The Irish literary revival touched upon many themes of both ancient and contemporary Ireland. The prominent authors of the period, such as Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory used a variety of themes and topics to create a new representation of Ireland in theatre, novels, and poetry. One of the core themes of the period was focused on the ancient myths of Ireland. These myths and superstitions would be used in many works and were presented in different interpretations depending on the nature of the work.
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Some works also incorporated the realm of the occult and other types of spirituality and superstition. One of the most prominent authors that focused on these themes was W.B. Yeats. This paper will provide an overview and analysis of three works by Yeats that revolved around Celtic myth and occult thought.
William Butler Yeats was a person with a strong appreciation of the supernatural. These feelings extended from pre-Christian Irish mythology to the new esoteric occult beliefs of secret hermetic orders. As a young man, Yeats was a great admirer of spiritualists and mediums which led him into having connections with many significant individuals involved in the various occult organizations. Yeats was not a person of modernity.
This could be considered the reason behind his search for the spiritual explanation of life and history (Greaves 2002). His connection and relationship with Ezra Pound have shaped much of his later writing style and would serve as a partial inspiration for his original occult philosophy outlined in “A Vision” (Pryor 2011). The esoteric interests of Yeats were not an affectation or hobby. Throughout his life, he has shown in writing that he wholeheartedly believes in the spiritual and supernatural nature of the world, and his dedication to the revision of his philosophy could serve as evidence for his continued belief in it (Nally 2010).
However, his early work was often dedicated to Irish folklore, with some of his most famous works of the period being based on the tales of Cuchulain. Cuchulain was a mythical warrior and a demigod who has shown great ferocity in battles with overwhelming odds. His stories often depict him as fighting on a chariot driven by his faithful friend and horses that are almost as ferocious as the warrior himself.
During the Irish literary revival, his stories became popular as a base for plays of many authors including Yeats and Lady Gregory. The interest in the character from the public was not solely based on his stories, however. The progressively increasing atmosphere of Irish nationalism became a catalyst for the demand of Irish folklore, and especially stories of masculine and ferocious heroes. This interest would reach its peak after the events of Easter 1916 when a group of Irish nationalists took over a post office in Dublin proclaiming the independence of Ireland from the British rule. They occupied the building for five days but eventually had to give themselves up.
All of them were executed, and the brutality of their executions made them martyrs in the eyes of the Irish people. Despite the lack of unanimous support for their actions before these events, their executions changed the opinions of many citizens and had increased the nationalist attitudes of the people. This event quickly became parallel to the death of Cuchulain. At the end of his life, Cuchulain is mortally wounded, his charioteer and horses are dead, but he refuses to die lying on the ground. He ties himself to stone to keep himself upright, and his warrior spirit remains even after his death (Nally 2010).
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Yeats was not a politically focused person. Despite his connections with prominent nationalists of the time like Maud Gonne, he has shown great restraint in the publication of works that concern political ideas such as his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Because his works based on pre-Christian Irish folklore gained great acclaim in nationalist circles, he felt slightly responsible for the events of 1916 and would write about those events in his plays and poems.
However, it would be inaccurate to say that he was devoid of political beliefs. He held many nationalist beliefs and saw democracy as a poor system of government. His political beliefs often changed throughout his life, but his nationalist views remained consistent. His work as a Senator for the Irish Free State also deserves mention as it shows his support for Irish independence (Craig 2015).
Connection to Celtic Myths
As it was previously mentioned in the paper, many of the early works of Yeats were influenced and based on the ancient Celtic mythology. In his early career he collected Celtic folklore and fairy tales that were passed down through verbal traditions, but soon started working on creating his own stories and poems influenced by this material. His first collection was titled after a poem based on a Celtic mythological hero Oisin. “The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems” was published in 1889 and included many works inspired by ancient Irish folklore, such as “The Madness of King Goll.”
