What we talk about when we talk about Ireland.
Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and Fionn McCumhail has precious little to do with the price of onions. You’re probably never more Irish than when you’re stuck watching windscreen wipers on the commute home, listening to Sean Moncrieff. But if someone were to ask you what it means to be Irish you might not say that. The idea of a national identity is something we probably only encounter at the match, when some local band makes it big abroad or when we slate ourselves over how little we protest compared to elsewhere. In other words, it’s only really when we’re set beside another country that we see what makes us different. Our national identity for almost the last hundred odd years is the story of us differentiating ourselves from another country and no one had more say in that than the poet WB Yeats, who celebrates his 150th Birthday this year.
Different people take different things from the old stories. Cuchulainn has appeared in everything from the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book to Final Fantasy video games. The Táin has been illustrated by Louis Le Brocquy and re-told by Thomas Kinsella and Ciaran Carson, not to mention the album by Horselips. It’s the same way you’d explain to a tourist how Fionn McMuchaill built the Giant’s Causeway. These stories are still alive in strange and sometimes very modern ways. The phrase; ‘let me sing you the song of my people’ is an internet meme some long time now but, to paraphrase Voltaire, if there wasn’t any song any more, it would be necessary to invent one. While we all know Yeat’s role in this, the thing people don’t tend to talk about too much is what a singularly strange man he actually was, even among poets. Yeats had this massive role to play in what Ireland means and perhaps the largest influence on him came from the occult, which is something often briefly touched on but never really discussed. This is interesting because without this unusual obsession he would probably never have achieved what he did. It was the combination of all three of his obsessions: nationalism, poetry and the occult that lead him to playing the role he did in defining how we thought of ourselves as a culture.
It was in 1884 that Yeats read a book called The Occult World by AP Sinnett. The book aimed to introduce Theosophy to Europe from the East and pretty much right away Yeats became convinced of the reality of this aspect of the occult and in particular of the teachings of one Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky was a world famous mystic who had founded the Theosophical Society based on what were up till then secret Indian and Tibetan teachings. Theosophy is an esoteric pursuit which places a single, divine, universal mind operating behind all teachings and cultures and determining all events, all of which an adept much work to uncover for himself. “The mystical world is the centre of all I do and all I think and all I write”, Yeats wrote in 1894. It seemed it was maybe a little too much at the centre of things for him. Yeats was eventually excommunicated from the Theosophical Society by Blavatsky for taking part in practical experiments, something strictly forbidden. As a reaction to that, his next move was to join up with a group called The Order of the Golden Dawn, a much more hands-on mystic sect which numbered among its ranks Aleister Crowley, probably history’s most famous Satanist. This group encouraged members to actively experiment in order to demonstrate their power over the material universe and Yeats experimented freely on his friends and acquaintances, writing of having undergone some pretty shocking visions. The thing about all of this is how often throughout his life he mentions this kind of thing as a chief influence on this thought. Thankfully it wasn’t the only one.
Around the same time, Yeats became one of the followers of Douglas Hyde’s Gaelic League. The league strove for the De-Anglicisation of Irish culture and the promotion of a national Celtic identity. Yeats thought the best way to do this was to write the old stories of the Irish people, but in English, the language in which, he said “modern Ireland thinks and does its business”. According to Yeats, folk art “is indeed the oldest of the aristocracies of thought … it is the soil where all great art is rooted.” Combining this belief with his fascination with the occult led to Yeats focusing on the supernatural aspects of Irish folk life, in contrast with many other writers of the time. Clearly still under the influence of the Theosophists, Yeats continued to announce things like: “The fairies are the lesser spiritual moods of the universal mind, wherein every mood is a soul and every thought is a body.” Yeats devoted the book Celtic Twilight to taking this particular aspect of folklore and transforming it into poetry. His book Mythologies delves deeper, incorporating his own visions of spirits, while at the same time helping to establish him as the preeminent collector of Irish folklore.
