If you love poetry, you can love the poetry of William Butler Yeats. A little patience brings great reward and the poems will ‘wrap you round’ if you let them. Yeats was a man of many dimensions and literary personae and a certain fear can be instilled by this reputation in the potential reader. It was not for no reason that Richard Ellmann subtitled his famous biography, The Man and the Masks but like all the best poetry, one can enjoy Yeats’ poetic gift without knowing anything of the man who wrote the poetry or his mythopoetic endeavours and subterfuges. I believe if you read, and re-read, the poems in this collection, their depth, beauty, romance and brilliance will shine through into the heart of any reader and ‘light up your russet brow’.
The Rose was the second collection of poetry from a young man who was full of the romance of his native country. In 1893, when The Rose was published, Yeats was a member of the Gaelic league but like many proto-political Irish nationalists he was hardly expecting the storm that arrived in 1916. His poetry, at this time, was symbolic, apolitical and he was content to write, as he says in the opening poem of the collection, in English, rather than ‘chaunt a tongue [Gaelic] that men do not know’.
Yeats uses the image of the rose to symbolize a number of different things within the collection. Perhaps the most private reference is to Maud Gonne, his great unrequited love, whom he corresponded with almost his entire life, from the age of 23 to his death in 1939. She, who was politically, the more active nationalist, was his dark rose: thorny, untouchable, beautiful. The rose, more obviously, stands for Ireland itself, indeed in Irish mythology Ireland or Eire is often referred to as the ‘Roisin Dubh’ or ‘dark rose’.
Whether one knows the mythology of Ireland or not, one can enjoy Yeats’ poems because it is self-evident that the poet knows the myths from the inside. Root and flower, scent, and symbolic petal, decorate his interior self and this communicates and translates itself, powerfully and imaginatively, into the psyche of the reader. One need not have ever heard of Cuchulainn before, to know he is a great and mythical leader of the Irish. One need not know, that at seventeen, Cuchulainn defended Ulster from Mebt, the raiding queen of Connacht, who had planned to steal the great stud bull, Donn Cuailnge, to recognize that Yeats is drawing from a rich mythological earth of tales long told. Cuchulainn, his wife Emer, Conchubar his uncle, Usna, Conchubar’s wife and Fergus, Cuchulainn’s great rival, all have that gravitas on the page that is pungent, remarkable and ancient.
The collection also contains one of Yeats’ most famous poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree which is rightly famous and stands alone in the sea of poetry perfectly happily, without reference to the rest of the collection. But for the poet, often the poems of a collection are borne into the world, with the intention that they be read together, so as to cross fertilize and for the seed of one poem to blow through the air of another. The truth is The Lake Isle of Innisfree was planted amongst the other ‘roses’ of this collection, as one of many, to colour and make fragrant, our dreams; The Rose, is a unified complex of poetry, a collection, a vessel, a bag, its symbolic petals and thorns were, and are, for the ‘pilgrim soul in you’. As the aged Druid says to Fergus, ‘Take… this little bag of dreams;/Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round’.