The Interview An Imagined Conversation with William Butler Yeats
by Kevin McLaughlin
WBY: Welcome to my tower at Ballylee. We of the Theosophist Society and the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn have the means to teleport people back from future centuries. You have been selected almost at random to join us. I desired to call back a man or woman from your century, both of Irish descent and having some knowledge of classical literature, to converse with. We plucked you from the ethers. On your mother’s side, you are a Murphy from Cork. It is possible you and I, in the distant past, have a common ancestor. I believe your name is Kevin, named for the Saint of Glendalough. Please call me Willie.
KM: (amazed, I took a deep breath and told him) Willie, in July of 2019, I visited your gravesite, and sobbed some manly tears. It is a bit disorienting to now be sitting opposite you.
WBY: I thank you for the kindness you’ve shown my bones. Reverence for the dead runs deeply in our culture.
KM: When I was in high school, I first read your poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I can still recite it.
WBY: When you read it, know it is a poem of exile. I am imagining an Innisfree that only exists in my imagination. The final couplet is, “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement gray, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” The narrator never does return to his Isle.
KM: Your early poems are filled with references from Ireland’s myths and fairy tales. “Fergus and the Druid” and “The Death of Cuchulain” come to mind. Cuchulain is the best celebrated of the mythical heroes. My favorite from this period is “The Stolen Child.” When I was in Cork, touring Blackrock Castle, the guide mentioned that in Pagan times and in early Christian times, many believed left-handed people were really changelings, fairy babies that had been swapped out for humans. I am left-handed. The refrain from this poem describes well the world of those who live half with the fairies, half with the humans.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.”
WBY: I am amazed you memorized this passage. This is from my early ballads. I, too, lived with the belief I was a faery child, a changeling. It was the central theme of my early works, before the Celtic Revival, before the 1916 uprising. I never really considered myself anything other than an apparition in this world.
KM: Critics in the 20th century have found in your writings an aversion to Democracy, a belief that the common man spends his unhappy days in a state of ignorance.
WBY: Do you believe the typical Homo Sapien possesses an a priori knowledge of the good? Of happiness?
KM: (I could see this line of enquiry unsettled the man.) It has occurred to me that people inhabit very different private worlds from one another. Which brings to mind more of your lines I’ve memorized, from “The Second Coming”:
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
I have never read a grimmer assessment of humanity.
WBY: Grim, yes. Yet, to be otherwise would be idiotic. As I am certain you remember, the poem concludes with:
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
This is both the history of Mankind and a prophecy for its future. Kevin, do these lines not apply to the age in which you are living? Some critics have written, as you pointed out, I abhor Democracy. That is because all democracies eventually tear themselves apart from within. I do not hate the masses; I have compassion for them. Eventually, all capable of self-reflection understand, “That it all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown / As weary hearted as that hollow moon.”
KM: There is a world-weariness expressed in your Romantic writings. In the “The Sorrow of Love” you describe the diseased core that lies at the heart of all beauty, of all loves.
And what of your Maud Gonne obsession, I wonder?
WBY: I knew I could never satisfy her need for single pointed focus on any cause. I did not risk my physical well-being as did those executed after the uprising of 1916.
MG: I wanted marriage, in its truest sense, with a Cuchulain of a man, a warrior king. Not with an artist or a scholar. Though foreign born, I became rabidly Irish. I witnessed the peasant tenants being driven from home and lands.
WBY: She was not prepared to fall in love with me. I could not, through my writings alone, make her the Joan of Arc of Eire. In one of my essays, if memory serves, I wrote, “Overwhelmed with his greatness, she half consented and yet half refused, for she longed to marry some warrior who could carry her over a mountain in his arms.” Maud wanted a martyr. She thought me dreamy, poetic, unable to act with ignorant courage and spontaneity.
(Yeats had not only proposed marriage several times to Maude Gonne, but he had also offered marriage to her daughter. At this point a perfectly proportioned female with auburn hair entered the room carrying a tray of tea and scones. This would be Georgie Hyde-Lees, the woman Yeats married. She kissed Yeats and then brushed her lips across my shaved head’s pate. Conversation strayed temporarily to idle chat while we took our tea.)
KM: Willie, do you consider yourself a mystic?
