Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Lenka Pokorná

Celtic Elements in Yeats’s Early Poetry and Their Influence on Irish National Identity
Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Michael Matthew Kaylor, Ph.D.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature

I would like to thank my supervisor Michael Matthew Kaylor, PhD. for his patient guidance and helpful advice, as well as support and reassurance when I most needed it. I am also grateful to my classmates and friends Petra Králová, Ondřej Harušek and Viktor Dvořák for reading the thesis and for their valuable comments. Great thanks also to my boyfriend, for helping me with the formal structure of the thesis.

Table of Contents
1. Introduction 5

2. Theoretical Part......... 7

2.1. Historical background 7

2.2. Self-fashioning 19

2.2.1. Epic integrity 20

2.2.2. Artificial Self-Fashioning …................................19

2.3. Role of Art in Ireland 30

3. Analytical Part......... 42

3.1. Otherworld.. 42

3.1.1. Otherworld as a physical place 45

3.1.2. Otherworld as a realm beyond senses 54

3.1.3. General motifs in the poetry on the Otherworld 64

3.2. Otherwordly beings 68

3.2.1. Classification and description of the otherworldly beings 68

3.2.2. Themes of freedom, desire and uneasiness 73

3.2.3. Motifs connected the Sidhe 78

3.3. Transcendence 84

3.3.1. Death 84

3.3.2. Kidnappers 88

3.3.3. Art and love 91

3.3.4. Metaphor of transcendence of the nation 94

4. Conclusion 96

Works cited 98

1. Introduction

William Butler Yeats certainly ranks among the greatest poets of the 20th century and is closely associated with the Irish Literary Revival, as a poet, dramatist, and to an extent, as a fiction writer. Being so famous a poet, there is no doubt that heaps of books have been written on him, viewing his work from many different angles. What this thesis attempts to do is to offer a little more insight into his early work, which is paid much less critical attention to, in comparison with his mature poems he was awarded a Nobel Prize for.

The thesis aims to present a concise picture of young Yeats set against the broader cultural context of the late 19th century Ireland and to analyse his contribution into the process of self-fashioning of the Irish as a nation. It also explores this process itself – two different strategies are employed when creating a national identity: re-creation of the ancient epic integrity; and defining the nation in negative terms, as “not-English”. These two strategies overlap in the use of mythology and folklore as a cornerstone of the self-fashioning process.

Yeats, too, leaned on mythology, ancient legends and folklore, in order to avail of them in his poetry as a vehicle to lead the nation towards a metaphorical transcendence. The main question posed by this thesis is: “How does he achieve that?” To answer this question, the analytical part discusses the recurring Celtic elements in his work, in particular focuses on the themes and motifs connected to these elements. Yeats employs certain motifs repeatedly and the thesis will analyse these very motifs, in order to recognize in what ways Yeats uses them to influence the Irish national consciousness. These motifs are, the thesis argues, tied to mythological and folkloric themes, as well as to topical themes related to life in the 19th century Ireland, which enables them to influence the readers on various levels.

The late 19th century was a transitory period in general – the turn of the 20th century was at hand, Modernism was gradually replacing the Victorian period. However, the prospect of change was in Ireland even more immediate than elsewhere; Ireland was hoping to transcend its own colonial limitations and, in the coming century, become a free nation. For this reason, the theme of transcendence is given special attention in the thesis, focusing on motifs such as the Otherworld, fairies and the depiction of transcendence itself, as rooted in folkore and mythology.

As the thesis is focused on Yeats’s earlier work, various poems from the period between 1886 and 1900 are analysed;1 mostly taken from the first three collections of poems: Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), Rose (1893) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)2. Furthermore, the thesis deals with two plays, taking into consideration the aesthetic beauty of their language and style, they can be analysed alongside the poetry as long dramatic poems. What is, finally, necessary to say is that this thesis leans heavily on primary sources, which makes the view of the period and the ongoing social and cultural processes coloured through Yeats’s personal accounts. However, historic accuracy is not the primary goal; rather the depiction of the mystical world Yeats created in his poetry.

2. Theoretical Part

2.1. Historical background

When speaking about Irish history, many people tend to see it through works of literature rather than through detached historical analyses. This may be the result of the strivings of 19th century nationalist politicians who sought to create a counter-culture that would contrast with the existing Unionist elite, by producing mass romantic literature (The Oxford Companion to Irish History - OCH 320) which, according to Yeats, spoke “out of a people to a people” (Selected Criticism 256). Further, this literature was seen as the genuine history which has a “privileged access to Irishness”, while history, in the strict sense, was seen as an Anglo-Irish colonial imposture (OCH 320).

