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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould


The Invisible Hypnotist: Myth and Spectre in Some Post-1916 Poems and Plays by W. B. Yeats1

Anita Feldman

Texte intégral

  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)
  • 2 ‘Comprehending the Irish Revolutionary Generations’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Dublin, (...)

1Reviewing Roy Foster’s book Vivid Faces, a distinguished Irish diplomat, John Swift, writes, ‘Even today, for a substantial number of Irish citizens, it is not politically acceptable to question the ethics or wisdom of the 1916 leaders’, and he ends his review as follows: ‘In spite of the doubts expressed in Yeats’s great poem, perhaps because of them, the poet came to the right conclusion: “We know their dream; enough | To know they dreamed and are dead”’.2

  • 3 See Afterword below 121.

2But, in the twenty-three years between the Rising and his own death, was that knowledge enough for Yeats? Is it enough for us now? I’d answer no to both questions. From The Dreaming of the Bones (1919) to ‘The Man and the Echo’ (1938), Yeats’s plays and poems continued, throughout his life, to reflect his response to the rebellion and its aftermath. And we have only to consider recent cultural developments, from the passionate intensity of populist movements to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, to see the relevance to our own time of such works as The Resurrection.3

  • 4 In his article ‘Dark Liturgy, Bloody Praxis: The 1916 Rising’, in the Spring 2016 issue of Studies, (...)

3As for the dreams of the dead, ‘Easter 1916’ was neither the first nor the last work in which Yeats wrote about them. The title of Responsibilities, published two years before the Rising, casts doubt on the finality of the rebels’dreams by prefiguring that book’s epigraph, ‘In dreams begins responsibility’. In that book and those that followed it, the dreams of the living incur responsibilities to the heroic dead, who, in Responsibilities, include John O’Leary, Robert Emmett, Wolfe Tone, and Charles Stewart Parnell. But some readers of Yeats’s poem ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’ (1922) may also wonder how the dream of the 1916 rebels differed from the ‘fantasies’ which, between the Rising and the Civil War of 1921–1923, ‘had fed the heart’ of Ireland and made it brutal. The dead, through the dreams that survive them, may incur responsibilities to the living.4 The epigraph to Responsibilities and the lines Swift quotes from ‘Easter 1916’, then, constitute a truth and its counter-truth, and the tension between them plays out in Yeats’s most complex and accomplished work, from ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1917 to the final poems and plays.

4I attempt in this essay to show the links between Yeats’s efforts, pre-1916, to meet the ‘seeming needs of [his] fool-driven land’ (VP 267) and his rejection—both before and after 1916—of the limitations those efforts imposed on him. As Yeats wrote about his earliest published writings in a letter of 1932 to the writer and editor Horace Reynolds, ‘I was a propagandist, and I hated being one. … I recall… when revising for some reprint my essay upon the Celtic movement … I saw clearly the unrealities and half-truths propaganda had involved me in, and the way out’ (CW7 xviii). But, despite his perception of that ‘way out’, the ‘schoolboy thoughts’ of Yeats’s midnineteenth-century nationalist forebears had, with the execution of the 1916 rebels, taken on a life of their own in Ireland. That life shaped a history in which Yeats’s eloquent Cuchulain was conflated with Padraic Pearse’s militant one, and the image of Ireland as the Poor Old Woman, Cathleen ni Houlihan, took on the sacred aura of the Shelleyan and Rosicrucian images of Intellectual Beauty and the Secret Rose, as Yeats had thought and written of them in the eighteen nineties. In line with these developments, the most beautiful of the ‘three sorrowful stories’ of Irish tradition, ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’, had taken a new form in a children’s version published in 1910, featuring illustrations by Maud Gonne and a happy ending devised, it seems, by Gonne’s nationalist friend Ella Young, who is named as the author of the book.

5Yeats had, early on, trusted his readers and audiences to interpret his work, undiluted by explanation, through a process he described in a preface published ‘a couple of years’ after the Irish Literary Theatre production, in 1899, of his play The Countess Cathleen: ‘I must leave my myths and symbols to explain themselves as the years go by and one poem lights up another, and the stories that friends, and one friend in particular, have gathered for me, and I have gathered for myself in many cottages, find their way into the light’ (VP 847). But the words ‘all’s changed’in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ came true for Yeats in a way he perhaps had not foreseen in 1917, when he wrote the poem. By the 1920s and ‘30s, I’ d argue, history had transformed those myths and symbols in ways that he could not ignore and had posed a challenge to his powers of intellect and imagination that he could not refuse.

6I have considered his response to that challenge, both before and after the Rising, in the light of several entries in the journal Yeats kept between 1908 and 1914—especially Entry 33, dated 12 February 1909, in the volume published in 1926 as Estrangement.

7This entry posits a knowledge that, merging myth with history, predates the Rising, is confirmed in its aftermath, and blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead: the knowledge that ‘All civilization is held together by a series of suggestions made by an invisible hypnotist, artificially created illusions’—and its corollary, that ‘the knowledge of reality is always by some means or other a secret knowledge. It is a kind of death’ (Mem 166; Au 482; CW3 356).

  • 5 Yeats quotes from the 1928 draft of the Bill in ‘The Irish Censorship’, his Spectator article (29 S (...)

8This statement raises questions about history: Did the Rising revive Romantic Ireland? Or did the dreams of the rebels live on as artificially created illusions? The final lines of Yeats’s play The Herne’s Egg (1938) are ‘All that trouble and nothing to show for it, | Nothing but just another donkey’ (VPl 1040; CW2 538). Recalling those lines, some readers, at least, may associate them with the life of the Irish Free State, born of ‘all that trouble’—the rebellion, the crimes of the Black and Tan soldiery sent to suppress it, the civil war—a birth that produced ‘nothing but just another donkey’: nothing, that is, but another ignoble nation state, a notably unfree one in which the church controlled education, divorce was impossible and contraception illegal, and a censorship law limited Irish readers’access to literature. The first three restrictions—church control of education, of marriage, and of reproduction—were common elsewhere at the time, but the censorship law in the Free State was especially harmful, giving legal authorization to the intellectual isolation and prudishness of the public.5 The bill, which was being considered in 1928, Yeats’s last year as a Senator, passed in 1929, despite the vehement objections to it that Yeats published at the time, in which he pointed out that ‘no government has the right, whether to flatter fanatics or in mere vagueness of mind, to forge an instrument of tyranny and say that it will never be used’.

  • 6 5The first performance of The Resurrection on 30 July 1934 was at the Abbey Theatre: Yeats wrote in(...)
  • 7 See Julia Carlson ed., Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, edited for Article 90 (L (...)

9The prudishness of the Irish public persisted into the 1930s.6 As Kevin Boyle reports in his Preface to Banned in Ireland, a book published in 1990, the Censorship of Publications Bill passed by the Irish senate in 1929 continued, as late as 1970, to allow novels by such writers as John McGahern, Liam O’Flaherty, and Edna O’Brien to be ‘banned from circulation in Ireland by the state Censorship of Publications Board’. According to Boyle, the public had failed to defend those writers. As of 1990, ‘The machinery of literary censorship [was] still in place’.7

  • 8 Yeats in 1909 would probably have agreed with Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Min (...)

10And yet today’s Ireland has emerged as something much better than the Free State of the 1920s and ‘30s. Maybe that earlier Ireland, in defeating Yeats’s political hopes, strengthened his imagination, allowing him and the generations that lived after him to reconsider the illusions identified, in his 1909 diary, as the creations of an invisible (hence irresponsible) hypnotist.8

11Those illusions were one thing, Yeats’s artistry another. In an entry dated 12 March 1909, the diarist of ‘Estrangement’ is tempted to see himself and the writers of his movement as magicians, evoking images that can influence events by influencing the feelings of the Irish people. This temptation arises from Yeats’s response to the precedent established by Young Ireland, a movement associated with Thomas Davis and the writers published in the magazine The Nation, founded in 1842. ‘The Young Ireland poets’, Yeats writes, created

sensible images for the affections, vivid enough to follow men to the scaffold … Our own movement began by trying to do the same thing in a more profound and enduring way … [LionelJ Johnson’s work and later, Lady Gregory’s work, carried on the dream in a different form … (Mem 184–85)

12Yeats resists this temptation, remembering that

it was only when Synge began to write that I saw that our movement would have to give up the deliberate creation of a kind of Holy City in the imagination, and express the individual. The Irish people were not educated enough to accept images more profound, more true of human nature as a whole, than the schoolboy thoughts of Young Ireland.

13The diarist does, however, end the entry with the hope that ‘a school of journalists with very simple moral ideas’ could ‘build up an historical and literary nationalism as powerful as the old and nobler. They could then bid the people love and not hate’ (ibid., ‘Estrangement’ No. LIII; Au 494; CW3 364–65).

14Seven years later, it seemed that, despite the sorrow and remorse Yeats felt when the leaders of the Rising were executed, at least some of his hopes for the Irish people might be realized. ‘We have lost the ablest and most fine-natured of our young men’, he wrote in a letter to John Quinn dated 23 May [1916]. ‘I keep going over the past in my mind and wondering if I could have done anything to turn those young men in some other direction’ (CL InteLex 2960; L 614). In ‘Easter 1916’, however, composed five months after the Rising, he portrays its leaders creating, through the ‘terrible beauty’ born of their martyrdom, the powerful historical nationalism he and his colleagues had dreamed of, and with it the possibility, at least, of a nobler and equally powerful literary nationalism.


  • 9 The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016.

15Denis Donoghue’s comments about the phrase ‘a terrible beauty’ have some bearing on this possibility, as Yeats wrote and thought of it. This phrase, Donoghue writes, defines the Rising as an example of the sublime, ‘that experience of astonishment, terror, dread, and ultimate pleasure that Edmund Burke described in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757): “Whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime”’. He points out that ‘Many of the ordinary people of Ireland, I judge, felt a sense of the sublime, even if they never heard of the word, when they thought of the “sixteen dead men”’. As Donoghue describes this aesthetic category, it makes considerations of individual character and intention irrelevant: ‘It will not make any difference to John MacBride’s martyrdom’, he writes, ‘if you keep saying that he was a drunk and that he abused Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult. Yeats knew this, and it made no difference; that is what his poem is about’.9 To the segment of the Irish public mentioned in Swift’s review of Vivid Faces, this knowledge probably did make no difference; neither did the knowledge that, as ‘Easter 1916’ tells us, Thomas MacDonagh’s thought was ‘daring and sweet’ and that ‘he might have won fame’ as a poet.

  • 10 They are like the Greek in Yeats’s play The Resurrection (1931) who, belonging to the pre-Christian (...)

16The effect of the Rising on Yeats’s life as a writer, however, cannot be summed up by a reading of ‘Easter 1916’. Just as that poem is not Yeats’s first or last word on the dreams of the dead, it is not the only evidence we have of the relation of myth to history and to artistry, in Yeats’post-1916 thought and work. Other evidence, later and earlier than the Rising, appears in two other passages containing the phrase ‘a terrible beauty’. The most striking is in Yeats’s memoir ‘The Tragic Generation’ (1922), on the ‘terrible beauty’ of a story by Oscar Wilde—a story in which the beneficiaries of Christ’s pity deny its power to redeem their souls, despite the miracles that have rescued them from disease and death.10 Yeats first heard the story, he writes, from an actor who, having visited Oscar Wilde in Paris, told Yeats that Wilde had ‘written what he calls the best short story in the world, and will have it that he repeats it to himself on getting out of bed and before every meal’. Yeats, however, recalling the story long after he first heard it, writes that, when Wilde published it, he had ‘spoiled it with the verbal decoration of his epoch’, and Yeats had to ‘repeat it to himself as he first heard it’, before he could ‘see its terrible beauty’ (Au 287; CW3 224).

17This account, I believe, expresses an insight that predates the Rising and remains permanent in Yeats’s thought: art can embody myth but cannot be reduced to it. Style matters. This insight is articulated in one of the 1909 diary entries included, in 1928, in The Death of Synge. Entry 23 in that book, uniting two undated entries written no later than 1914, indicates that, at least two years before the Rising, Yeats no longer saw literary art as the evocation of images that could change events by changing feelings. Instead, he placed that art in a system of correspondences, of analogies between two ways of being: ‘The element which in men of action corresponds to style in literature is the moral element’, he writes.

Davis showed this moral element not in his verse merely—I doubt if that could have [had] much effect alone—but in his action, in his defence, for instance, of the rights of his political opponents of the Royal Irish Academy. Men are dominated by self-conquest; … The self-conquest of the writer who is not a man of action is style (Mem 212; Au 516; CW3 381–82).

18Men of action and literary men, as this passage portrays them, take different paths to immortality. The status of the Rising, as a sublime and even sacred event, does suggest that under the right conditions those paths could appear, at least, to meet. Yet self-conquest is not quite the same as self-sacrifice, accepting martyrdom not quite the same as seeking it. The example Yeats gives in this passage—that of defending a political opponent’s rights—conquers a different self from the one that Pearse, for example, revealed in his most militant speeches and writings.

19Was the Rising, then, an event that placed its leaders beyond human judgement? Its pairing of beauty with terror does give it the sublimity of natural events, which are exempt from that judgement. But, unlike tidal waves and bolts of lightning, works of art, martyrdoms, and wars do arise from human motives and are subject to aesthetic and ethical judgements. This brings me to the examples of beauty paired with terror that Edward Dowden listed in his biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to Yeats’s representations of and comments on such pairings in his poems ‘The People’ (1914) ‘Crazy Jane Reproved’ (1931), and ‘Meru’. (1934), and, under the heading of myth, his play The Resurrection (1931).

20Yeats, as a young man, knew both Edward Dowden and Dowden’s biography of Shelley, and in his memoir Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, he recalls that ‘once after breakfast Dowden read us some chapters of the unpublished Life of Shelley and I … was delighted with all he read’ (Au 87; CW3 95). It would be surprising if he did not know a passage in an early chapter of that book—a chapter Dowden may even have read to Yeats—that describes the sublimity of both natural and human events, and of human hopes and fears:

  • 11 Edward Dowden, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886, I, 94 [in (...)

At all times what was strange and wonderful delighted Shelley; but in after years it was the wonder and strangeness of the beauty and terror which manifest themselves through sea and sky, through love and death, through the highest hopes and fears of humanity.11

21In ‘The People’, a poem he composed in 1915, Yeats attributes the first kind of sublimity to Maud Gonne, in lines saying that, because she ‘has not lived in thought but deed’, she possesses a purity—‘the purity of a natural force’—that exempts her from the judgements of ‘the analytic mind’ (VP 351). He also confirms the power of that purity in the last lines of the poem, where he describes how he had complained to Gonne of the ‘daily spite’ and defamation visited on him by the people of Dublin, and how she had reproved him for his complaint by saying that, despite her own, even worse treatment by them, she had never complained of the people. The poem ends, ‘because my heart leaped at her words | I was abashed, and now they come to mind, | After nine years, I sink my head abashed’. Yet, as the speaker of the poem, Yeats has asserted his right to judgement in the lines just before those acknowledging the power of Gonne’s reproof:

You, that have not lived in thought but deed
Can have the purity of a natural force,
But I, whose virtues are the definitions
Of the analytic mind, can neither close
The eye of the mind nor keep my tongue from speech. (
VP 351)

  • 12 VPl 905; CW2 482. This recalls the thought expressed in Walter Pater’s Plato and Platonism (London: (...)

