This is a piece I wrote for Penguin Plays Rough about a year and a half ago, performed in the State Library of NSW in a room that was 100% haunted by things.
I was inspired to look at the story again because last week was William Butler Yeats’s 149th birthday.
Happy birthday, Willie! Enjoy this story and please don’t sue, I have good intentions, I promise.
(this is a photo owned by Penguin Plays Rough and is of me reading the story and also inhabiting a fashion phase called ‘swiss cheese sleeve’)
THE TWO TYPES OF YEATSIANS
Hello! Are you a Yeatsian? If you know what a Yeatsian is; if it makes your eyes perk up all soft and gooey, then you are a Yeatsian!
And if you frown a bit at this, roll the word around your mouth for a familiar taste, and, nope, you do not taste anything you know – then you are not a Yeatsian.
But the main way to work out if you’re a Yeatsian is – have you forked out 2100 bucks to fly to Sligo to attend a Yeats International Summer School, which is 2 weeks of YEATS YEATS YEATS ALL THE YEATS up in your throat?
Then you are definitely a Yeatsian. And you will meet other Yeatsians. And something odd and electric will happen when you first shake their pale sun-deprived hands – there’ll be what we call a “Yeats buzz’ – because 2 very unique obsessive souls will have clicked, in a way that is not opportunistic, but genuine.
And this is different from when you’re met Irishmen in bars, and they’ve quoted Yeats at you in the same way you might unenthusiastically plop out a rote-learnt verse of “I Love A Sunburnt Country” – the sort of men who’ve learnt that a random Yeats quotation to an obsessive Yeatsian is mysterious bra-loosening catnip, while Dorothea McKellar just makes you a little misty-eyed AT BEST.
No, this is different. You are connecting because you share one big weird obsession. You are all the type of people who highlight unattributed Yeats references in Sydney Morning Herald News Review articles and say things like “do they even REALISE they are unknowingly quoting HIM”, and so you will latch onto anyone who is like you.
You will join forces at Yeats Summer School, and you will attend lecture after lecture together on William Butler Yeats, and his family, and his homeland, and then all will be well and good, all ‘fairies and goblins and clover and prancing’ until something changes.
Two camps will suddenly form in this huddled mass of nerds – 2 types of Yeatsians.
There’s Type 1 – fans of the idealistic youthful Yeats. Type 1 fans love Willie’s early poems. The love for country, for rural life, for folklore and myth as the key to Ireland’s cultural identity. And most of all, Type 1 fans love his crippling lack of sexual confidence.
We LOVE this shit. A Nobel Laureate who can’t speak to a hottie without nervous-vomming down the front of his cravat? How approachable! How accessible! How come he never considered that the cravat might not be the pussy-magnet he always assumed it was? Never mind!
Young Yeats wrote poems about love and loss and longing that were the 1890s over-share equivalent of that girl on your facebook who’s always ‘liking’ articles about the empowerment of late-life virginity.
A great example of this over-share is Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole, where Yeats is literally bitching out a gaggle of swans for all the boning they’re getting up to while he sits alone on the shore, watching his dreams of an heir evaporate into the bright Coole sky.
So that is Yeats Camp 1. I am Yeats Camp 1.
Yeats Camp 2 are the VISION peeps. What is a Vision peep? To tell you the truth, I only sort of know.
If you’re an expert on this, then I’m really sorry, but I am about to talk about A Vision with the sort of blithe overconfidence that comes from knowing the low low odds of there being a Type 1 OR Type 2 Yeatsian who is blog-literate enough to be reading this. So, let’s go.
From the 1910s, Yeats had started dancing to a new groove. He had been hanging regularly with a Kabbalah expert called Madame Blatavsky, and he liked the shiz this woman had to say.
He’d found a new bunch of friends in an occult group called The Order of the Golden Dawn, friends who thought his cape/cravat combo was a COOL look and not a weird look, and together they hung out at nighttimes talking spirituality and babes.
Their kind of spirituality was based around a bunch of triangles and Stars of Davids doing a bunch of things that made these guys’ brain and souls and gonads go WHOA, and so this was well and good.
