A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Yeats's Tower

In 1917 WB Yeats bought for 35 pounds an old castle with attached cottage on the banks of the river Cloon near Coole Park, County Galway, home to his dear friend Lady Gregory, and set about restoring it for his new bride Georgina Hyde-Lees, known as 'George'. He named his home 'Thoor Ballylee' ('Thoor' is Irish for 'Tower'); it became an idyllic summer retreat for Yeats and his family for twelve years. Here are some extracts from various letters he wrote enthusing about this new and inspiring environment:

... everything is so beautiful here that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.

We are in our Tower and I am writing poetry as I always do here, and, as always happens, no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it.

... as you see I have no news, for nothing happens in this blessed place but a stray beggar or a heron.

It was here that Yeats wrote many of the rich and mature poems of his later years — including the 1928  volume he called, simply, The Tower. In Meditations In Time Of Civil War, one of the poems from this collection, he describes his home with these lines:

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and written page.

The Tower contains twenty-one poems (I have my own Penguin paperback copy on the desk beside me as I write) including the well-known Sailing To Byzantium, A Prayer For My Son and Leda And The Swan. I'm particularly fond of the sequence A Man Young And Old, which begins like this:

First Love

Though nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty's murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.

But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.

She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

After the Yeats family moved out in 1929, Ballylee fell into disuse once more; but it was restored again in 1965 as a Yeats museum. The adjoining cottage became a shop and tea room.

Below is the slate slab Yeats had carved when he carried out the initial restoration: 

I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards 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.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)


Herringbone said...

Awesome tower! And what a name to go with it "Thoor Ballylee". I can see why it all turned to love poetry. I like how you composed the post. History interspersed with his words and some of your thoughts. I like that passage too. "...is lunatic that travels on the moon" .What can you do? The smile transformed me too. I always thought of him as one of those old world guys that was totally over my head. This stuff sounds very real to me. Thanks for piquing my interest!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I could live there quite happily Robert.

Loren said...

Funny, I'd never thought of the tower as an "actual" tower before.

Nice to learn something entirely new about one of my favorite poets.

Carolyn H said...

Lovely tower. I'd love to see the inside, too.

Anonymous said...

A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone, A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth just a beautiful place to write poems on white pages in the light of candle. With this post I feel like I'm in Galway at this "Thoor Ballylee". Thanks so much SW.

Goat said...

I'm inspired to start chiselling my own plaque. Nice post!

George said...

Lovely to begin my morning with a little time in Yeats's Tower and the poetry it inspired. A fine post, Robert, one that leaves me hungering for more.

The Solitary Walker said...

Many thanks everyone for these comments...

Ruth said...

What is there about stone and grass and flowers to feed the romantic imagination? But a stony heart isn't so great, eh? I love this post, and that word maundering . . .