The fin de siecle, or late 1800's, was an era not unlike our own: now we see many seeking "New Age" enlightenment; likewise, Yeats and many of his contemporaries looked for meaning in various areas of the supernatural. Ripe as the late 1800's were for spawning occult study, those were also times of political turmoil for the Irish, and Yeats became involved with Irish nationalism as well. His desire to express this nationalism was given voice through a Celtic literature that he hoped would inform and inspire his countrymen. Falling in love with a beautiful firebrand Irish patriot (who also had a taste for the occult) only served to further ignite the Celtic flames of imagination in Yeats.
References to supernatural Celtic beings and the Irish spirit world abound in Yeats's early poetry. To make these passages seem less arcane, a look at the Tuatha de Danaan, the Sidhe, and the fairies is helpful.
The Tuatha de Danaan literally means "people of the goddess Danu," Danu being a Celtic land or mother goddess, perhaps derived from the Sanskrit river goddess, Danu. Other associated names for her were the Welsh "Don," Irish "Anu" or "Ana," "Mor-Rioghain," and "Brighid."
The Tuatha de Dannan were considered supernatural, angelic-like beings who came to Ireland and encountered two groups that they successfully overcame. Epic battles were waged to defeat both the Firbolgs and the Fomorians.
The Firbolgs, early Irish settlers, were a short, dark race of men who derived their name from carrying clay in bags, or boilg, hence the name "fir bolg" meaning "bag men." Believed to be of early Greek origin, the mortal Firbolgs were overthrown by the god-like Tuatha de Danaan.
The other army that lost in combat with the Danaan fighters were the Fomorians, another supernatural race, but from cold northern climes, evil and generally grotesque, not settlers like the Firbolgs, but sea-raiders.
The victory of the Danaan race was short-lived, however, for they were likewise conquered by the Gaelic Sons of Mil from Spain. At their defeat, the Tuatha de Danaan chose to "go underground" and live in barrows and cairns. This new habitat led to another name for the Tuatha de Danaan when they became known as the Sidhe.
Sidhe literally means "a mound" or "a thrust," and since the Danaan people were associated with mounds, barrows and tumuli, they became known as the People of the Sidhe. Their association with the wind came from a belief in Danaan presence in a whirlwind, "sidhe gaoithe," literally, a "thrust of wind." The more common, widely-known name of "fairy" came from the unwillingness of the people to call the Sidhe or Danaan folk by their name, for that was considered bad luck. Euphemisms such as "hill folk," "the gentry," "wee folk," "good folk," "blessed folk," "good neighbors," or "fair folk" abounded, and "fair folk" was shortened to "fairies."
Other names worth noting in the Irish fairy lore are Banshee, Leprechaun, and Puca. The Banshee (bean si) is the female, or "Ban" sidhe, but more particularly, had the function of keening like a mortal woman when a family member died, whether the deceased was present in the family home or not. The Leprechaun (luprachan) is widely known in America, but less so in Ireland. It was a localized term from north Leinster for a diminutive guardian of hidden treasure. Yeats said the leprechauns were descended from the Fomorians (Jeffares, Commentary, 12). The Puca (Puck) was originally a supernatural animal that took people for nightmarish rides, leaving them exhausted the next day.
All the Sidhe (or Si, in modern Irish) were associated with many supernatural abilities. Believed to live side by side with the human world, both beneficial and harmful interactions would take place. Fairies were feared to be interested in stealing people, especially babies of new mothers, and if someone took ill, they could be accused of being a "changeling," left by the Sidhe in place of the original healthy individual. The dreaded "Slua Sidhe" of fairies was an evening cavalcade, out to do some mischief or harm. Fairies, however, were also welcomed when they helped the poor, did chores, left money for people or endowed them with great talent, so they weren't always considered devilish. Not knowing quite how to consider the fairies presented a conundrum that was partially addressed in Christian times by the proposition that they were fallen angels, left where they fell, hence, in water, air, or land.
