by Viviane Vasconcelos
William Butler Yeats was a central figure in the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a founding member of the Abbey Theatre--along with Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge—Yeats helped banish the overbearing idea that the English culture was superior to the Irish. But unlike the earlier poets, whose main goal was political, Yeats’s aim was to inspire the new generations of Irish people by reclaiming some of the ancient Celtic myths and legends. Even though the revival had a strong impact on the growth of political nationalism, Yeats was not interested in restoring the Gaelic language and customs, as the earlier Irish poets had. He says, “When we remember the majesty of Cuchullin and the beauty of sorrowing Deirdre we should not forget that it is that majesty and that beauty which is immortal, and not the perishing tongue that first told of them” (Skene 18).
Thomas Flanagan writes:
Yeats’s devotion to Ireland had, as its reverse, a detestation for urban, industrialized civilization, a civilization which fettered the imagination and denied it access to those traditional modes of feeling by which it is nourished. (48)
From early on in his career, Yeats drew inspiration from legends and myths of pre-Christian Ireland. Poems such as “Fergus and the Druid” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” display Yeats’s use of ancient Irish mythology as themes to convey ideas and emotions that can be experienced by his contemporary audience in a similar way than what the earlier generations of Irish people experienced. One particular legend, that of Cuchulain was not only a major theme in Yeats’s work, but it was present in his poetry and drama throughout his career: Yeats used Cuchulain as a character in his poems and plays from 1892 to 1939. By closely examining the political but also personal circumstances surrounding Yeats’s output one can understand the poet’s reasons for continually using the legend of Cuchulain as a theme in his work. Not only did he use Cuchulain extensively in his work, but one can actually trace the Yeats’s progress as a writer in his use of the legend. The cycle of Cuchulain in Yeats’s work began with the 1892 poem “The Death of Cuchulain” and ended in 1939, just before Yeats’s death with the poem “Cuchulain Comforted.” The Cuchulain plays, which are one-act reveal Yeats’s preoccupation with limiting the time and space in which the action unfolds. Yeats was not interested in recounting the legend of Cuchulain for informational motives, but rather he used the legend of Cuchulain as theme to communicate moments of intense feeling where the hero’s plight resonates with the struggles the Irish faced in their day-to-day lives. Even if Cuchulain is portrayed as a hero and warrior in Yeats’s work, the context surrounding the events are not entirely magical: we see Cuchulain as a man who has flaws, makes mistakes, and ultimately dies.
Although a nationalistic context was behind Yeats’s interest in the ancient Celtic legends, Yeats was not interested in reclaiming those legends as mere accounts of Ireland’s history. According to Reg Skene, “Historical reading of the old sagas tended to obscure their mythological significance and dull their power to stir the imagination” (21). What Yeats ultimately wished to accomplish by using those old legends and myths as themes in his work was to provide his audience with ideas and emotions that would spark a new faith in Ireland, instead of focusing on reviving the history of Ireland as a static movement; Yeats was not interested in making his audience aware of what had already happened to Ireland, but rather in using Ireland’s past as a starting point to inspire new feelings about modern Ireland.
One obstacle Yeats faced when trying to interpret the ancient legends was the fact that they were available mostly in the oral format, which allowed those familiar with the stories to shape them according to their own experiences and interpretations. In “Yeats, Joyce, and Ireland,” Thomas Flanagan discusses the problem:
An oral literature indeed survived, but it was the possession, almost entirely, of the peasantry, who had shaped it to the particularities of their own existence, endowing heroes and gods alike with form and meaning far different from that bestowed by the aristocratic, prefeudal society which had given them birth. (46)
The respite from such obstacle came from Lady Gregory, who surmised “a language grounded firmly upon the syntax and diction of peasant Ireland but flexible enough to encompass other and subtler purposes”(Flanagan 53). In 1902 she produced one of the crucial texts of the Irish Literary Revival, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which “draws together into a coherent narrative the fragmentary accounts of [Cuchulain’s] the hero’s life, battles, and death”(Flanagan 54).
Once in the possession of Gregory’s translation of the legend of Cuchulain, Yeats began to interweave the folkloric material he believed would not only enhance the impact of Cuchulain’s legend on his audience, but also contribute to his initial intent to inspire the new generations in Ireland. It was within that framework that Yeats began to shape the legend of Cuchulain as a prominent subject for much of his material; it is clear the poet identified with Cuchulain, and although a discussion of Yeats’s personal connections with Cuchulain is beyond the scope of this paper, it is still valuable to mention Yeats’s delicate relationship with his father as a possible subtext to the father-son conundrum present in the legend of Cuchulain.
In “Ireland and the Arts,” William Butler Yeats writes:
We who care deeply about the arts find ourselves the priesthood of an almost forgotten faith, and we must, I think, if we would win the people again, take upon ourselves the method and the fervour of a priesthood. We must be half humble and half proud. We see the perfect more than others, it may be, but we must find the passions among the people. We must baptize as well as preach. (Finneran 382)
One aspect of Yeats’s use of Cuchulain as a character is his work is his interest in utilizing theatre as a vehicle to communicate the legend in what seems like a more effective manner due to the audience’s direct exposure to the hero; although Yeats still used the lyrical format in most of his plays, by showing the actual characters on a stage Yeats emphasized his point of inspiring the audience instead of merely stating the characters’ beliefs and motivations.