WBY: Let me quote from “Magic,” an essay I wrote: “ . . . all men, certainly all imaginative men, must be forever casting forth enchantments, glamours, illusions. Have not poetry and music arisen, as it seems, out of the sounds the enchanters made to help their imagination to enchant, to charm, to bind with a spell themselves and the passersby? . . . Whatever the passions of men have gathered about, becomes a symbol in the great memory, and in the hands of him who possesses the great secret, he is a caller-up of angels or of devils.” If that fits your definition then I am a mystic.
Photograph of William Butler Yeats taken by Charles Beresford in 1911
KM: Early in your writings you used the somewhat mundane symbol of a Rose repeatedly. What did that portend?
WBY: I will acknowledge borrowing this symbol from William Blake, the greatest of the non-Gaelic poets. He used this in the great tome to impermanence, “O Rose, Thou Art Sick.” The Rose is beauty, transcendental love, it is our inner divinity. Recall “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time”:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood nurtured, quiet eyed . . .
I published my collection The Rose in 1893. At this point I learned I could fuse ancient folktales quite easily with symbol.
KM: I hope to learn three aspects of your artistry. We have addressed mysticism. I would like to hear you address your role in the Celtic Revival, your sense of an Irish identity, and what, as a poet, is your Weltanschauung, your worldview.
WBY: Worlds are layered upon worlds, with only thin veils separating them. In 1888 I started forming the various collections of Fairy Tales that were so prominent in the west and the north. Ireland, largely unaffected by the Industrial Revolution, preserved its connection to the spiritual world and the fairy realm.
KM: Let me interrupt for one moment. How did you amass such a massive literary canon of poems, essays, novels, and plays?
WBY: I never stop writing, not even when I am asleep, making love, or being interviewed. For two or three hours, precisely at nine am, I record my writings, sometimes with the help of a secretary. Back to the thought I was forming . . . I made my art by sending a transforming eye off into distant obscurities.
KM: And your Irish identity?
WBY: The Yeats family settled in Ireland more than 200 years before I was born. Though a Protestant and an Anglo-Gael, I am an Irishman. Few poets have been sewn into the fabric of their native land to the extent I have been. In 1896, I joined the Irish Brotherhood, an organization that desired a diplomatic severance with England, but did not eschew violence. In my poem “Easter 1916,” written to commemorate the armed insurrection aimed at ridding our country of 700 years of English oppression, I idealize those who were captured by the Brits and executed. I also wrote the lines that would prefigure the 1919 war of independence and the Irish civil war:
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly.
A terrible beauty is born.
I discovered I was a caller-up of both angels and devils.
KM: Which of your poems, if you can isolate just one, would be the single work which you most enjoyed writing?
WBY: That would be “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” a somewhat under-appreciated work.
A woman cannot be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.
This is my belief. Some might miss the joy and delight in the irony running throughout this poem. Poets such as Pound and Eliot are simplistic. Eliot wrote of me that I had the longest period of development of any poet who ever lived. Damned right I did! The best of men are doomed to know the misgivings and self-doubts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are paralyzed, dreamily paralyzed by the paradox of their own thoughts and emotions. Throughout history, right to the 21st century from which you have come, the worst of men have ruled.
KM: I frequently lecture on Buddhism at churches, synagogues, and libraries. I quote liberally on such occasions from your poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” Oh, and when we were at that graveyard in Sligo, I did place a Rose on your grave. I know of no words more profound than:
“Cast a cold eye,
On life, on death,
Horseman, pass by.”
(To my consternation, I began the process of returning to my own era. The muscles in my body felt like termites were burrowing through their fibers. My limbs began stretching, my vision grew grainy.)
WBY: Kevin, the haiku you mentioned. Would you write one in my memory?
KM: Yes, I will write two, and publish them in Better Than Starbucks literary journal.
I re-materialized in my year 2020 bedroom, sanctified, awed, and with a 16-pound black cat, my Desdemona, scratching at my left arm. In my left hand I held two Gaelic haiku.
The Aran Islands;
Pale faery draws her bucket,
From the sacred well.
All across Ireland,
On the mountains, bogs and cliffs,
Snow falls on the dead.
Dearly did I regret I hadn’t the time to ask Willie of his friendships with Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound (his Secretary for many years). I hadn’t asked of the Abbey Theatre or of his one act play Kathleen Ni Houlihan, nor of his relationship with his brilliant, sometimes quirky family. Would Yeats and Lady Gregory summon me again one day?
Note: I acknowledge my debt to Yeats: The Man and the Masks, W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry, and The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.
Platinum print of WB Yeats by Alice Boughten
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