by Matthew Bell
The poetry and plays of W.B. Yeats often take subject matter from traditional Celtic folklore and myth. By incorporating into his work the stories and characters of Celtic origin, Yeats endeavored to encapsulate something of the national character of his beloved Ireland. The reasons and motivations for Yeats' use of Celtic themes can be understood in terms of the authors own sense of nationalism as well as an overriding personal interest in mythology and the oral traditions of folklore. During Yeats' early career, there was an ongoing literary revival of interest in Irish legend and folklore. Books with such titles as Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, The Fireside Stories of Ireland, History of Ireland: Cuculain and his Contemporaries, Irish Folklore, and dozens of others were useful to the young Yeats (Kinahan XII). By 1889, Yeats would assert that, "[I had] worked my way through most, if not all, recorded Irish folk tales" (Kinahan XV). By this time, he had written an introduction for and edited, Irish Fairy and Folk Talks. Immersing himself in the rich and varied world of Celtic myth and folklore, Yeats would contribute to the literary world poems and plays that embrace his native legends while promoting his own sense of nationalism.
One poem that illustrates how Yeats melds folklore and nationalism is "The Song of Wandering Aengus." In the poem, Yeats refers to Aengus, the Irish god of love. He was said to be a young, handsome god that had four birds flying about his head. These birds symbolized kisses and inspired love in all who heard them sing. Part of the story is that, at one point, Aengus was troubled by the dream of a young maiden. In the dream, this young woman is everything that his heart desires and he quickly falls in love with her and becomes love sick upon waking. He began to search all of Ireland for the young woman in his dreams. He tells his mother and she searches the whole of Ireland for the maiden, but after a year, she still had not found the woman. Then Aengus called his father in to help search for the maiden. After a year of searching, his father could not find her. Finally, a king and friend of Aengus' father was called to search for her. After a year, he found the elusive young maiden.
In the poem, Yeats strays from the actual myth of Aengus. Yeats wrote, "Though I am old with wandering/ Through hollow lands and hilly lands." In the actual myth, Aengus was still young when he found his love. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" was about longing and searching, rather than about a song of found love.
The subject matter of the poem alone helps illustrate Yeats profound sense of nationalism. By choosing a Celtic god over the more traditional use of Greek or Roman gods in poetry, the poet attempted to elevate Irish mythology in the world of literature. In the early 1900's, a professor at Trinity College by the name of Atkinson summed up the common misconception that Europeans held of Irish writing. He stated that, "Gaelic Irish literature was intolerably low in tone with very little idealism in it, and very little imagination" (Skelton 9). (Coincidentally, Yeats may have attended Trinity College, but his low marks in grammar school disqualified him for admission [ William]). The entrenched bias against Celtic culture began to unravel as more material about Irish folklore made its way into the mainstream and the Irish Literary Renaissance was born (Thuente 39).
Many of the early works of Yeats share this common theme of Celtic folklore and myth. As the poet continued in this manner, it becomes clear to the reader that the thematic elements of the work become more focused. The poet moves towards a distinctly Irish sensibility with regard to love of country and this can be seen in his work. In the poem, " To Ireland in the Coming Times" Yeats again draws upon Irish folklore and mythic symbols and sets them against a backdrop of national identity. When the poet writes, " When Time began to rant and rage / The measure of her flying feet / Made Ireland's heart begin to beat; " He is speaking of the affects of the industrial revolution," When Time began to rant and rage." How the pre-industrial rhythm of life had been interrupted by the hourly wage in the cities, as opposed to the pastoral life of the country that was governed by the changing of the seasons, rather than the movement of the hands of a clock. This accelerated pace of life and of time," The measure of her flying feet," was reviled by Yeats and he wrote of his distaste of current English life, referring to passions that a man might yet find in Ireland, "love of the Unseen Life and love of country." (Saddlemyer 6). The incompatible pace of modern life in England did not connect with Irish patterns of living and so," Made Ireland's heart begin to beat;" here Yeats is writing of the awakening of an Irish literary tradition. This sentiment is touched upon again further along in the poem, though this time Yeats brings Celtic imagery into it," Yet he who treads in measured ways / May surely barter gaze for gaze. / Man ever journeys on with them / After the red-rose-bordered hem. / Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon, / A Druid land, a Druid tune!" These lines restate the "measured" way of life in England, its obsession with commerce," barter gaze for gaze" and how the English way of life has spread beyond its borders, "Man journeys on with them" Yeats then emphasizes Irish imagery; the rose, the faeries and the Druid that are all closely associated with Ireland and are used here to disparage the rigid and structured English world view.