22Later developments will show that, for a person who has ‘lived in thought’, ‘the definitions of the analytic mind’ of the analytic mind’ are inescapable. Yeats’s later view of ‘the beauty and terror which manifest themselves through sea and sky’—the sublimity, that is, of natural forces—appears in the poem ‘Crazy Jane Reproved’, which begins ‘I care not what the sailors say’ and goes on to exalt the superiority of artistic craft, in the lining of a seashell, to roaring and ranting, in ‘All that storm that blots the day’ (VP 509). Yeats will not continue to criticize Dublin, ‘this unmannerly town’, on personal grounds, as he does in ‘The People’, but by 1922, in his memoir ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, he will condemn the narrowness and fanaticism of political Ireland (Au 361; CW3 272–73). Later, the Greek in his play The Resurrection (1931) will compare a crowd of Dionysian worshippers to ‘a pack of wolves’.12 And, in ‘Meru’ (1935), contrasting the creations of the invisible hypnotist to the secret knowledge that is ‘a kind of death’, the speaker of the poem will identify thought as ‘man’s life’, for the same reason that the speaker, in ‘The People’, has defined himself as a man who has ‘lived in thought’. He cannot reject ‘the definitions | Of the analytic mind’ any more than Oedipus, as he appears in A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), can stop his search for the man whose crime has visited divine punishment on his city. ‘When it was already certain that he must bring himself under his own curse’, Yeats asks, ‘did he not still question?’ (CW14 21; AVB 28).

  • 13 On Yeats and Wilde’s orality, see Deirdre Toomey, ‘The Story-Teller at Fault’, in C. George Sandule (...)
  • 14 Declan Kiberd, ‘Acting on Instinct: Dublin, Shakespeare, and the “radical improvisers” of the Easte (...)

23Given Yeats’s association of Oedipus with truth and Christ with pity, this rhetorical question recalls the one that begins the 1909 diary entries published in 1928 as The Death of Synge: ‘Why does the struggle to come at truth take away our pity, and the struggle to overcome our passions restore it again?’ (Mem 196; Au 499; CW3 369). But by 1929 Yeats recognizes that Oedipus’struggle to come at truth arises from his pity—not for himself but for his people, who are suffering for his crimes. He now imagines Christ and Oedipus as ‘the two scales of a balance’ (CW14 21, AVB 29), and in ‘Meru’ (VP 563) he will personify humanity—or ‘man’—as ‘ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come | into the desolation of reality’—that is, taking on the rage of a wild beast, which abates only when he arrives at the knowledge that is ‘in some measure … a kind of death’. In giving the passion for truth the power to save or destroy civilizations, he has changed the balance of power between truth and pity and between two other scales, the desire to invest the creations of the invisible hypnotist with ‘the purity of a natural force’ and the recognition that, like other human creations, they are subject to ‘the definitions of the analytic mind’ of the analytic mind’. The sublimity of a storm at sea or an act of martyrdom may, for a time, blot out the demands of artistry or intellect, but those demands, in the long run, do make a difference. In this context, the discontinuity between the ‘terrible beauty’ of Wilde’s original story and the version spoiled by his style—or the contrast between ‘the purity of a natural force’ and ‘the definitions of the analytic mind’ of the analytic mind’—might correspond to the contrast between the audacity and courage of the 1916 rebels and the reality of the Free State.13 The severed heads that sing in The King of the Great Clock Tower ([1934) and A Full Moon in March (VPl 998, 1002–05; CW2 498, 507) remind the audience of this discontinuity, and of the difference between the heroic dead and the ‘living wretches’ who, in a song from The King of the Great Clock Tower, usurp their prerogatives (CW2 498). If the rebels had lived, their actual ideas and intentions might have evolved as something different from the ones expressed in their writings and in the formation of the Free State. Declan Kiberd suggests this possibility in his recognition of the latent motives of the rebels, who, he writes, ‘sought to give voice to a desire so deeply buried within them as to as to be scarcely conscious … In the world of the insurrectionist, expression precedes conceptualization’, and Yeats, Kiberd continues, ‘understood these ambiguities better than anyone. He knew that every dream may be the beginning of responsibilities, projecting a claim on the future as well as a radical break with the past’.14 But, no matter how those dead might have shaped Ireland’s future, Yeats as a living poet was painfully aware that the myths he revived had entered history in ways he could not predict or control. His Cuchulain was not Padraic Pearse’s. This awareness surfaces in the plays of the 1930’s, especially the last play of his Cuchulain cycle, and in the poems of the 1920s and ‘30s: the sequences ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, and ‘The Man and the Echo’.

  • 15 Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: w. w. Norton, 1 (...)

24Toward the end of his life, however, in his last memoir, Dramatis Personae (1935), Yeats seems to resolve the disparities between Pearse’s Cuchulain and his in a metaphor that aligns the heroism of those who ‘laugh into the face of death’ with the courage of the writer who ‘must die every day he lives, be reborn, as it is said in the Burial Service, an incorruptible self, that self opposite of all that he has named “himself”’. (Au 457; CW3 336). To compare the work of writers to the death of heroes is a bit of a stretch, I admit, but such metaphors, especially as they take narrative form in Yeats’s plays, sustain the flexibility, scope, and strength of his work, enabling him to reach back to his English Romantic predecessors—specifically to the William Wordsworth of the Prelude, as M. H. Abrams has described it. That work, in Abrams’analysis, is ‘an involuted poem about its own genesis—a prelude to itself …. Its temporal beginning … is Wordsworth’s entrance upon the stage of his life at which it ends’. Yeats’s plays about Cuchulain, beginning with At the Hawk’s Well (1916–1917), are similarly autobiographical and recursive. In them, however, as in Yeats’s other plays, ‘the spirit, the protagonist of the story’, may also pass ‘through bewildering metamorphoses … or “shapes of consciousness” … as well as multiple human personae’.15

25All the personages of At the Hawk’s Well (1917), for example—The Old Man at the dry, leaf-choked well, waiting for the waters of immortality to rise, the Young Man pursuing the hawk-possessed Guardian of the Well, the Guardian herself, and even the Chorus—are ‘shapes of consciousness’ belonging to a single protagonist whose action, when he wears the mask of the Young Man, signals his power to face and take responsibility for the unacknowledged desires and acts of the Old Man. The Young Man is willing to pierce his foot to keep himself awake when the waters rise, an acceptance of pain that signals his kinship with Oedipus, the hero with the pierced foot who is tested by Apollo and riddled by the Sphinx (VPl 406; CW2 302). And Yeats, as the author of the play, is willing to face the dangerous but alluring, deathlike but exhilarating knowledge of reality that the Young Man’s pursuit of the Hawk Woman enacts. The Old Man sees the Young Man as capable of murder and betrayal, ‘wild for the love of women | and for the shedding of men’s blood’; both Yeats and the audience know that the Old Man is, objectively, right—the audience because they have seen or read On Baile’s Strand, Yeats because the events of his life have revealed it to him.

  • 16 See Warwick Gould’s essay ‘An Empty Theatre?: Yeats as Minstrel in Responsibilities’on the relation (...)

26But the context for those events, I think, is not Yeats’s private or public life, as a biographer or historian might portray it. It is his life as the poet of personal utterance he describes in his first memoir, Reveries over Childhood and Youth, who will learn that his energies and imagination can only be released through a subjective struggle with his passions and his fate—a struggle that enables him to ‘believe enough in what one feels to know what the feeling is’, and to distinguish that knowledge from ‘romantic convention’ and ‘unconscious drama’ (Au 103; CW3 105).16

27The intense ambivalence of Yeats’s relation to his Irish audience is at least as important, in that struggle, as his relation to his family and friends, his lovers and his wife. The diarist of ‘Estrangement’ begins with a simple opposition, expressed in the hope that his literary and dramatic movement will somehow turn this audience from hatred to love—that is, from hatred of England to love of Ireland. But he ends, in his late (1937) essay ‘A General Introduction for my Work’ with an expression of unresolvable ambivalence—Catullus’ ‘Odi et amo’—toward both nations: ‘My hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate’ (E&I 519); with double-edged images—‘cold and passionate’ dawn, the ‘abounding, glittering jet’, ‘tragic joy’—that reach back to Sappho’s ‘O bitter sweetness’; and with a system of thought that, defining consciousness as conflict, replaces the straight line of progress and the circular line of perfection with a spiral that is repeatedly reversed, destroyed, and renewed.

  • 17 On the financial difficulties of Yeats’s family, see L1 65–68.

28In the rest of this essay, therefore, I shall look to Yeats’s metaphors and metaphorical narratives in an attempt to answer a large question: What can Yeats’s writings tell us about Irish cultural identity, a century after Padraic Pearse proclaimed ‘a Sovereign Independent State’ from the steps of the Dublin Post Office? That answer, I’d argue, is shaped by Yeats’s experience as an Anglo-Irish writer who found his patrons among Ascendancy landowners, though he was not one of them,17 and as a cultural nationalist whose shock, ambivalence, and disillusion, immediately following the Rising, resurfaced during the military actions that followed it, continued into his later life, and confirmed the beliefs expressed in the two sources of my title: Entry 33 in ‘Estrangement’, with its image of the invisible hypnotist evoking the illusions that, in the form of myths, hold civilizations together; and a letter of 17 April 1929 to T. Sturge Moore in which Yeats wrote that ‘Science is the criticism of myth, and when the criticism is finished there is not even a drift of ashes on the pyre … [A] Myth that cannot be so consumed becomes a spectre’ (tsmc 153–54). If Yeats uses the word spectre, in this letter, as William Blake did in his prophetic poem ‘Jerusalem’, it is ‘the Reasoning Power in Man … when separated from Imagination … it frames laws and Moralities | To destroy Imagination, the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms and Wars’ (74:10).

29This definition suggests that Yeats, as the author of the 1909 diaries (1908–1914) and ‘Anima Mundi’ (1917), sees ‘literature’ as the aspect of ‘the reasoning power in man’ that, neglecting imagination, tempts writers to surrender ‘life for a logical process’. He therefore resolves that, in his diary, he will ‘keep one note from leading on to another’, allowing every one of them to ‘come as a casual thought’, so that ‘it will be [his] life’ (Mem V 139; Estrangement 1, Au 461; CW3 341). And in ‘Anima Mundi’, some eight years later, his distinction between life and logic resurfaces in a distinction between two states of mind: the mind that ‘grasps objects simultaneously’ and perceives ‘harmonies, symbols, and patterns’ (Myth 356; CW5 25) and ‘the mind that sees objects one after another’—‘our reason’, which is ‘but an instrument created and sharpened by those objects’ (Myth 362–63; CW5 29–30).

30In A Vision that linear, instrumental mind shows itself in the glance, distinct from the gaze (AVB 276–77). In Yeats’s last two plays, it takes the form of the knife that, in the hands of the Old Man in Purgatory, has stabbed his father and his son to death (VPl 1048; CW2 543) and that the Blind Man in The Death of Cuchulain uses to behead the fatally wounded hero (VPl 1060; CW2 552). And, toward the end of ‘Anima Mundi’, Yeats identifies the nonlinear mind with freedom, or ‘the Condition of Fire’, or ‘rhythmic body’, which, he writes, should not become an object of worship as ‘a thing or a thought’. ‘Most prayers’, he writes, ‘call it man or woman or child’, and he accounts for this by quoting Blake’s words: ‘Mercy has a human heart, | Pity a human face’ (Myth 364; CW5 30). As I’ll suggest in my analysis of The Resurrection, these ideas influence the ending of that play.


31Yeats’s awareness of myth as illusion surfaces in entry LXI of the 1909 diary (entry 33 of ‘Estrangement’; Mem 166; Au 481–82; CW3 356), resurfacing, twenty-three years later, in the first two quatrains of ‘Meru’ (1934). Yeats’s awareness of myths that persist as spectres, however, is directly expressed, as far as I know, in only one place, the letter of 1929 to T. Sturge Moore. But I believe that the creation of myths and the persistence of their spectral shadows, as Yeats perceives them, clarify the action of The Resurrection (1926–1931) and The Death of Cuchulain (1938–1939), his revisions of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (1917), a passage in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, and his identification with Leda in ‘Leda and the Swan’ (1924).

32For Yeats, beliefs are necessary but not sufficient for the creation of myths, and his biographical myths emerge from the connections between his metaphors, implied or stated, and his practice as a poet and playwright. The invisible hypnotist in entry LXI of the diary, for example, resembles Yeats in his early magical experiments—that is, he uses symbols to evoke expressions. ‘Every symbol is an evocation’, he writes,

which produces its equivalent expression in all worlds. The Incarnation involved modern science and modern efficiency, and also modern lyric feeling which gives body to the most spiritual emotions … The historical truth of the Incarnation is indifferent, though the belief in that truth is essential to the power of the evocation. (Mem 166; Au 482; CW3 356)

33But Yeats’s practice as the author of The Resurrection, the first play I’ll consider here, is based on another (undated) entry from the 1909 diary—entry XXX (18 in ‘Estrangement’) in which the hypnotist’s evocations are expressed as philosophical statements, transformed, over time, into sacred narratives. ‘In Christianity’, the entry begins, ‘what was philosophy in Eastern Asia became life-biography, drama. A play passes through the same process in being written. At first, if it has psychological depth [my emphasis], there is a bundle of ideas, something that can be stated in philosophical terms; my Countess Cathleen, for instance, was once the moral question, may a soul sacrifice itself for a good end?’But then, as Yeats describes the playwriting process, the statements of abstract thinkers gradually become ‘the mere expression of one character or another’, and finally, when ‘it is completely life, … it seems to the hasty reader a mere story’. The entry ends with a question, ‘Was the Bhagavad Gita the “scenario” from which the Gospels were made?’ With that question, implying a comparison between historical processes and the writing of a play, Yeats identifies the invisible hypnotist as a creator whose narratives take on substance insofar as they have psychological—not philosophical—depth (Mem 150; Au 468; CW3 346).

34Yeats began to write The Resurrection in 1925 or 1926, near the time when his 1909 diary entries were being selected and edited for publication (Life 2 314 and 329), and those entries would have recalled the desires and passions of the intervening years. In the mid-1920s, as in 1909, the reference to his play The Countess Cathleen (1889–1892) in entry LXI of the diary (Mem 166), would have reminded him that, in the early 1890’s, he had identified Maud Gonne with the main personage in one of the stories he had gathered in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (1888), a high-born woman who sells her soul to provide food for her famine-struck people. That reference would also have reminded him of the poems about Gonne (‘No Second Troy’, ‘Words’, ‘King and No King’, ‘Peace’, ‘A Woman Homer Sung’, and ‘Against Unworthy Praise’) that he began between September 1908 and May 1910. Myth and autobiography animate these poems with a specificity new to Yeats. In ‘No Second Troy’ he identifies Gonne with Helen of Troy; according to Foster, Gonne and Yeats finally became lovers in December 1908, about the time he wrote that poem, which is the first entry in the diary but is omitted from ‘Estrangement’ [Mem 137; Life 1 388 and 393]). The other poems also refer to their relationship and appear in the diary, though in draft versions (Mem 142–43, 172–73, 236, 244–46).

  • 18 This metaphor resurfaces much later, when, in ‘Words for Music Perhaps’, Crazy Jane’s lover, Jack t (...)

