Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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2.2. Self-fashioning

Having outlined the historical and cultural development of the second half of the 19th century in Ireland, the ideas that ruled the era should be analysed in greater detail. The term “self-fashioning” is often used in connection with the English Renaissance, which brought an “increasing self-consciousness about the fashioning of the human identity as a manipulable, artful process” (Greenblat 2). Ireland, however, having been bereft of its national identity in the 16th century through Elizabethan colonization, came to this point of self-fashioning much later, and the process of conscious defining of an identity did not begin until the 19th century; the parallels to the English Renaissance caused the Revival to be called, sometimes, “the Irish Renaissance”. Due to the fall of the Gaelic order (and the subsequent shattering of the original native culture) and the “centuries of enforced provincialism” by the New English settlers (Kiberd 3), Ireland’s natural development as a nation was suspended; and, compared to England, it was at a different stage (Yeats, “Nationalism and Literature” 85) – a young nation whose identity was yet to be formed via cultural nationalism. According to Prof. Hirsch, Irish writers can be distinguished from English writers on the grounds of “a complex national identity” (“Irish Peasant” 1121). The English, who were the conquerors – hence, had power in their hands – did not feel the need to assert their national identity in literature, whereas the Irish needed to assert some kind of national unity to get rid of the constituent element of their identity defined as “the colonized”—and, therefore, “the powerless.”

The quest of Yeats’s generation was to renovate Irish consciousness and to “make Ireland once again interesting to the Irish” (Kiberd 3). It is, of course, impossible to generalize regarding so complex a process as the building of a nation’s identity; but, if simplified for the present purposes, it can be said that there were two main strategies which merged the natural and the artificial: supporting the notion of a kind of inherent nationality rooted in the people themselves (which is unconscious); and dwelling on the idea of defining “Irish” as “not-English.” From both of these conceptions sprang an interest in Celticism, mythology and folklore.
2.2.1. Epic integrity

One of the two above-mentioned underlying concepts of this process was the idea presented by Yeats in his lecture “Nationality and Literature”, published in 1893. In this lecture, he claims that all nations and their literatures are ageing and growing from epic to lyrical, like a tree which “grows from unity to multiplicity, from simplicity to complexity” (“Nationality and Literature” 86). A young nation that has yet to be fully formed and achieve national and cultural unity is still in the stage of an epic society, and this is reflected in its literature, which ties the nation together. This literature has a mutually affecting relationship with society:

Society presents itself through the epic, while the epic installs and maintains that social structure. Epic art is therefore internal to the social practice it describes. (Dwan 2004, 203)

Therefore, a society mirrors and is mirrored by the epic literature it produces. The authors, by maintaining the epic canon, were supporting the epic social structure, which led to an unconscious unity which was presumably felt by the people; an epic society is characterized by the citizen’s “identification with his own social basis” of the national unit he pertains to. This identification “was immediate, and was not a function of reflective deliberation or individual choice or preference” (Dwan 2004, 208). This idea of unity in an epic society corresponds to Michael Foucault’s theory about the character of a pre-classical episteme, which could be found in England before its Renaissance (this could also be applicable to pre-Revival, epic Ireland). Since the pre-classical episteme (as opposed to the classical one which is based on difference) is based on similarity – it draws things together, seeks for any kind of kinship or a “shared nature” of things (Cairns, Richards 2).

Yeats argued that “alone, perhaps, among the nations of Europe we [Irish] are in our ballad or epic age” (Yeats, “Nationality and Literature” 91): hence, the belief that Ireland possesses an inherent unity which can be re-established through looking back to the epic legends of the past – Yeats’s idea in the early 1890s was that “it was by looking to the past that the poet served the present” because this way he reaches “the more fundamental level” of the Irish people’s spirituality (Cairns, Richards 68-69). Yeats, as well as O’Grady, believed that Ireland’s history is a downfall from heroic unity to modern fragmentation (Whitaker 326). Therefore, to retrieve that unity, one must look into the heroic past, where epic art can be found; this epic art will foster an epic society held together by the aforementioned epic unity. Moreover, legends were ideal for this purpose, not only because they determine the unified society, but also because they represent it, Yeats claims:

[They are] made by no one man, but by the nation itself through a slow process of modification and adaptation, to express its loves and its hates, its likes and its dislikes. (qtd. in Dwan, "Ancient Sect” 204)

The basic idea behind this, though, was that poetry transcends subjective human individuality and that poets are just representatives of a far greater force than themselves. Yeats saw poetry as the “product of an anonymous tradition that operates behind the backs of poets” (Dwan, “Ancient Sect” 205), and claimed that a people is bound together by the “imaginative possessions” which it owns and by “stories and poems which have grown out of its own life” (Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil 337).

