Yeats and Me

By Megan Wallens

There are three levels of truth: things that are true, things that are nearly true and things that should be true. At first, I believed that this journey started with a packet of bean seeds; recently, I’ve realised that the truth was different, deeper, far older, even ancient.

I decided to plant out just four rows of beans, although my inspiration was William Butler Yeats’ nine in his ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree. You’re surely familiar with it and know the section I mean: ‘Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee…’ ?

In 1888, Yeats tells us, while he was walking down busy Fleet Street in London, he had a sudden memory of his childhood, much of which was spent in County Sligo. He became deeply homesick for the beautiful waters of Lough Gill, and in particular for the small island it held, Innisfree. He’d been inspired by Thoreau, an American poet-naturalist, who years before had written profoundly of man’s connection with the natural wild world and had turned to the simple life for answers. Yeats dreamt of imitating the way Thoreau had lived, and subsequently wrote ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This is his plea for a beautiful sanctuary, where he would live alone and where peace would come dropping slow’. It would sate the hunger of his heart’s deep core’, as it sought solace from crowded city life.

Inspired, I set out to create my own sanctuary; a meditative secret garden of medicinal herbs. As with Innisfree, this was to be a place for solitude and healing. But unlike Innisfree, where in fact there was no ‘small cabin ….. of clay and wattles made‘ except in the poet’s imagination, my sanctuary would be real.

Within a couple of years, the garden was flourishing. In spring, rows of beans, planted for Yeats. Lavender, rosemary, borage and poppies made it ‘bee loud’ like his imagined glade. It was a private peace-filled space, that offered beauty and solace to the hearts of those who came.

But suddenly there was more to it. When a visiting child claimed to have seen two fairies in my secret garden, I too was back in childhood. I remembered the deeper, older truth around my first love affair. It had been with the invisible world, and was my Irish father’s doing. It was about what should be true for a small child.

Arriving in Australia from Ireland, my father brought his homeland with him. He filled me with a believable melange of stories about the Celts, fairies and leprechauns, mermaids, spirits, witches and ghosts, ancient myths and legends: and Yeats’s ‘Come away, oh human child! To the waters and the wild/With a faery hand in hand…’

Safe in my imaginings, his words seemed written for me. They made perfect sense, and were not so different from magical stories of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, which were also informing my Australian-Irish world. Shape-changing rainbow serpents and Irish leprechauns brought water to the humans or left them pots of gold at rainbows’ ends. To my mind, all seemed to be one and the same thing; they were similarly rooted in a mystical past that felt vaguely familiar and almost true. Whilst understanding that the Aboriginal Dreamtime stretched back many tens of millennia into timelessness, I knew that some of the stories of ancient Ireland came more recently from the Celts. They’d been obsessed by the sun and its cycles, and they believed in a kingdom underground. Wells and springs became sacred places; they were portals to the Underworld. It did not matter which land the fairies, giants and spirits resided in or at what level of truth: they simply were there.

A few years ago I revisited Dublin. This time it was specifically to search for the essence of William Butler Yeats. I started my search at the Irish Writers Museum. It’s set up in an eighteenth-century building at 18 Parnell Square. In this one place, I walked all the way from a copy of the Book of Kells down the centuries to Ireland’s literary present; I did find some small part of him. In this museum, Yeats sits alongside other such Irish greats as Wilde, Joyce, Swift, Sheridan, Behan and Beckett, and examples of their letters, portraits, books and personal belongings. I was shocked to notice that women writers were missing from the Museum, and later relieved to hear that omissions had been noted and were in the process of being remedied. However, I still hadn’t found the Yeats I sought. While his words and many mementos were safely stored here in Dublin, it seemed to me that the man himself was not truly present.

I decided to go west to County Sligo. Here it seemed possible that the ancient gods of Ireland still inhabited the great megalithic burial sites, and here were some of the places that had so profoundly inspired Yeats’s writing: Drumcliffe, Ben Bulben, Sligo Town, Rosses Point, Knocknarae, the waterfall at Glencar, and most importantly Lough Gill and its famed lake isle of Innisfree.

My accommodation was just a kilometre away from Drumcliffe. I had the grumpiest of grumpy landladies, who had no interest whatsoever in Yeats and was ‘Over it! Here I am, totally burnt out after 35 long years in the business and never a holiday! You can have one egg! ‘ However, the bedroom window opened onto hedgerows of gorgeous froths of pink and white hawthorn around sheep-studded green fields. Beyond, nestling at the base of the massif of Ben Bulben, was the church’s spire and nearby graveyard. Banks of cloud piled around the mountain’s summit, or drifting sea mist hid it from view, and sunlight made constant plays with light  and shadow across its face.

Ben Bulben, sheep and hawthorn

The great edifice of Knocknarea stands to the south of Sligo town with Ben Bulben to the north. Each is clearly visible from the other across Sligo Bay and Rosses Point. Not far away, the Garavogue river flows from Lough Gill through Sligo town and into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s no surprise that Yeats found such inspiration in the landscape. Legends and stories abound. For example, on Ben Bulben, the warrior Diarmuid was tricked by the giant Finn McCool into fighting an enchanted boar, which gored him to death. And in a great romantic Arthurian-style legend that reminds us of Lancelot and Guinevere, this is the final resting place of the blighted lovers Diarmuid and Grainne. It is also the legendary mountain home of the Fianna tribe of Celtic warriors.