35By the mid-1920s, however, the 1909 diary would have evoked political acts, in addition to personal obsessions: Gonne’s militancy, the victimage and transfiguration of the 1916 rebels, and Yeats’s bitter lines, in ‘The Fisherman’ (1914; VP 347), about the contrast between ‘what [he] had hoped ‘twould be | to write for [his] own race’ and ‘the reality’ of the Abbey audience that had rejected and reviled J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. In Estrangement (1926), though not in the diary, the entry about the knowledge of reality ‘as a kind of death’ is immediately followed by one in which Yeats blames ‘that coterie of patriots’ in the Abbey audience for Synge’s ‘dying at this moment of their bitterness and ignorance, as I believe’ (‘Estrangement’ No. XXXIV; Mem 161; Au 412; CW3 356). Here Synge as sacrificial victim takes on the aura of other martyred immortals, like John Keats in Percy Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ or Charles Parnell in Yeats’s ‘His Dream’ (1908), which appears in an early version in the 1909 diary (Mem 231). More than two decades later, the rituals of sacrificial victimage reappear in ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ (VP 531). Soon after an early draft of ‘His Dream’ appears in the diary, Yeats begins to represent creative power, metaphorically, as sexual power, in a poem in which Synge appears as ‘Great Juan’—or Don Giovanni—entering Hell as crowds of eunuchs ‘rail and sweat | Staring upon his sinewy thigh’ (‘On Those that Hated “The Playboy of the Western World”’ (Mem 176, 244; Au 486; CW3 359; VP 294]).18

36The mythical and autobiographical associations of entries 33 and 34 in ‘Estrangement’ similarly influence the themes of pity, victimage, and blood sacrifice in The Resurrection, and, as in entry 18 of ‘Estrangement’, the ideas stated by the characters recede before the process that shapes the play’s setting, dialogue, and action (Au 411–12; CW3 356 and 346). In his Introduction to The Resurrection Yeats defines myth, in abstract terms, as ‘one of those statements our nature is compelled to make and employ as a truth though there cannot be sufficient evidence’ (Ex 392). In the play, these become the ‘bundle of ideas’ expressed by ‘one character or another’, who are identified only as The Jew, The Greek, and The Syrian, and who, throughout the onstage action, debate the divinity of Jesus.

37By the end of the play, however, the figure of Christ has been evoked and animated by the passions that shape both individual and collective myths. For the diarist of 1909, as for the poet of the final lines in the chorus of The Resurrection, desire and passion overpower thought—initially, at least—as the driving forces of myth, biography, and history: ‘Whatever flames upon the night | Man’ s own resinous heart has fed’. And in the play’s final moments, its action is not resolved by the visible onstage actors but by the invisible crowd who are celebrating the rites of Dionysus in the streets of Jerusalem.

  • 19 See 67, n. 8 above.

38The choices Yeats makes in structuring his play, I’d argue, take account of the fact that attention controls perception, a fact that may also have influenced Le Bon’s belief in the invisible as a crucial force in history. As Le Bon points out on the first page of The Crowd, ‘the memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited ground work of its thoughts’. His own time, Le Bon continues, ‘is one of these critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation’.19 As Yeats sees Ireland, post-1916, it too is passing through one of those critical moments, and, positing an analogy between the processes of history and the writing of a play, he has turned his own attention, in The Resurrection, from the power of the poet as invisible hypnotist to the power of the crowd as invisible dramatist. Fascinated by this power, the play’s main onstage actor, the Greek, cannot ignore the rites of the offstage crowd, despite—or more likely because of—his contempt for the frenzy of those celebrating them, and this tension between the heart and mind of the Greek mirrors the tension between the play’s offstage and onstage (or invisible and visible) action.

39Its visible action is set in a room next to the one—invisible to the audience but visible to the three onstage characters—where the disciples are hiding from a mob that is said to be hunting and killing all the known followers of Jesus. At the beginning of the play, the Hebrew, according to a stage direction, is ‘discovered alone onstage’. He is soon joined by the Greek, who ‘enters through the audience from the left’, as the Syrian does when he joins the other two characters. These entries through the audience bring that audience into the performance space, and this small move toward ritual theatre is expanded, later in the play, by the conventions of Nō drama, which had interested Yeats as early as 1907. (By 1926 Nō had influenced most of his plays in some way.)

  • 20 Some of these comments are based on my unpublished presentation on Nō, ‘Experiencing Noh: Stages, S (...)

40Those alien theatrical conventions disrupt the established order of things in the Dublin ‘house’, the Abbey Theatre, where The Resurrection was first performed, and the first dialogue of the play, between the Greek and the Hebrew, tells of further disruptions outside the house, where, the Greek has heard, Jesus’tomb is empty and the dead are breaking out of the cemetery. As in Nō drama, sound rather than sight establishes the contrast between outside and inside, the offstage and onstage space.20 The play’s dialogue begins with a question about a noise in the street outside, when the Hebrew asks the Greek, ‘Did you find out what the noise was?’ For the audience, ‘the noise’ is the faint drum taps (or rattle sounds) made by the musicians onstage. Continuing, intermittently, as background to the conversation of the actors, these sounds portray an action that remains offstage until the last moments of the play.

  • 21 In addition to evoking Pater’s Plato and Platonism, the phrase ‘pack of wolves’ may have local reso (...)

41The onstage action continues as the Greek summarizes what he has heard from a rabbi he has questioned. The noise they’ve been hearing, he tells the Hebrew, comes from a group of ignorant and excitable Alexandrian Greeks, worshippers of Dionysus, who ‘have been out among the fields tearing a goat to pieces and drinking its blood’, then ‘parading the streets with rattles and drums’ and are now ‘wandering through the streets like a pack of wolves’.21 Another mob in the streets—the one that has been hunting all the known followers of Jesus—has been ‘so terrified’ of the Dionysians’‘frenzy that it has left them alone, or, as seemed more likely, so busy hunting Christians it had time for nothing else’, and the Roman authorities were afraid to interfere (VPl 905; CW2 482).

  • 22 See Giorgio Melchiori’s comments on ‘the Nietzschean concept of Laughter announcing the advent of t (...)

42The Hebrew, who is concentrating on the threat the anti-Christian mob poses to the disciples, tells the Greek that, if the mob enters the house, he will fight them until he is killed; the Greek will then take over, giving the disciples time to escape over the roofs of neighboring houses. The Greek accepts this plan but continues to be fascinated by a different mob, the celebrants in the street outside. He says he can see them through a window, and a stage direction reveals that the window is an imagined opening in the stage’s invisible fourth wall, which allows the Greek to stand ‘facing the audience, looking out over their heads’ (VPl 913; CW2 486). This stage direction places the unseen but audible worshippers of Dionysus in the part of the theatre where the audience is seated, and, as the Greek continues to describe the bizarre rituals of those degraded Alexandrians, his impatient contempt for them is directed toward the seats occupied by the audience, and, by implication, toward the audience itself. The only other links between the unseen Alexandrians and the visible actors onstage are the laughter of the Greek at the idea that a god can suffer the bodily humiliations of human life and the drum and rattle sounds made by the musicians. The onstage characters, at first, mistake these sounds for one another’s laughter but attribute them, later on, to the Alexandrians in the street.22

43As the action of the play continues, the Syrian, who seems to be ‘ill or drunk’, appears in the audience and is helped onto the stage by the Greek, who has sent him to Jesus’tomb to disprove the rumour that the tomb is empty and that Jesus has risen from the dead. The Syrian reports, instead, that the tomb is indeed empty and repeats the story that ‘a man all shining’ had stood at its door ‘and cried out that Christ had risen’. When the Greek and the Hebrew, unbelieving, attempt to keep the Syrian from telling Jesus’disciples what he has heard, the Syrian asks,

44What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if, at the moment when knowledge and order seem complete, that something appears?

[He begins to laugh]. (CW2 490; cf., VPl 925) asks

  • 23 This last question had an uncanny effect, for me at least, at a performance of the play in New York (...)

These questions are answered, to the extent they can be answered, when the musicians onstage go silent, as do the imagined celebrants offstage. The celebrants’dancing, the Greek reports, grows ‘quicker and quicker’, then stops. The Greek asks, ‘Why are they all suddenly motionless? Why are those unseeing eyes turned upon this house? Is there something strange about this house?’23

45A curtain ‘at the back of the stage, toward the right’ begins to move, and that ‘something beyond reason’ parts the curtain and enters the stage as ‘the figure of Christ’ (VPl 928–29; CW2 491).

46At this point in the play, its sound effects, like those of Nō, have created two spaces, one on and one off the stage, where objects change and are changed by the audience’s thought. This process resembles the meditation practices of Tibetan monks seeking ‘a sight of the physical form’ of their god, as Yeats describes them in a late (1935) essay, ‘The Mandukya Upanishad’, and the concluding metaphor in that description, quoted below, suggests that Yeats’s play, in a comparable process, has allowed an invisible mob in an imagined Jerusalem street to possess the minds of an actual audience in a Dublin theatre:

When the ascetic meditates upon … an object, … this object slowly transforms and is transformed by his thought until they are one. When he meditates upon an image of God, he begins with thought, God subjectively conceived, and this thought is slowly transformed by, and transforms its object, divine reality, until suddenly superseded by the unity of thought and fact. Yet he is not aware of all this, … the event is unforeseen, has taken place in what we call, because we are in the stalls and watch the play, the unconscious. (E&I 479–80; CW5 159–60)

47As Yeats describes this experience, the attention of the ascetic shifts from the image of God to ‘divine reality’, as the attention of the audience shifts from the onstage to the offstage action of the play. The faith of the ascetic in divine reality, like the suspension of disbelief manifested by theatregoers (and by hypnotized subjects) allows the image of his god to appear to him, surfacing from his unconscious, as, in the action of the play, the figure of Christ surfaces from the desires of the invisible Dionysian crowd. The play’s staging, by placing that crowd in the space occupied by the audience, makes it possible for the audience to identify the crowd’s desire—and, by implication, their own desire—as the force that materializes and animates the Christ figure on the stage. This process begins with the silence of the musicians and continues when the audience imagines the offstage dancers suddenly becoming still and gazing at the imagined house where the play’s action is taking place, as the audience gazes at the stage scene representing a room inside that house. Then, consistent with the etymology of the word metaphor—a transference—the energy of the motionless dance, along with the rhythm of the unheard music, is transferred to the image of Christ, embodied in the actor on the stage.

48At this, the climactic moment of the play, the figure of Christ appears, at first, to be a thought materialized. He is an actor like the other actors, but he portrays a murdered god risen from the dead. And, as the audience physically occupies the same space where, in their imaginations, the rites of Dionysus have been celebrated, the image of Christ replaces that of the resurrected pagan god, the strangeness of Dionysus becomes familiar to them, and so does the strangeness of Christ, as they share, in imagination, the shock experienced by the Greek who has touched the body of the Christ figure represented on the stage. The figure of the phantom with a beating heart, dominating the onstage action and uniting thought with fact, prepares the audience for the last words of the play: ‘Man has begun to die. … Your words are clear at last, O Heraclitus: God and man die each other’s life, live each other’s death’. (VPl 931; CW2 492)

49But these words, spoken by the Greek, are not adequate to the expectations of the audience. Appearing, finally, in a form that confounds the expectations of his Greek and Hebrew followers, the Christ figure is not, as the Greek has insisted he must be, either a thing or a thought, a body ‘hard … like a statue’ or a phantom without flesh and blood; nor is he, in the words of the Hebrew, ‘Nothing more than a man, the best man who ever lived. Nobody before him had so pitied human misery’ (CW2 491, 484). To the audience, whose expectations differ from those of the Greek and the Hebrew, he is a god whose pity, like Christ’s, responds with a promise and a story to the ‘darkening thought’ of a dying world: a promise of eternal life and perfect justice and a story of murder and rebirth that answers the desires of the most miserable, oppressed, and marginalized inhabitants of that world. Hence the shattering strangeness of the Christ image, to the Greek in Jerusalem, becomes strangely familiar to the audience in Dublin.

  • 24 As Kiberd writes, ‘One needs a self in order to narrate one’s story, but how can one even presume t (...)

50Despite its nominal setting in Jerusalem, the play’s account of myth, as ‘something that lies outside order, outside knowledge’, implies an analogy in which the misery and oppression of Irish Ireland and the pity that answered it have re-entered history with the Easter Rising.24 As the final song of the play has it,

Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline (
VPl 931; CW2 492; VP 438)

  • 25 Quoted by Arthur Waley in The Nō Plays of Japan (New York: Grove Press, 1957, first published by Al (...)

51These words, however, emphasize the distance of the Christ figure on the stage from either the main actor in a Nō play or the Blakean figure of Christ. The words of the Greek, when he touches the body of this figure and feels the heart beating, recall the thought of the Nō master Motokiyō Zeami (1363–1443), who admonishes his actors in one of his treatises that, when they are portraying a ghost, they should remember that ‘the outward form is that of a ghost; but within is the heart of a man’.25 The figure of Jesus in The Resurrection, however, is all outward form, all god. In Nō, the humanity of the ghost is expressed in the culminating dance of the main actor, in the drumbeat that joins his beating heart to the hearts of the audience, and in the words of the musicians onstage, telling his story. But the god figure in The Resurrection is silent; the Greek sees and describes the disciples’response to Christ’s presence when the figure representing him has passed into their room, but the figure’s humanity has no visible or audible expression in the play itself. For the audience, that humanity resides only in the ‘odour of blood’, and the evocations of Christ’s ‘Galilean turbulence’ and ‘pity for man’s darkening thought’in the words of the chorus’final song and in the thoughts and memories the audience have brought to the theatre.

  • 26 The phrase appears as ‘the bloodless sacrifices’ in Harold Swainson’s translation of Paul the Silen (...)
  • 27 AVB 278; CW14 202 and n. 60, which sets out various putative sources and vectors that put Yeats in (...)

52In the civilization that arose from the ruins of the classical world, the bloody sacrifice of the Dionysian rites was replaced, in time, by the symbolism of the Christian Eucharist, named, in Byzantium, ‘the bloodless sacrifice’.26 For the play’s characters, however, this development is centuries in the future. To the audience in the theatre, as to Christ’s contemporaries at the time of the play, the figure of Christ is all god, all myth. In the terms and the time of the play, the Greek, who expresses the accepted belief of his time, expects the resurrected Christ to appear as ‘a thing or a thought’, not as a god who is both fully divine and fully human. And the songs of the chorus, which could attempt to speak for Christ, express instead a return to beginnings that appears as either a mechanical turn of the wheel of history or as the ‘fabulous, formless darkness’ the cultivated author of an ancient manuscript saw in Christianity.27

  • 28 See ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (1914) for Yeats and Blake on Christ as ‘the ris (...)

53The words ‘Man has begun to die’, like the words of ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Widow’, resonate with events that were still recent in Ireland in 1934, when the play was first produced. But the martyrdom of the Easter rebels, by then, had obliterated their humanity and established as the thought of the newly born state the fixed ideas prevalent among the ‘little groups’ of Irish nationalists Yeats met in the 1890s, who, as he describes them in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’ (1922) ‘had the intensity and narrowness of theological sects’ for whom ‘Nationality was like religion, few could be saved, and meditation had but one theme, the perfect nation and its perfect service’ (Au 361–62; CW3 272–73). In the Free State of the 1920s, as in the play Yeats completed in 1931, man—or the risen human imagination, which Blake identified with the redemptive power of Christ—had begun to die into that perfect service.28


54As Yeats was to write in the mid-1930’s, in his final memoir, Dramatis Personae, his experience in the theatres of Dublin and the cottages of Gort had taught him that ‘in Ireland symbols are realities’, and that the supernatural is ‘the most violent force in history’ (Au 400, 416; CW3 309, 299). By then his life as a writer had confirmed that certain obvious distinctions—between truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance—had given way to others that were more difficult to identify, between truths and counter-truths, dead mythologies and living ones. This last distinction, as it connects with his life as an Irish writer, is illustrated in a short essay Yeats wrote in 1926 ‘to introduce to the Irish reading public’ Arland Ussher’s translation from Gaelic of a poem Yeats describes, in that introduction, as ‘vital, extravagant, immoral [and] preposterous’. This poem is ‘The Midnight Court’, by Brian Mac Giolla Meidhre (Brian Merriman), a poet active around 1780. Yeats writes, on the authority of the scholar Robin Flower, that ‘this poem which is so characteristically Gaelic and medieval is founded upon Swift’s “Cadenus and Vanessa”, and he praises Swift’s poem—but faintly—by saying that ‘it has the precision of fine prose’ (Ex 281, n. 2; CW6 291–92).