In “The Rebirth of Tragedy,” Michael Valdez Moses explains that for Yeats, “The defining features of European modernity might be resisted by bringing about a cultural rebirth of the spirit of ancient tragic drama”(561). Moses goes on to say that the state of the arts in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was stagnant; the works produced by artists of the time were “politically irrelevant.” Thomas Parkinson writes:
By its very nature dramatic poetry demands conflict, and through the demands of the theatre Yeats was forced to objectify the conflict which implicitly underlay the early poems. The true subject matter of Yeats’ poetry was the duel between two sets of value, two ways of living; and it is illuminating that the major addition to The Countess Cathleen after the 1899 performance should have exploited the conflict between the world of imagination and the world of action. Most simply stated, the major subject of Yeats’ Abbey dramas was the conflict between the fixed palpable world of human affairs (Guaire, Conchubar) and the world of passion and aspiration which is beyond reason, system or office (Seacnchan, Cuchulain). The basic split in the plays is that between the institutional world, limited, tame, calculating, interested in the virtue of fixed character, and the personal world, exuberant, care-free, wild, affirming the values of intense personality. (138)
Similarly, Parkinson explains:
In Yeats’ view, the human mind was capable of two orders of experience, one peculiar to the individual, the other common to the race. In day to day urban life people lived the individual life of character; exalted out of ordinary circumstances, they lived the common life of passion. Character was the continually visible aspect, the distinctive attributes which mark off man from man: religion, nationality, class, profession, ways of walking, talking, and dressing. A ‘character’ was to Yeats a humor figure, set apart from his fellow men by some extravagance of dress or speech. Tragedy, then, is the art which affirms the value of passionate experience as manifested in the intense moment when character is shed and the hero transcends the limits of his merely individual mind and becomes the vehicle of an eternal state of the anima mundi. Tragedy utilizes the interplay of circumstance and character mainly as a means to an end, for it is concerned with matters vaster than any individual person, time, or place. Tragic figures go beyond the divisions established by the social world and in their moments of passion attain unity of being by overcoming the obstacles presented to them by the temporal world. (139)
This brings forth the more technical aspects of Yeats’s craft, as the members of his audience can identify with Cuchulain because he is in a sense reduced from hero to mortal; as a character, Cuchulain is immersed in the actions and interactions Yeats constructs in order to communicate larger issues of nation and politics. Yeats uses Cuchulain as an individual to shed light into the struggles of the Irish people, since the Irish nation is after all made up of individuals.
Yeats’s 1903 play On Baile’s Strand tells the story of Cuchulan’s conquering of his son, ending in the hero’s own death as he rushes against the waves of the sea in combat. Parkinson continues:
The play contains yet more complicated action, for its major conflict is not that between Cuchulain and his son but between Cuchulain and Conchubar, who represent the two opposing views of life and modes of conduct, the hero’s and the administrator’s. (157)
While Cuchilain exclaims he will not change his carefree demeanor, which allows him to “dance or hung, or quarrel or make love” (Finneran 172), Conchubar expresses his desire for a “strong and settled country” (Finneran 172) to his children. That can be interpreted as the English design to create the most comfortable, stable nation for their descendents, despite the price: colonization would assure the colonizers of new locations rich in resources, but the inherent culture of the place might be crushed in the name of the imperialistic design. The English may consider their culture superior to that of Ireland, but that does not mean the Irish should accept that imposition, given the fact that their culture was just as rich as the English culture imposed upon the colony. The manner in which Yeats accomplishes his purpose in this play is by showing his audience the contrast between the two figures: Cuchulain’s disposition represents the Irish nationalism overshadowed by the English culture, and while Yeats recognizes the English motives as potentially coming from a valid emotional source, he still places emphasis on the idea that a focus on the national interest would ultimately satisfy the Irish pride, for it stems from a local effort.