To say Yeats arrived at the national poetic agenda alone is a little unfair. There were actually plenty of segmented little groups working away at the cause. One such group was called the Young Irelanders; Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy numbering among them, and they worked hard at trying to promote national poetry through the romantic ballad, which they saw as the supreme form of public art. These were not the songs of the people, but instead more of a high-brow invention, intended more for the parlours and the salons. Yeats was introduced to the Young Irelanders and their books by the revolutionary John O’Leary and by that time their aim was not just national ballads, but to encourage a national identity, unifying the country behind a single cultural idea. Yeats straight away realised that these men weren’t anything like great poets and seemed to believe a lot of things contrary to his own views. In his lecture “Nationality and Literature”, published in 1893, Yeats states that all national literature is maturing from epic to lyrical, like a tree which “grows from unity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity” A young nation, not yet fully formed and yet to achieve national and cultural unity, is still at the epic stage. It’s the epic which forms a unity and defines social structure, rather than the lyrical. Yeats saw the epic legends as the ideal way to represent a fledgling social consciousness as they are “made by no one man, but by the nation itself through a slow process of modification and adaptation, to express its loves and its hates, its likes and its dislikes.” Ancient art would be a unifying national force because it speaks to the people’s unconscious identity. Yeats believed the way to achieve this in modern times was to rekindle a relationship with the folk and mythological themes with which, we know, he had a particular relationship.
It was around then that Yeats began calling himself “The Celt” and put himself forward as a kind of update on the traditional idea of the Celtic bard. Celts had already been given a special place in the zeitgeist at that time by people like Matthew Arnold, who, in a culture awash with dichotomies like masculine/feminine, emotional /intellectual and natural /industrial, ascribed to Celtic culture a feminine, natural and emotional character as opposed to the masculine/ utilitarian Teuton, and within that Celtic culture, bards were a kind of custodian of culture, knowledge and even prophesy. The thing was, William Butler didn’t actually have any Celtic blood in him whatsoever. He came from the middle class Protestant Ascendancy. To get around this, he rejected an ethnic idea of the Celt and instead tapped into the idea of a hazier, cultural ancestry, combining Theosophy and Paganism and claiming it as “the only true religion of the Irish.”
What you start seeing in Yeat’s poetry and plays from then on is a combination of the heroic, the epic and the transcendental. There’s another world, another condition to be achieved. I’ll stop here and flag the fact that this pretty much the MO of every practicing religion since the dawn of time too, but there are singular Theosophical elements you begin to notice emerging. The most obvious example of his combining poetry, nationalism and the occult is the poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times.”, written in 1892. After claiming his place in a list of national poets, he continues to link Ireland’s past with what is to come and highlights the role of art in this. Artists are the only ones who can talk about “things discovered in the deep/where only body’s laid asleep” and their work alone can bring about a supernatural world “For the elemental creatures go/About my table to and fro,”. The occult is mixed in with the mythological, pagan and artistic with “elemental beings,” and “Faeries dancing under the moon/Druidic land, Druidic tune.” The idea of Ireland as a mystical, other-worldly place, peaceful, feminine, emotional and profoundly “Celtic”, far from the grinding, industrial horrorshow of Europe, becomes a core theme in poems like ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and “Into the Twilight”. The transcendence of the individual into this quasi-spiritual realm doesn’t only mirror the nation transcending into freedom and cultural identity, but also the transcendence of the world into a higher supernatural plane. Oisin venturing to Tir Na N’og is another example, as is Cuchulainn’s Fight With The Sea.
As he grew older, Yeats tried to distance himself a little from the pagan and occult themes in his work, from the stories of automatic writing and the famous séances, maybe after criticism from people like Auden, calling it “the deplorable spectacle of a grown man obsessed with mumbo-jumbo of India.” I happen to think it makes his work more interesting, more layered and if we really are thinking of Yeats when we think of Irish Mythology and Irish culture as a whole, asks more questions about the role the occult and Theosophy had to play. Maybe Dan Brown could get a thriller out of it.