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On Yeats and Irish Mythology
By David Jordan
Many people would consider J.R.R. Tolkien as the father of modern fantasy fiction. This is true in the narrow exclusive sense of the word. A more inclusive definition would admit many other imagineers who wrote before Tolkien. I would argue that the early poetry of W. B. Yeats is the work of a master imagineer. Myth and fantasy are terms that often overlap. Yeats seemed to be in that space. His treatment of Irish mythology was totally fresh, original and unique. He created a whole world in his early poetry, a world on a par with Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I too have tried to create a world – an Ireland that makes sense to me. I too have tried to write my own vision of Irish mythology. Yeats’ heroic achievement was a constant source of inspiration and energy for me when writing my book, A Bhikku’s Tale.
If you are interested in Irish mythology and you haven’t read the early poetry of W.B. Yeats, you really should. Through his early volumes of poetry such as The Rose and The Wind Among The Reeds he re-invented Irish mythology, making it more accessible to anyone who could read.
There is an animism to his early poetry – he brings the natural landscape to life better than any other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poet. There is also danger. His Sidhe or Danann are amoral creatures and there is the suggestion that if you hang out with them too much you run the risk of going insane.
And there is the sheer escapism of his poetry at this stage. Or maybe escapism is the wrong word. Transcendentalism might be more accurate. The early Yeats sees art as separate from reality. It exists in its own transcendent realm and this is reflected strongly in the work. The natural world stirs the imagination and allows us to enter a place where the troubles and toils of daily living can be left behind. This kind of escapism is best demonstrated in the poem, Who Goes With Fergus?
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
The early poems are also heavily symbolic and intuitive – they have no precise meaning, which is how all poetry should be. You get the sense that this is a world that exists in the poet’s imagination and not based on experience. The poet William Blake was a huge influence on Yeats, especially in his celebration of the imagination. For both poets, there is more to life than what we take in through the five senses. There is something we all own which is unique to all of us and we can access it through the imagination, something that is ours and nobody else’s. In Yeats’ early work there is a strong sense of a deeply private world been depicted. Because Yeats was so young, he didn’t have much else to draw on except his intuition and imagination, but what a body of work he gave us!
His early work far surpasses the other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Thomas Moore. You will find no leprechauns and fairies in Yeats’ early poetry. His work harks back to the old, pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. To the Tuatha De Danann and the Book of Invasions. To the hero, Cu Chulainn and his epic, The Tain. Yeats recognised what a treasure trove of imagination the myths are and how they could provide a framework with which to express his own unique vision of Ireland.
David Jordan is a writer based in Cork, Ireland. He has published two works of fiction and a book of verse entitled, The End. He has an MA in English from University College Cork. When he is not writing or reading, he plays the bass guitar. He is a dog lover and a coffee lover.
Bhikku Reilly of Fararden Wood has defeated the mad god Morpheo’s dragon with the help of Red City’s shaman, Murray. Now they face a much harder task.
In a fight with Cernunnos, Morpheo has broken off a piece of antler from the horned god, which gives him immeasurable power over the natural world. Reilly and Murray, together with the Green Man, the Sybarite and the ghost girl, Tracy, must pursue the mad god and stop him from taking over the whole country of Inis Fail.
Their journey takes them to the Otherworld and back again, crossing the paths of many colourful characters and strange creatures.