Today is the day we celebrate the 150th birthday of Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. Yeats is one of my favorite poets so I have been enjoying the afternoon browsing tweets and articles that have been posted for the occasion. (Check out hashtags #Yeats2015, #Yeats150, and #YeatsDay for an outpouring of love for all things Yeatsean). After a few moments of reading, a recurring theme started to emerge where folks would share their favorite Yeats poem and ask others what their favorite was. The first time I saw this, I responded off the top of my head that my favorite poem by W.B. Yeats was When You Are Old, and it is true that I absolutely love this poem. It’s so wistfully sweet and romantic and it’s a poem I think about often. I even designed a W. B. Yeats Pearl drop necklace featuring some of the text from the poem.
But the trouble with Yeats is that he is too good to narrow down his work to just one or two favorites. As much as I love “When You Are Old,” can I really say that I love it more than I love “A Poet to his Beloved” (“I bring you with reverent hands / The books of my numberless dreams”), or “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (“I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”) “A Coat” or half a dozen other Yeats poems that I just adore? The truth is that my favorite Yeats poem is often the one I read most recently as I, the fickle poetry lover, falls in love with the charms of each new poem.
William Butler Yeats is, for me, the perfect storm of everything I love about poetry and literature. From Brown Penny (“Ah penny, brown penny, brown penny”) to “Never Give All The Heart” to the heartbreaking “Ephemera” and more, Yeats’ poetry is full of verses about love and dreams – those longed for, those briefly savored, and those lost, and remembered in the most beautiful ways.
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
“A Drinking Song”
In in addition to be wildly romantic in his poetry, Yeats is also a Romantic in every sense of the word, something that really appeals to me. I have always loved the Romantic, Pre-Raphaelitic play on folklore and mythology. I was very much like Anne Shirley (of Anne of Green Gables fame) as a girl and would have happily reenacted The Lady of Shalott along with Anne and her friends if I could have. My love of fairy stories and tales of chivalrous knights and fantastic deeds made me into a life-long reader of fantasy and folklore so when I discovered Yeats’ The Stolen Child, it really clicked with me.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand
And when I found that Yeats focused his attention on Irish myths and Celtic legends, he won he heart. I may have been born and raised in the U.S. but, (thanks to my grandfather, who, as a son of two Irish immigrants, grew up with a fascination of all things Irish and who passed that down to me), I can say with pride that in my heart, that I am of Ireland.
‘I am of Ireland / And the Holy Land of Ireland, / And time runs on,’ cried she. /
‘Come out of charity, / Come dance with me in Ireland.’
Thanks in no small part to Yeats and his contemporaries like Lady Gregory who spearheaded the Irish Literary Revival, the Celtic myths and stories of my Irish ancestors were preserved and available for me to fall in love with nearly a century later. After a lifetime of reading Celtic myths and legends, I really love how often I can find tales of Celtic heroes like Oisin and Cuchulain and images full of Celtic twilight and mists in verses like “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”
Yeats’ poetry calls to the Irish part of me that makes me wish I really could “arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” or run off to Yeats Country and find a Norman tower to make a home in. It gives me a way to feel connected to my heritage – from the distant myths to more modern like the Easter rising and the Irish Independence Movement. James Joyce may have addressed the scandal and downfall of the great Irish statesman, Charles Parnell in a famous scene from A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, but for me, the final word on the subject comes from Yeats’ “Come Gather Round Me Parnellites”
But stories that live longest
Are sung above the glass,
And Parnell loved his country,
And Parnell loved his lass.
And for all his love of the lyrical and his use of myth, history, and folklore, Yeats, with poems like The Second Coming, is also a modernist poet and acted as a bridge for me from the Romantic poets and writers that I have loved my whole life to the Modernist masters, like T.S. Eliot, who have become a recent obsession of mine. With all this in mind, it isn’t hard to see why I would have trouble narrowing down what Yeats has meant to me to just one favorite poem. I am not sure it can be done but that is just fine with me.