Death and Eternity: The Irish Heritage of W.B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats is widely recognized as one of Ireland’s greatest poets, as well as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. A 1923 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Yeats was fascinated by his native country’s history, culture, and lore; he devoted much of his literary efforts to recognizing Ireland’s legendary past and the characters that populate it. Drawing on centuries of Celtic mythology and Irish legend, Yeats infused much of his poetry with themes and images of death and eternity. Besides serving to perpetuate Ireland’s romantic history, this characteristically Irish focus references the cultural “paradox” of a land steeped in magical folklore yet functioning in a modern world.
As a boy growing up in western Ireland’s County Sligo, Yeats heard folktales from the locals and became fascinated by Celtic mythology and mysticism. Stories recounting the great deeds of heroes such as Cuchulain (koo-hool-n), Fionn mac Cumhail (fin mac-cool-ee), and King Conchobar (konn-r) of Ulster (a province in northern Ireland) obviously influenced Yeats from his youth—his poetry often alludes to widely known Irish tales or recites them directly. Cuchulain, especially, was significant to Yeats, who wrote at least two poems and five plays about the great hero known as the “Celtic Achilles”1. No matter which hero features in an Irish myth, however, the story is relatively predictable in its characters, action, motifs, and outcome; the majority of Irish legends involve faeries (known to the Irish as the “Good Folk,” among other names), monsters such as multi-headed giants and dragons, helpers usually in the guise of wise men or animals or maidens, and magical numbers (most often three or multiples of three). The tale’s protagonist, generally a young warrior seeking his fortune, must leave home and embark on a quest, during which he encounters danger and receives aid from magical helpers; after facing danger or accomplishing great feats of strength and wit, the hero slays his foe and wins his reward. A particular motif in Irish folklore relevant to much of Yeats’s poetry is the hero’s journey into the Otherworld (Tír ná nÓg, or “Land of the Ever Young”), which is the traditional home of the Good Folk. Often, an Irish hero’s quest will require retrieving some magical object from the Otherworld to prove his worth or bridge to another element of the quest—this journey parallels a shamanic experience with the netherworld, a mystical descent of the soul into a spiritual realm and a return to the mortal world. Thus, the hero “dies” (he is usually gone so long that his loved ones have assumed he is dead), yet he is “reborn” into mortal life having accomplished his quest and achieved fame, wealth, and status.
Yeats’s knowledge of this Irish folklore pattern combined with his interest in the occult to produce a great number of poems alluding to death and eternity simultaneously. It is therefore no surprise to find passages such as the following throughout Yeats’s work:
“Where are now the warring kings?
An idle word is now their glory,
By the stammering schoolboy said,
Reading some entangled story:
The kings of the old time are dead.”
This excerpt taken from the 1889 poem “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” exhibits from the start of Yeats’s career a fascination with death and eternity working with and sometimes against each other. The ancient kings to which the speaker refers in this poem are pronounced as dead, yet the speaker also refers later in the poem to singing “my songs of old earth’s dreamy youth”—so clearly the ancient ones and their lore have not died away completely. Rather, they live on in modern Ireland’s people, such as the “stammering schoolboy,” whose efforts to revive their past ensure that the “warring kings” and ancient Ireland’s other great figures live on. In fact, Yeats proclaims in “The Everlasting Voices” of 1899:
This excerpt emphasizes that Ireland’s mythical past (“Voices”) has endured into present day; the “old” hearts of the Irish still retain their country’s legacy, the land and its creatures still echo the legends of long ago, and those who listen still remember and acknowledge Ireland’s great past. Together, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” and “The Everlasting Voices” exemplify the type of imagery and historical/mythological references common throughout Yeats’s work from the beginning to the end of his career. Starting in childhood, Yeats began to build a romantic concept of Ireland based on ancient mighty heroes and glorious quests—the result was an understanding of Ireland as an enchanted bridge between mortality and eternity, life and death, mundane and magical.
Despite the grand legacy that Yeats and his fellow Irish inherited, much of Ireland’s traditional culture—lore, language, and lifestyle—was by the late nineteenth century in jeopardy of disappearing. Centuries of colonial rule by England and suppression of native Irish Catholics and their culture, as well as the beginning of industrialism and globalization, had left Ireland a meager echo of its ancient, proud self. Yeats and his contemporaries, deeply concerned with the prospect of Ireland’s fading national heritage, set out to reverse this damage. Comments Ryan Hackney, author of 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Irish History, “Intellectuals like William Butler Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and Lady Augusta Gregory called for the preservation and appreciation of Irish storytelling, Celtic art, and the fast-fading Irish language” (p169). Consequently, the motif of death and eternity takes on a more personal, contemporary quality in Yeats’s work—the Celtic warrior’s descent into and return from the Otherworld becomes a modern quest to save Ireland’s past and perpetuate it for both Ireland and the world. Although Yeats and his fellow Irish Revivalists were successful in salvaging Ireland’s traditions, Yeats’s references to death and eternity nevertheless assume a melancholy atmosphere reminiscent of the prospect of losing Irish culture forever:
“Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!
You, too, have come where the dim tides are hurled
Upon the wharves of sorrow, and heard ring
The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.
