Mr. William Yeats in Ireland
Travelling to other lands is always a lesson of sorts, not just to see the scenery but to experience the lives, history and way of life of others outside of our own personal space. While some of these characteristics may be known to us, being up close and personal with the very land from which sprang their culture and their view of the world, is not so easily perceived until one is almost standing in their shoes, if only momentary.
In those lands totally outside our western world, it is, of course, almost impossible to grasp much of anything in depth. But in a place like Ireland, a land from which many of us have ancestors, and a land that has a common language, the task has more prospect.
Being in Ireland presents many new opportunities to experience, however briefly, the outcomes of their life patterns. Here is a land that has faced multiple starvations, internal revolutionary struggles, and the confrontations of living in a tired land, one overrun by swarming people trying to gain sustenance from a thin soil. There is a certain sadness in that.
Still, from all the struggles came a culture rich in so many ways, maybe not as obviously material as our own, but still an endowment rich and enlightening.
So, it was during a recent visit, that I ran into Mr. William Yeats. Like many of us, I had known him before, but not while standing on his home ground, among his people, looking over the “terrible beauty” of Ireland. William Yeats is celebrated as a hero, as an intellectual giant, and currently, an economic attraction. As a result of the latter most interesting aspect, his work is ever present as we explored Ireland.
While Mr. Yeats has not been around sicse 1939, his words have endured. While jumping from pub to pub, from Cork to Sligo, it was almost impossible not to be confronted by his musings. The delightful quotes were even on pub walls, the marquees of banks and written on sidewalks. I could not help reading the words, some scattered and out of true context, others complete, many causing me to pause and maybe reconsider my own worldview—which I suspect is the intention of poetry.
On one page, I found the following line taken from a poem titled The Cloths of Heaven, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” I found myself wanting to make a change to that because at the age of 73, my dreams for just myself are waning as I am facing limitations. But then, I would suppose my dreams are now very much including those that will follow me, my children’s children. Tread softly. Does that mean the activities of humanity, the relentless hammering of the earth for financial gain? Is it a warning, an insight by a gifted mind? Damn poets.
Alternatively, does it imply a request to a lover—but is that not the same? I suspect that in the poem “The Cloths of Heaven” it can mean many things – maybe moderation, sensitivity, almost the Golden Rule. It is but a simple request.
So “afoot and light hearted I took to the open road” and had a few conversations with Mr. Yeats, wanting to discover the land on which I was now standing. I bought a book of poems to learn of the Emerald Isle through his eyes. I found a poem the following day after listening to the sound of the Uilleann pipes at Crane’s Pub in Galway. It was a musing on the sighting of swans right in Galway County just a few miles from last evening’s frolic.
But now they drift on still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Like many great poems, this required me to think and wonder why the question mark after the last statement. He marveled the sight of swans but implied one day they might be gone. Was he discouraged by what he saw, thinking the presence of swans was fleeting? I had seen a swan during the time we were there, so his concern may have been unfounded even though Ireland has long ago lost its natural environment to sheep and cattle, there are still swans. Was the statement an insight? Was the swan a symbol of a lover?
For the days we were there, Yeats was always about, and I’d like to think offering me a glimpse into a great mind from a distant land. Along with the visual delights of emerald green fields enclosed in ancient stone walls and music trickling through the evening streets, the words of Mr. Yeats accentuated the place called Ireland. While the tendency may, in these times, be to only see those things pleasant, the history has other stories and as Yeats said in a poem called Host of the Air, “Never was piping so sad and never was piping so gay”—-insightful words assembled to prod the brain into reflection and introspection.
Travelling is that way it would seem, a chance to live outside our own shoes. To see the world through another’s eyes. For that, I am grateful.