Last Updated on May 17, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028
Yeats’s awareness of the supernatural began at an early age. While living with his grandparents in Sligo, he saw ‘‘a supernatural bird in the corner of the room.’’ He relates that he dreamed one night that his grandfather’s ship had wrecked. The next morning he awoke to find that his dream had come true. These and other events prompted Yeats to consider the existence of spirits or of an alternative plane of reality and launched his life-long interest in the supernatural.
Autobiographies is filled with stories of unexplained events, spirit contact, séances, and other paranormal activities witnessed by Yeats and others. These experiences, in fact, became an integral part of the folk tales Yeats so eagerly collected in support of a national literature for Ireland. After an episode in the essay, ‘‘Reveries Over Childhood and Youth,’’ in which he relates seeing unexplained lights in the countryside near his home, Yeats started telling people that they should accept as true ‘‘whatever had been believed in all countries and periods and only reject any part of it after much evidence, instead of starting over afresh and believing what one could prove.’’
Beginning in the mid-1880s, Yeats joined a number of mystical societies, including Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. After testing some of the society’s ‘‘esoteric teachings’’ and challenging them, he was encouraged to leave. He became a member of MacGregor Mathers’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890 and commenced learning about symbols and how they may affect the subconscious mind.
Yeats credits his serious study of the supernatural with helping him take a step away from his family and toward adulthood: ‘‘It was only when I began to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that I broke away from my father’s influence,’’ he notes.
Yeats describes himself throughout the text of his autobiography as very connected to the land around him and to nature. Yeats expresses a desire for tactile sensations of nature and describes a period in his young life when he had ‘‘a literary passion for the open air.’’ These feelings prompted him to do such things as remove the glass in a window so that rain could fall on him as he slept. When Yeats was school-aged and the family lived in London, he longed for Ireland and for ‘‘a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand.’’
Though he was ‘‘delicate and had no muscles,’’ Yeats reveled in the outdoors. When his family moved to Dublin from London, Yeats escaped to the Irish countryside on a regular basis, sleeping some nights in a cave or in the woods surrounding a neighboring castle. His holidays were spent in Sligo with his uncle George Pollexfen, who supported the young poet’s outdoor adventures. Uncle George would even arrange meals around Yeats’s odd comings and goings. Yeats’s ‘‘literary passion for the open air’’ showed itself after his father read aloud from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Yeats decided that he wanted to live as Thoreau had, ‘‘seeking wisdom’’ through a solitary life in the country.
Irish Nationalism and Literature
Yeats was preoccupied with the theme of Irish nationalism throughout his life, even though he was a member of an Anglo-Irish family—a group that generally identified more strongly with England than Ireland in the 1800s. From the time he was a small child, the traditional Irish stories of farmers and villagers and odd relatives fascinated him. One of the high points of his childhood was visiting his relatives in the country, especially his aunt Micky, whose land included ‘‘a shut-in mysterious place, where one played and believed something was going to happen.’’ Here the young Yeats could speak to villagers and his aunt about the family’s local history and learn about the deeds of his ancestors. He claims that he ‘‘cared nothing as a child for Micky’s tales,’’ but the entry in his autobiography about his relatives may indicate otherwise. As an adult, Yeats was ‘‘delighted with all that joins my life to those who had power in Ireland or with those anywhere who were good servants and poor bargainers.’’
Even as a child, Yeats felt strongly that his true nationality was Irish, despite his living in London. Yeats remembers when he was a schoolboy in England, and, even though anti-Irish sentiment was rampant, he was ‘‘full of pride, for it is romantic to live in a dangerous country.’’ Living in England, in fact, made him long for his country and encouraged his identification as an Irishman. Once he and his sister were so homesick for Ireland that they came close to tears in their desperation for something, even a clump of soil, from Sligo. ‘‘It was some old race instinct, like that of a savage,’’ he remembers.
As he grew older, Yeats received inspiration for his poetry and plays from various sources, including John O’Leary, who was president of the Young Ireland Society while Yeats was a member. O’Leary had also once been an activist with the Fenians, a group that struggled with force to free Ireland from England’s rule. The conversations and debates at the Society’s meetings, as well as the books O’Leary loaned to Yeats, inspired the young poet to take seriously the idea that creating a national Irish literature was critical for Irish independence. Yeats had a dream that ‘‘a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the memory and yet had been freed from provincialism by an exacting criticism’’ could join together the Catholic and Protestant sides of Irish society. He sought a unified mythology that would create a single national identity and wonders whether ‘‘all races had their first unity from a mythology that marries them to rock and hill.’’
Yeats researched Irish Gaelic language and Irish history to incorporate the legends and traditions into his poetry. Much of his time spent with Lady Gregory at Coole Park was devoted to traveling around the Irish countryside collecting stories from peasants and farmers—including stories filled with fairies—night creatures, and eerie lights appearing by roadsides.