“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”

One of Ankhie’s favorite hang-outs back in her student-y days was a grim little bar called The Sligo. The beer was cheap, the floor was sticky, and everything in it was glazed in decades of nicotine residue.  I loved it for its name.  I had been to Ireland as a teenager and remembered a brief stay in Sligo fondly. The whole of Ireland was a revelation to me, but the trip had been plagued by weather that, although gothically atmospheric, did little to allow for  full appreciation of the landscape.  Sligo was different. The sun shone brightly through fast-moving clouds. Flowers bloomed. People smiled.  Driving there, I found myself eager to stop the car and run through brilliant green fields, explore the dark stands of trees that rose like deciduous islands, untended, begging to be explored. I was told in no uncertain terms by the driver that should I embark on such an adventure I would be struck dead, or worse, and would not be welcomed back into his company. What!!? Fairy rings, my friends. This one in particular was a grove of oak, others were single trees, or earthen mounds, distinguished by the fact that they were left uncultivated in the middle of farmed fields or meadows. They were not to be disturbed, by plow, scythe, or ridiculous American teenager. I was disappointed (it looked so cool, so inviting, so creepy!) but heeded the drivers advice. Thus began a lifelong fascination with the Sidhe, William Butler Yeats, and (by association) flat beer and surly bartenders.

The following is an excerpt from Magical and Mystical Sites: Europe and the British Isles, by Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock

The prosperous town of Sligo was the birthplace in 1865 of William Butler Yeats, the poet who devoted so much of his life to studying the occult. The area in which he was born is rich in antiquities, the raths, dolmens, caorns, and tumuli with which fairies are so often associated and which local legend often credit with having been constructed in one night.

One such, the Heapstown cairn (turn right at the village of Castle Baldwin on the road to Lough Arrow) is twenty feet high and consists of literally hundreds of thousands of small stones piled atop one another. It probably contains a passage grave, but like so many others of this type has never been excavated.

There are traditions in these parts that such tumuli shelter not ancient bones but rather living, breathing elves or fairies whose subterranean palaces are lavishly decorated and are the scene of constant revelry, which only the luckiest of mortals can share. The small, antique tobacco pipes that have been found in the vicinity of such places are supposed to belong to that species of elf known as the cluricaine, whose major pleasures are smoking and drinking and who is believed to have learned the secret the Danes brought into Ireland of making beer from heather.

Clurricaines have sometimes been seen in the daytime, if we are to believe the tales, and they usually make their appearance as aged little men with antiquated, pea-green coats, large metal buckles on their shoes, and cocked hats in the old French style.

Yeats, who spent several years in London associating with Aleister Crowley and other occultists of the Society of the Golden Dawn, was enticed back to his native land by Ireland’s growing renaissance movement. From an early age he had been fascinated by fairy legends and although he must have been one of the most incongruous figures ever to enter politics (he served in the Senate from 1922 to 1928), he remained an artist, like his father and brothers. Much of his poetry reveals his deep interest in occult matters. In his book Irish Fairy and Folk Tales he referred to the fairies as “gentle people.”

Dermot MacMannus, author of a more recent work on Irish fairies called The Middle Kingdom, says they are gentle only when not crossed and that some Irish housewives are still cautious enough to leave a saucer of milk or a bit of soda bread outside their cottage door for their diminutive visitors. Fairies were frequently familiars of witches, the author explains, and assisted their mentor “in her hurtful activities against her neighbors.”

MacMannus includes testimonials from various people of intelligence and education living in Ireland today who have sworn to seeing fairies, usually friendly, around four feet tall and wearing a turned-up hat and sometimes a bright red coat. Others have seen black-clothed figures of human size, standing motionless in a circle, only to have them reappear some distance away almost immediately.

“The thorn bush is locally reputed to be under fairy protection,” MacMannus avers, “but there are many popular misconceptions about the tree and innacurate generalities have too often crept into those versions of local folklore which are held by people not close enough to the earth to distinguish between fact and fiction.” The bourtree, the blackthorn, birch and broom are localities for fairies and any tree growing inside or near a fairy ring, or a lone thorn tree in an otherwise rocky and isolated field, can be assumed to be “protected.”

