Yeats Discovers Poetry


Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry:

….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there was a rumour of a Fenian rising, that rifles had been served out to the Orangemen and presently, when I had begun to dream of my future life, I thought I would like to die fighting the Fenians. 

….My father read out poetry, for the first time, when I was eight or nine years old. Between Sligo and Rosses Point, there is a tongue of land covered with coarse grass that runs out into the sea or the mud according to the state of the tide. It is the place where dead horses are buried. Sitting there, my father read me The Lays of Ancient Rome. It was the first poetry that had moved me after the stable-boy’s “Orange Rhymes.” Later on he read me Ivanhoe and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and they are still vivid in the memory. I re-read Ivanhoe the other day, but it has all vanished except Gurth, the swineherd, at the outset and Friar Tuck and his venison pasty, the two scenes that laid hold of me in childhood. The Lay of the Last Minstrel gave me a wish to turn magician that competed for years with the dream of being killed upon the sea-shore. When I first went to school, he tried to keep me from reading boys’ papers, because a paper, by its very nature, as he explained to me, had to be made for the average boy or man and so could not but thwart one’s growth. He took away my paper and I had not courage to say that I was but reading and delighting in a prose re-telling of the Iliad. But after a few months, my father said he had been too anxious and became less urgent about my lessons and less violent if I had learnt them badly, and he ceased to notice what I read. From that on I shared the excitement which ran through all my fellows on Wednesday afternoons when the boys’ papers were published, and I read endless stories I have forgotten as completely as Grimm’s Fairy-Tales that I read at Sligo, and all of Hans Andersen except The Ugly Duckling which my mother had read to me and to my sisters. I remember vaguely that I liked Hans Andersen better than Grimm because he was less homely, but even he never gave me the knights and dragons and beautiful ladies that I longed for. I have remembered nothing that I read, but only those things that I heard or saw. When I was ten or twelve my father took me to see Irving play Hamlet, and did not understand why I preferred Irving to Ellen Terry, who was, I can now see, the idol of himself and his friends. I could not think of her, as I could of Irving’s Hamlet, as but myself, and I was not old enough to care for feminine charm and beauty. For many years Hamlet was an image of heroic self-possession for the poses of youth and childhood to copy, a combatant of the battle within myself.