Although the main character of the poem shares a name with a mythical warrior Goll mac Morna of the Fenian Cycle, his story differs wildly from the one presented in the poem. However, the poem shares many of the traits of Irish mythology, and this inspiration is clear. In the poem, a powerful and benevolent King Goll grows mad in the heart of the battle and abandons his people to wander the woods for the rest of his life. This story holds some similar themes with the most prominent poem of the collection titled “The Stolen Child” (Yeats 1892).
“The Stolen Child” was written in 1886 and published in Irish Monthly. It presents a classic portrayal of mythological fairies luring an innocent child into the woods through enticing imagery and hypnotizing verse. The poem consists of 54 lines divided into four stanzas. Each stanza ends with a reprise that addresses the child and the reader, commanding them the leave their life behind and come to the magical land of fairies, where they would not know the sadness that is present in the world.
Their true intent is more sinister, however, as the world they describe is cold and dark. By coming with them, the child would not be able to live a normal life and would have to lose all connection to human society. Irish mythology involves a variety of creatures that could be the inspiration for this story. They are likely to be forest spirits who were often blamed for stealing and replacing children in medieval literature (Yeats 1892).
The poem is a straight narrative that shows the process of fairies luring the child into their home in the wilderness. The process is gradual, and the reader experiences the narrative along with the child. The first stanza of the poem describes a beautiful land of woods and lakes. Yeats mentions Sleuth Wood which is another name for Slishwood, a beautiful area in Sligo which Yeats often visited. It is a picturesque forest with many streams running through it.
Throughout the poem, Yeats describes the beauty of nature in a very Romantic style, emphasizing its attractiveness to the reader and the character of the child. To make the place more enticing, fairies tell the child that they have many delicious berries and cherries stored. In the medieval era, berries were one of the sweetest treats a child could have, which makes the fairy world sound both beautiful and bountiful. However, this stanza holds an ominous hint to the reader that the fairies are not benevolent and that they are malicious. The cherries are described as “stolen,” which shows that fairies do not see theft as a negative action.
This line also creates a parallel with the title of the poem, as the child will be stolen just like the cherries. The stanza ends with a reprise of fairies commanding the child to “come away” to their land because the world of the humans holds too much sorrow for the child to understand at their young age. The last line is especially effective as it addresses both the child and the reader through using the word “you” (Yeats 1892).
The second stanza describes life in the fairy world. At first glance, the description sounds like a pleasant world of dancing, playing, and friendship. The fairies promise companionship through hand holding and eye contact. Their world seems to lie near streams which they use as playgrounds by chasing bubbles while forgetting about the problems of the outside world. Despite the playful rhythm and the nature of the described activities, the description shows a dark world that only lives when the moon comes up.
This shows a separation between the world of humans, who usually only live in the daytime, and the fairies who only live in the night. The human world is shown negatively, with its people sleeping in anxious sleep because of the issues they experience in their daily lives. This lets the child consider that leaving the human world might be better than staying there. The stanza ends with the same reprise (Yeats 1892).
The third stanza combines the imagery of the Sligo with the mischievous activity of the fairies. Their world is shown as being very small in scale, suggesting that the forest spirits are much smaller in size than the child. One of the things they do at night is give sleeping fish bad dreams by whispering in their ears. It is a slightly humorous image, but it suggests the lack of respect for other leaving creatures despite their nature as forest spirits. The reprise repeats for the last time because the final stanza slightly changes it (Yeats 1892).
The final stanza separates the child from the reader because the fairies no longer address the child, but describe his actions instead. The child is finally lured into the wilderness, and will never be a part of the human world again. This is the first time the reader sees any positive imagery of the human world with the comfort of warm hills and domestic life. The eyes of the child are solemn which suggests that they might not be doing this under their free will. The reprise also changes for now the fairies describe how the child is leaving the world with them (Yeats 1892).
