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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:
    The Middleton and Pollexfen flour mills were at Ballisodare, and a great salmon weir, rapids, and a waterfall, but it was more often at Rosses that I saw my cousin. We rowed in the river-mouth or were taken sailing in a heavy slow schooner yacht or in a big ship's boat that had been rigged and decked. There were great cellars under the house, for it had been a smuggler's house a hundred years before, and sometimes three loud raps would come upon the drawing-room window at sundown, setting all the dogs barking; some dead smuggler giving his accustomed signal. . . .

    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.
It was here that Yeats saw his first fairy, sliding down a moonbeam; at the age of twenty-seven he was still seeing them, at Rosses Point, when they came in a rush of noise and music to the magic circle he had drawn in the sand. On this occasion the "queen of the troop" wrote back in the sand, "be careful & do not seek to know too much about us." Yeats did not follow this advice. His first published poem was "The Song of the Faeries," and his increasingly complex -- some say embarrassing -- theories and visions and spirit-studies were a lifelong obsession.

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...":
    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    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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