Understanding Yeats in Ireland

William Bulter Yeats expert Jennifer Eisenlau found that sometimes the best way to connect with a poem is to see it visualized in the home country of your favorite poet. She had an epiphany about a poem by Yeats at Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ Tower in County Galway. As a further bonus, this Literary Traveler shares the beauty and the poetry of Ireland in her article Go to Know: Yeats’ Ireland.

“You got to go there, to know there”, wrote Zora Neale Hurston. Although this African-American writer does not automatically evoke Ireland’s patron-poet, Hurston’s words are a compelling command for any serious student of William Butler Yeats. If you want to truly comprehend the poetry of Yeats, and I mean all of Yeats at his most concretely Irish self, you must visit Ireland. Without seeing, touching, walking — and even drinking — in his footsteps, your understanding of this Nobel Prize winner’s work will be incomplete.

I had a Joycean epiphany at Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ Tower in County Galway. Yeats and his family lived in Gort from 1917 to 1929. The tower is a 16th century castle fortress that sits along a fast-moving river, near the estate of Lady Gregory, his compatriot in the Celtic Revival. Purchased for £35, Yeats restored the tower to a livable condition. On a wall facing the dirt road, there is a dedication, inscribed into a stone tablet:

I, the poet William Yeats,With old millboards and sea-green slates,

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George;

And may these characters remain

When all is ruin once again.

In an instant, my view of Yeats’ poems changed. My awakening was profound. Yeats’ notes in The Dial (1920) explain that the winding gyre is “the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age….” That concept had been so esoteric in the seminar classroom, and yet in the tower, it became apparent: life is an upward journey built upon our past steps. “So that’s what he meant!” I said aloud, to the empty chamber at the tops of the stairs. “