  • 29 The word ‘Irishizes’ is borrowed from the prospectus of the ACIS conference where the first version (...)

55Yeats’s hopes for a distinctively Irish poetry emerge in this essay when he describes how Merriman changed Swift’s dead mythology into a living one by infusing Swift’s poem with Irish speech, tradition, and circumstances: Merriman put Eevell of Craglee, ‘the chief of Munster spirits’, in the place of Swift’s figure of Venus as the adjudicator of a trial in which men and women argue their cases against each other. As Merriman, ‘forgetting Swift’, localizes or Irishizes his poem,29 his leading male character commends ‘love-gotten children’ and urges Eevell to abolish marriage. And his leading woman character, outdoing even this preposterous immorality, demands that ‘all the handsome young priests be compelled to marry’.

56Toward the end of his essay, Yeats places Merriman, potentially, in the mainstream of both Irish and English literary history, giving the author of ‘The Midnight Court’ a lineage that goes back to Shakespeare and to ‘old dialogues where Oisin railed at [Saint] Patrick’, along with ‘something that makes his words … more than the last song of Irish paganism’. That something, Yeats asserts, foreshadows Burns and Blake and suggests the possibility that Merriman, ‘had political circumstances been different, might have founded a modern Gaelic literature’. Yeats then ends his essay with a comment on another Irish writer, a poet named Mac Conmara, asserting that, though his poem has ‘historical importance, … [he] knew Irish and Latin only, knew nothing of his own age, saw vividly but could not reflect upon what he saw, so remained an amusing provincial figure’ (Ex 285–86; CW6 162–63).

57These assertions help to define the word spectre, as Yeats uses it to describe the historical and personal dynamics of mythmaking in his letter of 1929 to T. Sturge Moore, the fuller context of a remark quoted above (at p. 78):

Long ago I used to puzzle poor Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test—our literary movement would be worthless but for its defeat. Science is the criticism of myth …. and when the criticism is finished there is not even a drift of ashes on the pyre. Sexual desire dies because every touch consumes the Myth, and yet a Myth that cannot be so consumed becomes a spectre …. Chaucer was the end in his day, Dante in his, incoherent Blake in his. There is no improvement only a series of sudden fires each though fainter as necessary as that before it. We free ourselves from obsession that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void. (tsmc 153–54)

58Here Yeats places the spectre in literary history, a context he had introduced in ‘The Midnight Court’ three years before, when he contrasted Merriman with Mac Conmara. In that essay, he had posited two ways of failing, for Irish writers who aspire to a place in the history shaped by Chaucer, Dante, and Blake. Writers like Merriman, who deserve such a place, lose it because of political circumstances that limit their development and their recognition; others, like Mac Conmara, fail because of the intellectual limitations their isolation imposes on their work. In his letter, however, Yeats describes how English and European writers have entered that wider history, fulfilling and exhausting their imaginations and intellects as a lover exhausts his desire. In the cultural and political context Yeats posits in ‘The Midnight Court’, the letter implies that Irish writers, if they cannot do this, must accept the limitations a provincial culture imposes on them.

59In his memoir ‘Four Years: 1887–1891’ Yeats portrays himself as a young poet well aware of those limitations. Lacking precedents in Ireland, he must either ‘give up [his] Irish subject matter or attempt to found a new tradition’ in an Irish nation that ‘was not born at all’. Comparing himself to his colleagues in London, he writes that ‘Le Gallienne and Davidson, and even Symons, were provincial at their setting out, but their provincialism was curable, mine incurable; …’ Yet, unlike Mac Conmara, Yeats was able to understand his own age, though that understanding developed slowly. Recalling his early ideas on the founding of an Irish tradition, he writes: ‘I saw … that Swinburne in one way, Browning in another, and Tennyson in a third, had filled their work with what I called “impurities”, curiosities about politics, about science, about history, about religion; and that we must create once more the pure work’ (Au 167; CW3 148–49).

60Twenty years later, however, entries 83 to 86 of the 1909 diaries reveal that Yeats was ready to forego ‘the pure work’ if his movement could, by doing so, ‘conquer the people’ of Ireland. In entry 83, dated 9 February, he describes Wordsworth as one of the impure artists who, unlike Keats and Shelley, ‘mixed up popular morality with their work’. Now, however, he sees what he had failed to see in his youth: that ‘the moral element in poetry’ is ‘the means whereby’ it is ‘accepted into the social order and become[s] a part of life’. Accepting that fact, he now describes ‘Supreme art’ as ‘a statement of certain heroic and religious truths passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius but never abandoned’, and he asserts, in entries 84 and 85, that ‘No art can conquer the people alone—the people are conquered by an ideal of life upheld by authority’ and that ‘The Abbey Theatre will fail to do its full work because there is no accepted authority to explain why the more difficult pleasure is the nobler pleasure’ (Mem 179–80; Au 418–21; CW3 361–62).

61It is difficult to think that any such authority, in the Ireland of the 1920s, would have upheld the ideal of life that Yeats, in 1909, had in mind. What he and other Irish writers could uphold, however, was something quite different: an art that Yeats’s Ille in his dialogue ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’, had defined as ‘but a vision of reality’ (1915; VP 367). This vision of reality may be described in two ways: as a work that can ‘make and employ as a truth’ what evidence cannot support, but desire can; or as a work that gets its authority, as Merriman’s did, from the manifest skill and audacity that gave it form and from the cultivated readers and audiences who recognized its value—work that, as Roy Foster observes, ‘balances vision and concreteness with an equal audacity’ (Life 2 217). The resistance of the wider world might test that value, but, having passed that test, the acceptance of the work would not be based on its purity or impurity (however those words were defined) or its ‘heroic and religious truths passed down from age to age’ but on a vivid and daring artistry that would attract new readers, audiences, and imitators until the criticism of myth destroyed all but that artistry.

62For Irish audiences, however, in Ireland and elsewhere, the embrace of the myth would be more powerful than it was for other audiences, and the acceptance of the artist’s vision more dependent on myth. The analysis in ‘Four Years’ of Yeats’s situation as an Irish poet, along with the 1926 essay on Merriman and the 1929 letter on myth and spectre suggest that, to succeed with Irish audiences, the writers of Yeats’s movement would have had to bring the literature of Ireland into the history of their own time, distinguishing between what was alive and timeless in Irish civilization and what was merely topical and acceptable. Its readers and audiences, moreover, would have had to recognize this achievement. This could not happen in Yeats’s lifetime, because the founders and followers of his movement were subject to cultural circumstances as limiting as the political circumstances that caused Merriman to be isolated and forgotten.

63As the fall of Parnell and the reception of Synge’s Playboy showed, Irish readers and audiences were powerfully influenced, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, by the same desires that ruled the Dionysian worshippers in The Resurrection. By 1916, the abject circumstances of the Irish people demanded a supernatural savior, not a dramatist or a poet. And Irish readers and audiences were not ready to break the obsessions arising from that demand, which would outlast Yeats’s movement.

64A century later, in the light of this history, readers and audiences can perhaps take a fresh look at the interplay of myth and spectre in specific works by Yeats. To attempt this, I’ll consider his swan images, one of their somewhat neglected sources, and the projects associated with them.


  • 30 As Warwick Gould kindly informed me in an e-mail (5 May 2017), ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ wa (...)

65This brings me to the image of the singing bird described by the dying Cuchulain, toward the end of Yeats’s final play, as the ‘first shape’ of his soul: ‘There floats out there’, he says, ‘The shape that I shall take when I am dead, | My soul’s first shape, a soft feathery shape, | And is not that a strange shape for the soul | Of a great fighting man?’ (CW2 552). But what if the word ‘first’ in ‘my soul’s first shape’, and the statement ‘It is about to sing’ suggest that Cuchulain, after his death, will not take on a new form but will return to an earlier one? If so, the source of the image, I’d argue, is not the traditional legend of Cuchulain but one of the ‘three sorrowful stories’ of Irish tradition: the tale of the Children of Lir, robbed, by a wicked spell, of their homes and their human bodies and changed from inheritors of a royal estate to wandering swans with human voices. The version of this tale that is published over Yeats’s name in the 1898 A. L. Burt edition of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, the augmented version of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), recalls a history in which, for a conquered and scattered people, music and song have become their only ties to their home and their history.30

66Three details in the story give it a metaphorical or allegorical dimension, relating it to Irish cultural history and to Yeats’s vision of the ruined grounds of Coole, in ‘Coole Park, 1929’. The first of these details is that, as the story appears in Burt’s pirated 1898 edition of Yeats’s Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, the spell allows the swans to retain a single aspect of their former state, the surpassing beauty of their songs. When one of the children begs the step-mother who has cast the spell to ‘assign an end to the ruin and woe which thou hast brought upon us’, the stepmother laughs and says, ‘… [N]one shall have power to bring you out of these forms. Nine hundred years shall you wander over the lakes and streams of Erin’. But then ‘repentance seize[s] her for the evil she had done’, and she modifies it in words that evoke the strong lyrical tradition that survived in Ireland, despite its centuries of ruin and woe: ‘This only I will grant unto you’, she says, ‘that you shall retain your own speech and there shall be no music in the world equal to yours, the plaintive music you shall sing’. (IFFT 3) A second evocative detail is the description of the swan children’s ruined home, when they return to it after three centuries of wandering: ‘They flew to the hill of the White Field and found all desolate and empty, with nothing but unroofed green raths and forests of nettles’, a description that resurfaces in ‘Coole Park, 1929’ when the speaker of the poem foresees the ruin awaiting the Great House at Coole, ‘When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound | And saplings root among the broken stones’ (IFFT 7; VP 488). A third is the swans’recognition that they have outlived their own history: ‘Now has come the greatest of our pain | That there lives no man who knowest us | In the house where we were born’ |‘Now has come the greatest of our pain | That there lives no man who knowest us | In the house where we were born’. In the context of Irish history, and of Yeats’s sequence ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, this is a recognition foretelling the destruction not only of Coole but of the minds and memories sustaining the ‘many ingenious lovely things’ that were associated with Coole for Yeats and for Augusta Gregory, John Synge and the other writers of the Irish literary and dramatic movement (IFFT 8; VP 431).

67Although ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ doesn’t appear in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, its place at the beginning of the 1898 Burt edition gives it the important role of epigraph or prologue to the other tales. Perhaps Burt recognized its significance to Yeats’s Irish-American readers as a story of wandering and exile, but it is more likely that he simply followed its deployment as the first story in Jacobs’More Celtic Fairy Tales (1894). The story had a comparable importance for Yeats, apparently, in the five years (1887–1892) when he was writing despatches for The Boston Pilot and The Providence Sunday Journal and forty-five years later, in 1934, when Horace Reynolds collected those despatches and republished them in a book titled Letters to the New Island, with a cover design by Sturge Moore centering on the iconography of the swan children.

68It was Reynolds who steered Sturge Moore toward that iconography, writing to him of his hope for a design

  • 31 Letter from Reynolds to Sturge Moore, Senate House Library, University of London, Sturge Moore Pape (...)

developed from some symbol or motif expressive of the ideas that were in Mr Yeats’s mind at the time he wrote those articles [1887–1892]. In these papers Mr. Yeats wrote much of Todhunter’s plays and poems, including the Children of Lir. Because of that and because of the Irish reverence and fondness for the swan I have thought that might be an appropriate figure. As of course you know, the swan children of Lir were three.31

  • 32 Letter from Reynolds to Sturge Moore, Senate House Library, University of London, Sturge Moore Pape (...)

69As Bornstein and Witemeyer point out, Reynolds later apologized for miscounting the swans in the story.32 Sturge Moore responded that it was

  • 33 Houghton 276, 31 March 1933, quoted in CW7 xxi, n. 13.

Too late for the alteration in the number of Swans to be made. So that it is necessary to suppose that Fianoula is hidden behind her brothers, which in those times might have been supposed to have been her proper place.33

70The editors of the volume in the Collected Works suggest that Sturge Moore

combined the motifs of Irish lore and poetic drama in an emblematic design … that shows the swan children of Lir swimming under a theatrical curtain toward a row of footlights. Above and below the swans are envelopes, presumably symbolizing letters, sealed with masks of comedy and tragedy. The idea of poetic drama is followed out in the laurel wreaths on the spine. The design does not appear to have been submitted to Yeats for his approval. (CW7 xix, xx)

  • 34 LNI xiii, [vii]; CW7 5, 3.
  • 35 See LNI 174–92; CW7 78–90. ‘Dr. Todhunter’s Latest Volume of Poems’first appeared in The Providence (...)
  • 36 See LNI 178; CW7 81. Yeats is using Todhunter’s ‘Doom of the Children of Lir’ as a point of departu (...)

71Yeats had initially expressed his doubts about Reynolds’s recoveries of abandoned early journalism but, when confronted with the texts, confessed that ‘these essays, which I have not seen for many years, fill me with curiosity’, especially in their evidences of his ‘early preoccupation with the theatre’ (the subject of his preface for Reynold’s assemblage).34 His fascination with the Children of Lir story is found in at least two of the articles and reviews for American consumption, and one of these, ‘Dr. Todhunter’s Latest Volume of Poems’, is so wide-ranging in its coverage of that topos that Reynolds with some justice retitled it ‘The Children of Lir’.35 In that book review published in 1889, nine years before ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’was inserted by Burt as the first story in his Irish fairy and folk tale collection, Yeats praised it as ‘one legend supreme in innocence and beauty and tenderness’, and noted that, though long neglected, it was now the subject of a fresco by an Irish artist and poems published or to be published by such writers as Katherine Tynan, John Todhunter, and Douglas Hyde.36

72But, as Reynolds wrote in his introduction to the 1934 edition of Letters to the New Island, Yeats’s art served different powers than those of the Irish writers who ‘had made a goddess of Ireland’, calling her ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan, Dark Rosaleen, and other names of endearment’. Yeats, Reynolds wrote, ‘worshipped at other shrines’. He and Shelley had named the objects of their worship The Intellectual Beauty and The Secret Rose … [N]ationalism was precious’to him ‘not so much because it served Ireland but because it well served Art. Ireland came not before, but after, Art’ (LNI 25; CW7 169).

73Yeats’s letter to Reynolds, dated 24 December 1932, supports this view and illuminates two things that have puzzled me: the presence, in Moore’s cover design, of those theatrical masks and curtains; and a passage about the veils of Aoife, in The Death of Cuchulain.

I wrote prose badly, The Celtic Twilight, written before I had finished the last of the articles in this book, excepted, and that more for its matter than its form; prose, unlike verse, had not those simple forms that like a masquer’s mask protect us with their anonymity. (LNI xiii; CW7 5)

74Writing of the reviews in Letters to the New Island, Yeats supports Reynolds’analysis of his motives as an Irish writer by admitting (in a passage I briefly quoted at the beginning of this essay) that, in those early reviews, he ‘knew better than he wrote’.

  • 37 CL InteLex 5799, 24 December 1932, to Horace Reynolds; CW7 xviii.

I was a propagandist, and hated being one. It seems to me that I remember almost the day and hour when revising for some reprint my essay upon the Celtic movement (in ‘Ideas of Good and Evil’) I saw clearly the unrealities and half-truths propaganda had involved me in, and the way out.37

  • 38 Ibid.