Alongside the Romantic Movement throughout Europe, in Ireland cultural nationalism was also being promoted, by a group of nationalist writers and politicians who were labelled “the Young Irelanders” in 1844. Among their chief leaders were Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy, all of whom remained influential figures throughout the rest of the century. They “resolved that it is expedient to establish Reading-rooms in the Parishes of Ireland” (Davis 242); and, although the intellectual activities of these societies and clubs “were often narrow and ill informed” (OCH 381), some of these Young Ireland Societies survived the suppression of the Young Ireland Movement, as such, when they attempted an unsuccessful rebellion in 1848. By the end of the 19th century, they operated as “centres of nationalist activity” (OCH 381) which preserved the legacy of the Young Irelanders, whose chief merit was in passing the romantic sense of Ireland to the following generations of nationalists (OCH 603). Thomas Davis essentially laid the foundation-stone of the later Irish Renaissance – “he contrasted the philistinism and gradgrindery of England with the superior idealism and imagination of Ireland” (Kiberd 22). In an essay published in The Nation, a newspaper issued by the Young Irelanders, Davis states that when “a country is without national poetry”, it “proves its hopeless dullness or its utter provincialism” (Davis 223). He understood well that a cultural colony is prone to imitate the literature of the mother country; and in order to gain independence, it was essential to “displace the constricting environment and its forms” (Kiberd 115) and to create a proper national literature different from that of the English. This national form of art was to be the romantic ballad, which Charles Gavan Duffy declared “to be the supreme form of public art” (Dwan, “Ancient Sect” 207). Such ballads were seen as the essential and perhaps basic constituent when defining the nation:

Ballads have been among the first home-grown productions of all countries; and their popularity here, now, is no slight evidence that the national mind is still fresh and earnest, and has the impulses and propensities that belong to a young nation. (Duffy, “Preface, 4th Edition”)

The ballads Duffy is considering are not the popular folk ballads of country peasants, but what he calls “our Anglo-Irish ballads” (“Introduction” to The Ballad Poetry of Ireland 15), representing Irish canonical art as set against that of the English. They were susceptible “of this distinct and intrinsic nationality” (“Introduction” The Ballad Poetry of Ireland 23) – nobody who is not an Irishman could have written them. By making Anglo-Irish ballads the canonical Irish literature of the 19th century, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy was also avowing their own Irish identity. Though still hazy and vague, the “nation” started define itself through literature and art.

However, perhaps the most notable poet of the period – and the greatest influence on the young Yeats – was Samuel Fergusson, who, despite being a Northern Ireland Unionist, was attracted by Davis’s cultural nationalism and turned the national literature’s interest towards mythology. He translated a few Gaelic poems and wrote his own epic poems inspired by Irish legends in which he strove to “present a case for a form of Irish self-government” (Oxford Companion to Irish Literature - OCL 186). His greatest effort was to spread the knowledge of Ancient Ireland in Victorian Ireland (OCL 186) and, thus, to enhance the awareness of Irish national identity. According to Robert Welch, this is a usual phenomenon in colonies and former colonies:

The search for the authentic Irishness and ancient tradition is a phase of the post-colonial experience when the native or the native’s spokesman asserts the continuity of racial substrate of the colony in mystical terms.

(“Introduction” to Writings on Folklore 34)

With this though being dominant during the nationalist era, in 1853 The Ossianic Society was founded by Standish Hayes O’Grady, its main aim being to preserve and publish the manuscripts of ancient Ireland (OCL 458); for these scholars believed that, to build the identity of a nation, it is important to know the history of the people’s ancestors and to ask the question, “How did their personality affect the minds of their people and posterity?” (O’Grady, Cuchulain 2).

The effort to create a link to the aforementioned “racial substrate of the colony” was not seen only in literature and art. From the ashes of the Young Ireland Movement a new movement arose – the Fenians. They were a secret nationalist organization founded by James Stephens, which later became known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and which functioned from the second half of the 19th century into the 20th (OCH 189, 272). By the very act of naming themselves the “Fenians”, they reinforced the nationalist message they were willing to fight for, asserting their identity as a continuation of the mythological past – for, in the Fionn Cycle of Irish mythology, the “Fenians” were the members of the Fianna, a group of the toughest warriors in Ireland of their time, its protectors. It was a good choice, since the Fionn Cycle was the most popular and widely known of such works (MacCana 106), and, therefore, all the better to be employed in the process of modelling a national identity. Moreover, the typical motif of mythological heroes waiting in some reclusive place until the need to save the country arises (in this case, manifested by a well known legend about mythological heroes sleeping in a cave from whence “they will emerge to save Ireland” in “the last hour of doom” [Tynan qtd. in Williams 306]), enabled the members of the Fenian Movement to assert their continuity to and even their identification with their mythological predecessors.