Because: Yeats wasn’t even that sexually frustrated anymore. He’d found a lady to take his flower – just a couple of times – and with that rose well-plucked, he was ready to – you know –
So while he continued to write love-sick poems to his unattainable muse Maud Gonne, these poems were more of the “LOOK WHAT YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON” ilk, and less of the “Please please please touch it” variety.
This left a lot of space in his mind to put sex-trauma in the bottom drawer, and instead work on his wider spiritual journey. Part of that journey entailed asking himself questions like:
- How is life structured? Do we live and then die, or does something spookier happen?
- Is life one straight line, or is a turning, wobbling gyre, a concept that I think means: does life look like one of those slinkys that go downstairs by themselves, connected to a whole bunch of other slinkies, all of them going downstairs at the same time, connected to different parts of their slinky torsos?
- If the end of the world involves a rough beast, its hour come at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born – does he mean a massive tan-coloured hybrid of lion + elephant, a Day of Retribution Liophant – some sort of apocalyptic creature with emerald eyes and a long striped trunk – because that would be AMAZING amirite?
Yeats got to a stage of life where he was contemplating all of these big questions –
Would it have eyelashes, this beast?
Can you look it in the eye and survive?
How do I even pronounce ‘gyre’?
Yeats put all of these Qs and these As in a book called A Vision, to be forever cherished by the weirdo Type 2 Yeatsians out there.
And obviously, with questions like this taking over your waking and sleeping hours, there’s not a lot of room anymore for “where dips the rocky highland of Sleuth Wood in the lake, there lies a leafy island, where flapping herons wake the drowsy water rats”.
While that sort of poetry is pretty and dreamy and beautiful, it is quite easily trumped by “THINGS FALL APART. THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD. MERE ANARCHY IS LOOSED UPON THE WORLD”.
And this is what brings us to this story’s dilemma.
It’s the 1917 wedding night of WB Yeats and Georgie Hyde Lees. Maybe their first time alone together. They’ve only been dating for a month. They’re in their private marital chamber, and Georgie’s got her copy of “The Celtic Twilight” clutched to her bosom.
“You are Diarmid and I am Grania! Let me free your love harp like Cathleen ni Houlihan freed the hills of Erin! We can roleplay Deirde and Naoise if you like, but I am not cool with blackface!”
And eyes brimming with hope – erotic hope – she waits for Willie’s sexy, floaty, fairyland offer in return.
And what she gets is: TURNING AND TURNING IN THE WIDENING GYRE. THE FALCON CANNOT HEAR THE FALCONER.
Whaaaat? This might sound like a risky sex dare from Irish Cosmo, but it is nothing nearly as good as that.
This is not what Georgie wants. What happened to soft words, romance words? Why is the occult in her bridal chamber? Why have dudes gotta be so fucking complicated?
This is a test. This is about what Georgie can offer William, beyond his basic “human needs”, aka “rogering”.
Is Georgie his spiritual equal, or just a young girl who has been swept away into something bigger than she realised? And if so: what is she meant to do about it?
Think carefully Georgie. A lot rides on this. Think. Think.
And so she thinks. And she decides.
And she raises her eyes somewhere higher. Her mind and her body and her love are not enough for this union. Not enough to keep this old man and this young girl together, properly so, in the way that she wants.
A higher plane is needed, an avenue she had not considered open til now, until circumstance makes it essential.
So she picks up a pen.
She closes her eyes.
And says something like, “there’s a voice speaking through me, and I need to write it down. I’ve always had this gift. I’ve never told anyone before.”
And the poet’s eyes prick up, like a tipsy Yeatsian noticing another tipsy Yeatsian in a bar called Shoot the Crows around closing time, on the final night of Yeats Summer School.
“Do you really, Mrs Yeats?”
“She’s beyond the grave, and speaking to me. She wants to be heard. Shall I write down what she says?”
And she pours voices onto pages, for him.
Voices he connects to time and people before and after him, different narratives from different slinkies, knotted together on the great circular staircase of many, many lives.
And as she writes these findings, these dredgings, of past life, of the hope for new love, this is the vision we are left with.
For him, the life he wants.
For her, the concession she’ll make.
For the rest of us: a mystery.