To pay my respects to Yeats, I timed my visit to Saint Columba’s Parish Church for early morning. There was no-one about. On the church’s doors are two beautiful carved swan-shaped handles which recall The Wild Swans of Coole’. The Yeats grave lies near the church entrance. Beyond a stone wall, through the old trees, rises the great jaw of Ben Bulben.

The last lines of the poem Under Ben Bulben’ provide his epitaph, perhaps the most famous and puzzling in the world: ‘Cast a cold eye / On life, on death, / Horseman, pass by!

Yeats’s headstone, Drumcliff churchyard.

In a quiet corner at the edge of the church carpark is a crouching figure, not obvious at first. It is a life-sized bronze and stone sculpture created by sculptor Jackie McKenna.

Before it, spread like a shawl across the ground in inscribed stone, is Yeats’s poem: ‘He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven’, a reminder to ‘….Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

Yeats sculpture, Sligo town

Opposite the Ulster Bank in Sligo Town, there stands a larger than life bronze statue of Yeats. Leaning on it for support, I peered closely to decipher individual letters and words. For the first time, I experienced a sense of Yeats’s physicality, something I hadn’t quite obtained from photos. A few metres away, floating down the Garavogue river, was a solitary swan. Yeats in bronze looks across the river to the Yeats Memorial Building which houses the Yeats Society.

I visited The Model just up the hill. This gallery houses the Niland Art Collection, which features paintings by William’s father (John) and his brother (Jack). In a corner behind the gallery, I discovered by chance ‘Yeats’s Secret Garden in Sligo’. Part of the Secret Gardens of Sligo Scheme, it was recently designed and installed by landscaper Lorely Forrester. It represents the lake isle of Innisfree. The garden has been created to mimic the wilds of Sligo; it is unmanicured, imperfect, evocative and contains a real ‘small cabin ….. of clay and wattles made’.

A ‘small cabin…of clay and wattles made’

The next day was bitterly cold; I rugged up with coat and scarf against the wind, went out to Rosses Point at the entrance to Sligo Harbour, near where the Garavogue meets the Atlantic Ocean. A bare-chested fisherman was working on his nets and called out ‘Glorious day for it!’. Here is a small village, where Yeats spent much time listening to and documenting folktales from local people. It was at Rosses Point that he had met Mary Battle, who had the ‘sight’ and claimed to have seen Queen Maeve riding out with a horde of fairies across Carrowmore towards Sligo Bay. Inspired, he incorporated this in his poem ‘The Hosting of the Sidhe’.

‘The Stolen Child’ was written after Yeats visited the beautiful Glencar waterfall to the north of Sligo town. The poem was inspired by local stories of fairies luring children away, and set in a place I’d imagined since childhood. The water pelts down under overhanging trees through a great green mossy cleft into Glencar Lough beyond. Behind the curtain of water, there may have been a gateway into the Other World. I couldn’t see it, but standing there in the magical timelessness of the place, anything seemed possible. To the west, Ben Bulben stood sentinel.

Lough Gill lay still and reflective within its reedy banks. Swans and ducks dipped and drifted in the shallows. As I made my way down to the boat jetty, a weasel carrying something in its mouth darted across my path. A dead badger lay at the side of the track.

And there, just across the water, was the Lake Isle of Innisfree. I could see the individual trees and details of its shore-line. The truth was that the poet visited the island only once, but I imagined him rowing his boat across many times. Savouring the silence, I read his poem aloud, heard again his heart-felt plea to escape to ‘the waters and the wild’. For me at least, his essence was strongly in this beautiful place. Content and grateful, I had arrived at my journey’s end.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Some days later, my Irish cousin and I wandered through a sunlit forest, where early spring growth rendered the air lime green. Before us stretched a swathe of bluebells. Green, violet, blue. To my left I spied a lone gnarled and twisted full-flowered hawthorn tree. I asked Margaret if she’d ever consider removing such a tree from your garden, say?

‘A fairy tree, you mean! Never! You’d be risking fate and the fairies’ wrath to tamper like that. Who knows what might happen?’

So I then asked if she really believed in them. ‘Believe in them? Of course not, but they’re there just the same, aren’t they!’

I’ll plant my next rows of beans to a truth deeper, far older, even ancient, which now I much better understand.

Megan Wallens

After working in country New South Wales, the Pacific and rural China, Megan Wallens, a new contributor to Tinteán, now lives in the Yarra Valley, Victoria. Abridged for Tinteán, her original version of  ‘WB Yeats and Yours Truly’ won 3rd prize in the Society of Women Writers (NSW) 2017 National Writing Competition – Non Fiction. 

4 thoughts on “Yeats and Me

    • Thank you. With hindsight, one wishes to have stayed longer and delved deeper, but at least we have our precious memories of Ireland…. not so easy to achieve now. M

  1. Thank you Megan for your story, so beautifully expressed. It took me back to my own visits to Yeats’ country over recent years. What a wonderful part of the world!

    • Thank you, Helen. Yes, Yeats’ country is unique and evocative. Certainly touches the heart, as do his words. M

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