Comments by Bob Corbett
The Celtic Twilight is divided into two parts. The first, written mainly in 1902, but some pieces as early as 1892, are small notes Yeats made in west Ireland as he was out gathering experiences and stories of others.
The second part of the book, about 40% of the text, are poems set in Ireland and relevant to his exploration of the spirit world of Ireland.
Yeats was not simply an observer of Irish folk belief. He came to it already very interested in the world of the occult, a believer in the spirit world, accepting of the reality of Irish experiences, and even having direct experience with the spirits themselves.
In the introduction Walter Starkie tells us that the three main threads of Yeats’ life and mind were:
“The Celtic Twilight, which was published in 1893, is in every way a contrast to all the other works of Yeats and its general note is one of complete sincerity and simplicity.”
Starkie also tells us that Yeats lived near Rosses and Drumcliff. He’d ask people about stories of fairies. People basically told him: “They always mind their own affairs, and I always mind mine.”
The Rosses is an area in southwest Donegal in northwest Ireland. When Yeats visited it would have been mainly Irish speaking, of which he knew a bit. My brother and I visited this area of Ireland in 2003 and by that time most of the people in the area did speak English.
Drumcliff is south of The Rosses, in County Sligo and a place much loved by Yeats, where he is buried.
Yeats seems to just roam around trying to find people who have had contact with the spirits and to hear and catalogue their stories. His favorite “character” was Paddy Flynn who suffered from old age, eccentricity and deafness, but experienced the full range of spirits and beings.
“He was a great teller of tales, and unlike our common romancers, knew how to empty heaven, hell, and purgatory, fairyland and earth, to people his stories.”
What makes this section of the book so interesting is Yeats’ participation in this quest of the spirit (mainly fairy) world. He tells us:
“. . . in Ireland there is something of timid affection between man and spirit. Each admits the other side to have feelings. There are points beyond which neither will go.”
Yet a couple times he has people tell him how they deal with the fairy world:
“They always mind their own affairs and I always mind mine.”
A live and let live view.
Yeats clearly loves this world and realizes he is not like everyone else. Only a select portion of the population will take this spirit world seriously:
“In a society that has cast out imaginative tradition, only a few people – three or four thousand out of millions – favoured by their own characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour, have understanding of imaginative things, and yet ‘the imagination is the man himself.’”
It seems that he takes all the stories he hears at face value. Yet he tells us this is not quite so, he just isn’t going beyond the stories as stories at this point:
“I often entangle myself in argument more complicated than even those paths of Inchy as to what is the true nature of apparitions, but at other times I say as Socrates said when they told him a learned opinion about a nymph of the Ilissus, ‘The common opinion is enough for me.’”
In another place Yeats tells us:
“We gave ourselves up in old times to mythology, and saw the Gods everywhere. We talked to them face to face, and the stories of that communion are so many that I think they outnumber all the like stories of all the rest of Europe. Even to-day our country people speak with the dead and with some who perhaps have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision.”
I came away from the section of his “notes” having heard from a man who is knowledgeable, wise and modern, yet who has no trouble entering into a world of spirits, faeries, and other mythical beings and treating them as fellow beings on the earth, only ones who live their lives differently than we. It was kind of a pleasure to experience him at this point in his life. It’s a bit hard, given our modern world views and prejudices not to feel somewhat “superior” to Yeats, but I just never did. He was a man of his time and his life experiences, and he seems to have honestly laid them out in his account.
In reading this prose section I kept running in names I didn’t recognize and started looking them up. If one is reading this book it would be useful to know that:
Dhouls – are devils
Cuchullan – This is a great hero of Irish myth. A warrior in the service of Conchobhar, king of Ulster. Thought to have been from 1st century B.C.
Thomas of Erildoume – Thomas the Rhymer is a prophet
Caolte is a mythic Celtic warrior, a member of the Fianna. Fianna were small independent warrior bands in Ireland. Caolte was supposedly baptized by St. Patrick.
Oisin – A legendary famous Irish poet and member of the Fianna.
Lillith – supposedly a first wife of Adam (of the Bible) who latter was the mother of the fairies of Ireland.
Rath – the ruins of an old fort.
The poetry section opens with one of my very favorites: The Stolen Child. It follows Yeats’ view that the faeries (his spelling) do not just force people to come with them, but trick or persuade them to do so. Here the faeries play on the joys of faery life and the difficulty of the human world “For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.” Lovely poem.
The very long poem, The Wandering of Oisin a story poem. Oisin is a famous figure in pre-Christian Ireland. In this poem the beautiful Naim falls in love with Oisin’s poetry. She pleads with him to come with her to the immortal islands and he does so, living for a hundred years with her and their life of joy.
Eventually he begins to remember his days with the Finians, the Irish humans, and wants to return, but Naim takes him another island and they spend yet another hundred years.
However, his nostalgia for home continues and eventually Naim relents and even lends him her horse. However, she warns Oisin that he may not touch the ground or he could never return to the forevering lands. Alas, he does eventually fall off the horse and immediately is 300 years older!
The poem is a wonderful trip into Irish folklore.
To Ireland In The Coming Times is another striking poem. It explains how he and other writers are trying to capture the mysteries of life outside the world of science and modernism. Yet we can today see that essentially he and his generation have failed. Now it is all just seen as interesting folk lore of a forgotten world, looked upon lovingly, but a good deal silly and unimaginable in our times.
In The Fiddler of Dooney Yeats celebrates the center-piece of Irish traditional music played in the culture of his time.
The poems were especially interesting to me since Yeats continues to treat the folk tradition as a part of REAL Irish life, not as some set of children’s tales.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com