s Vision,” 252)

Mythologies concludes with a series of pieces about alchemy and esoteric writing.  Yeats introduces his mystical pseudo-philosopher Michael Robartes.  All of this is very important for Yeats’s late, great poetry, but I do not pretend to understand it.  Something to wrestle with on my next pass at Yeats.

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