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The Melancholy of a Gentle Race
on 27 August 2012
In THE CELTIC TWILIGHT Yeats, the spiritual mystic and poet, is in ascendance over the Nobel prize winning playwright. He gathers a delightful assortment of old Irish Folktales dealing with the Faerie, and the world beyond the veil of understanding. The stories are told with a casual acceptance of the existence of spiritual truths beyond our rational knowledge, tinged with embarrassment at that acceptance.
Underpinning the beautiful, lyrical writing, lies the melancholy of a gentle race, a mystical race, whose ancient wisdom has become lost as the world progresses scientifically and intellectually:
"...that decadence we call progress ... they are surely there, the divine people, for only we who have neither simplicity nor wisdom have denied them, and the simple of all times and the wise men of ancient times have seen them and even spoken to them."
The significance of these tales, apparently told to the poet by simple, country folk, is almost cautionary. Scattered throughout the stories are hints at Yeats' despair for humanity, for the spiritual centre that is struggling to hold in an evolving world becoming ever more sceptical of the presence of the Divine and materialistic in their ambitions:
"... all who sought after beautiful and wonderful things with too avid a thirst, lost peace and form and became shapeless and common"
This shift away from the "Golden Age," the age where the Divine presence permeated life on all levels, is not beneficial:
"... still the kindly and perfect world existed, but [lies] buried like a mass of roses under many spadefuls of earth"
"They are getting tired of the world. It is killed they want to be" (the second, amended, edition of this book was published in 1902 - the end of the Anglo Boer War, a dozen years before the Great War and only a generation away from the horrors of World War II)
For all his lamentations about a more kindly world than his contemporary world of the early 20th century (or ours in the 21st century for that matter!), Yeats never completely gives up either his belief in a mystical world which rational understanding can never quite explain, nor the hope that the connection between man and the Divine can be regained.
The text is not always easy to read due to the archaic prose style (single paragraphs flow over more than one page with no break) and there were numerous typographical errors in the Digireads.com (July 1, 2004) e-Edition, which is the edition I read.
Despite this mild challenge, though, the overall effect was of holding an intimate conversation with a master storyteller. I could feel the damp Irish night air; I could smell the peat fire burning; I could hear the soft lyrical tones of a man whispering his understanding of things beyond my ordinary knowledge...and I swear, at times, I heard the tinkling laugh of a Faery, there, just beyond my sight.