Yeats will take inspiration from the myths and legends of ancient Ireland in order to create a conspicuously Irish literature. Cuchulain as a character appears many times throughout Yeats' work and it is useful to explore the historic significance of this character. The legend of Cuchulain is a story that predates the arrival of Christianity to the island. Cuchulain is a character that appears in the Ulster Cycle of stories, and he, much like Hercules or Achilles of the Greeks, and other heroes of myth, was a superhuman warrior figure. Cuchulain's birth was considered divine in origin and supernatural father figures such as Conall Cernach and Ferghus raised him intermittently as did the King of Ulster, Conchobar. As a youth, he defeats one hundred and fifty of King Conchobar's troops on his way to the royal court. Arriving at the royal court of King Conchobar, the young Cuchulain demands weaponry and then proceeds to break fifteen sets of weapons given to him. Special magically strengthened arms had to be made to withstand Cuchulain's godlike might. His prowess on the field of battle is legendary and is said to have overcome an entire army sent to dispose of him by entering into a supernatural berserk frenzy or 'warp spasm'. When frenzied, Cuchulain cannot make a distinction between friend and foe and some of his allies are victims of his battle madness (Green 70-74).
Of particular importance to the work of Yeats is the relationship between Conchobar the king and Cuchulain. According to the legend, Cuchulain swears an oath of loyalty to the king, and the king then sets Cuchulain against his own son, Conla, believing him to be a threat to the kingdom. Cuchulain kills his son in combat because he is bound by his allegiance to the king. After the tragic deed is done Cuchulain, mad with grief, rushes into the ocean and begins to slash at the waves with his sword. Yeats's "Cuchulian's Fight with the Sea" describes this in verse, "Cuchulain stirred, / Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard / The cars of battle and his own name cried, / And fought with the invulnerable tide." Some irony here, considering the hero was said to be virtually invulnerable as well. This story is also told in the form of the play, " On Baile's Strand" and was performed by the players of the Abbey theatre.
The Cycle of Ulster, a collection of myths that recount the conflict between Conchobar of Ulster and Medb of Connacht, has Cuchulain fighting on the side of Ulster, for King Conchobar. The armies of Ulster are weakened by a curse put upon them by Macha, a goddess with three aspects. As a woman, Macha was forced to compete in a footrace against horses, even though pregnant at the time. She wins the race, promptly gives birth to twins and before passing away places a curse upon the men of Ulster that they will be weakest in the times of greatest danger. All are weakened except for Cuchulain, who fights the forces of Connacht single-handedly.
The demise of the hero is foreshadowed by a series of events that are magically forbidden for the hero to engage in. Because of circumstance, the hero is forced to break this magic code of behavior, one after another, until it weakens him, making him vulnerable. Eventually, Medb through treachery, sorcery and the entirety of every armed man in Ireland is able to lure Cuchulain to his death by a spear forged by Vulcan himself. Mortally wounded, the hero binds himself to a pillar stone with cloth so that he may die on his feet. It is only after Morrighan, the shape-shifting war goddess, and her sisters appear as crows and perch upon Cuchulain's shoulder that any of the combatants dare approach the dying hero to finish him off. (Mac Cana 97-102). There are many other stories that recount the deeds of this Irish hero and would take volumes to tell. Suffice to say that Cuchulain is the hero most identified with Ireland and represents both positive and negative aspects of the Irish people and their struggle.
Much later in his career, Yeats would revisit the folkloric themes that were so pervasive in his early work with the poem, "Cuchulain Comforted". In this work the poet describes the death of the Irish hero, "...He leant upon a tree / As though to meditate on wounds and blood." Here the tree has replaced the pillar stone of the myth. The author then writes, "A Shroud that seemed to have authority / Among those bird-like things came, and let fall / A bundle of linen. Shrouds by two and three". The burial garment is appropriate at the scene of a dying man, but a "Shroud that seemed to have authority" seems to be imposing its will upon the fallen hero. If Cuchulain represents Ireland in this poem, then the bearer of the shroud (Morrighan in the legend) or the shroud itself might be indicative of malevolent forces within Ireland that prevent progress and put heroic ideals to death. Too often in Irish history have those that sought an independent free Ireland been undone, not by the English, but by a lack of solidarity from within. Yeats once said of Celtic plays, " They would be far more effective than lectures and might do more than anything else we can do to make the Irish, Scotch, and other Celts recognize their solidarity" (Saddlemyer 77).
