Story type: Essay
When I was asked to write “anything” about Yeats, our Irish poet, my thoughts were like rambling flocks that have no shepherd, and without guidance my rambling thoughts have run anywhere.
I confess I have feared to enter or linger too long in the many-colored land of Druid twilights and tunes. A beauty not our own, more perfect than we can ourselves conceive, is a danger to the imagination. I am too often tempted to wander with Usheen in Timanoge and to forget my own heart and its more rarely accorded vision of truth. I know I like my own heart best, but I never look into the world of my friend without feeling that my region lies in the temperate zone and is near the Arctic circle; the flowers grow more rarely and are paler, and the struggle for existence is keener. Southward and in the warm west are the Happy Isles among the Shadowy Waters. The pearly phantoms are dancing there with blown hair amid cloud tail daffodils. They have known nothing but beauty, or at the most a beautiful unhappiness. Everything there moves in procession or according to ritual, and the agony of grief, it is felt, must be concealed. There are no faces blurred with tears there; some traditional gesture signifying sorrow is all that is allowed. I have looked with longing eyes into this world. It is Ildathach, the Many-Colored Land, but not the Land of the Living Heart. That island where the multitudinous beatings of many hearts became one is yet unvisited; but the isle of our poet is the more beautiful of all the isles the mystic voyagers have found during the thousands of years literature has recorded in Ireland. What wonder that many wish to follow him, and already other voices are singing amid its twilights.
They will make and unmake. They will discover new wonders; and will perhaps make commonplace some beauty which but for repetition would have seemed rare. I would that no one but the first discoverer should enter Ildathach, or at least report of it. No voyage to the new world, however memorable, will hold us like the voyage of Columbus. I sigh sometimes thinking on the light dominion dreams have over the heart. We cannot hold a dream for long, and that early joy of the poet in his new-found world has passed. It has seemed to him too luxuriant. He seeks for something more, and has tried to make its tropical tangle orthodox; and the glimmering waters and winds are no longer beautiful natural presences, but have become symbolic voices and preach obscurely some doctrine of their power to quench the light in the soul or to fan it to a brighter flame.
I like their old voiceless motion and their natural wandering best, and would rather roam in the bee-loud glade than under the boughs of beryl and chrysoberyl, where I am put to school to learn the significance of every jewel. I like that natural infinity which a prodigal beauty suggests more than that revealed in esoteric hieroglyphs, even though the writing be in precious stones. Sometimes I wonder whether that insatiable desire of the mind for something more than it has yet attained, which blows the perfume from every flower, and plucks the flower from every tree, and hews down every tree in the valley until it goes forth gnawing itself in a last hunger, does not threaten all the cloudy turrets of the Poet’s soul. But whatever end or transformation, or unveiling may happen, that which creates beauty must have beauty in its essence, and the soul must cast off many vestures before it comes to itself. We, all of us, poets, artists, and musicians, who work in shadows, must sometime begin to work in substance, and why should we grieve if one labor ends and another begins? I am interested more in life than in the shadows of life, and as Ildathach grows fainter I await eagerly the revelation of the real nature of one who has built so many mansions in the heavens. The poet has concealed himself under the embroidered cloths and has moved in secretness, and only at rare times, as when he says, “A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love,” do we find a love which is not the love of the Sidhe; and more rarely still do recognizable human figures, like the Old Pensioner or Moll Magee, meet us. All the rest are from another world and are survivals of the proud and golden races who move with the old stateliness and an added sorrow for the dark age which breaks in upon their loveliness. They do not war upon the new age, but build up about themselves in imagination the ancient beauty, and love with a love a little colored by the passion of the darkness from which they could not escape. They are the sole inheritors of many traditions, and have now come to the end of the ways, and so are unhappy. We know why they are unhappy, but not the cause of a strange merriment which sometimes they feel, unless it be that beauty within itself has a joy in its own rhythmic being. They are changing, too, as the winds and waters have changed. They are not like Usheen, seekers and romantic wanderers, but have each found some mood in themselves where all quest ceases; they utter oracles, and even in the swaying of a hand or the dropping of hair there is less suggestion of individual action than of a divinity living within them, shaping an elaborate beauty in dream for his own delight, and for no other end than the delight in his dream. Other poets have written of Wisdom overshadowing man and speaking through his lips, or a Will working within the human will, but I think in this poetry we find for the first time the revelation of the Spirit as the weaver of beauty. Hence it comes that little hitherto unnoticed motions are adored:
You need but lift a pearl-pale hand,
And bind up your long hair and sigh;
And all men’s hearts must burn and beat.
This woman is less the beloved than the priestess of beauty who reveals the divinity, not as the inspired prophetesses filled with the Holy Breath did in the ancient mysteries, but in casual gestures and in a waving of her white arms, in the stillness of her eyes, in her hair which trembles like a faery flood of unloosed shadowy light over pale breasts, and in many glimmering motions so beautiful that it is at once seen whose footfall it is we hear, and that the place where she stands is holy ground. This, it seems to me, is what is essential in this poetry, what is peculiar and individual in it–the revelation of great mysteries in unnoticed things; and as not a sparrow may fall unconsidered by Him, so even in the swaying of a human hand His sceptre may have dominion over the heart and His paradise be entered in the lifting of an eyelid.