Among the most famous Fenians was John O’Leary, who had a major influence on the Irish Renaissance of the 1880s. He was a romantic and heroic figure – a fighting Fenian and revolutionary who had suffered hardships in an English prison, but was well read in poetry and letters at the same time (OCL 444). When, in 1885, he was allowed to return to Dublin, young emerging authors “flocked about him to take fire from his lips” (Tynan 267). Katharine Tynan, one of the prominent figures of the early literary revival, described him as “a dear, great, simple, heroic old man” who “was something of a literary critic to us” (Tynan 267). O’Leary, in a way, initiated Yeats into nationalism and was responsible for his development as a national poet; by giving him Young Ireland poetry to read, by influencing his ideas on nation and literature, by urging him to join the Young Ireland Society and introducing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (Foster 43, Jeffares 100), and, most importantly, by serving as an “example of a man without hope of success whose service was none the less devoted to a romantic, idealised conception of nationalism” (Jeffars, Man and Poet 30). Yeats himself acknowledges this in his Reveries over Childhood and Youth:

From these debates, from O’Leary’s conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since. (Autobiographies 125)

O’Leary became the centre of nationalist cultural life in Dublin in the late 1880s, where meetings were held on a weekly basis in clubs and societies, such as the Young Ireland Society (a continuation of the Young Ireland Societies of the 1840s), whose ethos was, under O’Leary as its president, “distinctly armchair Fenian” (Foster 42); and the Contemporary Club, a place where “Unionist and Nationalist could interrupt one another and interrupt one another without the formal and traditional restraint of public speech” (Yeats, Autobiographies 115). At these meetings, “the social, political and literary questions of the day” were discussed (Yeats qtd. in Foster 41), with young men and their older mentors mostly constituting the core of these societies (OCH 380). Apart from O’Leary, the other famous attendees of these meetings included Douglas Hyde, the future founder of the Gaelic League, whose “Irish songs were made as independently as though no Anglo-Irish writer had come before him: as though none should come after him” (Tynan 267); Katharine Tynan, a young poet and Yeats’s close friend, whose “impassioned and instinctive Catholicism was a permanent part of Irish literature” (Yeats qtd. in Foster 55)3; George Russell, writing under the penname Æ, who was, in Tynan’s words, “the dreamer of dreams [and] seer of visions” (267); Michael Davit, a former Fenian; as well as T. W. Rolleston, J. F. Taylor, and the Yeatses, both father and son. Especially in the Young Ireland Societies, apart from discussing political opinions, many young, unknown poets – “men whose names,” Yeats’s admits, “you have not heard” (Ideas of Good and Evil 1) – continued in the tradition of looking for their national identity through a literature which would be autonomous:

If somebody could make a style which would not be an English style and yet would be musical and full of colour, many others would catch fire from him, and we would have a really great school of ballad poetry in Ireland. (Ideas of Good and Evil 2)

The goal was not only to create national ballad poetry, but also to nurture a national identity which would unify all the people of Ireland, “catching fire” one from another. In this spirit, “Unity of Culture” would become the binding force to achieve the unity of the nation – in the words of Thomas Carlyle, they would become men “animated by one great Idea” (Whitaker 326). The kind of outlook coloured the nationalism of the late 1880s and 1890s with a tint of mysticism, as well as interconnected the two (especially for Yeats and Æ), which further promoted concerns for acquiring and crafting Celtic material.

Yeats might have adopted some of these ideas from Standish O’Grady, who became known as the “Father of the Literary Revival in Ireland” (Boyd 18). Described by Lady Gregory as a “Fenian Unionist” (Boyd 17), he was attracted to Irish legends, which, being part of the people’s history, could serve to unite the Irish. His attitude to these legends was, however, not that of a sober scholarly academic, but rather that of a novelist. He attempted to popularize these legends, and “adopted a style at once high flown and graphic to convey the grandeur, as he saw it, of the [mythological] cycle” (OCL 434). Most famously, he wrote the two-volume History of Ireland: Heroic Period (1878) and History if Ireland: Chuchulain and his Contemporaries (1880). Through these books, he “filled a fruitful generation of young writers with the proud consciousness of nationality divorced from mere politics” and directed them back to the roots of “national thought” (Boyd 18). His “multifarious knowledge of Gaelic legend and Gaelic history and a most Celtic temperament have put him in communion with the moods that have [always] been over Irish purposes” (Yeats qtd. in Hirsh, “Irish Peasant” 1121). In the same way that, in Davis’s era of the 1860s, national ballads were seen as a touchstone of nationalism, in the late 1880s and 1890s mythology and supernatural Celticism became the basis of national thought, and the focus was moved more towards writing that could be dubbed “mystical.”