Occult Thought and Inspiration of Yeats
W.B. Yeats’ later works were often closely related to his occult philosophy that he described in his book “A Vision.” The book itself is highly dense with a basis in many spiritual and philosophical beliefs that Yeats was interested in during his life. The book was inspired by the automatic writing experiments with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees. Allegedly, her contacts with various spirits led to the creation of the esoteric system of gyres and moon phases that control the course of history and human behavior (Jeffares 2001).
This system of beliefs has shaped some of the most prominent works of these later years, and it deserves a brief overview and analysis for further understanding of his work. As mentioned earlier in the paper, Yeats was fascinated with occult ideas and took this system very seriously (Greaves 2002).
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The original book was published in 1925 and has received a revised edition in 1937. The 1937 edition revises many of the chapters and shows the continued interest of Yeats in this system. The overall system is very complex and compartmentalized. Despite the unusual nature of some ideas he proposes, the system is internally coherent and described in detail. The system is based on the interactions of two cones which are referred to as “gyres” spinning in opposite directions.
Each of the cones represents the opposite of the other. One of them is considered the “primary” cone and the other the “antithetical” cone. Both of the cones have their ages that are dependent on the spinning of the cones. The values and nature of the age are defined by the nature and characteristics of the cone that is currently the dominant one. The primary cone represents the universe and its microcosms. It is focused on the collective of people, with no focus on individuality. Its characteristics are knowledge and objective truth. Yeats calls this age the ”objective” age, and it is driven by the interest of a collective group with a focus on empirical knowledge.
The antithetical cone represents things that Yeats considered the opposite of the values of the primary gyre. Instead of the universe as a whole, it represents a small microcosm, with people being representatives of the universe at large. Individualism is prioritized as opposed to the collective. Its characteristics are beauty and creativity. Yeats calls the age of this gyre the “subjective” age. What is unusual is that despite the political preference for authoritarian governments that he has shown in his later years, Yeats has a larger interest in the subjective age that focuses on the will of the individual (Yeats 1937).
The change of age is accompanied by a crisis point which is often represented by an important, historical event. The old age is destroyed through these events, and a new one is created. One of these events is described in his 1924 poem “Leda and the Swan.” The poem focuses on the rape of Leda by Zeus who takes the form of a swan. Unlike the majority of Yeats’ poems, “Leda and the Swan” is written as a sonnet. The poem itself is short and consists of 14 lines divided into three stanzas (Yeats 2017).
The first two stanzas describe the disturbing assault on the young girl. To show the severity of this event, Yeats opens the poem with the words “a sudden blow.” There is no preamble, which means the reader has no time to adjust to this terrible act. While the first stanza describes the scene, the second describes how Leda is unable to push the Swan away, while questioning the strange nature of the creature. Both stanzas are violent but also show the deceiving nature of the creature. Throughout them, both positive and negative images are used to describe the swan. It is a “feathered glory,” but at the same time, its feet are “dark webs” (Yeats 2017).
However, the final stanza is most important. When the act is finished, Yeats shifts perspective to the future. Leda is the mother of Helen of Troy, and this act is directly responsible for the Trojan War, the fall of Troy, and the subsequent death of Agamemnon (Yeats 2017). This line of events would eventually lead to the rise of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Christianity (Prince 2014). This idea is linked to the change of the ages described in his philosophy.
Yeats suggests that these changes are accompanied by the deities intervening with the world of the mortal people. He calls these interventions “annunciations” and describes the next change of era in his poem “The Second Coming.” He believed that he was living at the end of a subjective era with the second coming being the annunciation that would bring about the next objective era (Yeats 1937).
The spiritual side of Yeats’ work is often overlooked due to its obscure nature. However, an understanding of his occult philosophy can lead to a better understanding of his later work. His love of Celtic myth, however, is undeniable. It is only fitting that one of his last works was a play titled “The Death of Cuchulain” which reimagined the story of the hero’s death.
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Prince, M 2014, ‘Helen of Rome?: Helen in Vergil’s Aeneid’, Helios, vol. 41, no. 2, pp.187-214.
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