75That ‘way out’, I believe, was Yeats’s turn to a dramatic art latent in the poetry of personal utterance that he desired even in his twenties, when he first began to write and publish. I’d also suggest that his praise of the innocence, beauty, and tenderness of the Children of Lir legend was part of his role as a propagandist, and his response to its tragic vision was part of ‘the way out’. As for the passage that puzzled me in The Death of Cuchulain, it is the reference to Aoife’s veils, which she uses to bind Cuchulain, and which he urges her not to spoil with his blood, because her ‘veils are beautiful, some with threads of gold’. (VPl 1058; CW2 550–51). Toward the end of his letter to Reynolds, he writes, ‘All one’ s life one struggles toward reality, finding always but new veils. One knows everything in one’s mind. It is the words, children of the occasion, that betray’.38 Some of those veils (or words), though, are beautiful. If they were not, the struggle for reality would not be, ‘of all things not impossible, what is most difficult’, and Cuchulain would never meet his daimon or find an obstacle worthy of his strength. As Yeats writes in ‘Anima Hominis’, ‘When I think of life as a struggle with the Daimon who would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny, and why a man loves nothing but his destiny’ (Myth 336; CW5 11). These facts and thoughts, along with a small change in the wording of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, the recurrent swan images in the poems and plays Yeats wrote after the Easter Rising, and the ending of the play he finished in December 1938, a short time before his death on 28 January 1939, suggest that the legend of the wandering swans had inspired Yeats in the 1890’s, returned to his thoughts in 1917, and shaped Cuchulain’s dying vision even as Yeats was about to die.

76The ending of On Baile‘s Strand (1904), Yeats’s first play about Cuchulain, had left its protagonist, after a mad battle with the sea, about to be drowned by the waves he’d mistaken for the heads of his enemies. Twelve years later, however, At the Hawk’s Well returned the ‘great fighting man’ to a time that predates Yeats’s other accounts of his life: the moment when Cuchulain took on his true identity and fate, along with his chosen name. I’d suggest that the completion of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, the following year, signaled the resurfacing in Yeats’s mind of the task that had shaped his own identity and fate as an Irishman writing for his own people: restoring their home and their human form to the enchanted, exiled, and forgotten Children of Lir. Or, to interpret the tale of the swan children metaphorically, giving epic and dramatic form, at Coole and in the Abbey Theatre, to the wandering voices of Irish song and story.


77By 1902, those voices had found their language, for Yeats, in the spoken English of Dublin. As he recalls in his last-written memoir, Dramatis Personae (1936), he made this discovery when he saw William Fay’s acting company perform Alice Milligan’s Red Hugh, written in the style of Walter Scott. In that performance, he writes, ‘all the old rattle-traps acquired modernity, reality, spoken by those voices. I came away with my head on fire. I wanted to hear my own unfinished On Baile’s Strand, to hear Greek tragedy, spoken with a Dublin accent’. His association with the Fay company began with their production of Cathleen ni Houlihan in 1902, which was, Yeats writes, ‘the first play where dialect was not used with an exclusively comic intention’ (Au 449; CW3 331). Shortly after, the figure of Cuchulain, on a Dublin stage, gave a dramatic body to those unmistakably Irish voices. In that body, Yeats’s soul finds a credibly Irish self.

78That self becomes soul again at the end of The Death of Cuchulain, when several transformations occur. First, Cuchulain’s severed head becomes a mask or geometric figure, mourned, in the dance of his wife, Emer, as a stylized, spiritualized object of devotion; then the scene changes, moving from myth to history, from Emer’s dance to the music of ‘an Irish fair of our own day’; and finally, in the lyrics of the song that ends the play, the idealized images of legend give way to the mere complexities of the present moment, circa 1939.

  • 39 CL InteLex 7290, to Lady Dorothy Wellesley, 15 August [1938]; L 913.

79But something has been lost. The image of the mythical Cuchulain has been so powerful that it has possessed the minds and bodies of the 1916 rebels; yet, in the present reality of the play’s epilogue, it persists only in a song by an unnamed street singer, quoting the words a harlot sings to a beggar man about her two desires: her unattainable desire for the ‘clever eyes’ and ‘muscular bodies’ of the legendary heroes she adores unreservedly, though she can ‘get | No grip upon their thighs’, and her ambivalent desire for the living men whose ‘flesh her flesh has gripped’ but whom she ‘both adores and loathes’. The harlot seems as sterile, in her way, as the ‘old maid history’ denounced by the Producer in the prologue to the play, and he seems, in his insistence on the props and attitudes of romance, a caricature of Yeats himself. Where, in all this, is the Cuchulain Yeats described, in a letter he wrote to Dorothy Wellesley in August 1938, as ‘a heroic figure because he was creative joy separated from fear’?39

80Some readers may identify that heroic figure with the statue placed in the Dublin post office to commemorate the Rising. As the final lyric of the play has it, ‘No body like his body | Has modern woman borne, | But an old man looking back on life | Imagines it in scorn. | A statue’s there to mark the place | By Oliver Sheppard done. | So ends the tale that the harlot | Sang to the beggar man’. (VPl 1063; CW2 554). The words of the song are teasingly ambiguous, and the lines, ‘But an old man looking back on life | Imagines it in scorn’, could imply a contrast between life and art, with mere life an object of scorn, and art—that is, Sheppard’s statue—an image of satisfied desire.

81I would argue, though, for a different reading, one that takes into account two passages by Yeats: his introduction to his play Fighting the Waves, in which he tells how Lady Gregory followed Standish O’Grady in attempting to ‘bring back an heroic ideal, … her eye too upon life’ (Ex 371; CW2 702); and this passage in a letter Yeats wrote in December 1938, a month before his death, to the artist William Rothenstein. As Roy Foster tells us, Yeats in the letter contrasts the demise of the romantic movement in England with its persistence in Ireland:

  • 40 CL InteLex 7359 to Sir William Rothenstein, 29 December 1938. See also Life 2 644.

In England the romantic movement is of course over. … With us it is the opposite. Some of the best known of the young men who got themselves shot in 1916 had the Irish legendary hero, Cuchulain, so much in their minds that the government has celebrated the event with a bad statue. For us a legendary man or woman must still be able to fight or to dance.40

82In the light of these passages, the life that the old man looks back on, in the lyrics of the harlot’s song, is the heroic life that O’Grady and Gregory, in writing about Cuchulain, thought they were reviving in Ireland, and the object of the old man’s scorn is not that life but its spectral incarnation in Sheppard’s ‘bad statue’. As Foster points out, ‘the song that ends the play … puts Cuchulain’s symbolic death at the beginning of modern Ireland’s sacrificial foundation myth: the Easter Rising’ (Life 2 645).

  • 41 See w. b. Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain: Manuscript Materials including the Author’s Final Text, ed (...)

83The statue in the Dublin Post Office, then, marks the place where the heroic life of Yeats’s Cuchulain has started to die, for its author, into two forms: its past life as myth, portrayed in the dance that ends the play itself, and its persistence as spectre, haunting the prologue and the projected ending of the play in the person of the Producer, who in the working manuscript, wears the mask of the Old Man in At The Hawk’s Well and, as Yeats originally planned the ending, reappears to arrange Emer’s dance.41

84This interpretation of the play has consequences for the readers of Yeats’s poems. The swan images in such poems as ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Leda and the Swan’ reach back to Yeats’s earliest hopes and set them against the realities of his experience as an Irish writer struggling with the divided emotions, deceptive images, and unintended consequences associated with two movements: the literary and dramatic movement that led to the founding of the Abbey Theatre; and the military movement that led to the Easter Rising, the wars that followed the Rising, and the establishment of the Irish Free State.


85‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ is ostensibly a personal poem, and the words ‘all’s changed’, although they echo a phrase from ‘Easter 1916’, seem to have no relation to the Rising. Yet two changes Yeats made in the poem before its first publication, in June 1917, reflect his awareness that his cultural movement was irreconcilable with the military movement of Pearse and the other rebels. One of these changes is well known. In the last pre-publication version, the poem ends by asserting the constancy and youth of the eponymous wild swans: ‘Their hearts have not grown old. | Passion and conquest, wander where they will, | Attend upon them still’. This ending counters and balances the speaker’s anxieties about his own aging and the unpredictable wanderings of the swans, when, in the poem’s third stanza, he asks where they will ‘delight men’s eyes’when he ‘awake[s] some day | To find they have flown away’. As the poem appeared in The Little Review and The Sphere in June 1917, the order of its stanzas is the same as it is in the final pre-publication version reproduced in the manuscript edition. But in the Cuala Press edition, dated October 1917, the third stanza (lines 13 to 18) has been placed at the end of the poem. In the words of Stephen Parrish, the editor of the manuscript edition,

  • 42 The Wild Swans at Coole: Manuscript Materials by w. b. Yeats, ed. Stephen Parrish (Ithaca and Londo (...)

this is as brilliant a single revision as Yeats ever made. The other stanzas, all declarations, close flatly or with a drop; the new final stanza lifts the swans into flight with a question and leaves the reader with a haunting uncertainty about the meaning of ‘awake’.42

  • 43 See VP 322–23. According to Chambers’English Dictionary, Pronouncing, Explanatory, Etymological etc (...)

86What is less noticeable is another revision that foreshadows this one: the substitution of ‘passion or conquest’ for ‘passion and conquest’ (my emphases) in the published versions of the poem, from The Little Review to the Variorum edition.43 This does not change the poem’s subject, though it does widen its context, evoking Yeats’s despairing comment, in a passage from the 1909 diary that I’ve quoted before: ‘No art can conquer the people alone—the people are conquered by an ideal of life upheld by authority’. (See page 20, above.) This wider context enables Yeats to retrace the path he took when, completing On Baile’s Strand, he allowed himself to believe that his cultural movement could conquer the Irish people by art alone, as they identified his Cuchulain with the legendary hero portrayed by Standish O’Grady and Augusta Gregory.

  • 44 On a source of At the Hawk’s Well in Motokiyō Zeami’s Yōrō, see Richard Taylor, ‘Assimilation and A (...)

87Not that Yeats’s Cuchulain was ever very close to the Cuchulain of Irish legend. The legendary Cuchulain is a half-divine figure who chooses, instead of a long, ordinary existence, a short and glorious life as the defender of his people. He is distinguished by his superhuman skill as a fighter and his passion as a lover, and, like Achilles, he is proud, wrathful, and impulsive. Yeats’s Cuchulain possesses these traits, but his voice and language identify him as a poet possessing and possessed by Shelley’s thirst for the absolute, Keats’s love of beauty, and Byron’s metrical skill and swagger; and, since he is also a stand-in for Yeats, he is subject to self-betrayals; torn, at times, between his inner life and his public role; and overwhelmed, at other times, by the ‘ungovernable sea’ of his own imaginings. If the Rising had not occurred, Yeats might have allowed his audiences to ignore the differences between the legendary and the Yeatsian figures. But even before the Rising, At the Hawk’s Well (first performed in a London drawing room, in early April 1916) had opened a space between them.44 Yeats did all he could, at least until the mid-1930s, to widen that space.

  • 45 See ‘A People’s Theatre’, an open letter to Lady Gregory dated 1919 (Ex 257; CW8 133).

88Among the forms taken by that effort was one that began in 1916 and, by 1919, was decisive for Yeats’s life as a playwright. This was a turn away from Western theatre, toward his adaptations of Nō—away from the Abbey audience, and their desire only to ‘see and understand’, toward a different audience that, given a different theatre, would desire also to ‘feel and imagine’.45 The portrayals of Cuchulain in Yeats’s first Nō adaptations, At the Hawk’s Well (1917) and The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), were begun in January 1916 and November 1917. In the next three or four years, I suspect, Yeats had begun to recognize the Rising, like his turn away from the Abbey audience, as an unintended consequence of his attempt to dis-enchant the Children of Lir.

89‘Leda and the Swan’, written in 1924, reflects his awareness, in hindsight, of the deceptions and self-deceptions attending that project. These came from his involvement, through Maud Gonne, with political movements that were, as he writes in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, ‘no business of [his]’ (Au 354; CW3 268). Accompanying that involvement was his failure, as a public figure, to distinguish Gonne’s activism from his. This failure resulted in—or, perhaps, began in—a certain blurring of images, an identification that surfaced in his poem ‘The Rose of the World’ (1891), more specifically and identifiably in ‘No Second Troy’ (1908) and, much later, in ‘Among School Children’ (1926) with Maud Gonne imagined as Helen, a daughter of the swan with a Ledean body that, by the mid-1920’s, has become spectral—‘hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind | And took a mess of shadows for its meat (VP 111, 256, 443–44).

  • 46 These lines in ‘The Arrow’, in the version first published in 1903, don’t specify apple blossoms. T (...)

90But it seems that Yeats also imagined Gonne as Fionnuala, the daughter of Lir, as she was before her jealous stepmother turned her into a swan. Other readers—most notably Donald Torchiana and Herbert J. Levine—have noticed that one of Yeats’s poems, ‘The Arrow’ (written 1901), describes Gonne, ‘when newly grown to be a woman’, as ‘Tall and noble but with face and bosom | Delicate in colour as apple blossom’. They have noticed, too, that the blossom image also appears in Celtic Wonder Tales (1910), a collection of stories for children ‘retold by Ella Young, illustrated and decorated by Maud Gonne’ and published by Maunsel & Company, Dublin, in which Fionnuala is ‘my white blossom’ and her beauty is compared to ‘sunshine in blossomed branches’ (148, 145). Yeats returns to the blossom image in ‘Four Years: 1887–91’ describing Gonne at their first meeting: ‘Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window’.46

91It seems, however, that the description of Fionnuala in the Children of Lir story as Ella Young retold it is not based on a Celtic source but on Yeats’s poem—that is, on ‘The Arrow’ as it was published in 1903. In Jacobs’version of ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ as it is included in the 1898 IFFT, Fionnuala is named Fingula, and there is nothing like this description in that version of the story. So the only thing linking the Children of Lir story to Maud Gonne, in Yeats’published work, is the 1903 version of ‘The Arrow’, a poem by Yeats that was published seven years before the Gonne/Young children’s book and says nothing about Fionnuala or Leda or Helen. If we look further into the story of Leda, then, it suggests that the conflation of Gonne with Fiannuala was Ella Young’s creation, not Yeats’s—a creation as misleading as Zeus’s swan disguise, in the Greek story of Zeus and Leda.

  • 47 Helen Sword, ‘Leda and the Modernists’, PMLA 107.2 (March 1992), 305–18, n. 16. Robert Graves’s The (...)

92As Helen Sword notes, that disguise reverses the power relations between Leda and Zeus. Swans were sacred to an exclusively feminine early cult in ancient Greece, because of their V-shaped formation in flight. Summarizing Robert Graves, she writes, ‘For the ancient Greeks, swans were the sacred birds of women—“the V-formation of their flight was a female symbol”—and particularly of Aphrodite, the goddess of love; thus, in the mythology of later centuries, Zeus takes the form of a swan not because it signifies male power but precisely because it offers him the most deceptive means whereby to catch Leda off her guard’. In Sword’s reading of the story of Zeus and Leda, Zeus’s swan disguise enabled him eventually to replace the swan with his own universalizing image. Sword also quotes Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, who ‘relates how … early Indian legends of a swan goddess who mates with a mortal man later became reversed, so that the once powerful goddess was eventually “demoted”, like the hapless Leda of Hellenic myth, to “ignominious mortality and passivity”’.47

93Did Yeats know this aspect of Zeus’deception? Graves’s book on the Greek myths could not have been his source; that book did not appear until 1955. But one of Graves’s comments on the sacredness of swans suggests that he and Yeats were perhaps drawing on a common source that linked the swan image to a myth of death and rebirth: ‘swans were sacred’ to ‘the Nymph-goddess’ of ‘pre-Hellenic myth’, Graves writes, ‘because, at mid-summer, they flew north to unknown breeding grounds, supposedly taking the dead king’s soul with them’. This account of the swans’connection with a ‘Nymph-goddess’ recalls both Yeats’s situation in 1917, contemplating the destabilizing and possibly lethal effect of the Rising on Coole and the Abbey, and the revised ending of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, with its lines about the swans’impending flight to unknown breeding grounds: ‘Among what rushes will they build, | By what lake’s edge or pool | Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day | To find they have flown away?’ (VP 323).

