Saturday 10 December 2011

Review: Words Alone - Yeats

On this day, 10 December, in 1923, W B Yeatswas awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first Irishman to be honoured with the prize, for what the Nobel Committee said was "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation".

As much as I like Yeats' poems, the reason I'm writing about him on A Bad Witch's Blog is that Yeats, as well as having a life-long interested in mythology and folklore, was also an influential occultist and a member of societies including The Ghost Club and The Golden Dawn. He was influenced by the writings of theological philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and studied Theosophy. Yeats said: "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."

I've just finished reading a book about Yeats by historian R F Foster called Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances.

The book is primarily about Yeats' literature rather than his occult or magical activities, but I found it interesting because it describes the background to Yeats' work, interests and beliefs - literary and political, but also his fascination with spirituality, folklore and the supernatural.

Publisher Oxford University Press says on its website: "W B Yeats is usually seen as a great innovator who put his stamp so decisively on modern Irish literature that most of his successors worked in his shadow. R F Foster's eloquent and authoritative book weaves together literature and history to present an alternative perspective. By returning to the rich seed-bed of 19th-century Irish writing, Words Alone charts some of the influences, including romantic 'national tales' in post-Union Ireland, the poetry and polemic of the Young Ireland movement, the occult and supernatural novels of Sheridan LeFanu, William Carleton's 'peasant fictions', and fairy-lore and folktale collectors that created the unique and powerful Yeatsian voice of the decade from 1885 to 1895."

One of the things I found most fascinating about the book was its discussion of Irish fairy lore and beliefs. Yeats - and others of his contemporaries - were avid collectors of fairy stories and folk tales that otherwise only existed in oral traditions. Apparently Yeats' favourite stories were Irish occult tales, including one in which a country boy with an eye for the girls is punished one evening by a fairy band. They tie a corpse to his back and rule that he must bury it by sunrise, but make the task more difficult as other corpses rise from the ground throughout the night to terrorise him.

Yeats was apparently also intrigued by a piece of folk magic he was told: "If you love in vain, all you have to do is go to a graveyard at midnight, dig up a corpse, and take a strip of skin off it from head to heel, watch until you catch your mistress sleeping and tie it round her waist, and thereafter she will love you forever."

R F Foster was unable to discover if Yeats ever tried out this ghoulish spell. Perhaps that is a question best left unanswered.

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