Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Mythologies by WB Yeats

Depending on the day you ask me, Yeats may be my favorite poet.* I dip into the Collected Poems often, but I had not previously read any of his prose work. I picked up a copy of this omnibus of stories at a Wake County Library book sale a couple years ago. Mythologies contains the collections The Celtic Twilight, The Secret Rose, Stories of Red Hanrihan and the “essays” Rosa Alchemica, Tables of the Law, The Adoration of the Magi, and Per Amica Silentia Lunae. These all in some way relate back to Irish folklore, and, if the documentary about Yeats I saw recently** had a lot to do with his trying to establish a national myth for Ireland. I’m uncomfortable with nationalism as a movement, and there were hints here and there in the books of how that could turn sour, but that did not ruin the experience of the book. Throughout all the works collected here there is a real sense of the cultural battle between protestantism and catholicism with a pre-christian Irish paganism trying to reassert itself. This makes for some very effective and eerie tales, and is probably a symptom of Yeats’s attempt to give Ireland an identity that did not rest merely on the struggle between christianities.

Given that he won the Nobel, I was not surprised how good the writing is. Given its title, I should not have been as surprised as I was at how much some of it overlaps with the literary horror/fantasy genre that I’ve become enamored with over the past decade or so. Since this is an omnibus, and my reactions to the various collections range from mild recommendation to wildly enthusiastic, I will talk about each section separately. Since all the works in the omnibus are in the public domain, I include links to the Project Gutenberg ebooks of each.

The Celtic Twilight:

In this collection, in short chapters, Yeats writes about going around Ireland and collecting any information he can get about the Sidhe, or fairies or any other Irish folklore. This is honestly my least favorite of the bunch (possibly excepting the final section), and its placement at the beginning of the omnibus may be a prime factor in my having not finished the collection before despite having started it at least three times before. Still, there were moments when Yeats caught me with a phrase, or an image, or the tale he was relating which really moved me. I’m glad I pushed through.


The Secret Rose:

In this collection there is a shift away from the framing device of people telling Yeats folklore stories and more firmly into the short fiction mode. And it is here that the struggle between catholicism, protestantism and a resurgent paganism really starts to come into focus. And some of these stories should be classics of the horror genre. The standouts, to me were the opener, The Crucifixion of the Outcast, in which a wandering bard runs afoul of murderous monks, and The Curse of the Fire and Shadows in which some puritan murderers fall afoul of ancient spirits.

Highly Recommended

Stories of Red Hanrihan:

Red Hanrihan is a character who appears in Yeats’ poetry, and in this collection he gets a proper introduction. He is a bard travelling around Ireland making a living singing and telling tales. I really loved this collection with the exception of the third story. Highlights include the first story, called Red Hanrahan, in which Hanrihan meets some spirits and receives his gift and loses a lot and Hanrihan’s Vision which is like a better version of Lovecraft’s dreamquest stories.

Highly Recommended.

Rosa Alchemica:

This was amazing! Having read so much Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction over the past few years this was exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s described as an essay in the physical book I have, but it really reads like a literary horror story. In it Yeats, at the urging of Michael Robartes is very nearly inducted into the Society of the Alchemical Rose. Imagine if Lovecraft wasn’t a materialist; if the Old Gods were not ancient aliens, but were all the actual old gods trying to return. This is deeply disturbing and moving.

Canon Worthy

Tables of the Law and the Adoration of the Magi:

These stories, also classified as essays, by the book delve into similar territory to Rosa Alchemica, and are nearly as good as that story.

Canon Worthy

Per Amica Silentia Lunae:

This fits the essay designation a little better, and feels out of place in the collection.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 8/75

*On the other days it is WH Auden, Robinson Jeffers or Anne Porter. Most often Auden.

** A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on WB Yeats (very good if a little hagiographic, available on Amazon Prime)

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