Dublin: Scraps of Yeats

While in Ireland, I went twice to the William Butler Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland. It’s a really good exhibit. Before going, I probably knew more than the average American about Yeats, but not much more. This exhibit really made the learning fun and interesting. It’s a great look at a time and place in Irish history that was fermenting with experimental art and revolutionary politics.

I liked that it showed the creative bent of the Yeats family. His father, sisters, and brother were all artists. They’ve been called the “most creative family in Irish history.” I also noted that his mother is described mainly by her depression and withdrawal. Families are complex.

"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats
"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats

As a poet, one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the section that unpacks Yeats’ process for writing poems. Drafts and drafts of original handwritten sheets are in the exhibit with explanations of why he made the revisions that he did. I was especially intrigued by the “prose sketch” he did before any poem. He outlines what he was trying to achieve; made lists of images and words; worked out basic rhyme schemes and meter; and finally set about actually writing the verse.

But the best thing for the readers here is that the whole exhibit is online. It’s a truly amazing feat of interactive learning. The National Library has the most Yeats archival material of anyplace in the world and most of it has been sorted and presented in this exhibit. I spent hours in the actual exhibit and will probably spend hours more scouring the online version. Take a peek!

And since it’s All Hallows Weekend, I thought I’d include a little ghostly scrap.

All Souls’ Night
By William Butler Yeats

Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night.
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine. …

.

Howth: Where Molly Bloom Said ‘Yes’

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

Probably the most famous bit of modern Irish literature is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Set in Dublin, it tracks a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Joyce was experimenting with language and fracturing the established order of the novel in a way similar, perhaps, to Faulkner.

Taking Homer’s epic, Joyce makes an ordinary advertising salesman Leopold Bloom into the hero and all the daily adventures he encounters as he makes his way around Dublin. At the famous conclusion to Ulysses, Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, has an several page soliloquy in which she recalls her decision to accept her first date with Leopold when he wooed her on Howth Head.

Yesterday, Katie Chilton and I walked up to the trailhead that leads out to Howth Head. First we stopped for a few minutes to revel in a house where W.B. Yeats grew up. (Yeats wooed the fiery revolutionary Maude Gonne also on Howth Head.)

Finally, we headed out on the cliff trail and hiked up to the head. It’s a rugged, beautiful, terrifying height over the pounding surf. We watched crabbers pull in their pots. From the look of the “refuse” in the crevices of the rocks, I’d say Howth Head is still a place for lovers.

Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said 'yes'
Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said yes

Here’s a portion of Molly’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

…the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountains yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes…

…I was a Flower of the mountains yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

.

Howth: No Second Troy

Dateline: Howth, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

I made it to Howth, Ireland, just outside Dublin. Howth is the hook that goes out into the Irish Sea. It’s also where W.B. Yeats grew up and wrote his early poetry. My room looks out over the sea wall and tonight the moon is full, which brought us some wonderful tides today. The old abbey ruins on the hill are comforting in the moonlight and the buoys are calling out to the boats out for night fishing.

Yesterday, after arriving at 7 a.m., I took the Eirebus and Dublin Area Rapid Transit train from the Dublin airport to Howth Station. Then walked a half mile in the pouring rain to the King Sitric guesthouse where I’m staying this week. On the train was Yeat’s poem “No Second Troy.” It’s Yeat’s homage to the militant Irish freedom-fighter Maude Gonne. Yeats was in love with her. She was not in love with him. She advocated armed struggle to free Ireland from British rule. Yeats deplored violence and found it empty. In this poem, he compares her to that “face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen of Troy. Yeats found Gonne inspiring and she served as a poetic muse for him, but–like some political figures today–she stirred up a baseness in people that appalled him (“have taught to ignorant men most violent ways”).

No Second Troy
WHY should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
–William Butler Yeats

Look for more from Ireland in the days ahead!.