Still in On Baile’s Strand, Conchubar and Cuchulain reconcile before Cuchulain’s fight with his son, and yet Conchubar is the cause of Cuchulain’s death. If Conchubar had not persuaded Cuchulain to fight the unknown warrior who was wasting the shores of Ulster, Cuchulain would never have done so, and would in fact have been a friend to the young man. Finally, in his grief on discovering that he has killed his own son, Cuchulain confuses the waves with his antagonist Conchubar and dies raging and striking against them. Again, one can see Yeats’s subtle reference to the ambivalent relationship between England and Ireland: although the two nations are reconciled, the poet warns of the perils of turning against one’s nation, which might result in the ultimate demise of that nation’s members. The symbolism of having a father unknowingly kill his own son represents the danger of turning against one’s inherent nature; becoming engrossed by another nation’s interests might blind one to the interests of his/her own nation, and the use of violence might lead one to unknowingly destroy his/her own co-patriots. Moses writes:
Cuchulain’s represents an alternative form of Irish independence and of Irish culture that comes into tragic conflict with Conchubar’s more modern, practical, and restrictive form of national identity: an archaic, aristocratic, and cosmopolitan conception of community. (569)
In another of Yeats’s plays, At the Hawk’s Well we see the Cuchulain legend explored in a different manner. Although the Noh influence in this play can signify a departure from Yeats’s earlier craft, it also provides Yeats with a new venue to explore the legend of Cuchulain. In this play we see the audience and setting as supporting figures to the hero’s journey. The Cuchulain legend is then evoked by the Musicians who initiate the action by announcing the scene in which Cuchulain’s adventure is to unfold. The Musicians actually invite the audience to physically participate in the action, which echoes Yeats’s intention to inspire the Irish to take charge of their cultural experience. Because the Noh tradition requires a more subjective reading of the subject matter, one may wonder if Yeats’s device of having the Musicians evoke the Cuchulain legend as his way of assuring the audience would still recognize the ancient legend as a theme.
The opening verse of the play sets up the tone for the rest of the experience. Yeats writes:
I call to the eye of the mind
A well long choked up and dry
And boughs long stripped by the wind,
And I call to the mind’s eye
Pallor of an ivory face,
Its lofty dissolute air,
A man climbing up to a place
The salt sea wind has swept bare. (Finneran 220)
The audience is immediately invited to participate in the action because the verse actually calls upon the “eye of the mind.” The audience is asked to imagine the well, which according to the stage directions is represented by a cloth. Despite the Noh tradition with emphasizes minimal setting, Yeats’s invocation of the audience’s imagination also echoes his own trajectory towards the mystical world.
Yeats uses the Old man as a plot device to unfold the action. As a character, he is not unlike the setting, which is desolate, weak, and helpless. But he describes the Guardian to Cuchulain; the Old man is like an omniscient narrator. The Old man says, “There falls a curse/ On all who have gazed in her unmoistened eyes; / So get you gone while you have that proud step…” (Finneran 225) foreshadowing the action that follows.
According to Maeve Good, when Cuchulain is finally placed in conflict with the Sidhe, the possessed Guardian parallels the position of man in conflict with this other world. Good continues, “As the poet facing his muse, or as the hero facing his doom, she stands in relation to her other self as hawk, dancer, and woman of the Sidhe”(44). Referring back to the idea of nationalism, a connection can be drawn between Cuchulain facing his doom—as the awareness of the existence of the other self—and Ireland’s awareness that its cultural life should not necessarily depend on the English culture.
By the end of his career, as he finished the first version of the play The Only Jealousy of Emer, Yeats seemed to have lost that earlier fervor regarding the Irish nationalism. Moses writes that Yeats had:
Refined his revolutionary conception of an “aristocratic” cultic theatre, at a time when he had for many years ceased to be wither at the center of Irish nationalist politics and had been living for all intents and purposes in his adopted country, England, he has come to understand that his powers to summon up an Irish national identity out of his imagination, to impose that vision by virtue of his creative will on the people of Ireland, to define in real terms the political culture of a new and independent Irish state, has ebbed away. He for the first time acknowledges that he must forgo his heroic or aristocratic vision for the Irish nation. (575)
Yet, Yeats remains one of the most important figures in the Irish Literay Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He in fact became the most influential and most celebrated Irish poet to this day.
Although William Butler Yeats’s did not intend to use ancient Celtic legends and myths to communicate politics, his effort to revive the state of the Irish cultural world resonated with the political battles surrounding the creation of the Irish Free State. Despite his failure in shaping the Irish National Theatre, Yeats was successful in inspiring the Irish people to look at the past history of the country in order to take pride in the present and future of the nation. Through his craft and sensibility to infuse the old legends with more contemporary aspects to which his audience could better relate, Yeats reclaimed the legend of Cuchulain and in so doing also helped to reclaim the culture of his own country, which stands apart from the English culture that was forced upon Ireland for so many years.
The Yeats Reader. New York: Scribner Poetry, 1997.
Flanagan, Thomas. “Yeats, Joyce, and the Matter of Ireland.” Critical Inquiry 2.1 (1975), 43-67.
Flannery, James W. “W. B. Yeats and the Abbey Theatre Company.” Educational Theatre Journal 27.2 (1975), 179-196.
Good, Maeve. W. B. Yeats and the Creation of a Tragic Universe. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 1987.
Moses, Michael Valdez. “The Rebirth of Tragedy: Yeats, Nietzsche, the Irish National Theatre, and the Anti-Modern Cult of Cuchulain.” Modernism/Modernity 11.3 (2004), 561-579.
Parkinson, Thomas. “W. B. Yeats: A Poet's Stagecraft, 1899-1911.” ELH 17.2 (1950), 136-161.
Skene, Reg. The Cuchulain Plays of W. B. Yeats: A Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.