December 15, 2017
"Willy, it was always Willy..."On this day in 1865 W. B. Yeats was born in the Sandymount area of Dublin. Until his mid-teens, Yeats's youth was mostly spent not in Dublin but divided between London, where his father attempted to establish himself as a painter, and his mother's hometown of Sligo, on Ireland's Atlantic coast. In Reveries over Childhood and Youth -- #39 on the Modern Library's list of the best hundred non-fiction books of the 20th century -- Yeats describes his time in Sligo as a portal to the story-spirit world that would be of such importance to his life and poetry:
It was through the Middletons perhaps that I got my interest in country stories, and certainly the first faery stories that I heard were in the cottages about their houses.
The psychoanalytically-minded scholars find in Yeats's youth, and in the symbolism of the poems, not so much the presence of spirits as the absence of mother, as if Yeats's other-world companions were a compensation for her withheld love and scolding. His father, who also absented himself, eventually to Manhattan, reports being "no sooner in the house than I had to listen to dreadful complaints of everybody and everything -- especially of Willy, it was always Willy...."
Biographer R. F. Foster (Vol. I, The Apprentice Mage, won the 1997 James Tait Black Prize) says that Yeats hated his first name, and that the family called him "WB." Still, sister Lily would recall in 1930 "Willy bursting in having just written, or not even written down but just having brought forth" one of his most famous poems of childhood, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." He recited it "with all the fire of creation & his youth -- he was I suppose about 24. I felt a thrill all through me and saw Sligo beauty, heard lake water lapping...":
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
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