Beauty grown sad with its eternity
Made you of us, and of the dim grey sea.”
“The Rose of Battle” (1893), addressed to the “Rose of all Roses”—presumably a symbolic Ireland—repeats the motif of death in the midst of beauty (the images of sea and wharves bring to mind coastal Ireland, where Yeats grew up) and enduring beauty despite temporal death. This paradox is quintessentially Irish: Ireland is ancient in both history and memory, and its inhabitants are aware of this fact in their continued passing down of traditional culture. Thus, Ireland is spiritually eternal; yet at the same time, Ireland is not immune to the advances of time, of technology, of human progress. In most cases, the advance of modernism signals a symbolic death or at least a relegation of myth and lore to a lesser stance in everyday life. However, through the efforts of Yeats and others like him concerned with preserving Irish culture, tradition and legend live on in Ireland in spite of the country’s participation in a modern world.
Connections regarding death and eternity can also be made to Yeats personally, particularly in poems written toward the end of his life. One poem in particular, “Cuchulain Comforted,” was written only two weeks before Yeats’s death; it describes Cuchulain’s fate after he finally dies from an enemy’s blade.
“A man that had six mortal wounds, a man
Violent and famous, strode among the dead…
‘But first you must be told our character [said one soul]:
Convicted cowards all by kindred slain
Or driven from home and left to die in fear.’”
According to critic Edward Hirsch, this poem is symbolic of Yeats’s own confrontation with the prospect of his life’s end. “Here the heroic warrior inexplicably finds himself welcomed into the otherworld by singing cowards, his exact opposites in life, whom he joins in death,” says Hirsch; “as his life drew to a close, Yeats struggled to link the circumstances of his own death to that of his chosen Irish hero.” Perhaps Yeats viewed himself as a modern Irish hero (having championed Irish Revivalism and encouraged the Nationalist cause as a senator in the Irish Parliament); perhaps he feared ending up, like Cuchulain, in an afterlife where he would be forced to remain among souls terribly out of tune with his own. Though this is only speculation, “Cuchulain Comforted” is undoubtedly significant due to Yeats’s lifelong interest in Cuchulain and his obvious awareness in the poem of what might be waiting in the afterlife. Hirsch also references an explanation of “Cuchulain Comforted” given by R.F. Forster, Yeats’s primary biographer. “The hero, absorbed into a purgatorial otherworld, has to await resurrection and reincarnation… Yeats’s last poetic vision of the afterlife is not a refuge ‘where the blessed dance,’ nor the transforming dolphin-journey to Byzantium, nor even the reunion rehearsed in numerous séance rooms, but a banishment to the company of outcasts.” It is not unreasonable to assume that, in his last days, Yeats might have been pessimistic and afraid of what would happen after his death. In contrast, about ten years earlier, Yeats had written of death in “Sailing to Byzantium” (referenced above by Forster) in a much more positive tone:
Although Yeats claims here that Byzantium, an ancient center of knowledge and art, is a place for the young and vibrant, he nevertheless professes a belief that an “aged man” can join in the great city’s life if only his soul retains its vitality. This is vastly different from the souls of cowards wrapped in shrouds in “Cuchulain Comforted” and is perhaps indicative of the fact that in 1928, when writing “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats had yet to confront his own death and was thus able to romanticize it as a heroic journey. By 1939, death had likely become more real to Yeats, something stark to be confronted with practicality—for even then Yeats never forgot his beloved homeland. Phyllis Méras states in her guidebook to the British Isles: “Before William Butler Yeats died in France in 1939, he left explicit instructions that he was to be buried here [in Drumcliffe Churchyard] at the foot of 1,730-foot high Benbulbin in this country that he had known all his life which was ‘more beautiful than other places’.” In the end, Yeats maintained his steadfast allegiance to Ireland as the place representative of both magic and mortal beauty, heroes and industry, death and eternity.
Without Yeats, Ireland would have missed a brilliant poet and an even more passionate modern hero determined to prevent his country’s spiritual and cultural death. Fortunately for the Irish, Yeats and his compatriots ensured that Ireland’s ancient legacy would endure for decades to come in the face of modernization and global integration. Through his poetic interpretations of legends, heroes, and all things Irish, Yeats helped revive Ireland as an “in between” place, a paradox allowing death and immortality to coexist peacefully, even naturally. Truly, as Yeats states in his Celtic Twilight, “In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.”
Finneran, Richard J. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York, New York: Simon &
Schuster, Inc. 1996.
Hackney, Ryan; Blackwell, Amy Hackney. 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Irish History.
Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, F+W Media, Inc. 2007.
Hirsch, Edward. Poet’s Choice. United States: Harcourt, Inc. 2006. pp53-55.
Méras, Phyllis. Castles, Keeps, and Leprechauns: Tales, Myths, and Legends of Historic Sites in Great Britain and Ireland. New York, New York: Congdon & Weed, Inc. 1988. p232.
Yeats, William Butler. Celtic Twilight. Radford, Virginia: SMK Books, Wilder Publications,
LLC. 2010. p76.
1 Hackney, Ryan; Blackwell, Amy Hackney. 101 Things You Didn’t Know about Irish History. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, F+W Media, Inc. 2007. p33.