A speech on the occasion of Yeats2015 and Yeats’s 150th birthday
by Joseph Hassett
I salute the important work you are doing to restore Thoor Ballylee. Preserving this tower is essential because W. B. Yeats is present here. One of the greatest poets of all time is alive here in a very particular way. There are two reasons for claiming Yeats’s presence. First, he himself insisted that the passionate dead return to the places to which they were attached during life. In particular, he says, ‘the shadows of the famous dead come to our elbow amid their old undisturbed habitations.’ In such places, ‘they tread the corridor and take the empty chair.’
Whether you accept the real presence of Yeats here at Thoor Balylee is not important because there is no denying his virtual presence. Yeats’s famous declaration that ‘this tower is my symbol’ made Thoor Ballylee the visible representation of his life and work.
The troubled poet Sylvia Plath wrote that she felt a profound connection with Yeats as a result of her visit to this tower and that her soul responded to the peace of this place where we stand today.
Yet the Tower was a very unusual place to live. And the location is remote. Wondering why Yeats chose to live here at all, we realize that taking up residence in Thoor Ballylee was so forceful an assertion of Yeats’s personality, and so complete an identification between person and place, that his palpable presence becomes apparent one moment and believable the next.
In a letter to Sturge Moore Yeats called the tower a ‘permanent symbol of my work’—, a ‘rooting of mythology in the earth.’ The suitability of a tower for this purpose is suggested by Gaston Bachelard in a little book bearing the intriguing title, The Poetics of Space. Bachelard maintains that the form of a tower emphasizes the opposition in any dwelling between the rationality of the roof and the irrationality of the cellar. The latter, the ‘dark entity’ of the house, sinks into what he calls the ‘earthly watery depths’ of the collective unconscious. Bachelard’s poetics make good sense as applied to Yeats because Yeats believed in a universal unconscious, an hereditary capacity for primordial thought, memory and myth. Yeats put it simply : Our individual thoughts ‘are not, as we think, the deep, but only the foam upon the deep.’
By living in Thoor Ballylee, Yeats was sinking his roots into the deep. Thus, when he prayed, in ‘A Prayer on Going Into My House’, “that “God grant a blessing on this tower and cottage,’ he asked specifically
That I myself for portions of the year
May handle nothing and set eye on nothing
But what the great and passionate have used
Throughout so many varying centuries
We take it for the norm.
In other words, Yeats is praying that the tower connect him to the great and passionate dead, whose thoughts still linger in the collective unconscious.
Five years after Yeats moved into Thoor Ballylee, Carl Jung built a tower on the Upper Lake of Zurich at Bollingen. Yeats would not have been surprised to find that Jung’s mind travelled in the same circle as his. Were not both minds but the foam upon a common deep? As Jung sank his roots into the ancestral depths, he sensed that the souls of his ancestors, hitherto awash in the collective unconscious, were gathering about his tower.
The same thing occurred at Ballylee. No sooner had Yeats taken up residence in his tower than he began calling up, and claiming as ancestors, what he called –in the poem ‘The Tower’—‘nearby images in the Great Memory stored.’Then, in his next volume of poetry, The Winding Stair, he made that firm declaration that is so pertinent to the reasons that bring us here today:
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.
Yeats was plumbing the depths of his ancestral past. Speaking of the poetry of this period, he said that his ideal form of expression was most approximated ‘when I carry with me the greatest possible amount of hereditary thought and feeling.’ This ancestral feeling was tapped by sinking the tower into the watery, earthly depths of the collective unconscious. That is why the tower symbolized his work, which he summed up as a ‘rooting of mythology in the earth.’
‘Rooting’ was in Jung’s mind as well. The ‘uprootedness’ of modern civilization, he felt, was unsettling to the hereditary elements of the psyche. Sinking the tower in the collective unconscious had a calming effect because it restored our severed connection with the past.
In the serenity of Thoor Ballylee, we sense the harmony of roots restored, the calm of the psyche made whole. Standing here, it is easy to share Sylvia Plath’s sense of serenity and peace, and to believe that it flows from a perfect blending of person, place, present and past.
Preserving this connection to the past is essential to our own connection to the extraordinary Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and to a sense of ourselves as a people who care about our past, and want to feel its continuing life in our own lives, and in the lives of our children and their children.
Congratulations and Godspeed on the important work you are doing.
More from Joseph Hassett on Yeats’s 150th birthday on OUP’s blog here.