MacMannus says his grandfather met with much local opposition when he tried to move a thorn tree from a fairy fort in Killeaden and suffered great misfortune in the years after he did move it to his garden. It is now in the grounds of the author’s house, and wrens and robins, both “fairy birds,” nest in it. The fairy fort from whence it came, Lis Ard, has long been known for another fairy phenomenon: the bewitched sod or piece of earth that causes whoever steps on it to lose his or her way.

Although Sligo itself is closely associated with Yeats – there is a collection of his manuscripts in the local museum… and a full blown Yeats Society quartered in a magnificent house near the riverside Silver Swan Hotel – he is probably better know for his immortalization of a tiny spot about 200 yards from the southwest shore of Lough Gill along a dead-end road. Lines from his famous

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

Which epitomized the dream of so many, are on a board at the edge of the lake. A beautiful spot.

“The moon’s full hands, scattering waste” – Art & Alchemy

He is probably better known (at least to American audiences) as the husband of modern poetry’s most famous suicide. But long before he met Sylvia Plath and long, long after, (Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes was celebrated and admired for his own powerful, animistic verse. Born in Yorkshire in 1930, the wild life and landscape of his childhood were profound influences.  Brutal, bloody and unsentimental, his was a pantheon of old gods. At a time when literary taste veered toward the domestic and ironic, Hughes drove his verse toward a feral purity – its pleasures and pains undiluted by reason. He studied mythology, anthropology, zoology, shamanism and hermeticism, always seeking the sources of universal truth – the is beneath more polite poetry’s seem.

Although it far from defined him, one cannot talk about Hughes without mentioning his marriage to Sylvia Plath. They met at Cambridge while Plath was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The intensity of their relationship from first encounter to tragic end is the stuff of legend – and several thousand feminist treatises – yet the foundation was and remained poetic. In Hughes, Plath found a partner whose literary abilities and life experience exceeded her own. He introduced her to astrology, paganism and the natural world. He helped her to temper a formal perfectionism with something organic and less controlled ultimately allowing her to release the language and imagery that would define her legacy. In Plath, Hughes found a woman who empowered and guided his own work with talent, intelligence and an unshakeable faith. She was ambassador and embodiment of the New World with all of its vast, primal energies. It is fair to say that neither would have found the fullness of their own gifts without the other.

Hughes was frequently criticized for the editorial decisions he made regarding Plath’s literary estate, and more personally, for never addressing the public’s morbid curiosity about what role he played in her life and death. He wrote prolifically until the end of his life – poetry that was muscular, totemic, and epically brutal – rarely personal. However, shortly before he died he released Birthday Letters – a collection of poems written to and about Plath in the years after her suicide. It was not his best work, but it was certainly his most moving, and it finally silenced many of his critics.

Not dreams, I had said, but fixed stars

Govern a life. A thirst of the whole being,

Inexorable, like a sleeper drawing

Air into the lungs. You had to lift

The coffin lid an inch.

(A Dream; Birthday Letters)

  

Before he became Poet Laureate, before his long illustrious career, before he met Plath or even set foot on Cambridge grounds, 19-year-old Edward James Hughes wrote the poem Song . Dismissed by some as overwrought juvenilia, there is a power and eerie prescience in its imagery. Like the unworldly light of fixed star, it seems to have revealed a future that was yet to unfold.

O lady, when the tipped cup of the moon blessed you

You became soft fire with a cloud’s grace;

The difficult stars swam for eyes in your face;

You stood, and your shadow was my place:

You turned, your shadow turned to ice

O my lady.

 

O lady, when the sea caressed you

You were a marble of foam, but dumb.

When will the stone open its tomb?

When will the waves give over their foam?

You will not die, nor come home,

O my lady.

 

O lady, when the wind kissed you

You made him music for you were a shaped shell.

I follow the waters and the wind still

Since my heart heard it and all to pieces fell

Which your lovers stole, meaning ill,

O my lady.

 

O lady, consider when I shall have lost you

The moon’s full hands, scattering waste,

The sea’s hands, dark from the world’s breast,

The world’s decay where the wind’s hands have passed,

And my head, worn out with love, at rest

In my hands, and my hands full of dust,

O my lady.

Ted Hughes, Collected Poems

 

If you can find it, the recording of Hughes reading this poem (much later in his life) is absolutely shattering.

*** This week – an unpublished draft was discovered of a poem written by Hughes about Sylvia Plath’s suicide. The complete manuscript has not yet been posted online, but actor Jonathan Pryce read the work in its entirety for (UK)Channel 4 News. It is posted above.

