There are no strangers here;
Only friends you haven’t yet met.
Welcome back to another installment of our adventures on Wild West Irish Tours! Today, we venture a little bit out of the thicket of the philosophical and come back to a more solid and less-snarled foundation: poetry. Poetry, in a way, is a journey in and of itself – a pilgrim sometimes has to leave home to find home, as it were. And that’s just what a certain individual we’re going to discuss today did.
To enter the Land of Heart’s Desire, one cannot cross the threshold without first knowing the man who opened the door: William Butler Yeats.
Hailed as, arguably, one of the quintessential poets of all time, Yeats remains a figure in history known for his quiet passion and his melancholic, if idyllic poetry – the imagery of which is so rich and flourishing it feels as though the reader has been swept off to Western Ireland already. It paints a vivid landscape of emerald hues and blue; cloudy skies – groves of trees and rolling fields, hills without end. Each sentence flows to echo the visuals of Ireland, ups and downs equivalent in emotional metaphor as they are in the countryside. 150 or so years later, Yeats is still prominent in the Irish and global environment.
But how does Yeats figure specifically into the so-called “Land of Heart’s Desire”? For starters; we have him to thank for that very title & term – it’s a play on a play; one W.B. Yeats himself penned. It’s a play that, in short, covers the fundamental aspects of wanting something more: a yearning that perpetuates Yeats’ writing; with a running theme of escapism and the seeking of something “other”. It involves faerie and all within; the enchanting aspect of which is alive and well in Ireland today – you might recall the mention of the immovable “fairy forts” or the disapproval (and danger) that comes from the cutting of hawthorn boughs.
All this and more are topics Yeats breathed life into when writing down his thoughts – thoughts deeply intertwined with the forlorn and wonderful qualities of the land. A resident of County Sligo; Yeats is, to this day, one of the most significant figures of the area, if not the most significant. His ardor for language and his enthusiastic grasp of old Irish legends, folklore, and mythology helped preserve the intrigue for generations to come. Inclusions of characters such as the fey; or fairies, Oisin (the folklore poet of many an Irish tale), Leda (costarring Zeus as the infamous swan), Cú Chulainn (whom you might know from the defense against the armies of Queen Medb of Connacht; and similar stories) are prevalent in Yeats’ poetic efforts. His work is a tapestry of emotion and education – education less about facts and figures as much as it is the world he grew up in and explanations for the feelings within.
Perhaps one of the most enchanting aspects of his poetry is how the landscape evokes expression – Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” takes place in Lough Gill. The island, one of many in the Lough, while uninhabited, possesses the spirit of what Yeats hoped to capture: a sense of longing as much as it is one of belonging.
While ensconced in his “modern” London habitat, Yeats found himself yearning for his home – the Land of Heart’s Desire; albeit less fey and more solid, but with no watered-down amount of mysticism surrounding it. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is his ode to that feeling of restlessness and nostalgia; wanting nothing more than to escape to the wilderness and leave modernity behind.
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
Sligo has many places like this; little nooks and crannies into which the magical creeps. It resonates in the writing of Yeats like the plucking of a guitar string or the first note of a fiddle. The calm exodus of the spirit into the land can be felt in every word, as Yeats’ search for peace in the frustrating throes of hustling, bustling cities brought him back home. Home and heart are the focus of Yeats’ work, two elements so deeply connected they can hardly be separated at all.
Once again, it’s about leaving the technology and the urbane behind for something more – to be found in nature; thriving, living off what the world has to offer – the refreshment of quiet water and the softer sounds of outdoors.
Yeats; forever proud of Ireland and her struggles, never pulled his poetic punches when it came to exploring the gravity of the Irish spirit. Pieces such as “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, “At Galway Races”, “The Fiddler of Dooney” and countless others reflect place names, passions, and a deep understanding of what it is to be Irish. And if poetry is too much for some, Yeats is also famous for the line, “being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” The duality of the Irish spirit – to rejoice in stories, landscape/scenery, company, and love whilst acknowledging the bleaker aspects of death, distance, loss, and war – is something Yeats’ work still excels at presenting.
One can stand and look out over a thunderous waterfall in the middle of nowhere in Western Ireland and feel the soft embrace of mist and cloud that so often falls along with the water – a reflective moment of possibility, as the water, so representative of life, is also a harbinger of gloom in the form of fog. Perhaps walking up the steppes of the mountains with cairns might be a better example – experiencing the harsh burn of breath in one’s lungs or a twine in the legs to remind you you’re alive – but you tread, as Yeats said, on dreams and the dead, picking your way through stony paths that bring you up to the great cairns of those who’ve passed on.
Ireland, it seems, sits straddling life and death, a calm gateway upon which the words of Yeats are etched eternally – as Sligo captures the beauty of resilience and resurrection time after time, in the way the green country flourishes and never seems to forget its past. Yeats had a hand in that, too, after all – preserving stories and sentiments of Irish storytelling in his own way, making them more about the pride of Ireland and her heritage as much as their original lessons were about other things (like personal strength or respecting the land, etc.).
Further on the concept of death, Yeats’ grave rests in Sligo; closer than one might expect. It is simple, yet eloquent – a place of respite and thoughtful pondering immersed in the Irish countryside. Statues and mentions of Yeats adorn the area as a reminder of how proud Sligo was of their own, and just how much Sligo meant to the poet himself. As a “spiritual home” to Yeats; Sligo seems to call to her many visitors as a welcoming resting place for those of creative or spiritual minds. The quiet is almost peculiar to those venturing out there from big cities – a deep, settled sort of quiet that makes the world seem still. It is from this silence that ideas are raised; and the historical aspects of Ireland remain intact – even celebrated.
Nothing is more timeless than the written word. In its many developments and formats, it is the description of human nature; the scrawl of the human soul that calls out to people from beyond the page. It’s why many find it easier to experience things through the stories and eyes of fictional beings; how magical places are escapes people seek outside of themselves and their world. In many ways, Yeats, through his writing, brought people to Ireland ahead of their time – or, quite possibly, he was their main window through which to glimpse the green and rolling hills of Connacht and beyond. Through Yeats, one could feel both the joyful and the morose; the entanglement of emotions in the Irish soul.
I encourage you readers to sit and reflect. Find a Yeats poem to enjoy today, and read it under a great green tree. If you’d rather not read, I have a little reading done for you by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, closing in Yeats’ common motif: addressing old age and the beyond as friends, as concepts to not fear, but embrace.
Come and be spirited away by the sound of softly lilting words and all there within. If you can’t make it to Sligo today, we hope you enjoyed this small trip to the Land of Heart’s Desire.
Until next time,
[Do YOU have a favorite Yeats poem? Please share in the comments below! If you enjoyed this post; please feel free to share it among friends. We’d love your feedback!]