william butler yeats - byzantium

by domenico ermirio

february 2016

people in riviera

Nowadays we generally collect myths and fantastic legends under the label of "fantasy", best-sellers plots, comics or movies which, thanks to increasingly sophisticated special effects, give a real aspect to goblins, wizards, gods, etz. It's difficult to believe that a little more than one century ago legends - for us "moderns" lovely escapes into the world of dreams - were basic means for the spread of national identities despite the opression of the central power. So that, while square was the background of strikes, protests and riots - with results sometimes others from those expected - theaters, artistic clubs, schools, universities, tried do take from the past (real or not) stories, traditions or ancient epics. Saved from the oral tradition, that might lose them forever, and born again in modern works, these stories tasting of ancient had great success among the audience and convinced people about an already existing independence: the one of the own cultural roots, independent from politic, laws, governments, but property of each man or woman as born in that Land. A good example is the work of Elias Lönröt, who searched among the Finnish countryside, from one village to another, people who remembered the ancient runos. In 1835 his collection of ancient song was published as Kalevala, the epic national poem of Finland even it wasn't still an independent nation. Since then all the kind of Finnish Art (from painting to music) recalled to this book as a source of beloved subjects.

Ireland, that was always hungry for independence, find one of its most faithful voice in William Butler Yeats, even if - and this is the most extraordinary aspect of all his work - he is a convinced Protestant. He received the Nobel Price in 1923 with this motivation:

for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation

None can doubt about his Irish blood: he loves the wild and splendid Northern landscapes and their stories. He learned them from the maids, common people or reading second-rate novels. One frequent inspiration is represented by the Ulster Cycle, an epic rich of every sort of character and adventure. It belongs to a tradition that survives among the centuries despite the spread of Catholicism. These tales don't represent a sort of religion, but a fantastic way to represent everyday life. For young Yeats, folklore is one of the main aspects of his poetry. For the grown-up and already famous writer, being a pride Irish man too, it represents a world of raw materials to use for his art. Above all in the dramatic production: since 1892 he has been dedicated to establish an Irish Theatre (later better known as Abbey). Thanks to his great friends and supporters Lady Gregory and dramatist John Synge, he transforms the Abbey in a main centre of the Celtic Revival. His production is terribly big: 26 works written between 1892 and 1939, among which many of them are entitled to mythological characters (as Cuchulain cycle).
 
I need a theatre. l believe myself to be a dramatist. I desire to show events and not merely tell of them...and I seem to myself most alive at the moment when a room full of people share the one lofty emotion.
(1916)

In these years, however, Yeats suffers a bit for the increasing popularity of the Abbey and he searches for new form of theatre, dedicated to a small and clever audience. In this process it seems that american writer Ezra Pound has an important role. From 1909 to 1916 he works as Yeats' secretary and he manages to publish some of his work in the American magazine Poetry. In the same time he brings Yeats to the Noh theatre, a form that at the beginning he likes very much dedicating some works to this genre. With Pound he shares the "passion" for mysticism and paranormal world a key point in his life and production. Maybe it is on suggestion of Pound that years later Yeats will spent three winters in Rapallo, where the American already famous poet lives since 1925. However in 1928 they meet there again: Yeats is now a Nobel Price (1923) and a senator of the new Irish Free State. The reason for this travel is the bad health conditions of Yeats who needs for a period in warm climate. He writes to Lady Gregory:
 
This is an indescribably lovely place - some little Greek towns one imagines - there is a passage in Keats describing just such a town. Here I shall put off the bitterness of Irish quarrels and write my most amiable verses.
 
On April Yeats comes back to Ireland, but he's in Rapallo again at the beginning of the following winter. He writes there a work dedicated to his American friend: A packet for Ezra Pound.

Sometimes about ten o'clock at night I accompany him (Pound) to a street where there are hotels upon one side, upon the other palm trees and the sea, and there taking out of his pockets bones and pieces of meat he begins to call the cats. He knows all their histories…

On spring he turns to Ireland, but he comes back on 1929's winter, his last stay in Riviera. There he becomes ill of "Malta fever" and he is recovering also at Portofino Vetta hotel. During this time he writes several works among which the beautiful and obscure lyric Byzantium, published later in The winding stair and other poems.
 

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Again the connection with paranormal world and the use of many symbols and images: all this belongs to the same ideas he writes about in the work A Vision. However, despite his health, he seems to live here in a good mood. He describes his staying to the dear friend Olivia Shakespear (mother-in-law of Pound):

We sit in the sun - George (the wife) and the children on the sea-shore after a bathe - I on my balcony, as naked as usage permits - and then oil ourselves. We colour like old meerschaum pipes.

And with Spring he returns to Ireland. He'll never be again in Rapallo, but again for his health he will spend some winters in Majorca and in French Riviera.
He'll go on writing until the end.