“Quiet this Metal” – Art & Alchemy

Ezra Pound was a hard man to like. As an American ex-patriot living in Italy during the 1930’s and 40’s, he spouted pro-fascist, anti-Semitic propaganda on international short wave radio.  After WWII, he was imprisoned for treason, then returned to the U.S. where he was declared mentally unstable and institutionalized. His long-time friend Ernest Hemingway famously said “It is impossible to believe anyone in his right mind could utter the vile and utterly idiotic drivel he has broadcast.”   Yet 20 years earlier, Hemingway wrote a tribute to Ezra Pound that painted a much different portrait

“He defends (his friends) when they are attacked, and gets them into magazines and out of jail. He loans them money. He sells their pictures… He advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide.”

This probably explains the steady stream of visitors Pound enjoyed during his ignominous stay at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C., and their relentless petition for his release. Those to whom he had shown support and kindness, showed him kindness in turn. They also recognized that the man they knew, whose generosity of spirit was at direct and baffling odds with his political and philosophical crimes, was one of the most important poetic figures of the century.

While incarcerated in Italy, Pound began drafting (on toilet paper) the Pisan Cantos ;a work which he continued to write and eventually published during his residency at St. Elizabeths. In 1947 he was awarded the Bolligen Prize for Poetry. The selection committee decided that Pound’s treasonous activity was not reflected in the work and did not detract from its merits. The decision was a controversial one, as was Pound’s release in 1958. The general public proved far less forgiving than his peers. His reputation ruined, he returned to Italy and died there in 1972.

I have always had trouble with Pound – unable to completely separate my knowledge of his poisonous antisemitism from his work. But the work is beautiful, evocative, and remarkably complex. He was also, perhaps more importantly, the father of Modernism, and like the poets he championed and influenced  (Yeats, H.D., Eliot, et al.) his interests ranged wide and included mythology and the occult.  The Alchemist remains one of my favorite poems.

The Alchemist

Chant for the Transmutation of Metals

Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
As you move among the bright trees;
As your voices, under the larches of Paradise
Make a clear sound,
Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
Raimona, Tibors, Berangere,
‘Neath the dark gleam of the sky;
Under night, the peacock-throated,
Bring the saffron-coloured shell,
Bring the red gold of the maple,
Bring the light of the birch tree in autumn
Mirals, Cembelins, Audiarda,
Remember this fire.
Elain, Tireis, Alcmena
‘Mid the silver rustling of wheat,
Agradiva, Anhes, Ardenca,
From the plum-coloured lake, in stillness,
From the molten dyes of the water
Bring the burnished nature of fire;
Briseis, Lianor, Loica,
From the wide earth and the olive,
From the poplars weeping their amber,
By the bright flame of the fishing torch
Remember this fire.
Midonz, with the gold of the sun, the leaf of the poplar,
by the light of the amber,
Midonz, daughter of the sun, shaft of the tree, silver of
the leaf, light of the yellow of the amber,
Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light, gift of the
amber of the sun,
Give light to the metal.
Anhes of Rocacoart, Ardenca, Aemelis,
From the power of grass,
From the white, alive in the seed,
From the heat of the bud,
From the copper .of the leaf in autumn,
From the bronze of the maple, from the sap in the
bough;
Lianor, loanna, Loica,
By the stir of the fin,
By the trout asleep in the gray-green of water;
Vanna, Mandetta, Viera, Alodetta, Picarda, Manuela
From the red gleam of copper,
Ysaut, Ydone, slight rustling of leaves,
Vierna, Jocelynn, daring of spirits,
By the mirror of burnished copper,
O Queen of Cypress,
Out of Erebus, the flat-lying breadth,
Breath that is stretched out beneath the world:
Out of Erebus, out of the flat waste of air, lying beneath
the world;
Out of the brown leaf-brown colourless
Bring the imperceptible cool.
Elain, Tireis, Alcmena,
Quiet this metal!
Let the manes put off their terror, let them put off their
aqueous bodies with fire.
Let them assume the milk-white bodies of agate.
Let them draw together the bones of the metal.
Selvaggia, Guiscarda, Mandetta,
Rain flakes of gold on the water
Azure and flaking silver of water,
Alcyon, Phaetona, Alcmena,
Pallor of silver, pale lustre of Latona,
By these, from the malevolence of the dew
Guard this alembic.
Elain, Tireis, Allodetta
Quiet this metal.

