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By the Roadside

Last night I went to a wide place on the Kiltartan road to listen to
some Irish songs. While I waited for the singers an old man sang about
that country beauty who died so many years ago, and spoke of a singer
he had known who sang so beautifully that no horse would pass him, but
must turn its head and cock its ears to listen. Presently a score of
men and boys and girls, with shawls over their beads, gathered under
the trees to listen. Somebody sang Sa Muirnin Diles, and then somebody
else Jimmy Mo Milestor, mournful songs of separation, of death, and of
exile. Then some of the men stood up and began to dance, while another
lilted the measure they danced to, and then somebody sang Eiblin a
Ruin, that glad song of meeting which has always moved me more than
other songs, because the lover who made it sang it to his sweetheart
under the shadow of a mountain I looked at every day through my
childhood. The voices melted into the twilight and were mixed into the
trees, and when I thought of the words they too melted away, and were
mixed with the generations of men. Now it was a phrase, now it was an
attitude of mind, an emotional form, that had carried my memory to
older verses, or even to forgotten mythologies. I was carried so far
that it was as though I came to one of the four rivers, and followed it
under the wall of Paradise to the roots of the trees of knowledge and
of life. There is no song or story handed down among the cottages that
has not words and thoughts to carry one as far, for though one can know
but a little of their ascent, one knows that they ascend like medieval
genealogies through unbroken dignities to the beginning of the world.
Folk art is, indeed, the oldest of the aristocracies of thought, and
because it refuses what is passing and trivial, the merely clever and
pretty, as certainly as the vulgar and insincere, and because it has
gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgetable thoughts of the
generations, it is the soil where all great art is rooted. Wherever it
is spoken by the fireside, or sung by the roadside, or carved upon the
lintel, appreciation of the arts that a single mind gives unity and
design to, spreads quickly when its hour is come.

In a society that has cast out imaginative tradition, only a few
people--three or four thousand out of millions--favoured by their own
characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour,
have understanding of imaginative things, and yet "the imagination is
the man himself." The churches in the Middle Age won all the arts into
their service because men understood that when imagination is
impoverished, a principal voice--some would say the only voice--for the
awakening of wise hope and durable faith, and understanding charity,
can speak but in broken words, if it does not fall silent. And so it
has always seemed to me that we, who would re-awaken imaginative
tradition by making old songs live again, or by gathering old stories
into books, take part in the quarrel of Galilee. Those who are Irish
and would spread foreign ways, which, for all but a few, are ways of
spiritual poverty, take part also. Their part is with those who were of
Jewry, and yet cried out, "If thou let this man go thou art not
Caesar's friend."


1901.

William Butler Yeats