94This uncertainty about the future was not new to Yeats, for whom the death of Parnell in 1891 and of Synge in 1909 were comparably unsettling. And, if the images in these lines are associated with an account in which the soul of a dead king is carried to a fated but unpredictable rebirth, they evoke the note to ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, in which Yeats recalls in 1932, forty one years after the event, that the dead body of Ireland’s ‘uncrowned king’, Charles Parnell, was brought to Kingston Pier in Dun Laoghaire on the same ship that took Maud Gonne—described, here, only as ‘a friend’—on the last stage of her return to Ireland from France. Yeats ends the note to ‘Parnell’s Funeral’by recalling the words ‘My dead king’ spoken by Simon Dedalus after ‘a violent quarrel about Parnell and the priests’ in the Christmas dinner scene from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (VP 834–35).

95In the final paragraph of his note, Yeats evokes the invisible hypnotist and his symbols in a way that leads back to Leda and Gonne, when he describes Parnell as the ‘symbol that made apparent, or made possible’ an epoch that was the tragic contrary of the epoch preceding it, an epoch dominated by ‘the great comedian’ Daniel O’Connell (VP 855). Two years later, in his introduction to his play Fighting the Waves (1934), Yeats continues his explication of Irish cultural history by describing how, after Parnell was ‘dragged down’ and his party ‘gave itself up to nine years’ vituperation’, the Irish imagination ‘fled the sordid scene’, and turned to ‘romantic dreaming, to the nobility of tradition’ (Ex 372). The living body of Gonne, then, accompanying the dead body of Parnell, was the first symbol that made this epoch of romantic dreaming apparent to Yeats, and it was associated with an event of 1891 that Yeats described in ‘Parnell’s Funeral’some forty years later.

96Yeats recalled his first response to this event in ‘His Dream’ (1908), a poem that has puzzled its readers because it seemed to have nothing to do with Gonne, although it was the first poem in a series that was obviously about her. The connection with Gonne becomes clearer, however, when we learn from biographical evidence and from Yeats’s note to ‘Parnell’s Funeral’that Gonne was the friend Yeats mentioned in that note, and that ‘His Dream’ seems to be linked to a myth in which a swan brings a dead king’s soul to a place of rebirth. The detail linking Gonne to ‘His Dream’ is the king’s dead body, which is contrasted with Gonne’s living body in the next poem, ‘A Woman Homer Sung’, and the mention of Homer in the title of the poem evokes Helen’s birth as the offspring of Leda and the swan. The relation between the two poems is further sharpened by the word ‘thing’ in the phrase ‘what thing her body was’. That word echoes and contrasts with the phrase ‘that thing beneath’, in Stanza 3, before the speaker of the poem, a coxswain on the ship carrying the corpse, has joined in the song of the crowd running along the shore:

Though I’d my finger on my lip,
What could I but take up the song?
And running crowd and gaudy ship
Cried out the whole night long

Crying amid the glittering sea,
Naming it with ecstatic breath,
Because it had such dignity,
By the sweet name of death. (
VP 254)

  • 48 See above, 67 n. 7.

97In the light of ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, ‘His Dream’ reveals Yeats’s aversion to ‘the crowd’ as it is characterized in the 1895 English translation of Le Bon’s book on mass psychology. In that book, Le Bon had listed, analyzed, and illustrated the ways that crowds are moved to action by the irrational forces of suggestion and repetition, prestige and contagion.48 ‘His Dream’ is shaped by two of those forces, repetition and suggestion, and it illustrates the force of prestige in the line ‘because it had such dignity’ and of contagion in the speaker’s compulsion to ‘take up the song’, despite his reluctance to do so. That reluctance is expressed in three ways: in the implications of the word ‘gaudy’ which suggests both an inappropriate showiness and an inappropriate joy; in the speaker’s attempt to silence the crowd; and in the crowd’s ecstasy, as if, in calling the body in the ship by ‘the sweet name of death’, they had welcomed Parnell’s demise. Given the fact suppressed in ‘His Dream’—its relation to a history in which the frenzy of the crowd had ‘dragged down’ Parnell, then worshipped his dead body when it was returned to Ireland—‘His Dream’ embodies and illustrates the power of suggestion that Yeats will describe in his 1909 diary, seven months after the writing of ‘His Dream’, as belonging to the ‘invisible hypnotist’ whose ‘artificial illusions’ hold civilizations together.

98His distrust of that power, as it shapes the emotions of crowds, had surfaced in 1903, when he warned Gonne that her conversion to Catholicism and her marriage to John MacBride would erode her prestige among her followers, who shared MacBride’s religion and low birth. She had rejected that warning in a letter of 10 February 1903 in which she wrote, ‘You say I leave the few to mix myself with the crowd while Willie I have always told you I am the voice, the soul of the crowd’ (G-YL 166). Yeats in his letter to Gonne had described a dream in which the Irish god Lug had put his hands in Gonne’s and told him they were married ‘and we were to do a certain great work together’ (G-YL 164). The title of the series that begins with ‘His Dream’ ‘Raymond Lully and his wife Pernella’ (later amended to’Nicholas Flamel and his wife Pernella’) alludes to that earlier dream of a mystical marriage and a great work, and in the seven remaining poems of the sequence, composed between September 1908 and May 1910, Yeats struggles to suppress the conflict between his desire to ‘take up the song’ of the crowd—a desire he will describe much later, in ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, as ‘the contagion of the throng’—and his rage at their ignorance, dishonesty, and ingratitude. In ‘Against Unworthy Praise’ (May 1910), he resolves that conflict by having the speaker of the poem renounce his desire for the ‘unworthy praise’ of the ‘knave and dolt’ who have rejected his work. And, suppressing the resentment that will resurface in ‘The People’ (1915), he has that speaker declare that he needs only the approval and inspiration of the Gonne figure in the poem to continue the work they share. He ends the poem with an image of her ‘singing upon her road | half-lion, half-child, | … at peace’, because she is free of the desire for applause and gratitude that has disturbed his own heart.

  • 49 See Donald T. Torchiana, ‘“Among School Children” and the Education of the Irish Spirit’, op. cit., (...)

99‘Against Unworthy Praise’ appeared in 1910 in From ‘The Green Helmet and Other Poems’, along with six other poems that were overtly about Gonne, and the Ella Young/Maud Gonne version of the Children of Lir story appeared the same year in Celtic Wonder Tales. In both books Gonne is a woman of swanlike beauty united in perfect harmony with a Yeats figure—the ‘I’ in the poems of Yeats’s book and Aedh, the brother of Fionnuala in Celtic Wonder Tales. As Donald T. Torchiana writes, Aedh’s resemblance to ‘a young eagle in the blue of the sky’ identifies him with Yeats, and, in Gonne’s illustration for the book, the ‘motif… of a sphere containing two swans intertwined, ultimately blent as one’, is ‘an obvious symbol of kindred souls’.49 Certainly the sphere motif suggests this idea when it appears in 1927 in the second stanza of ‘Among School Children’. But Yeats’s ‘old scarecrow’ persona and Gonne’s spectral image in ‘Among School Children’ emphasize the distance between that memory and present reality (VP 444).

100Beyond the changes wrought by ageing, there were differences between Yeats and Gonne that turned out to be irreconcilable. In the years from ‘Against Unworthy Praise’ to ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, and from ‘His Dream’ to ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, Yeats was brought back repeatedly to the image of Maud Gonne as ‘the voice and soul of the crowd’. That aspect of Gonne, I believe, conflicting with Yeats’s fondness for the Children of Lir story, gives ‘Leda and the Swan’ its complexity and psychological depth. Yeats had cast Gonne, in two of the poems that began with ‘His Dream’ and ended with ‘Against Unworthy Praise’, as Helen of Troy—as an embodiment of romantic dreaming and the nobility of tradition. Fionnuala, however, belonged to another, earlier time, when he and Gonne seemed to merge into one being, a passionate, enchanted, and doomed singer seeking a human body. But, in continuing to identify with Fionnuala, Gonne was claiming a kinship that no longer existed. As the voice of the crowd, she could have quoted the old saying ‘Vox populi, vox dei’ to prove that she spoke for god, but Yeats as the author of ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, knew that this was not always so. And he also knew that the rough beast of ‘The Second Coming’, despite its ‘head of a man’, was, by the last lines of that poem, as much ‘half-lion, half-child’, and as much at peace with its heart as the idealized ‘she’ of ‘Against Unworthy Praise’.

101I am sceptical, too, of Levine’s reading of the Yeats-Gonne relationship as it affects Yeats’s development as a poet. What Yeats frees himself from, in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Leda and the Swan’, is not so much his personal obsession with Gonne—Levine concedes that ‘there is no … clean break in his feelings. … [and the] remembered swans of the past continued to inhabit Yeats’s imagination’. But Yeats does make an almost complete break, long before he wrote ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, from the identification of Gonne with Fionnuala in the Young/Gonne version of the Children of Lir story. I’d therefore modify Levine’s insight with the thought that in 1917, as in 1891, an age was the reversal of an age, and to reverse an age you had to define and characterize it. The swan images in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ have their source in the distinction Yeats was forced to make thirteen years earlier, in 1903, between his identification of Gonne as King Lir’s daughter, the voice and soul of the swan children, and the role Gonne herself took on in her public life as ‘the voice and soul of the crowd’.

102In ‘His Dream’, therefore, Yeats begins a series of poems in which Gonne is the symbol of a new age in which the narrative generated by the tragic death and putative resurrection of Ireland’s ‘dead king’, Parnell, is replaced by an apolitical romanticism and traditionalism. The instability evoked by ‘His Dream’ harks back to that narrative, in addition, possibly, to another narrative in which a swan, identified with the swan child Fionnuala, accompanies the body of the dead king to the secret place where he will be buried and the swan will begin a new cycle of history. In the poems that follow ‘His Dream’, ‘King and No King’ alludes to the fact that Aodh is Fionnuala’s brother and therefore cannot be her lover, but in ‘A Woman Homer Sung’ and ‘No Second Troy’ she becomes the daughter of conquering Zeus, not grieving Lir. In ‘Reconciliation’ she joins Yeats in discarding the props of his Celtic phase, and in ‘Against Unworthy Praise’ her strength and innocence enable her to renounce praise or gratitude, even from the people she serves.

103In 1917, however, this passage from instability to balance is reversed by Yeats’s brilliant revision of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. The swans at Coole appear in his poem as natural, local images, truly ‘wild’ because, as Levine recognized, their meaning as totems or symbols or emblems is still latent, still potential. Yeats realizes that potential in later poems, beginning with the swan in part III of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, the ‘solitary soul’ that, like the swan children after their baptism, ‘has leaped into the desolate heaven’, and the realization of that potential culminates in ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’, in which the collectively created soul of Yeats and the other Irish writers of his movement drifts like a swan on the waters of the generated soul, and is, in its closeness to folk-tradition, ‘so arrogantly pure, a child might think | It can be murdered with a drop of ink’ |‘so arrogantly pure, a child might think | It can be murdered with a drop of ink’.

104The earliest source in Yeats’s writing for the image of the murdered swan is a negative comment in ‘Samhain: 1902’, on a play in Gaelic by Douglas Hyde. Yeats’s comments about the play end with a reference to an eponymous character in a fictional work by Villiers de l’Isle Adam: ‘Did not M. Tribulat Bonhomet discover that one drop of ink can kill a swan?’ (Ex 90, CW8 14–15 & n. 19) I haven’t discovered precisely how this reference relates to the metaphor in Yeats’s poem, but Yeats’s reservations about Hyde’s play do cast light, I think, on the development of the swan image between 1917 and 1931. Despite praising Hyde as ‘the chief Gaelic poet of our time’, Yeats writes that Hyde’s play is his ‘least interesting as literature’ because Hyde’s ‘imagination, which is essentially the folk imagination, needs a looser construction’ He goes on to say that Hyde’s play ‘gets its effect from keeping close to one idea’ and thereby ‘loses the richness of its own life, while it destroys the wayward life of his own mind by bringing it under too stern a law. Nor could charming verses make amends for … that abounding black bottle’ (Ex 90). In the context of this passage, the metaphor of the murdered swan defines genius, for Hyde, in terms that are eminently local, specifically Irish, and, above all, folkloric, oral, and free of the literary ‘inkhorn’ words, drawn from an ‘abounding black bottle’, which threaten that genius.

105As Levine recognizes, Yeats, post-1916, does not wholly free himself from his obsession with Gonne. But Levine appears to consign all things Gonne, along with all things local and feminine, to a private, inaccessible realm irrelevant to ‘universal symbols’ and to Yeats’s development as a poet. As a result, he misses several important features of that development, including the metaphors related to Gonne in Yeats’s post-1916 poems and plays. One of these is ‘Quarrel in Old Age’, which, in 1931, retrieves Gonne’s youthful image as an eternal archetype—‘that lonely thing | that shone before these eyes | Targeted, trod like spring’ |‘that lonely thing | that shone before these eyes | Targeted, trod like spring’ |‘that lonely thing | that shone before these eyes | Targeted, trod like spring’—in lines that recall the phrase ‘what thing her body was’ in ‘A Woman Homer Sung’. Another is Yeats’s final play, where she appears as Aoife, the mother of the nameless young man who challenges Cuchulain to mortal combat and is recognized, too late, as his only son. And there is her appearance in Yeats’s poem ‘A Bronze Head’ (1938), where her ‘bird’s round eye’evokes an image of Gonne as the crow-headed Celtic goddess of war who sees ‘gangling stocks grown great, great stocks grown dry’ and, in the grim, terrified, and terrifying last lines of the poem, ‘wonders what was left | For massacre to save’.

  • 50 Bernard McKenna, ‘Violence, Transcendence, and Resistance in the Manuscripts of Yeats’s “Leda and t (...)

106Levine also misses the metaphoric dimensions of the Children of Lir story, based on its specific allusions to Irish experience and its specific meaning for Irish readers, which gives it a symbolic weight comparable to that of the classical Greek story of Zeus and Leda; in Yeats’s identification with Leda, as much as (if not more than) Zeus, he counters the brutality of Zeus in his swan disguise by taking on the humanity (with the femininity) of Leda. Recent scholarship has focused on this aspect of the poem. As Bernard McKenna emphasizes in his analysis of its draft manuscripts, those drafts emerge from the conflict between the brutality of the swan and the human and divine forces that struggle against it, personified in Leda and Zeus. ‘The poem’s drafts’, McKenna writes, ‘portray the tragic stories of an animal brutality that all but destroys the divinity of Zeus and that violates Leda, even though she emerges as an individual with agency and an identity independent of her violation. … The final form of the poem, read in the context of the drafts, reaffirms the tragic consequences of Leda’s rape but also affirms her potential for self-awareness’.50

  • 51 See Brian Arkins, Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smyth (...)
  • 52 The etymology of the word ‘Logos’ derives from the Greek term meaning ‘word, speech, discourse, rea (...)

