Many people would consider J.R.R. Tolkien as the father of modern fantasy fiction. This is true in the narrow exclusive sense of the word. A more inclusive definition would admit many other imagineers who wrote before Tolkien. I would argue that the early poetry of W. B. Yeats is the work of a master imagineer. Myth and fantasy are terms that often overlap. Yeats seemed to be in that space. His treatment of Irish mythology was totally fresh, original and unique. He created a whole world in his early poetry, a world on a par with Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I too have tried to create a world – an Ireland that makes sense to me. I too have tried to write my own vision of Irish mythology. Yeats’ heroic achievement was a constant source of inspiration and energy for me when writing my book, A Bhikku’s Tale.
If you are interested in Irish mythology and you haven’t read the early poetry of W.B. Yeats, you really should. Through his early volumes of poetry such as The Rose and The Wind Among The Reeds he re-invented Irish mythology, making it more accessible to anyone who could read.
There is an animism to his early poetry – he brings the natural landscape to life better than any other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poet. There is also danger. His Sidhe or Danann are amoral creatures and there is the suggestion that if you hang out with them too much you run the risk of going insane.
And there is the sheer escapism of his poetry at this stage. Or maybe escapism is the wrong word. Transcendentalism might be more accurate. The early Yeats sees art as separate from reality. It exists in its own transcendent realm and this is reflected strongly in the work. The natural world stirs the imagination and allows us to enter a place where the troubles and toils of daily living can be left behind. This kind of escapism is best demonstrated in the poem, Who Goes With Fergus?
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
The early poems are also heavily symbolic and intuitive – they have no precise meaning, which is how all poetry should be. You get the sense that this is a world that exists in the poet’s imagination and not based on experience. The poet William Blake was a huge influence on Yeats, especially in his celebration of the imagination. For both poets, there is more to life than what we take in through the five senses. There is something we all own which is unique to all of us and we can access it through the imagination, something that is ours and nobody else’s. In Yeats’ early work there is a strong sense of a deeply private world been depicted. Because Yeats was so young, he didn’t have much else to draw on except his intuition and imagination, but what a body of work he gave us!
His early work far surpasses the other ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets such as Samuel Ferguson and Thomas Moore. You will find no leprechauns and fairies in Yeats’ early poetry. His work harks back to the old, pre-Christian mythology of Ireland. To the Tuatha De Danann and the Book of Invasions. To the hero, Cu Chulainn and his epic, The Tain. Yeats recognised what a treasure trove of imagination the myths are and how they could provide a framework with which to express his own unique vision of Ireland.
About the author
David Jordan is a writer based in Cork, Ireland. He has published two works of fiction and a book of verse entitled, The End. He has an MA in English from University College Cork. When he is not writing or reading, he plays the bass guitar. He is a dog lover and a coffee lover.
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Books by David R. Jordan and an extract of A Bikkhu’s Tale
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Bhikku Reilly of Fararden Wood has defeated the mad god Morpheo’s dragon with the help of Red City’s shaman, Murray. Now they face a much harder task.
In a fight with Cernunnos, Morpheo has broken off a piece of antler from the horned god, which gives him immeasurable power over the natural world. Reilly and Murray, together with the Green Man, the Sybarite and the ghost girl, Tracy, must pursue the mad god and stop him from taking over the whole country of Inis Fail. Their journey takes them to the Otherworld and back again, crossing the paths of many colourful characters and strange creatures.
These powerful, accessible poems blend humour and wisdom with energy and imagination to render an impressive debut. Full of music and vision, the collection will appeal to both lovers of poetry and music.
Steeped in Irish mythology, these stories bristle with singular imagination and exude style and narrative prowess. Playful and ingenious, they are a fresh new voice in Irish literature – one that captivates and enthralls with ease. So watch out. The gods are back…
Extract from A Bikkhu’s Tale
‘Are you like…from there? The Otherworld?’
‘Yes, how did you guess?’ Owen said.
‘Well. You look…there’s something about you…’
‘Something…fishy?’ Owen said and ran a hand through his silver head of hair, smiling.
‘Yes,’ she said and started to laugh.
‘So, you’re going to find the Dagda?’ Owen said to Murray.
‘Yes, well, you know how it is. If there’s trouble with the child you talk to the parent.’
‘Child?’ Owen said.
‘Ah, come on, Owen. He’s always been a bit of a brat. You know that as well as I do.’
‘Are you sure that Dagda is the father?’
‘Of course. He’s the father of all the gods,’ Murray said.
‘Yes. Ultimately. But that doesn’t mean he fathered Morpheo personally.’
‘True, I suppose.’
‘You really haven’t thought this out properly, have you?’ Owen said.
‘Haven’t had the time,’ Murray said and, taking the glass from Owen again, he said, ‘one more for the road.’ He filled the glass and knocked it back. He sighed with pleasure again and began to put away his tobacco.
Once they were back inside the pub, Owen led them to the cellar. He opened a door and there were steps descending into darkness. The smell of beer hit them like a drunken dragon’s breath but they couldn’t see anything.
‘I’ll go get a torch. Electricity’s off,’ Owen said and left them.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Tracy said, a faint look of disgust on her face.
‘You’re afraid?’ Murray said.
‘No…it’s just…can you trust him?’
‘With my life,’ Murray said. She smelled the whiskey off his breath but he sounded sober. ‘For what it’s worth.’
‘But isn’t it strange to have an entrance to the Otherworld here? In a dark and smelly cellar? I mean, aren’t they supposed to be in fairy rings or caves? That kind of thing?’
‘There are many doorways, child. And many of them are in the least expected places. Don’t worry.’
They waited another minute before Owen returned with the torch. He led them down into the cellar. The steps were bare concrete. The smell of beer was so strong that Tracy felt mildly intoxicated. Murray made a spooky noise and laughed. She couldn’t resist laughing with him. By the time Owen stopped before a large wooden door, they were both laughing and giggling and joking.
‘Is this it?’ Tracy said, trying to put on a straight face.
Owen said nothing. He took out a large key from his pocket. It seemed to glow in the dark. It reminded Tracy of the Lord of the Rings. She had owned a copy and on the spine Tolkien’s name was represented by a symbol which incorporated all the initial letters of his name. The key looked like that symbol. Owen put the key in the lock and opened the door. More darkness. But the smell of beer was gone. It was replaced by the smell of meadow and sunshine, if sunshine had a smell. ‘Oh,’ she said, in unexpected pleasure. Murray looked at her and smiled but she didn’t notice it. She was captivated. There was another door at the end of the passage. Owen took out the Tolkien key again and put it into the lock. It appeared to be some kind of skeleton key. Only it didn’t work this time. Owen cursed as he pushed and pulled at the door. Nothing. Then he stepped back and kicked the door. It was such a powerful kick that the door gave way instantly. Light filled the opening the door had left. It hurt Tracy’s eyeballs so much that she was forced to close her eyelids. Surely they hadn’t been in darkness that long! She felt someone take her hand and say, ‘we’re here.’ She was led into the light and when she opened her eyes she drank in what she saw…