While societies and clubs flourished on the cultural scene, the political scene was dominated by the Land War and the Home Rule Movement. Home Rule was the aim of constitutional nationalists, and it entailed having the same ruler, executive and council for state affaires, while home affaires would by solved by each country’s own parliaments. The leader of the Irish parliamentary party since 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell, who was often seen as “the solitary and proud” leader (Yeats, Autobiographies 241), led the movement with extreme success and, by 1885, “Fenianism seemed the heroic past and the Parnellite constitutionalism the hopeful future” (Foster 41). However, his plans for Ireland, despite seeming promising, were thwarted in 1889 by the public revelation of his lengthy affair with Cathy O’Shea, a married woman. His reputation suffered greatly: Gladstone refused to proceed in his dealings with “an adulterer”; and, consequently, Parnell lost the by-elections, being “denounced as a public sinner unfit for leadership” by the Roman Catholic Church (Kiberd 23). Catholic Ireland, in particular, campaigned against Parnellism, which was labelled “simple love for adultery” (Kee 202). As a result, his party split. Even though the reality was less black and white, traditionally he was assessed as a man with a “brilliant career brought to a tragic end” (OCH 431). This is also what Yeats and his circle thought about Parnell; O’Leary, Tynan and Yeats firmly adhered to the Parnellite camp, claiming that Parnell “has driven up into dust and vacuum no end of insincerities” (Yeats qtd. in Foster 113). Yeats himself saw Parnell as a martyr, perhaps even an incarnation of the proud, stern heroism of old. Yet after the failure of Parnell’s politics and his death in 1891, with the political hopes for achieving Home Rule being shattered, it was the cultural movement which took up the mantle of upholding and developing nationalism. Yeats expressed this stance in the end of his Four Years:

“It was the death of Parnell that convinced me that the moment had come for work in Ireland, for I knew that for a time the imagination of young men would turn from politics.” (91)

That fact that many of the Irish intellectuals who had taken Parnell’s side had grown disillusioned by contemporary political events provided fertile ground for a “mission to create a national literature from 1891” (Foster 115). This is, however, not exactly true; national literary societies as well as the broader “Cultural Revolution” cannot be considered as only the result of political activism being squelched – these societies abounded already in the 1880s, and were originally intended to support Parnellite constitutionalism (Foster 43). Still, it is a common claim, whether myth or not, that Parnell’s fall enhanced the Literary Revival. Later in his life, Yeats liked to present it this way, which can be seen in his Nobel Prize lecture, delivered in 1923:

The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891. A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics; an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation. (Selected Criticism 195)

Thus, the Literary Revival per se – seen as an Anglo-Irish effort to revive Irish literature written in England through the use of “Gaelic material” – began in the 1890s with the fall of Parnell, though this revival was firmly rooted in the literary societies of the 1880s and its precursors, reaching back to Standish O’Grady and even to Samuel Fergusson. It was soon dominated by names such as Yeats, Augusta Gregory, Synge and Hyde (OCH 319)

Yeats was definitely the moving force of the Revival; in the words of George Moore, “All the Irish movement rose out of Yeats and return to Yeats” (qtd. in Reid 150). However, in the 1890s his prospects did not seem particularly promising. The Revival was not a homogenous movement; there was “no consensus on how identity was to be defined or preserved” (OCH 319); and, for a young author, it was extremely difficult to win recognition as the future national poet whose art was meant to unite the country. In his Autobiographies, Yeats bitterly remembers the Dublin “after Parnell”:

… picking and dropping men merely because it likes, or dislikes, their manners, and their looks, and in its stead opinion crushes and rends, and all is hatred and bitterness: when biting upon wheel, a roar of steel or iron tackle, a mill of argument grinding all things down to mediocrity. (285)

