Happy (almost) Saint Patrick’s Day, Wayfarers!
We need a post about Ireland to ring in the occasion, don’t we? Hmm. I think I’ll skip chatting about Guinness and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, though. I wanna talk about visiting Yeats in Drumcliff instead.
Were you expecting anything different from me? The same girl who was heartbroken because she didn’t kiss Oscar Wilde in Paris? Haha, I didn’t think so!
If you aren’t a big literature nerd like me, here’s a super quick lesson on W.B. Yeats and why he’s so important. He was a 20th century poet who wrote a lot about Irish folklore and myths, fate and its impact on people and society, and the decline of European civilization.
And swans. His works definitely made references to swans.
Yeats also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
I’ll be honest and admit an unpopular opinion here. I never was super into Yeats in college and graduate school. I’m way more of a Romanticism – think Shelley and Coleridge – and Victorian – think Wilde and Bronte – type of gal, but a dose of modernism sprinkles itself into my reading every now and then.
Ireland was my third solo trip. At the time, I had just completed my provisional teaching year, which meant my licensing process was finally done after a 14 week unpaid internship and short leave replacement jobs. Many options, consisting of hundreds of schools, seemed to glitter on the roads ahead of me.
Still, I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of my career. I knew I had to hunt for a job once my plane returned to US soil. A stack of untouched resumes and a closed teaching portfolio waited on my bedside table.
Interviews, references, everything filled me with dread.
Before visiting Yeats himself, I quietly gazed at the rugged landscape and daydreamed about one of his most famous poems: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, then you know teaching and I have been on a rocky and sometimes unpleasant path. See how Scotland saved me here. Part of me was excited to finally teach without worrying about my provisional license expiring and finding a mentor to hold my hand every step of the way.
However another part of me wanted to book a room in one of Ireland’s secluded countryside B&Bs and never throw myself into New Jersey’s stressful arms again.
You see, I had already expected failure in the supersaturated English teaching market at home. Like Yeats, I wanted my own Innisfree – a safe haven tucked away in nature, a place where I could stay true to myself and not fret about paying for health insurance or scoring “proficient” on observations.
Peace. I wanted peace, but didn’t know where to find it.
It was a two hour drive from Galway to Drumcliff, which is close to Sligo. Yeats’s grave was a quick stop included on my tour with Shamrocker Adventures, so I’m not a hundred percent sure how to arrive in Drumcliff if you’re not renting a car.
When you arrive at the cemetery, there are actually three main points of interest for visitors to check out. You have Yeats’s actual grave, St Columba’s Church of Ireland, and a lonely sculpture called “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” All these points are free, although it may be kind to make a donation at the church if you wish.
Arriving at Drumcliff Cemetery is … a little weird, actually. I’m not used to big tour buses packing every inch of a parking lot right outside of an old church graveyard, or a tremendous line spilling out a single bathroom door in a tiny gift shop, but there you have it.
First I wandered to the sculpture and read the excerpts beneath the hunched and empty-faced figure. One quote in particular stood out in my mind:
“I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
This moment reminded me why I hate cemeteries so much. My fear of death (along with my dislike of losing control in any situation) is a big cause of my flying fear and anxiety in general.
However, this precise quote, embedded in the rock beneath my feet, was strangely touching, too. I have many dreams and desires like every other person in the world.
I want to write a novel.
I want to travel to every continent alone as a woman.
I want to lose enough weight to tackle some incredible hikes, especially the ones at Patagonia National Park.
I want to inspire other people to shake off the chains of their daily grind and explore the world.
I want to finally find the damn fountain of youth (don’t you?)
Dreams, subconscious or not, exist in everyone’s minds.
When you visit Yeats’s grave, you’re forced to ponder whether or not our dreams live after our physical bodies pass away. I’d love to think all my positive energy, especially the energy I’ve poured into travel, exists forever. How, I don’t know, but the thought comforts me.
Then I sucked up my jangling nerves and walked to the graveyard itself. Tourists’ cameras usually annoy the living bejesus out of me but in this case, I felt a lot more relaxed than I would have on a normal day, alone with only the dead to talk to.
As you can see in the pictures, Yeats’s actual grave site isn’t too orate or over the top, which is surprising considering the man’s great literary fame. Compare this site to Napoleon’s tomb and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Even Oscar’s “avant garde” grave draws your eye much quicker. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the headstone at all if it wasn’t for the small crowd standing around it.
However, the epitaph on Yeats’s headstone caused me to pause and wonder. These few words are taken from his poem Under Ben Bulben, the name of a mountain that overshadows the churchyard.
To be frank, I don’t know what these lines mean.
English literature is open to many interpretations, and as I’ve said earlier in the post, I’m not an expert on modernism or Yeats himself. I’m not going to pretend I am.
I think, taking this short phrase literally, the words mean to cast a cold and logical eye on both life and inevitable death. You’re unhuman, perhaps a god, if you observe your existence with an equal balance of sharpness and aloofness.
Hmmm. I don’t buy it, which is why I’m more a Romanticism person (upcoming post on how Romanticism inspires my travels soon!) in my reading tastes and life. For me, each life experience ought to be viewed with eager and excited eyes.
As for the Horseman, perhaps the Apocalypse is on its way soon. Who knows.
If any Yeats’s experts wanna share their opinions, please do so in the comments. All perspectives welcome.
I still had time to explore the church itself after musing on Yeats’s grave. The swan door was my favorite part of the stop, even more than paying a tribute to Yeats at the headstone. I thought the beautifully sculpted and serene bird was a creative and quiet way to respect the impact Yeats’s writings had on both modernism and poetry.
St Columba’s Church wasn’t terribly crowded inside, so if you want to get away from the tourists, I’d recommend exploring and seeing a traditional Irish countryside church!
Have you read much W.B. Yeats? Who are some of your favorite poets and poems? Share in the comments! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!