107This interpretation establishes Yeats’s strong identification with Leda but not his awareness of the feminine swan cult that enabled Zeus, disguised as a swan, to deceive Leda. It is tempting to speculate about the effect this knowledge could have had on Yeats. Knowing the full import of Zeus’chosen disguise, he would have recognized, in hindsight, that he was deceived, as Leda was. He might have resisted Gonne more strongly if he had known her as an embodiment of conquest, not passion, a daughter of Zeus, not of Aphrodite or Lir. This knowledge would account for his identification with Leda in the poem and would affect the meaning of the question that ends it. As Brian Arkins has pointed out, ‘The implied correspondence … between the phases of the act of rape—penetration, orgasm, post-coital lassitude—and the fate of Troy and the Greek leader leads on to the crucial question of the status of Leda’s union with the Swan’—the question of whether Leda acquired ‘divine knowledge when Zeus overpowered and raped her?’ Arkins thinks she did.51 I’m inclined to think she did not, any more than Mary, in Yeats’s poem ‘The Mother of God’ would have recognized that her phrase ‘and gathered all the talk’ prefigures the doctrine of the Logos, which brings together two Greek words meaning ‘to gather’ or ‘to collect’ and ‘to talk’.52

108As I read ‘Leda and the Swan’, the point of the analogy between Leda’s sensations and the events that followed is that Leda did not recognize the sensations of the rape—‘the broken wall, the burning roof and tower’—as prefigurations of the Trojan War and its aftermath, any more than Yeats recognized the events he witnessed and participated in—especially the Jubilee riots in Dublin in 1897, described in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’ section of the Autobiographies— as prefigurations of the violence to come. Or did he?

109Yeats, in 1934, writes of the unconscious in his essay ‘The Mandukya Upanishad’. Would it have warned him—perhaps in dreams—of the consequences of his own thoughts and acts? In 1916, in At the Hawk’s Well, the Guardian of the Well, with her hawk eyes, embodies the self-knowledge that the Old Man denies and the Young Man will attain, although it will come too late to save him from the consequences of his acts. This must be what Yeats means when he writes that ‘We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy’ (Au 189; CW3 163). Certainly, by 1922, as the author of ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, he had a sharp awareness of those consequences, reflected in his account of the cost of the Jubilee riots in Dublin—

many have been wounded; some two hundred heads have been dressed at the hospitals; an old woman killed by baton blows or perhaps trampled under the feet of the crowd; and … two thousand pounds worth of decorated plate glass windows have been broken. I count the links in the chain of responsibility, run them across my fingers, and wonder if any link there is from my workshop. … A week later Maud Gonne marches forty thousand children through the streets of Dublin, and in a field beyond Drumcondra, and in the presence of a priest of their church, they swear to cherish towards England, until the freedom of Ireland has been won, an undying enmity. How many of those children will carry bomb or rifle when a little under or a little over thirty? (Au 368; CW3 277)

110‘Leda and the Swan’ ends with a question about knowledge and power that Yeats, in 1924, must have asked himself. And if that poem is about the poet and his muse (as Helen Vendler remarked in a talk she gave in New York some years ago) it seems that Leda is the poet, not the muse—a poet who, with divided emotions, witnesses and participates in the power of an Olympian in disguise: this poet resembles the Maud Gonne whom Yeats saw, in the 1890’s, as the Countess Cathleen, an embodiment of pity who sacrifices her own soul in a good cause, not the sovereignty figure Cathleen ni Houlihan, the queen, disguised as the Shan Van Voght or Poor Old Woman, who demands the blood of others.

111But, whatever he knew of the Greek background of the Leda story, Yeats did not recognize the power of Irish militancy to disrupt his world—and the violence that would accompany this disruption—until it was too late. This truth, however, evokes a counter-truth that he came to see and articulate in his late dance plays: his attraction to this disruptive power. This attraction is expressed in a question and response from A Full Moon in March (1935), in which one member of the chorus sings, ‘Why must those holy, haughty feet descend | From emblematic niches, and what hand | Ran that delicate raddle through their white? | My heart is broken, yet must understand’, and another singer answers, ‘For desecration, and the lover’s night’ (VPl 989; CW2 508). The ‘perfect service’ of the Irish state is eroticized and humanized in this dialogue, in which Yeats attempts to reconcile Cathleen ni Houlihan’s conquering image with the emblematic purity of Intellectual Beauty and The Secret Rose. And, in the action of the play as a whole, he dramatizes the tensions in the word ‘conquest’—between artistry and moral force—that shaped Irish cultural and political life during his lifetime and for several decades after his death.


112The achievement of Yeats as a poet seems to me to combine the daring of a Brian Merriman with his own daring attempt—as an Anglo-Irishman devoted to certain English poets, influenced by Nō drama and by Shri Purohit Swami—to ‘other’ the Irish, even as he Irishizes the other. The source of that daring, which I see as a distinguishing Irish trait, is the ability to resist the temptation offered in the happy ending of the Ella Young/Maud Gonne version of the Children of Lir story, in which the swans transmit their songs to a bard who will preserve them; they are then converted to Christianity and briefly resume their human form, but as withered skeletal ancients. They are, however, rewarded for their conversion when they find their true home in heaven.

113This version of the story lacks the sternness emphasized in the following excerpt from a review published in The Bookman in July 1895.

  • 53 The review, though unsigned, is attributed to Yeats by Allan Wade in his Bibliography and reprinted (...)

‘The Children of Lir’ is of the great family of transformation legends, … But … the Celtic fairy tale has this distinction, that removed as it is far from the region of human habitation, remote, ethereal, and, other peoples say, too often inhuman, … no other has so sternly dared to face inexorable human fate—sorrow, decay, and death …. After ages of wandering and suffering, the swan-children, [are] given back their human shape, but with it the feebleness and the palsy of old age, and at the touch of the holy water they drop dead.53

114The end of the Children of Lir story, as it is described in this anonymous review, is plausible evidence that Yeats either wrote the review or shared its author’s vision, which acknowledges the permanence, in human existence, of disruption, failure, and loss. The Bookman review also casts light on the swan imagery in Section III of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’. Section I of the sequence laments the decline of Yeats‘s cultivated audience and his Ascendency patrons, but Section III mourns the appropriation, by those for whom art serves the national myth, of desires to which Yeats’s imagination and craft had given ‘beauty, a meaning, and a form all can accept’ (Myth 362). In that section of the poem the speaker begins by trying, like an imprisoned king, to reason himself out of his grief at the loss he has suffered, declaring his satisfaction with his vision of the swan as an emblem of ‘the solitary soul’. But then, with the line ‘The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven’, he ends, like a disinherited prince, in rage at the isolation that tempts him to destroy ‘even the half-imagined, the half-written page’. The image of the swan that has ‘leaped into the desolate heaven’ has evoked the ‘inexorable human fate’ confronted in the Children of Lir story, in addition to the speaker’s rage at the possibility that future generations will reject that tragic vision for the consolations offered by a fantasy in which every loss is balanced by a reward. In the story as it is told in Jacobs’More Celtic Fairy Tales, the children are deprived of their human bodies but keep their human voices. The Young/Gonne version, however, carries this restoration much further: their history is not lost, because the bards will preserve it; their home is a desolate ruin, but they will have a better one in heaven.

  • 54 See the Greek saying, ‘Myths are the activities of the daimons’, quoted in ‘The Stirring of the Bon (...)

115For Yeats, those consolations are unacceptable. He gives his audiences and readers, instead, the prologue of his final play, in which, in place of the noble swans transmitting their songs to the bard, we have the hysterical Producer ranting to the audience and, in the play’s final lyrics, the disappointed but still desirous harlot singing to the beggar man. Those final lyrics prove that the Producer is wrong. History is not an old maid; and, though promiscuous, she is alive and fertile. Her desire sets the street singer singing and the street musicians playing again, as her dissatisfaction sets the wheel of history turning again. And, considering Yeats’s definition of myth, her audience may be a beggar man because he lacks, and will always lack, ‘sufficient evidence’ for whatever vision the invisible hypnotist grants to him. That vision takes form at the end of the play’s mythic action, when Emer’s love for Cuchulain is expressed in a dance of mourning and triumph. In that action, Cuchulain’s body—Celestial Body or Body of Fate in the terms of A Vision—begins as myth, lives in history, and ends as a mask or geometric form, not the spectral being that some may call tradition. It is this version of tradition, I believe, that Yeats describes, in ‘The Completed Symbol’ chapter of A Vision B as ‘pursuing, persecuting and imprisoning the Daimons’ (the supernatural messengers who, in challenging poets and artists, liberate their imaginations and their antiselves.)54

  • 55 See The Death of Cuchulain: Manuscript Materials, op. cit., 11, nn. 32 and 179.

116That liberation was achieved by Yeats when he came to reject the mythic power that all too easily ‘conquers the people’ and, with it, the authority that, despairing of ‘Art alone’, he had embraced in the 1909 diary. The loss entailed in this rejection is absolute. As Yeats writes in his letter to Sturge Moore, ‘when the criticism of myth is finished, there is not even a drift of ashes on the pyre …. We free ourselves from obsession that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void’. (See above, 90). Yeats accepts this loss in the verses that speak of the ‘rich dark nothing’ and the ‘proper dark’ in which civilization is renewed; and, finally, he accepts it in his choice of the Morrigu, not the Old Man Producer of the Prologue, to accompany Cuchulain to his last battle and arrange Emer’s dance. As the crow-headed goddess of war, who ‘cannot lie’ and who clears the dead from the field of battle, the Morrigu presides over the losses that the Producer cannot face, then leaves the stage to Emer. It ‘darkens slowly’, and Emer ‘stands motionless’ in the darkness where the soul of Cuchulain, that great fighting man, is ‘about to sing’.55

117The play’s final moments return the audience to the light, the street singer, and her song about the harlot History. What the harlot desires is ‘body’, a crucial term for Yeats. And tradition lives for Yeats as a body reborn, not a treasure preserved: Phidias reborn in Michelangelo, Homer’s hexameters in Chapman’s fourteeners, Blake and the great Romantics, along with Shakespeare and Marvell, Sophocles and Synge and Zeami, reborn in his poems and plays. His legacy to Irish writers, finally, is a body of work in which daring and skill are born of disruption, failure, and loss; of the knowledge that is always, in some measure, a kind of death; and of creative joy, separated from fear.


118I began to think of this essay when I wrote a presentation, ‘My Soul’s First Shape’for a 2010 meeting of the American Conference on Irish Studies. Its subject was the Irish identity Yeats shaped, after 1916, for himself and for future Irish writers. I reworked that presentation because of my resistance to the tendency, in John Swift’s review and in other comments on the Rising, to read ‘Easter 1916’ as Yeats’s definitive and final response to that event. I’ve therefore tried to show the connections between Yeats’s history as an Irish writer and his second thoughts about that history, in the decades when the martyrdom of the 1916 rebels was emerging (in Roy Foster’s words) as the ‘sacrificial foundation myth of modern Ireland’ (Life 2 645). To trace those connections, I’ve written on a wide range of subjects, including the influence of Nō drama on The Resurrection, and my analysis of that play draws on my experience of Nō as a theatregoer in Tokyo from 1971 to 1976 and in New York up to the present. In considering the sources and ideas that influenced Yeats, I’ve tried to make clear what he most valued as a writer of his time and his nation. And, although my views coincide at certain points with those of Seamus Murphy and Declan Kiberd, especially about ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’, the epigraph to Responsibilities, and The Resurrection, I had arrived at those views before I’d read either writer.


1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

2 ‘Comprehending the Irish Revolutionary Generations’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Dublin, Spring 2016, 95–96.

3 See Afterword below 121.

4 In his article ‘Dark Liturgy, Bloody Praxis: The 1916 Rising’, in the Spring 2016 issue of Studies, Seamus Murphy, s. j. also makes this point, describing the ‘fantasies’ Yeats refers to in ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’as the Rising’s ‘spiritual food’ (21). But see Roy Foster’s account of Yeats’s speech condemning ‘the doings of the British military mercenaries in Ireland’ at an Oxford Union debate in 1920 (YA20 78). That condemnation could identify English politicians, in addition to Irish rebels, with the ‘we’ of the poem.

5 Yeats quotes from the 1928 draft of the Bill in ‘The Irish Censorship’, his Spectator article (29 September 1928): see SS 175 and ff. at 176–77, and CW10 214 and ff. at 215.

6 5The first performance of The Resurrection on 30 July 1934 was at the Abbey Theatre: Yeats wrote in Wheels and Butterflies (1934) that ‘Like The Cat and the Moon it was not intended for the public theatre. I permitted it there after great hesitation’: see VPl 1308; CW2 906. See also his arguments in ‘The Censorship and Thomas Aquinas’ (CW10 211–13), ‘The Irish Censorship’ (ibid., 214–18), his Senate speech on divorce (SS 97–98) and his letter of 9 December 1936 to Dorothy Wellesley expressing relief that The Herne’s Egg would not be produced at the Abbey (CL InteLex 6746; L 871). See also the next article in this volume, ‘“Satan, Smut & Co.”, Yeats and the Suppression of Evil Literature in the Early Years of the Free State’, 123-212, below.

7 See Julia Carlson ed., Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, edited for Article 90 (London: Routledge, 1990, with a preface by Kevin Boyle), vii, viii.

8 Yeats in 1909 would probably have agreed with Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, published in an English translation in 1895 [London: Macmillan; republished New York: The Viking Press, 1960]) that, ‘When a civilization is analyzed it is seen that, in reality, it is the marvelous and the legendary that are its true supports … [I]n history, … the unreal is always of greater moment than the real’, that ‘history is scarcely capable of preserving the memory of anything except myths’, and that ‘the crowd demands a god before everything else’. (67–8, 49.75). Social media, in our time, offer new evidence for Le Bon’s analysis of the power exerted by illusion, suggestion, repetition, and contagion on minds that, as Le Bon points out, do not need to be present in the same space to constitute a crowd. See also 24–48, 57–73, 108–10, 118, 129–40, 149, 160–66, and 176.

9 The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2016.

10 They are like the Greek in Yeats’s play The Resurrection (1931) who, belonging to the pre-Christian world, is convinced that ‘Man’, in his relations with divinity, ‘does not surrender his soul. He keeps his privacy’ (VPl 919; CW2 487).

11 Edward Dowden, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886, I, 94 [in Ch. 3, ‘Oxford continued’]). On Yeats and a source for ‘terrible beauty’ in j. s. Le Fanu’s ‘The Legend of the Glaive’, see also YA18 55.

12 VPl 905; CW2 482. This recalls the thought expressed in Walter Pater’s Plato and Platonism (London: Macmillan, 1931) that the collective mind of the Athenian public, as it shaped the strategies of the Sophists, resembles ‘a wild beast’ and is a vehicle for ‘disintegrating Heraclitean fire’ (107); WBY owned and marked the 1893 edition of this work (YL 1538, 202).

13 On Yeats and Wilde’s orality, see Deirdre Toomey, ‘The Story-Teller at Fault’, in C. George Sandulescu ed., Rediscovering Oscar Wilde (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe Limited, 1994), 405–20. For the oral versions of Wilde’s tales, see Guillot de Saix, Les Songes merveilleuyx du Dormeur éveillé. Le chant du cygne: contes parlés d’Oscar Wilde (Paris: Mercure de France, 1942).

14 Declan Kiberd, ‘Acting on Instinct: Dublin, Shakespeare, and the “radical improvisers” of the Easter Rising’, TLS, 22 April 2016, 14–15. See also James Connolly’s Marxist analysis of Ireland’s past and his program for its future in The Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915), a pamphlet reprinted in 1972 with an introduction by A. Raftery (New Books Publications, Dublin and Belfast).