The verse in "Cuchulain Comforted" continues," Now we shall sing and sing the best we can / But first you must be told our character: / Convicted cowards all by kindred slain / 'Or driven from home and left to die in fear.' / They sang but had nor human notes nor words, / Though all was done in common as before, / They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds." Yeats will often make reference to song in his writing, and often had singing in his plays. This recurrent motif in his work relates to folklore in the sense that folklore is an oral tradition, passed down through the generations. Yeats, when speaking of the difference between Irish and English literature had this to say," Irish poetry and Irish stories were made to be spoken or sung, while English literature has all but completely shaped itself in the printing press" (Thuente 243). When the poet writes," Though all was done in common as before, / They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds." this line speaks to the oral tradition of folklore. In the retelling of the same stories over time, certain parts of the story might be altered depending upon the teller, though the overall structure of the story would remain. Yeats recognizes this and spoke of Irish legends as, "...ever changing, ever the same"(Thuente 196).
Stories and characters from the Ulster Cycle also appear in the dramatic plays of Yeats and here the intentions of the artist in producing Celtic work are abundantly clear. It is well known that the foundations of the Abbey Theatre, where the work was performed, were built upon the belief that a Great Irish theatre would have the power to move Irish audiences because what was playing out upon the stage would resonate with their heritage and they would be more inclined to identify with the characters and stories. Yeats stated that, " One should love best what is nearest and most interwoven with one's life". Further, Yeats then remarked," One wants to write for one's own people, who come to the playhouse with knowledge of one's subjects and with hearts ready to be moved". By applying a new approach to an old form, Yeats innovation was his use of the mythic stories and characters from Ireland's past and presenting them on stage.
Yeats authored plays that relied heavily upon the myths and legends of ancient Ireland, among them; "On Baile's Strand","Deidre", and "The Death of Cuchulain". Though the author deviates from the source material throughout, the core of the plays remain true to their origins. One reason for Yeats invoking artistic license with certain scenes is that there are practical limitations with what can be done on stage. Another reason for Yeats' re-imagining of these myths is that it would often serve to enhance the dramatic effect of the story. For example, in the play, "Deirde" the queen commits suicide at the end of the play by using a knife that she has secreted away. In the myth it is told that Deirde stays with King Conchobar, the man who slew her lover, for an entire year before committing suicide by flinging herself from a moving chariot, shattering her head against a stone ( Mac Cana 96). It is clear why Yeats chose one over the other, for as dramatic as Deirdre's death is in the myth, on stage it would not have played as well. What Yeats did preserve, however, are the character's motivations and relationships that drive the narrative forward and create a sense of drama and often, tragedy. Yeats' would say of folklore that," All folk literature, and all literature that keeps the folk tradition, delights in unbounded and immortal things... All folk literature has indeed a passion whose like is not in modern literature and music and art, except where it has come by some straight or crooked way out of ancient times" (Thuente 266).
The folklore, myth, and legends of ancient Celtic traditions gave Yeats a rich well of inspiration to draw from. By not falling into the trap of overly romanticizing his work, as many other authors of the time would do, Yeats was able to help begin a tradition of another sort, the Irish literary tradition. By placing importance on the Irish culture in his work, Yeats fulfilled his own sense of national pride to the delight of his readers and audiences and to the chagrin of many of his English contemporaries who felt that nothing of value or worthy of study could come out of Ireland.
Kinahan, Frank. Yeats, Folklore, and Occultism: Contexts of the Early Work and Thought. Boston: Unwin Hymann, 1988.
Skelton, Robin and Ann Saddlemyer. The World of W.B. Yeats. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.
William Butler Yeats. 2001. Pearson Education Inc. November 28, 2005. <http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com/bookbind/pubbooks/kennedycompact_awl/chapter45/objectives/deluxe-content.html>.
Thuente, Mary Helen. W.B. Yeats and Irish Folklore. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 1980.
Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1992.
Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1968.