This month we are celebrating all things Irish, and this week we are focusing on Irish literature in the Special Collections with the spotlight on William Butler Yeats’ works in our Rare Books collection.
“Years afterwards, when I was ten or twelve years old and in London, I would remember Sligo with tears, and when I began to write, it was there I hoped to find my audience.” [Reveries over Childhood and Youth, by W.B. Yeats, 1916, Page 27, Rare Books PR 5904]
Son of John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary, née Pollexfen, William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin, on 13 June 1865. The Yeats family consisted of clergymen and lawyers and married into links across Irish Protestants. While William’s mother came from a wealthy family involved in the milling and shipping industry, William’s father had studied law but abandoned it to study at Heatherley’s Art School in London.
Soon after his birth, William and his family moved to the Pollexfen home at Merville, Sligo to stay with extended family. William always thought of Merville as his childhood home and it was the subject of many poems.
Yeats was raised to support the Protestant Ascendancy, at a time when it was experiencing a power-shift. Major land reform was being demanded by the Land League, and Parliament passed laws that enabled most tenant farmers to purchase their lands and lowered the rents of others. This later led to the growth of the Home Rule movement with Charles Stewart Parnell (Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party), and the Catholics becoming more prominent. These events undoubtedly had a weighty effect on Yeats and his poetry, and his reflections on Irish character.
Returning to London in 1887 with the rest of his family, Yeats helped to form societies like the Irish Literary Society of London, preaching to his circle the importance of writing poems on your familiar surroundings rather than on landscapes you dream of. Yeats’ poems also had a focus on mythology and occultism, an interest that grew from his time at Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin. This can be seen in The Celtic Twilight, originally published in 1902.
The Celtic Twilight
The poems in The Celtic Twilight explore the strange and elfin realm of fairies, ghosts, and spirits. Yeats starts the book by explaining how he has “desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them” (Page I, Rare Books PR 5904).
The title refers to the hours before dawn, when Druids, members of the high-ranking professional class in ancient Celtic cultures, conducted their rituals. Referring to the dreamy and mysterious atmosphere that is often associated with Irish identity and prose, the volume is based on a diary that Yeats kept while rambling through the west country of Ireland. Here is a quote from ‘A Visionary’, the fourth text in The Celtic Twilight.
“The faeries in whom he believes have given him many subjects, notably Thomas of Ercildoune sitting motionless in the twilight while a young and beautiful creature leans softly out of the shadow and whispers in his ear. He had delighted above all in the strong effects of colour: spirits who have upon their heads instead of hair the feathers of peacocks; a phantom reaching from a swirl of flame towards a star; a spirit passing with a globe of iridescent crystal – symbol of the soul – half shut within his hand.” [Page 19]
Reveries over Childhood and Youth
Yeats published Reveries over Childhood and Youth in 1916. In this work he writes about his memories of living in London and Ireland, and moments shared with family members.
“A poignant memory came upon me the other day while I was passing the drinking-fountain near Holland Park, for there I and my sister had spoken together of our longing for Sligo and our hatred of London. I know we were both very close to tears and remember with wonder, for I had never known anyone that cared for such mementoes, that I longed for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand.” [Page 53, Rare Books PR 5904]
On the Boiler
“When I was a child and wandering about the Sligo Quays I saw a printed, or was it a painted notice? On such and such a day ‘the great McCoy will speak on the old boiler’.” [On the Boiler, by W.B. Yeats  Page 9, Rare Books PR 5904]
Published during a time when Ireland was fighting an economic war with Britain, and experiencing its first elected president as head of state; Yeats poured his disappointments with Irish society into his work On the Boiler, which includes chapter titles such as ‘Tomorrow’s Revolution’ and ‘Ireland after the Revolution’.
“I was six years in the Irish Senate; I am not ignorant of politics elsewhere, and on other grounds I have some right to speak. I say to those that shall rule here: If ever Ireland again seems molten wax, reverse the process of revolution. Do not try to pour Ireland into any political system. Think first how many able men with public minds the country has, how many it can cope to have in the near future, and mould your system upon those men. It does not matter how you get them, but get them. Republics, Kingdoms, Soviets, Corporate States, Parliaments, are trash, as Hugo said of something else ‘not worth one blade of grass that God gives for the nest of the linnet.’ These men, whether six or six thousand, are the core of Ireland, are Ireland itself.” [Page 13]
Yeats was dissatisfied with the first printed edition, produced in 1938, and all but four copies were destroyed. Following Yeats’ death, in autumn 1939, a second edition was issued by the Cuala Press. The front cover was designed by Yeats’ brother, Jack B. Yeats.