Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Yeats and Synge - Innisfree vs. Inishmaan

I know why I went to the Aran Islands. Because of Synge. (If you're just tuning in, check out this post).

But why did Synge go to the Aran Islands?

Dun Conor, Synge's favorite Aran Fort

That's a question I've spent a lot of time wondering about, and writing about, and the answer is, I think, that it's very complicated.

WB Yeats
The most popular myth surrounding Synge's inspiration to travel to Aran is that W.B. Yeats told him to go. Synge met Yeats while he was living in Paris in the mid 1890s, and Yeats famously recalled that he urged Synge to go to Aran to "express a life that has never found expression." Yeats was not terribly impressed with Synge's poetry at that time, but he saw some promise in the young writer. Yeats had just visited Aran the previous year, and believed there was fertile ground there (for a writer, that is, not so much for farmers).

But Synge may have been familiar with the Aran Islands before he met Yeats. His cousin Alexander Synge, a Protestant priest, attempted to convert the Catholics there some fifty years earlier. Needless to say he was met with some resistance, and got into a bit of a scuffle with some fishermen when he brought in a motorized boat. He left the island convinced the people there were heathens. And yet, even though some of the islanders remembered there was a Synge who had traveled to the island previously, JM Synge makes no mention of any leftover hostility in his book The Aran Islands. So either people forgot, or were quite forgiving. Synge was also reading the work of French critic Arthur Symons at the time, and Symons had accompanied Yeats to Aran.

Curraghs at the old pier on Inis meain

Given all this, I was tempted to write of Yeats' unparalleled influence as just some more of his melodrama. (For some reason, I've found that Synge-o-philes get a little bit nasty when it comes to Yeats. It seems I have to watch out for this tendency in myself!)

But then I found this poem:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

I really love this poem. I love the pentameter, the gaps in the pentameter on the fourth line of each stanza, the stressed pauses, the idea of peace dropping like golden honey, and the stark, jarring realization at the end that the speaker is not on Innisfree at all, that it's all in his imagination. Yeats wrote this poem in 1888, and it was published in 1890. Innisfree is not one of the Arans, it is an island in the middle of Lough Gill in Sligo that Yeats visited in his youth. So of course, it was not as isolated as the Arans, but something about it captured him. He was inspired by Thoreau's Walden, and the poem expresses his desire to go and live a simple life. The majestic beauty and mysteriousness of the place he describes reminds me of some of Synge's writing about living in nature:

This old man I have spoken of wanders about Wicklow. As he sleeps by Lough Bray and the nightjar burrs and snipe drum over his head….he hears in their voices the chant of singers in dark chambers of Japan and the clamour of tambourines and flying limbs of dancers he knew in Algeria, and the rustle of golden fabrics of the east. As the trout splash in the dark water at his feet he forgets the purple moorland that is round him and hears waves that lap round a boat in some southern sea. He is not to be pitied. (From Synge's Wicklow writings).

Here, Synge expresses his own sense of the magic that comes from living in touch with nature, just as Yeats does in his Innisfree poem. Although Yeats may have been inspired by more mysticism than Synge was (who knows, really?) there was something about nature that was mystical to Synge. I can't say I know enough of Yeats to come to any real conclusions, but it's definitely made me rethink the importance of Yeats' influence on Synge.

Regardless of who should be given the credit, I'm just happy that Synge went to Aran...

 ...because who knows if I ever would have gone, if it wasn't for him?

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