Yeats had a particular reason for this bitterness, for he strove to establish a national literature canon, based on an Irish style that would make Ireland “beautiful in memory” (Autobiographies 126), that would be non-English and yet not provincial and restricted. However, in an environment too influenced by the “Young Ireland images and metaphors” (Autobiographies 251) – which Yeats criticized as not being good poetry (Selected Criticism 256) – he was doomed to failure, and was “accused of being under English influence” (Jeffars, Man and Poet 77). He was forced from the national literary scene by older and more distinguished authors such as Charles Gavan Duffy, who returned in the 1890s from Australia and, as the incarnation of the famous Young Ireland Movement, gained control over the literary circles in Dublin. Duffy was taking, however, a backward step – what he wanted, according to Yeats, was to “complete the Young Ireland Movement” (Autobiographies 279), republishing and publishing unpublished works by the generations of the 1840s and 1850s (Autobiographies 281). Some of this nationalist literary activity, as represented by the younger and fresher generation, moved to London, where Yeats lived from 1887 to 1891, the year he founded the London Irish Literary Society, “which soon included every London Irish author and journalist” (Yeats, Four Years 92). However, the precursor of this society was likely the already well-established Rhymer’s Club in London, one of whose members and co-founders was Yeats himself. The club had a Celtic flavour and orientation (Foster 107), with a predominance of Irish membership, including the likes of Yeats, Rolleston, Todhunter, Wilde and Lionel Johnson (Welch, Companion 274). Johnson, who was neither born nor raised in Ireland, but who was the son of an Irish officer, felt drawn to the Revival, and is often seen as one of the Revivalists writing poetry for the Irish cause (OCL 274).

Subsequently, Yeats returned to Dublin, where he founded the National Literary Society and placed O’Leary in its presidential chair. He was full of ambition: he was busily planning a series of public lectures about national literature to be delivered by his lifelong love, Maud Gonne (Jeffares 75), who could “draw great crowds out of the slums by her beauty and sincerity” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 5); he launched a project for editing a series of books to be called “The Library of Ireland” (Foster 117). However, while bringing these plans to realization, he found opponents not only in Gavan Duffy, J.F. Taylor and the older generation – who must have seen him as a young man too rude to follow tradition (Yeats, Autobiographies 279) – but also in his contemporaries, who turned against him because, according to O’Leary, they “were jealous” (Autobiographies 282).

Clubs and societies associated with the National Literary Society and professing cultural nationalism flourished in this period, and, in 1892, Yeats established the Irish National Dramatic Society (Jeffares 119). Although founded earlier, the Gaelic Athletic Association took an openly revolutionary stance in the 1890s (OCH 212); and, more importantly, the Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, “the greatest folklorist that ever lived”, and one who “was to create a great popular movement” (Yeats, Autobiographies 270). Although the League was not meant as a political movement, Patrick Pearse, looking back, called it “the most revolutionary influence that has ever come to Ireland” (qtd. in Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1122). This demonstrates the importance of the cultural nationalism of the 1890s in defining what it meant to be Irish and in establishing national identity.

The creed of the era was “deanglicization” – whether through language or through cultural deanglicization in general. Disputes arose between the Irish Ireland branch, who thought it important to build national identity on the basis of language, and the nationalists, who were mainly from protestant backgrounds and were opposed to this idea, understanding deanglicization rather on the level of confronting English utilitarianism with the Irish nobleness they believed still resided in folklore, mythology and some kind of Celtic abstract transcendence to higher values (Kiberd 136-54). Peasants were defined by the Revivalists as “the essence of an ancient, dignified Irish culture”, and their “supernatural folklore and imaginative wealth” were “posed against the modern industrial and commercial British spirit” (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1120). In such a context, folklore gained even greater importance than before in the creation of Irish identity. In 1890, Douglas Hyde wrote Beside the Fire, the “first really scientific treatment of Irish folklore” (Bramsbäck 12), and Yeats compiled and edited two books of Irish folk tales: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and Irish Fairy Tales (1892). His Celtic Twilight, “a big book about the commonwealth of faery” (The Celtic Twilight 3), appeared in 1893; it was this book that gave the Revival its popular nickname, “The Celtic Twilight” (OCH 319). Yeats also befriended Lady Augusta Gregory, a protestant aristocratic folklorist and a “fairy godmother” (Russell, Imaginations and Reveries 28) of the Revival, who, at the turn of the 20th century, translated and wrote a complete encapsulation of Irish Mythology, published as Gods and Fighting Men and Cúchalain Muirtheme. Further, she and Yeats co-founded the Irish National Theatre, one of the main executive forces of the Revival.

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