June 13 is the birthdate of William Butler Yeats and poet Niall McDevitt, artist Julie Goldsmith and I celebrated with a walk through central London taking in various spots of Yeatsian significance. We began our wander at Woburn Walk just off the Euston Road, Yeats’s London base for a couple of decades. It’s a delightful little street of Georgian shopfronts, so unchanged that it was easy to imagine that by merely touching the doorknob you were shaking hands with the poet himself.
It seemed appropriate, given Yeats’s occult interests, that diagonally opposite was a shop offering Tarot card readings. Directly opposite was a plaque to the writer Dorothy Richardson, who apparently used to glimpse the great poet in his sitting room from her own. Niall had a wonderful anecdote about Yeats embarassedly shopping for a bed with his lover-to-be Olivia Shakespeare, who, on discovering the soulful young fellow was still a virgin, decided to remedy the situation.
Through Bloomsbury’s green squares we wandered, discovering a statue to Rabindranath Tagore, cueing a discussion about Yeats’s interest in Indian philosophy via Theosophy, and even a tree dedicated to ‘the poetic genius of WB Yeats’. Outside the British Museum we discussed his friendship with the eccentric MacGregor Mathers, stopping to read some passages from the great poem ‘All Souls’ Night’:
And I call up MacGregor from the grave,
For in my first hard springtime we were friends,
Although of late estranged,
I thought him half a lunatic, half a knave.
And told him so, but friendship never ends…
A ghost-lover he was,
And may have grown more arrogant, being a ghost.
We paused to peer in the window of Atlantis, the occult bookshop, spying the portrait of Aleister Crowley on the back wall. Then down through Covent Garden to the headquarters of the Freemasons – more poetry was recited here – and we paused to pay homage at the site where the young William Blake (Yeats was a great enthusiast) worked as an apprentice engraver.
‘All Souls’ Night begins:
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
The walk concluded, we set off to partake of some brimming glasses ourselves, not of muscatel (sounds a bit sweet) but of crisp rose, inviting the spirits to drink with us.
Niall McDevitt is the author of several collections from New River Press. He leads regular walks round literary London and they are highly recommended. His website is poetopography.wordpress.com
Julie Goldsmith’s ceramics have been described as ‘Angela Carter on a plate’ with their themes culled from vampire lore and fairytales. You can find examples of her work on Instagram @juliegoldsmith