The Nobel winning Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, had a surprising number of connections to Sicily. Born in County Sligo in 1865, he developed a lifelong fascination with esoteric matters, an attraction that came through most strongly in his earlier poetry. This dabbling in the occult and alternative spirituality led to wide reading on the subject, everyone from the Swede, Emanuel Swedenborg, to the Hindu mystic, Mohini Chatterjee. In 1890, he even joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an eclectic mixture of Freemasons, Rosicrucians and Cabalists intent on unlocking the secrets of such arcane pursuits as geomancy, astral travel and alchemy. Members were known to sport Egyptian garb for their ceremonies and named their ‘temples’ after Osiris, Horus and Amen-Ra.
If this all seems a bit far-fetched for such a prestigious man of letters, he was by no means alone in these inclinations. A fin-de-siècle attitude was very prevalent at the time, one that saw Victorian-era worthies branch out in all manner of directions following a profound search for meaning in a rapidly changing world. The supposedly logical and deductive Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was very interested in mediums and contact with the ‘other side’.
It was in the Golden Dawn that Yeats met the now infamous Aleister Crowley who was already causing something of a ruckus within the rather civilised Hermetic Order. Crowley had become close to Samuel Mathers, one of the founders. Crowley’s influence was troublesome to many and he was refused entry to the upper echelons, a refusal that saw Mathers whisk him to Paris and induct him there, circumventing London’s reluctance. As the splits became worse, Yeats gave voice to his doubts in a pamphlet, eventually deciding to resign. Crowley also went his own way, finally creating the Abbey of Thelema and relocating to Cefalù, where fears over his dubious ceremonies, ritualistic promiscuity and concerns over the accidental death of an initiate through liver failure, prompted Mussolini to expel him from Sicily.
Yeats, however, never gave up on his interest in mythology, heavily imbuing his later thought with Celtic mysticism. Ireland’s past, with its considerable larder of legend and folktale, became a source of inspiration and led to what would become known as the Celtic Twilight. In his book of the same name, Yeats developed a writing-style laced with the mystic divine, a realm beyond the rational world we inhabit, and full of knowledge disappearing into the twilight as we hurtle towards a scientific future.
Lucio Piccolo, the cousin of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, was much taken with Yeat’s backward glance to a more spiritually enlightened past. Piccolo corresponded with Yeats and exchanged ideas that led him to imagine the creation of a Sicilian Twilight, which was to include writing and poetry based on the legendary stories that so abound in the annals of the island’s history. The atmosphere at Lucio’s country seat in Capo d’Orlando was more than conducive to these musings given the fact that the poet’s brother, Casimiro, was fond of wandering the villa’s grounds at night, sketchbook to hand, in a blind search for sprites and goblins. A visitor to what is now known as the Fondazione Famiglia Piccolo di Calanovella, will find Casimiro’s fertile imaginings adorning the walls and a library liberally stocked with books of an esoteric nature.
If the Sicilian Twilight project never emerged beyond the planning stages, at least Piccolo was able to provide Yeats with some concrete suggestions when it came to the Irishman’s visit to the island. Yeats accompanied Ezra Pound and his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, on a tour that took in Palermo, Agrigento, Taormina, Syracuse and places in between. In Syracuse, the party stayed in the Hotel Roma, still found in Via Roma. It is a short walk from there to the museum that houses the coins archaeologists have found from the Greek era. The designs clearly had a deep effect on Yeats as is evidenced by his time at the helm of the Irish Free State’s Coinage Committee.
In a recent visit to Dublin, we spent an interesting hour wandering around the National Library’s Yeats Exhibition. In one cabinet was the committee report written by the man himself which starts with this affectionate mention: ‘the most famous and beautiful coins are the coins of the Greek Colonies, especially of those in Sicily…’ Next to the report was an enlarged version of one of the designs that got approved, a very Greek-looking stylised horse, simplistic but effective in its line and relief. The designs really stood the test of time as they lasted until Ireland adopted the Euro.
Yeats also exchanged correspondence with another writer who made Sicily his home from home, William Sharp, a Scot who shared Yeats’s interest in the Celtic revival. Sharp was friends with Alec Hood who had inherited Admiral Nelson’s estate in Bronte. Indeed, Sharp and his wife spent much time with Alessandro di Bronte at his ancestral pile in the foothills of Etna. In the Pall Mall magazine of October 1903, Sharp published a fascinating account of his time there, entitled ‘Through Nelson’s Duchy’. However, the most curious aspect of William’s writing was his female nom de plume, Fiona Macleod, who published such works as By Sundown Shores: Studies in Spiritual History.
Yeats was somewhat critical of Sharp’s work, but recognised talent in the texts of Macleod. Over a period of time he began to suspect that the two authors were one and the same person. Sharp even sent correspondence as his alter ego (masking things with his wife’s handwriting), but eventually those receiving letters became suspicious. Macleod and Sharp seemed to have remarkably similar travel itineraries. It was Yeats who made the definitive connection.
From coins to myths, aliases to poetry, Sicily left an impression on the Irish Nobel laureate. His most beautiful evocation in verse gives this ethereal image of the gilded spendour to be found at Monreale. From ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ these lines say it all:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make,
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake…
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
They are also authors of Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, which was also reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement: ‘a thoughtful, throughly researched and remarkably well-balanced scholarly guide to the literary history of one of Spain’s most eulogized regions.’
Andrew is the translator of the recently released Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.