Recently we’ve come upon a few poems featuring “sea-changes”, as The Tempest‘s Ariel would say, such as Iain Crichton Smith’s “Gaelic Stories” and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “Parthenogenesis.”

Stories of human beings metamorphosing to and from shapes of sea-dwellers, whether as mer-people or in seal form as selkies, are not unique to Celtic culture, but appear in many folktales worldwide. The folktale motif of the “Animal Bride” is prevalent enough to have a catalogue number in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification index: #402. Admiration for bodies of water and for fish in their own right has featured in many of our poems more specifically. Fish are a subject of respect, such as the salmon as a symbol of wisdom, and the river has appeared as a powerful feminine entity, not to mention close relationships with Lochs and oceans.

The Shannon River, the same that welcomes the salmon in Ni Dhomhnaill's poem

The Shannon River, the same that welcomes the salmon in Ni Dhomhnaill’s poem

Selkies themselves sit at the centers of many northern European stories. According to the Celtic Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore: “in Ireland [and] Scotland, … eating seals was considered a form of cannibalism” (411) From Scandinavia to Ireland, folktales describe otherworldly men and women taking the forms of seals (or is it vice versa?), shedding their seal skins on rocks or onshore, and having relationships with ordinary land-dwelling people. The seal skin must be stolen and hidden or destroyed in order to make a selkie live on land, and often a child of a selkie and a land-dweller unknowingly enables the selkie parent to escape by finding the skin’s hiding place. In some stories the selkie is hunted as a seal and killed after returning to the sea, bringing curses on the killer and family, but in others the ending is perhaps more heartbreaking: the selkie parent (usually a mother) stays forever just out of reach, appearing as a seal from far off to the children but never acknowledging them, as in an Icelandic version:

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.

They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky.
When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.


The aforementioned Encyclopedia also mentions the uncannily human appearance of the seal, engendering human empathy: “Seals do bear some resemblance to human beings, especially in their wild moaning calls and in the direct gaze from their soft dark eyes. Fishermen sometimes spoke or sang to seals, who were thought to speak back, usually begging that no harm come to them or their young” (411).

A Harbour Seal.

A Harbour Seal.

John Sayles’ movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, centers on a displaced Irish family’s selkie story. I won’t ruin it for you in case you want to see it, but suffice it to say it beautifully translates the wonder, tension, and pain of the selkie story onto film. Roan Inish has been dear to me since my childhood, and it has one of the best soundtracks I know. The “Selke Song,” a lullaby used in the film, is actually song called “An Mhaighdean Mhara,” which is a song about a mermaid.

mermaid's song












(lyrics and translation given under the video)

The selkie story is deeply tied to longing, displacement, and an appeal to otherworldly origins to explain traits in families. Poets choosing to write about selkies (especially in Crichton Smith’s case, as is the form of his poem) need only mention the barest outline of the folktale, and their poems are granted access to a very old, unique, and complex mixture of circumstances and emotions.

Can the Centre Hold? Yeats and Gyres.

Pretty trippy

The Yeats poem that you ordinarily read in high school, probably before reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, is “The Second Coming.” Building its energy on scenes of expanding chaos and religious omens, the poem is famous for lending a title to Achebe, but the first line is perhaps the second-most recognizable:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”

This is likely the first place most people hear the word ‘gyre,’ unless it’s the second line of “The Jabberwocky” or in discussions of ocean currents.

“The Second Coming” is an excellent example of the spirit of Yeats’ understanding of gyres. The poem shows devolution after devolution (or revolution, or revelation?) into disorder, giving an overall picture of the structure of the world unraveling. Far from ending in complete chaos, though, the direction of the poem brings the weight of all of history’s fractured pieces to bear on one individual in the last lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” When all the madness and confusion seems to be at its highest, widest state, the moment simultaneously contains a singular, infinitesimal pinpoint of hope and direction for the future. More or less, this is the essence of gyres.

A little creepy

All other extreme weirdness of W.B. and his wife, George’s relationship aside (as much as I regret to say that), it was the major catalyst for the creation of A Vision (1938). Yeats, in the introduction, describes the very start:

On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. … I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry. (8)

The “unknown writer” evidently went on to elaborate upon some of Yeats’ own philosophical ideas, though to say “elaborate” is an understatement. George continued to write daily all the way until 1919, when the “communicator of the moment — they were constantly changed” decided to switch from written to spoken word so as not to tire George out too much. This eventually manifested in sleep-talking, which overtook the entire set of communications with the ones Yeats calls “my teachers.” In a strange anecdote, once while having a sleep-conversation with George, Yeats discerned that she was dreaming she was a cat, and so, naturally, she was unable to speak English. Frustrated with this, he, naturally, pretended to be a dog. She awoke so frightened that he vowed never to do so again.

Yeats wrote down all George said in her sleep, and noticed that the enthusiasm on the part of the “teachers” grew whenever Yeats himself seemed excited. Quite the coincidence, no?

Eventually the gyres emerged:

…then on December 6th a cone or gyre had been drawn and related to the soul’s judgment after death; and then just as I was about to discover that incarnations and judgment alike implied cones or gyres, one within the other, turning in opposite directions, two such cones were drawn and related neither to judgment nor to incarnations but to European history. (11-12)

Among other metaphysical images, the actual text of A Vision (after a strange section about Ezra Pound and what seems to be a miniature poetic play) goes into the nature of gyres. Mind you, the full extent of what gyres mean to Yeats is extraordinarily complicated. If I may repeat, extraordinarily complicated. This is simply their first glimpse:

If we think of the vortex attributed to Discord as firmed by circles diminishing until they are nothing, and of the opposing sphere attributed to Concord as forming from itself an opening vortex, the apex of each vortex in the middle of the other’s base, we have the fundamental symbol of my instructors.

Look familiar?

Yeats goes on to justify the common existence of gyres in practically every philosophy he can think of.

To Yeats, the gyres are omni-relevant. Any problem can be better understood by conceiving of it in gyres, evidently, and every philosophical, psychological, spiritual, social, historical, mathematical, astrological, astronomical, personal, public, literal, figurative, fantastical, and mundane aspect of life can be mapped successfully onto some gyre system.
To make a very long story very short, Yeats sets gyres in enormously complicated geometrical relation to one another to all sorts of symbolic ends, including astrological signs and cycles of the moon (surprise surprise — you thought Yeats would forget to include the moon?), as well as observing these constructions from all angles with all planes and lines acting symbolically to fit every single aspect of his worldview into the shape of a cone.

Much of A Vision is jargon and appropriated philosophy, as well as some commonly-acknowledged spiritualist hoaxes. That’s not to say the topic is unworthy of study, of course — quite the opposite is true. The Cambridge Companion to Yeats admits:

Such a proposal is of course just as silly as Auden accused Yeats of being, with those persistent enthusiasms for occultiana, from fairies to scrying to emanations of disembodied spirits. … [However,] scholars like me are a bit ridiculous when we try to fit a complex and spiritually adept poet into our own pseud0-empirical-critical systems. (148)

To read Yeats in the context of beliefs so deeply ingrained in his psychology and spiritual practice is to open up a new set of meaningful readings, regardless of objective critiques of the gyre system itself. Fathoming the scale of his theories lends his poems an even deeper gravity, especially registering on the personal level of his own constant dissatisfaction with the idea of a non-symbolic world. To even try to comprehend what Yeats was attempting in A Vision, unifying all of human experience in a logical-symbolic system, tells a great deal about his preoccupations: structure amid too much chaos, and revolution amid too much structure; extremes tempered always by their antitheses; life proceeding as naturally from death as death proceeds from life.

M. C. Escher