Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Celtic Twilight, by WB Yeats, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by WB Yeats

Yeats, while in his late 20s, published collections of Irish peasant folklore in two volumes of Celtic Twilight (1893, 1902)—many pieces which previously appeared in journals, in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), and in Miscellanies (1902?).

 I found Yeats’ comments on collecting folklore intriguing as it had become a science by the late 1800s. But Yeats criticized his predecessors: “...collectors of Irish folk-lore ...have made their work literature rather than science... The impulse... came from a class that, did not... take the populace seriously, .... What they did was not wholly false; they merely magnified an irresponsible type,.....” 

Yeats lauded: “But the best book since Croker is Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends.” (FFTIP 1888). However in a later review, Yeats complained of L.Wilde’s lack of methodology. Sir Wilde “... threw all his gatherings into a big box,... Lady Wilde has quarried the materials of her new book: a farrago of spells, cures, fairy-tales, and proverbs... districts seldom specified and the dates of discovery never. I ... wish they had been... more scientifically treated, but I scarce know whom to blame: Lady Wilde, Sir William Wilde, his collectors, or the big box.” 

In another review Yeats wrote: “Dr Hyde is by far the best Irish folklorist by the right of his incomparable skill as a translator from the Gaelic (Miscellanies). 

According to Yeats, the collector of folklore should take the tales down in the native language, and to document his informants. But Yeats didn’t speak Irish, and didn’t document his collections in CT either (though one may presume he documented the stories in his journals? In a 1924 edition, he added more documentation). 

Yeats wrote “If a poet cannot find immortal and mysterious things in his own country, he must write of far-off countries oftener than of his own country,...” (Miscellanies). But Yeats didn’t have to go as far afield as that: Paddy Flynn of Sligo was his main informant as was Mary Banner, his maternal uncle’s maid in Mayo. 

Yeats also collaborated with Lady Gregory, collecting tales from her servant Biddy Early. The landscape is pastoral (hard romanticism), the stories, an admixture of ancient tales, folk belief in the Aes Dána as shrunken faeries; other classes of spectres and inexplicable phenomena. Echoes of saint’s lives and heroic epics with a smattering of Classicism. Homer, Finn and Ulster tales, snatches of the Danu cycle.

Yeats’ writing style is very readable. I loved the Blind Raftery stories—since there is some doubt as to whether or not he was real or made up. A criticism later applied to Wentz, is that Yeats, desiring to believe in the occult and supernatural, might have colored his spectral lens with imagination.

One wonders how much he shaped the stories to fit his own cultural agenda? Somehow I am left with the feeling that their servants were also having one off on the gentry...

However I did recognize bits of stories that my grandmother was always afther telling me...except she was more earthy: the púca pissed on the berries on Samhain. And the ghost lore is familiar as well. We have the knocking at the door in the middle of the night before a family member dies—even I have answered the door only to find no one there, except once, the Morning Star bright as a moon in the predawn sky.

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