15 Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: w. w. Norton, 1971), 79 and 230–31.

16 See Warwick Gould’s essay ‘An Empty Theatre?: Yeats as Minstrel in Responsibilities’on the relation between Yeats’s experience as a playwright and his achievement as a poet of personal utterance (Studies on w. b. Yeats, ed. by Jaqueline Genet (Caen: Groupe de Recherches d’Etudes anglo-irlandaise du c.n.r.s., 1989)).

17 On the financial difficulties of Yeats’s family, see L1 65–68.

18 This metaphor resurfaces much later, when, in ‘Words for Music Perhaps’, Crazy Jane’s lover, Jack the Journeyman, bears a name that, like Juan and Giovanni, is a variant of Synge’s first name. ‘Crazy Jane and the Bishop’, the poem that precedes ‘Crazy Jane Reproved’ in ‘Words for Music Perhaps’, tells us that the Bishop was not even a parish priest when he banished Jane’s lover, years before; this fact suggests that the hatred visited on Synge’s Playboy in 1907 has been validated by the Church and directed to Jane in 1930 (VP 308–9). Consider, also, the connection between Jane’s name—Cracked Mary—in the early MSS of the sequence, and the next-to-last section of ‘Anima Mundi’, in which Yeats quotes Shelley: ‘our minds are mirrors of the fire for which all men thirst’, asks ‘What or who has cracked the mirror?’ and announces his intention to search for the answer to that question in his study of ‘the only self that I can know, myself’ (Myth 364).

19 See 67, n. 8 above.

20 Some of these comments are based on my unpublished presentation on Nō, ‘Experiencing Noh: Stages, Soundscapes, Mindscapes’, at Fordham University in New York on 2 November 2002. See also Edward Marx’s essay ‘No Dancing’, in YA17 51–93.

21 In addition to evoking Pater’s Plato and Platonism, the phrase ‘pack of wolves’ may have local resonances, recalling the comment attributed to Goethe in entry 35 of ‘Estrangement’: about ‘Those who accuse Synge of some base motive … It is of such as these Goethe thought when he said, “The Irish always seem to me to me like a pack of hounds dragging down some noble stag”’ (Mem 163; Au 483; CW3 357). See also Le Bon, op. cit.: ‘The ferocity of crowds’ is ‘related to that of the huntsmen who gather … for … the killing of a luckless stag by their hounds’ (57).

22 See Giorgio Melchiori’s comments on ‘the Nietzschean concept of Laughter announcing the advent of the Superman’, in The Whole Mystery of Art (London: Kegan Paul, 1960), 41–42.

23 This last question had an uncanny effect, for me at least, at a performance of the play in New York City’s Grace Episcopal Church some years ago.

24 As Kiberd writes, ‘One needs a self in order to narrate one’s story, but how can one even presume to know that self until the story is told?’ This is ‘the question identified by [Thomas] MacDonagh: how to present the unknown except in the flawed, shop-soiled language of the known? O’Casey eventually solved this technical problem by keeping his rebels offstage or edge-of-stage. Yeats, a more radical experimental artist, understood this as the central problem posed by revolution’, Kiberd then quotes the Syrian’s question, quoted above, as evidence of this understanding. See Declan Kiberd, ‘Acting on Instinct’, op. cit., 14–15.

25 Quoted by Arthur Waley in The Nō Plays of Japan (New York: Grove Press, 1957, first published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 1922), 25.

26 The phrase appears as ‘the bloodless sacrifices’ in Harold Swainson’s translation of Paul the Silentiary’s ‘Ode’ in Homeric hexameters celebrating the reopening of the main church in Constantinople in 537 c. e.: ‘For as much of the great church by the eastern arch as was set apart for the bloodless sacrifices is bounded not with ivory or cut stone or bronze, but it is all fenced under a cover of silver’. It is translated in The Church of Sancta Sophia, Constantinople: A Study of Byzantine Building, by Harold Swainson and William Richard Lethaby (London: Macmillan, 1894), 46, which was republished in an unabridged facsimile edition by Adamant Media in their Elibron Classics series in 2005.

27 AVB 278; CW14 202 and n. 60, which sets out various putative sources and vectors that put Yeats in touch with these words of the fourth century neo-Platonist Antoninus. e. r. Dodds, the author of The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) credits himself for being the person who told Yeats about Antoninus’s passage: see his Missing Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 60.

28 See ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (1914) for Yeats and Blake on Christ as ‘the risen human imagination’ (Ex 44; CW5 56). See also Foster’s account of Yeats, as the author of ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, projecting his view of the early 1920s into his account of events in 1897 and’98 (Life 2 202). In his essay ‘If I were Four and Twenty’ (1919), Yeats discusses, among other things, his wish that Irish leaders would become more religious (Ex 263–68). ‘The Stirring of the Bones’, published some three years later, suggests that those leaders, if his wish had come true, might have turned from their ‘perfect service’ to a more human and grounded, less narrow and abstract image of redemption. Seamus Murphy, s. j., in his article on the Rising, does not mention The Resurrection, although he refers to several of Yeats’s poems to support his assertion that the bloodthirsty god of the Easter rebels is not Christ but a pagan deity like Mars or Odin. Yeats, in comparing Irish nationalism to early Christianity, sees this too, but through a different lens. (Murphy, loc. cit., n. 3 above 18, 25, 27.

29 The word ‘Irishizes’ is borrowed from the prospectus of the ACIS conference where the first version of this essay was presented, at Drew University, New Jersey, on 2 October 2010.

30 As Warwick Gould kindly informed me in an e-mail (5 May 2017), ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ was added to the American pirated edition of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (New York: a. l. Burt Company, [1898]; Wade 212A, hereafter IFFT) under circumstances as yet unknown, despite that book’s being described on the title pages as ‘Edited and Selected by w. b. Yeats’. It is basically a new edition of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which was indeed ‘edited and selected’ by Yeats (London: Walter Scott, 1888). ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’was added as the first story in the pirated Burt edition, having been taken from the translation by Eugene O’Curry, first published in 1883, with five other additions to Yeats’s text that appeared in Joseph Jacobs’s More Celtic Fairy Tales (London: David Nutt, 1894), together with the original illustrations by John D. Batten. The story was the first in More Celtic Fairy Tales, as it was in Burt’s edition of IFFT, and More Celtic Fairy Tales is now accessible online at Jacobs’s earlier volume had been Celtic Fairy Tales (1892) from the same publisher. The two collections have been republished in a single volume (and with the Batten illustrations) as Celtic Fairy Tales, selected and ed. by Joseph Jacobs (London: Bracken Books, 1990). Jacobs was the Editor of the journal Folk-Lore, and his work was well-known to Yeats. For the latest printing of the Burt pirated text see Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, ed. and selected by w. b. Yeats (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 1–9. For the full bibliographical story, see Colin Smythe, ‘a. l. Burt’s 1898 Edition of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales “Edited by w. b. Yeats”’, YA12 248–52 now also found at

31 Letter from Reynolds to Sturge Moore, Senate House Library, University of London, Sturge Moore Papers, 9/52, also quoted in CW7 xxi, n. 13.

32 Letter from Reynolds to Sturge Moore, Senate House Library, University of London, Sturge Moore Papers, 9/60, also quoted in CW7 xxi, n. 13

33 Houghton 276, 31 March 1933, quoted in CW7 xxi, n. 13.

34 LNI xiii, [vii]; CW7 5, 3.

35 See LNI 174–92; CW7 78–90. ‘Dr. Todhunter’s Latest Volume of Poems’first appeared in The Providence Sunday Journal, 10 February 1889. In ‘Irish Writers ought to take Irish Subjects’, one of Yeats’s regular ‘The Celt in London’ columns for The Boston Pilot (17 May 1890), retitled by Reynolds ‘Ireland’s Heroic Age’, Yeats numbers the ‘Children of Lir’ among the ‘most famous old stories (of which he calls for an anthology): see LNI 104–12 (108); CW7 31–35 (33).

36 See LNI 178; CW7 81. Yeats is using Todhunter’s ‘Doom of the Children of Lir’ as a point of departure for a wider-ranging consideration of modern versions of the legend: Todhunter had collected his poem in the volume under review, The Banshee and Other Poems (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1888), 10–83, where Fionnuala is spelled ‘Fianoula’. By 1898 references to the swan-children of Lir, along with references to blossoming apple boughs, figured prominently in the rituals of the mystical order, the Castle of Heroes, that Yeats—with Gonne and others—planned to found in Ireland. For descriptions of these rituals, see Lucy Shepard Kalogera’s Yeats’s Celtic Mysteries, Ph. D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1977, 205, 225–26, and for the role of the children of Lir story as ‘a trope for the Irish literary revival’, see Amy Clanton’s ‘Ritual Art: Political, Social, and Religious Subversion in Dramatic Works of William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley’, FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts: Rites and Rituals 17 (Autumn 2013), 5,

37 CL InteLex 5799, 24 December 1932, to Horace Reynolds; CW7 xviii.

38 Ibid.

39 CL InteLex 7290, to Lady Dorothy Wellesley, 15 August [1938]; L 913.

40 CL InteLex 7359 to Sir William Rothenstein, 29 December 1938. See also Life 2 644.

41 See w. b. Yeats, The Death of Cuchulain: Manuscript Materials including the Author’s Final Text, ed. by Phillip L. Marcus (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), 11.

42 The Wild Swans at Coole: Manuscript Materials by w. b. Yeats, ed. Stephen Parrish (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), xxix, 17, 19, 27, 37, and 39. See Herbert J. Levine, ‘“Freeing the Swans”: Yeats’s Exorcism of Maud Gonne’, ELH 48.2 (Summer 1981), 411–26; in part reprinted in Levine’s Yeats’s Daimonic Renewal (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983), in which Levine astutely recognizes the link between Yeats’s evolving relationship with Maud Gonne and his poetic development in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. He also notes Yeats’s association of apple blossoms with Maud Gonne’s luminous complexion and with the swan images in ‘Baile and Ailinn’ (1902; VP 188) and in his draft manuscript for The Trembling of the Veil (Mem 128). He does not, however, see the significance for Yeats’s work of the connexions and the differences between the versions of the ‘Children of Lir’ story as retold by Ella Young in her Celtic Wonder Tales (Dublin: Maunsel & Co., 1910, illustrated by Maud Gonne, 143–60) and in a. l. Burt’s IFFT. See also Donald Torchiana on Maud Gonne and Fionnuala, in his ‘“Among School Children” and the Education of the Irish Spirit’ (In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats, ed. by A. Norman Jeffares and k. g. w. Cross [London, Melbourne and Toronto: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965]), 139–40.

43 See VP 322–23. According to Chambers’English Dictionary, Pronouncing, Explanatory, Etymological etc., ed. and rev. by Thomas A. Davidson (London and Edinburgh: W&R Chambers, Ltd., 1908) ‘conquest is the act of conquering: that which is conquered or acquired by physical or moral force: the act of gaining the affections of another’ (202). Yeats owned the 1914 printing (YL 1294).

44 On a source of At the Hawk’s Well in Motokiyō Zeami’s Yōrō, see Richard Taylor, ‘Assimilation and Accomplishment: Nō Drama and an unpublished source for At the Hawk’s Well’ (YT 137–58).

45 See ‘A People’s Theatre’, an open letter to Lady Gregory dated 1919 (Ex 257; CW8 133).

46 These lines in ‘The Arrow’, in the version first published in 1903, don’t specify apple blossoms. They read, ‘Blossom pale, she pulled down the pale blossom | At the moth hour and hid it in her bosom’. The lines specifying ‘apple blossom’ were first published in Later Poems in 1922, although Yeats first inserted them in the poem, it seems, in a 9 November 1909 diary entry that begins ‘I want to re-write “The Arrow”’; he then gives them in the version published thirteen years later (Mem 236; VP 199; Au 123; CW3 119–20). In adapting the tale, Young uses the blossom images of the 1903 ‘Arrow’ to conflate Gonne with Fionnuala. In his 1909 revision of the poem, however, as in the 1922 memoir, Yeats widens the distance between Gonne and Fionnuala by making the image more specific and presenting it as fictionalized biography, not personalized legend. See also Mem 40–42 for a more immediate memory of the meeting in Bedford Park, west London. Given that the event is in January, the blossom might just have been almond blossom, in a mild winter.

47 Helen Sword, ‘Leda and the Modernists’, PMLA 107.2 (March 1992), 305–18, n. 16. Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths I (Harmondsworth, Surrey; Baltimore: Penguin, 1955), 126, n. 2 is quoted in Sword’s 316–17, n. 16, as is Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s ed., Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythological Beasts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 212.

48 See above, 67 n. 7.

49 See Donald T. Torchiana, ‘“Among School Children” and the Education of the Irish Spirit’, op. cit., 139.

50 Bernard McKenna, ‘Violence, Transcendence, and Resistance in the Manuscripts of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”’, Philological Quarterly, 90.4 (Fall 2011), 425–44 (425 and ff.).

51 See Brian Arkins, Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1990), 99.

52 The etymology of the word ‘Logos’ derives from the Greek term meaning ‘word, speech, discourse, reason’. It and first appeared in English in a translation by Sir Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding in 1587 (OED, ‘Its Proto-Indo-European root means “to collect” (with derivatives meaning “to speak”, on notion of “to pick out words”) … used by Neo-Platonists in various metaphysical and theological senses and picked up by New Testament writers’ (Collins English Dictionary—Complete and Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins).

53 The review, though unsigned, is attributed to Yeats by Allan Wade in his Bibliography and reprinted in CW9 268.

54 See the Greek saying, ‘Myths are the activities of the daimons’, quoted in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’ (Au 373; CW3 281). Also see two passages in A Vision (1937), The first passage reads, ‘sometimes the Celestial Body is a prisoner in a tower rescued by the Spirit. Sometimes grown old it becomes the personification of evil. It pursues, persecutes and imprisons the Daimons (CW14 139; AVB 189). But, in a sentence three pages on, the Celestial Body is described as ‘timeless’, ‘My teachers do not characterize the Celestial Body’, this reads, ‘but it is doubtless the timeless’ (CW14 141, AVB 192). This is hard to understand. How can it be both old and timeless? But then, Venus is old and spectral for Merriman in Ireland in the late eighteenth century, although she is timeless and mythical there and elsewhere earlier in that century, at least for Swift as the author of Cadenus and Vanessa. If sequential time is illusory, the contradiction can perhaps be resolved, though I’m inclined to turn from this problem to another passage, toward the end of ‘The Completed Symbol’, which returns the poet, along with his readers, to a reality he describes there as ‘concrete, sensuous, bodily. My imagination’, he continues, ‘was for a long time haunted by figures that, muttering “the great systems”, held out to me the sun-dried skeletons of birds, and it seemed to me that this image was meant to turn my thoughts to the living bird’ (AVB 214). I hope that this essay will similarly turn the thoughts of readers to the ‘concrete, sensuous, bodily’ reality of Yeats’s poems and plays.

55 See The Death of Cuchulain: Manuscript Materials, op. cit., 11, nn. 32 and 179.


Writer, editor, and lecturer at New York University, where she taught writing and literature for twenty-six years. She has also been a guest lecturer on Noh drama at Fordham University. Before that, she was based in Tokyo for almost six years, as an editor for an English-language publisher, an art columnist for the English-language edition of the Mainichi newspaper, and a Tokyo correspondent for the American magazine Art News. She is currently working on a book of essays about Yeats’s plays.


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