The uncertainties that these creatures presented made people seek various protections for themselves against fairy mischief. Among the measures taken were: putting iron on a barn or house (hence, the familiar horseshoe over a door), tying on a red ribbon or religious amulet, or sprinkling rooms or people with urine (fairies were considered too fastidious to abide this). It was believed dangerous to disturb fairy dwellings, including raths (ancient forts), lisses (abandoned homesteads), and hills. Isolated trees and bushes were also regarded to be their domain and, therefore, to be left untouched. If a person was taken to a fairy kingdom, cautionary tales warned not to partake of the food if one wished to ever return to mortal realms again. If people spent too much time with the fair folk, they could get "fairy stroke" or "poic sidhe," and become all- knowing, yet fools.
May Eve and Samhain Eve (Halloween) were especially associated with fairy movement, so people tended to stay indoors or would at least avoid fairy paths on those nights. Bad luck was also linked to any construction on fairy paths at any time.
Because the fairies could use their "glamour" (enchantment) and could change form or put on the "feth fiadh" (cloak of concealment) at will, attempts were made to keep them appeased. Food was left out for them; the first drops of milk were put on the floor for them, and walls would receive a libation of the first drops of whisky from a still.
This rich plethora of folklore was woven into Yeats's childhood. In Sligo, his mother shared local fairy stories in the kitchen with neighbors, and his uncle's servant, Mary Battle, provided local tales as well. Paddy Flynn, an old man of Ballisodare, loved to recount local legends, and all these tales of the fair folk interested young Willie Yeats.
Although his mother had raised him with a belief in the supernatural, including both church-going and fairy stories, his father was outspokenly skeptical. Always fascinated by the spirit realm, but not seeking answers in the traditional church, Yeats began to explore ways to refute his father's arguments, including the study of Esoteric Buddhism and Theosophy, and he incorporated the same interest in mysticism and the supernatural into his writing.
A relationship with the Irish patriot John O'Leary honed Yeats's desire to produce an Irish literature that would accomplish the goals of educating the Irish about their heritage, linking their heroic past with their somewhat uncertain present, giving them a sense of pride and a literature of nationalism. He wanted to create a literature not so political but more personal compared to what had been the style of the popular patriotic writing of his time. Yeats wanted to serve Ireland's needs, but not at the price of sacrificing his own artistic goals. He wrote to Lady Gregory, "I have always felt my mission in Ireland is to serve taste rather than any definite propaganda" (Skelton, 6).
In 1886, the Irish orientation in Yeats's poetry was first manifested in "The Stolen Child" with its haunting refrain, "Come away. . .for the world's more full of weeping than you can understand" (Poems, 18). This was the beginning of a major theme that Yeats used repeatedly in his poetry, the idea of fairyland as an escape from the real world to a timeless place, a perfect realm of no feeling or emotion, hence, no pain, and the very human temptation to flee from pain into such an escape. Fairy realms were indeed associated with death, but escape to the immortal realms for Yeats meant not just a physical death, but rather death to the will and the ego.
The yearning to leave this world was a major element in "The Wanderings of Oisin" (351- 386). Yeats's identification with the warrior-poet, Oisin, chosen by the lovely fairy creature Niamh, coincided with his own desire to leave his celibate isolation. Niamh convinced Oisin to go with her to the Land of the Young, where they visited for one hundred years , each: the Island of Dancing, the Island of Victories, and the Island of Forgetfulness. The poem shows how the escape to the unconscious or spirit side does not satisfy, for all these different forms of the escape did not content Oisin. As Niamh told him, "None know" (374) where an "island of content" may lie, but it does not exist in Tir-Nan-Oge (the Land of the Young). Longing to return to his mortal companions, the Fenians, causes him to go again to the earthly realms, desiring a departure from what Yeats later calls "vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose" (347), for nothing of the world of the spirit, the unemotional, timeless realm of imagination and aspiration, can completely satisfy the human soul; his warrior nature craves again the human action and power that are meaningful for him, and so seeks his former fighting companions who operate in the realm of experience and will. An accident forces him to stay in that human realm, but he's no longer satisfied with it, either, for time, another human element, has affected and changed it.
