Friday, 25 January 2013

Book Review: The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18148112-the-celtic-twilightToday William Butler Yeats is known above all as one of Ireland’s greatest poets who was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. But he didn’t only write much admired and often recited poems. He also collected folk tales and legends which already in his time were at risk of getting lost in a modern Ireland that was under British rule during all his lifetime and remained under it until several years after his death at the age of seventy-four in January 1939.

With its strong reminiscences of heathen, thus Celtic times the mythological heritage of first Catholicised and then Anglicised Ireland is surprising, impressive and quite unique in the world. I'm sure that W. B. Yeats has been aware of it when he set out
“to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them.”
Under the title The Celtic Twilight he brought together a varied selection of stories and tales from Old Eire which first appeared as a book in 1893. Some more stories passed on to the author were added to the revised edition of 1902 which I’m reviewing here and which keeps being in print until this day. Therefore it deserves a closer look.

The book offers a mixture of what W. B. Yeats heard and saw of the legendary worlds of dhouls and faeries, but he also commented the stories like almost every other writer of his time and his background would have done. He didn’t degrade and dismiss the beliefs of the peasantry as superstition and mirages produced by uneducated minds, though, as might have done a less open-minded person or more fundamentalist Catholic in his place. On the contrary, he perceived Ireland as a magical land and even reported some strange incidents that he experienced himself. For the rest he translated the stories told to him into modern language and wrote them down as “accurately and candidly” as he could.

The people who appear in the stories as their protagonists, as their witnesses or just as their passers-on are the men and women of Ireland who live in unison with a world of magic surrounding them. But they don’t just cling stubbornly to their heritage of a pagan past that has been virtually wiped out everywhere else. They accept to be part of a universe where much more is possible than science can explain and they take things as they come, sometimes with an impish wink of the eye. This gives them and their whole country the natural and charming aura that keeps impressing us.

Reading The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats allows a glimpse into a magic world that is closed to most of us ever since we left childhood behind. Isn't this a good enough reason to abandon yourself to the skilled storyteller for a while?


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