"A Prayer for my Daughter", "From the Republic of Conscience", "Leda and the Swan", "the blood-dimmed tide", "The Fisherman", Ellen Quinn, Fintan, haiku, Ireland, John Butler Yeats, literature, London, myths, Nobel Laureate, poetry, Salmon of Knowledge, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, wisdom
This opening haiku, from a forthcoming poetry collection, Leaves, was inspired by this story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and some insight gained into the poetry of William Butler Yeats as a result of some lectures by a professor at Yale University posted online.
The previous haiku, posted to mark the occasion of Yeats’s 148th birthday, offered insight into the poetic identity of the Nobel Laureate and sparked a desire to see what video offerings there might be on the subject of the poet and his work. Over several subsequent days I spent hours listening and analyzing the series of three Yale lectures.
The Yale professor refers to Yeats as being a “romantic visionary” and late 19th century “literary aesthete” who “under pressure of political and social crisis breaks with the artificial rhetoric of his early poetry” — wherein he had forged his poetic identity through an identification with the heroic characters of his poems, these “staged identities requiring costumes” — to become a kind of heroic realist.
As I listened to the Yale professor read poem after poem and expound his analysis of William Butler Yeats’s work I realized that what I was hearing in the poems presented a significant nuance to Yeats’s expression of this heroic realism.
By the late 19th – early 20th century Ireland had been simmering in unease and moving toward crisis for decades. Religious tensions, class upheaval, and outright starvation are but a few of the “realities” the Irish faced throughout the 19th century and, intermittently, through previous centuries.
The Yale professor characterized Yeats’s view of history as being marked by ‘superhuman forces’ (from here on I will use the term ‘otherworldly forces’) imposing upon and irrupting into human activity. He points to a vocabulary evoking ‘tumult,’ which is a “violent agitation of the mind or feelings.” Put simply, Yeats’s expression of heroic realism is that, in Ireland’s history, otherworldly forces irrupt into human affairs to create tumult, violent agitation of the mind or feelings. Being Irish, he sees this tumultuous history with an Irish mindset influenced by the language, the land, the legends.
There was no escaping his ‘Irishness,’ had he even desired such an escape. It seems quite likely there was no way to escape it as a little boy and early adolescent in London, where his family had moved to allow his father, John Butler Yeats, to pursue his art. While he may have experienced a respite during summers in Galway, I can well imagine that the English attitudes and behaviors toward the Irish he encountered as a child may have driven home to him the fact that his identity hinged on coming to terms with his ‘Irishness.’
He comes to terms with it early on by turning to Ireland’s ancient heroes. We see him there, in his early poetry following the paths of these ancients, identifying with them. He identifies with them and he has come to see history as a continual dance among the otherworldly, the bestial, and the human — the sort of interplay depicted so deftly in myth and legend and fairy tale.
A number of poets, professors, and pundits have for decades, perhaps even a century, dismissed Yeats’s grounding in the myths and legends of Ireland. In my understanding, I think he approached his poetry, his work, from the mindset of a bard, a shaman, and he understood quite clearly that the ‘mythic voice’ is often the only voice a marginalized people can employ to express, to hold onto, their deepest truths – their roots. When your land, your ways, and your voice have been compromised you use what you can.
He knew that when a people’s intellect is battered over and over and over their knowledge goes ‘underground.’ Traveling across the island, the memory of his mother’s cradle songs and stories ever echoing in his heart and mind, he absorbed the intimacy his people felt with the ‘underground,’ the ‘otherworldly,’ the ‘superhuman.’
He thinks of the goddess Danu and her ‘paps,’ a geographical feature of the island. He thinks of Bride and her ewes. He sees, too, the Christian influence manifested so nobly and brilliantly in the image of the Madonna and Child in the Book of Kells, believed to be the first such rendering in Western art. The Book of Kells had been on display at Trinity College in Dublin since the mid-1800s and I find it plausible that his artist father would have taken his children to view it.
This intimacy with the otherworldly, this sense of the mystical, and the attendant images inspire him to bring forth the same in his work as he watches history unfold.
With “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” mentioned repeatedly by the Yale professor, William Butler Yeats presents to us a transformation of the legend of Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge, or Wisdom. When the poet depicts “a little silver trout” from a pool in a hazel wood transforming into “a glimmering girl” he gives a Feminine form to the “archaic symbol” of Knowledge and Wisdom, even as in Christianity Wisdom is named “Sophia.”
[For those who may question this deductive leap I offer this evidence: trout and salmon are both of the Genera Oncorhyncus, Salmo, or Salvelinus; both of the Sub-family Salmoninae; both of the Family Salmonidae. The etymology of ‘salmon’ is the Latin verb “salire, to leap.”]
Knowledge and Wisdom, then, are the poet’s preferred path to navigate the turbulence of history. Twenty years later, however, in “The Fisherman” the path is rocky and grey and cold. It is difficult now for me not to see some prescience in “The Fisherman.” The poem was published in 1919, the year before one Ellen Quinn was fatally shot in the district surrounding the estate of his dear friend Lady Augusta Gregory and where his own home, Thoor Ballylee, was located. The violence was on his doorstep, so to speak.
The reality Yeats saw when he absorbed and processed this tumult was the reality that since ancient times the Feminine had suffered the wanton and destructive tumult of history. A few years after Ellen Quinn’s killing Yeats defines and presents his view of the history of Feminine suffering in “Leda and the Swan.” That “glimmering girl” who embodies Wisdom and Knowledge is brutally, bestially assaulted and “Transformed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
Viewing “Leda and the Swan” in this light serves to inform an understanding of “A Prayer for my Daughter,” written a few years before “Leda,” with its themes of beauty and intellect. Knowing his insistence upon Knowledge and Wisdom one can understand these lines: “An intellectual hatred is the worst,/So let her think opinions are accursed.”
Yeats’s insistence upon Knowledge and Wisdom as the path to navigate the tumultuous reality of history was his ‘hero’s journey.’
When all else was darkened by the “blood-dimmed tide” he continually chose to access a ‘landscape,’ the mythic landscape, that provided a view of events from a different plane of consciousness. He knew the wisdom Einstein stated: “A problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness in which it was created.”
We would be wise to follow this poet’s example in seeking to view our living history from a plane of knowledge because the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ of violence toward the Feminine has not abated. It continues to weave itself through world history. Witness American suffragettes who, in 1920, were “Jailed for Freedom” and force fed when they chose to engage in a hunger strike. Witness the fact that rape is still a harrowing fact of war and economic strife – in World Wars, the Balkans, the continents of Africa and Asia, on Native American reservations. Witness, too, the Pakistani girl shot for pursuing an education.
On his return from his poetic journeys to an otherworldly landscape, what boon does Yeats bring us? He can only bring his poetry. He can only urge us to stand in the grey dawn of troubling times and cast out our lines to draw out wisdom. He can only wish for us, as he wished for his daughter, not to rely solely upon opinion – at least not upon opinion that is not informed by Knowledge and Wisdom.
Barbara Butler McCoy, 2013
[[Photos: Top: Statue in gardens at Middleton Place, SC, July 2013; Next: Silver fish, Fernandina Beach, FL, 2011.]]