Another theme Yeats explored in his fairy symbolism is one of tension between the spirit world and ours. Because the Sidhe world existed side by side with the human world, both sides needed each other. The immaterial world needed the material one, and vice versa, but couldn't become one; day and night, moon and sun, silver and gold: all were related, but distinctly different from each other. The tension between the two worlds reverberates in "The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland" (43-45), in which the dreamer of the poem can find no comfort in this life when his thoughts are constantly turned to the other. The interaction between the two worlds may produce artistic creation, as in the poetry of "Red Hanrahan" (Mythologies, 211-261), but this interaction is at a great cost. Hanrahan lived an ascetic and solitary life after his encounter with the Sidhe, and found no joy or comfort in this life. He therefore suffered the same fate as the man who "Dreamed;"discontent haunted him after his life was deeply influenced by the world of imagination.
The balance of attraction and tension of one world with the other is seen in "The Wanderings of Oisin" as well. Niamh is attracted to Oisin because of his poetry; she said his words are "like coloured Asian birds at evening." (Poems, 357), yet when he arrives in Tir-Nan- Oge, the fairies can't stand to listen to his songs that are so full of human emotion. Neither can he bear to stay forever in Niamh's world, but craves his own again, in spite of his love for her.
One example of these diverse worlds mixing successfully is perhaps in Cuchulain, the offspring of both a supernatural and a mortal being. He was certainly a man of great accomplishment, so perhaps Yeats saw some hope for the occasional profitable linking of the two worlds.
Artistic accomplishment such as poetry, was certainly an evidence of one world influencing the other with a successful outcome. Beauty, also, could be a reflection of the influence of the supernatural upon this world. The Danaan race was always portrayed as beautiful, and Yeats certainly seemed to have had "fairy stroke" when he dealt with the subject of Maud Gonne.
His description of their first meeting was as if she were of the supernatural world; he said her beauty belonged to "poetry, some legendary past. . .she seemed of a divine race. . .she seems like a goddess. . ." (Jeffares, Man 59).
She so enchanted him that he tried all the more to incorporate Irish themes into his writing to prove to her his patriotism, as well as to show his personal love and admiration for her. She shared his interest in the Irish folklore, so it was natural for Yeats to continue to write in a way that incorporated these elements.
"The White Birds" (Poems, 41-42) was inspired by a comment she made about wanting to be a seagull (Jeffares, Man 68), and she enjoyed traveling about with many birds in cages, so perhaps those became part of the inspiration for Yeats's prolific use of bird imagery. "The White Birds" offers again an escape into fairy land, since fairy birds are white, and twilight, the time of mingling of the two worlds, is mentioned several times. He wishes to escape mortal concerns as he is "haunted by. . .many a Danaan shore" (Poems, 41), and "time" and "sorrow," elements of the mortal realm, have no place there.
Maud is compared in "The Rose of the World" (36) to Helen of Troy, who was sired by a god, so her beauty, and beauty in general, is related again to supernatural elements. That same connection also made her like Helen, a source of trouble because of such great desirability.
Beauty, if too ethereal, leads to disaster, and Yeats's unrequited love must have left him feeling like the character in his "Song of Wandering Aengus" (59), who spent his life seeking a beautiful but unattainable fairy figure. Too much commerce with the fairy world can drive one to become a fool, here exemplified by always seeking the twilight manifestation of something that cannot exist in the light of day.
Yeats's relationship with Maud was also echoed in the early play, "The Countess Kathleen": although the bard, Kevin, like Yeats, would sing to Kathleen of fairy stories to take her mind off her social work, Kathleen, like Maud, sees her work for the poor as being of primary importance in her life. Kevin's love and his poetry, even when filled of tales from the world of imagination, can't win her away from this world. Yeats must have felt similarly frustrated. He portrayed Kathleen as in danger of losing her soul in order to save the poor, for whom she cared so much. Kevin couldn't convince her to change, nor could Yeats convince Maud to change.
The Sidhe, the Danaan race, or fairies, whichever you prefer, all represented the world of the unconscious, the imagination, the timeless, and the perfect in Yeats's early poems and prose. They made an ideal symbolic contrast to the changing human world of ego, will, time, and emotion, and gave Yeats a mighty framework for expression of his ideas in his writing. Yeats's fascination with the bountiful history and folklore of Ireland provided this wealth of symbolism for his writing, as well as a vehicle to express his national pride and his love for a woman. We are all the richer that Yeats did, "cast my heart into my rhymes" (51), and that heart was, indeed, Irish.
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September 25, 1998