A visit to Thoor Ballylee, the castle where Yeats wrote ‘The Tower’ poem collection and achieved a perfection of technique widely considered without parallel in English poetry.
The palette of autumn hues colours the hill tops and the October air carries the scent and warmth of a peat fire. We are in the Irish countryside. Narrow snake-like roads slither under the shade of tall sycamore trees. Lush elderberry and blackberry bushes line the roadsides and are bent with plump fruit. Passing the banks of the Cloon, we are heading towards Thoor Ballylee, in County Galway near the town of Gort. Herein lies the 16 century Norman castle resurrected by the renowned poet W.B. Yeats.
The castle has a connection with the Irish Literary Renaissance. In close proximity lies Coole Park, an estate owned by Lady Gregory, where she hosted the likes of Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge and revived the Irish literary past also known as the “Celtic Dawn.” This carried enormous significance for the Irish politico-cultural movement.
The castle pops out of the wilderness like a magic fairy abode flanked by a stone bridge and an ancient mill. The rumble of the river, the shades of lush green, the deep tranquility and seclusion lends the place a sense of peace and protection from the noisy intrusions of the outside world.
The year 1917 onwards, Thoor Ballylee became Yeats’ retreat and haven for a decade. It was perhaps a much-needed home too. The poet was no more young. He had spent 27 long years on passionate but unrequited love for Maud Gonne, a ravishing beauty and an ardent nationalist. Now he longed to have a home and family. In the summer of 1916, he proposed to Maud Gonne one final time. After her refusal, he asked her daughter, Iseult, who, after some deliberation, also declined. Then he married Georgina Hyde-Lees. He first met her in 1913 through their mutual friends Ezra and Dorothy Pound.
At 25, Georgina was 27 years her husband’s junior but shared many of his interests including a keen interest in philosophy and a fascination with the occult and the esoteric. The castle was purchased for 35 pounds in 1917.
In naming the property Yeats dropped the term “castle” and replaced it with “Thoor”, the Irish word for tower, and the place became known as Thoor Ballylee. He found the place surpassing all beauty he had seen elsewhere: “everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.”
It was at Thoor Ballylee that Yeats wrote ‘The Tower’ poem collection and achieved a perfection of technique that is widely considered by critics as almost without parallel in the history of English poetry. ‘The Tower’ (1928), named after the castle he owned and had restored, is the work of a fully accomplished artist.
An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm-house 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
That plunged in stream again
Scarred by the splashing of a hundred cows.
Yeats’ poetry collections of this period touch upon themes that are, at once, local and general, personal and public, Irish and universal. The energy of the poems written in response to the turbulent times gave astonishing power to ‘Tower’, ‘The winding stair’ and ‘The wild swans of Coole’, all written during his stay at Thoor Ballylee.
On the first floor of the tower a steep spiral stone-cut staircase winds to the upper floors. In Yeats’ metaphysical contemplations, the winding stair became the symbol of the soul’s upward but spiral progress. The poet feels the turning of time, a poignant sense of life’s passing, a reminder of his ancestors.
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
We come down the winding staircase. The dusk has begun to fold the surroundings in its dark embrace. Far away in Galway hills, the sun is setting and its last glow covers the hills with a halo. A mystical charisma envelops the place.
One can imagine Yeats, the poetic genius, the dreamer, the romantic infatuated with lake sides, hawthorn, spooks and faeries, sitting atop the tower, lost in the enchantment of the Celtic twilight or walking on the crunchy carpet of red copper and bronze leaves, Yeats in the autumnal years of his life, reconciling to the loss of love that never was his, and looking ahead to a new life with Georgina.
As he walks by the riverside, he anticipates the ravages of time, of lives transient, and can see his splendid home falling into ruin.
How should he preserve the legacy he had inherited — be known as the restorer of Thoor Ballylee, as the poet who lived and wrote there and left his mark in the legacy of this place?
Yeats found an answer readily. He had a slate slab carved with a short verse. All who pass by can read the words and touch the letters with their fingers.
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.
Perhaps another poet or artist will collect the fallen remnants, and, dreamy-eyed, piece them together, and live amid surroundings that will nurture his creativity. He will climb the winding stair, get into “a dialogue of self and soul”, reflect upon matters lofty and sublime, mundane and quotidian, transitory and eternal. And time will keep circling.