Resource links:

http://www.poets.org

http://www.poemhunter.com

http://www.jstor.org/pss/3831403

and I HIGHLY recommend seeking out Modernist Alchemy by Timothy Matterer, sadly out of print

“Voices from the Other World” – Art & Alchemy

James Merrill was heir to a vast fortune (think Merrill Lynch), the child of a broken home, intellectually gifted, modest, and generous with both money and mind. He is considered by many to be one of the finest poets of the 20th century – a master of metre and form whose work is often described as elegant.  He is also known as “The Ouija Poet.”

The Changing Light at Sandover , Merrill’s magnum opus, took  20 years to complete and was composed with the assitance of his companion David Jackson, a home-made Ouija board, and a host of spirit entities. The book ran to 500 plus pages and is still considered by many to be one of the great canonical mystic/poetic works – comparable to Milton’s Paradise Lost or Yeats A Vision.  It is also, amidst its murmuring shadows, a love story. The relationship between Merrill and Jackson is not only essential to the mechanics of the inspirational Ouija sessions (one would commune with entities while the other transcribed) it is the axis on which lyricism and tenderness turn.  For much of their 25 year relationship, Spiritualism was a part of the couple’s daily life – binding them together creatively.  It was also a factor in their parting.

Voices from the Other World is one of Merrill’s most anthologized poems. Although it predates the Book of Ephraim (the first volume of The Changing Light at Sandover) by several years, it eerily foreshadows the creative heights and heartbreak to come.

Presently at our touch the teacup stirred,
Then circled lazily about
From A to Z. The first voice heard
(If they are voices, these mute spellers-out)
Was that of an engineer
Originally from Cologne.
Dead in his 22nd year
Of cholera in Cairo, he had KNOWN
NO HAPPINESS. He once met Goethe, though.
Goethe had told him: PERSEVERE.
Our blind hound whined. With that, a horde
Of voices gathered above the Ouija board,
Some childish and, you might say, blurred
By sleep; one little boy
Named Will, reluctant possibly in a ruff
Like a large-lidded page out of El Greco, pulled
Back the arras for that next voice,
Cold and portentous: ALL IS LOST.
FLEE THIS HOUSE. OTTO VON THURN UND TAXIS.
OBEY. YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.
Frightened, we stopped; but tossed
Till sunrise striped the rumpled sheets with gold.
Each night since then, the moon waxes,
Small insects flit round a cold torch
We light, that sends them pattering to the porch . . .
But no real Sign. New voices come,
Dictate addresses, begging us to write;
Some warn of lives misspent, and all of doom
In way’s that so exhilarate
We are sleeping sound of late.
Last night the teacup shattered in a rage.
Indeed, we have grown nonchalant
Towards the other world. In the gloom here,
our elbows on the cleared
Table, we talk and smoke, pleased to be stirred
Rather by buzzings in the jasmine, by the drone
Of our own voices and poor blind Rover’s wheeze,
Than by those clamoring overhead,
Obsessed or piteous, for a commitment
We still have wit to postpone
Because, once looked at lit
By the cold reflections of the dead
Risen extinct but irresistible,
Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
Nor the full moon more quick to chill.
The recording of Merrill reading this and other poems is well worth seeking out, and the Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) is essential.

“Because a fire was in my head…” Art & Alchemy*

“The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”William Butler Yeats

He was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a co-founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and a famed Nationalist and Folklorist. Considered by many to be the greatest poet of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats was also a 6th degree member of The Golden Dawn, a co-founder of the Dublin Hermetic Society and and life-long student of spiritualism and the occult.

The list of poets who studied and/or were inspired by esoteric traditions is long and illustrious, but few are as notable as Yeats; both for the quality and influence of his literary work, and the depth and consistency of his interest in the arcane.

Most are familar with The Second Coming, a profoudly unsettling poem clear in its allusion to mystical prophesy and the end of the Christian era.  Yet it was in the 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds, that Yeats published his most overtly occult-influenced verse.  Ankhie’s favorite among these early poems is The Song of Wandering Aengus.

I went out to the hazel wood,

And caught a little silver trout.

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand.

And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when the moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire aflame,

But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name;

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran,

And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

William Butler Yeats1899

* Art & Alchemy: Each Tuesday Weiser Books Blog will feature a poet, writer or artist whose work is influenced or inspired by the occult.  If you have a favorite, please leave a suggestion/comment here!