The Young Irelanders adhered to this very principle when they wrote national ballads, though perhaps in a much less metaphysical way than Yeats and his generation did. John Todhunter’s invocation portrays how poets of the 1880s and 1890s reached out in an attempt to grasp inspiration from the supernatural and the ancient:

O wind, O mighty, melancholy wind,

Blow, through me, blow,

Thou blowest forgotten things into my mind

From long ago. (“Mighty Melancholy Wind,” ll. 5-8, in Lyra Celtica 173)

In Celtic lore, wind had supernatural associations,4 so Todhunter is linking himself to the unearthly powers that will help him transcend into the world of ancient art. Ancient art, as opposed to modern, is here treated as a unifying force not only because of its epic integral unity, but also because it speaks to people’s deeper, unconscious identity. According to Yeats, in modern times this effect can be gained through holding to national motifs, whether folk or mythological:

If Shelley had nailed his Prometheus or some equal symbol upon some Welsh or Scottish rock, their [his and Morris’s] art had entered more intimately, more microscopically, as it were, into our thought, and had given perhaps to modern poetry a breadth and stability like that of ancient poetry. (Autobiographies 185)

Ancient poetry and poetry sticking to folklore and myths therefore enters “more intimately” and “more microscopically” into readers’ thoughts, thus affecting the mentioned unconscious identity. Therefore, Yeats’s chief concern was to “nail” his poetry to some Irish “rock”; in his essay “Ireland and the Arts,” he acknowledges that he “could not now write of any other country but Ireland” (Ideas of Good and Evil 329). His writings about Ireland, however, differ from the poems written by his predecessors and most of his contemporaries – poems such as Davis’s “A Nation Once Again” or Lionel Johnson’s “Ways of War”; though strikingly different from Yeats’s poetry, these poems by Davis and Johnson, too, emerge from the same idea of ancient unity:

A dream! a dream! an ancient dream!

Yet, ere peace come to Innisfail,

Some weapons on some field must gleam,

Some burning fire of the Gael. (“Ways of War” 13–16)

However, while others’ poetry usually strove to affect the readers on the more superficial level of boosting their national pride and inspiring them to embrace nationalism, Yeats’s poetry was instead “preoccupied with Ireland” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 3), because he wanted his poems to penetrate deeper into the people’s minds on the metaphysical level; and, by touching something unconscious and mystical in them, he was trying to form their conception of themselves as Irish and to revive in them the feeling of unity.

This indirect appeal can also be found in the works of Ferguson, with Duffy describing his poems as not “suggestive or didactic, but fired with a living and local interest. They appeal to the imagination and passions, not to the intellects” (Duffy, “Introduction” to The Ballad Poetry of Ireland 32). What Yeats admired in Ferguson’s poetry was a kind of “savage, primitive truth,” a truth which was also, in his opinion, one of the greatest values of Irish literature. Ferguson’s work based on mythology had the essence of “barbarous truth”; and it was for this that Ferguson was labelled by Yeats “the greatest Irish poet” (Yeats qtd. in Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1121). The importance of truth and beauty for the Irish national cause was stressed even further in a 1903 essay, published in the magazine Samhain, in which Yeats proclaimed them to be the autonomous constituent of national literature:

Beauty and truth are always justified of themselves, and that their creation is a greater service to our country than writing that compromises either in the seeming service of a cause. (qtd. in Marcus 76)

Consistent with the 1880s and 1890s being the era of Aestheticism in Ireland as in Britain, “Beauty” was considered to be one of the touchstones holding a nation together, and serving to represent and characterize it. The notion of beauty is often connected to mythology: expressions such as “wild beauty” (Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil 324) and “Eternal Beauty” (Russel, “Priest or Hero”) are attributed to Irish legends and Celtic lore. Yeats’s first poems were described in the early 20th century by Forrest Reid as possessing “a pagan and sensuous beauty” (Reid 36); and, for Yeats and others, beauty, art and paganism were often connected, for the “secret fount” of inspiration and the images illuminating the artist’s brain lay in the “ancestral beauty” (Russell, Imaginations and Reveries 40). These legends, though they were set in the past, could help construct the present and the future through art and beauty – “they contain so much of a new beauty, that they may well give the opening century its most memorable symbols” (Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil 295). The symbols installed through art would help to introduce what modernity lacked, “a social, moral and aesthetic coherence” (Dwan, “Ancient Sect” 201; italics added), a coherence which marked ancient Ireland.
2.2.2. Artificial Self-Fashioning

However, this idea of inherent nationality embedded in an epic society was not nearly enough to build a solid national identity upon, an identity which would be able to inspire the fight for Ireland’s liberation. Although Yeats claimed that Ireland was in “her epic or ballad age”, by the late 19th century Irish national identity could no longer be based only on the pre-classical episteme of similarity, and the notion of difference came increasingly to play its role. National consciousness had to be created and Ireland had to be defined somehow; and the definition of Ireland closest at hand was “not-England”.

The roots of this tendency to “pattern” Ireland as “not-England” reach back to the Elizabethan era, when these conquered people were seen as “the very antithesis” of their English rulers (Kiberd 9). At that time, the English were going through the process of Renaissance self-fashioning, for which “a continued presence of ‘an other’” was required, so that “the maintenance of subtle points of differentiation” would support and sustain their “superordination” (Cairns, Richards 10). In the 19th century, however, Irish nationalists availed themselves of this concept of otherness and used it to support their nationalist cause. They “embraced […] the clichés of the Anglo-Saxonist theory” and reinterpreted them in “a more positive light” (Kiberd 32),5 and “innate Irish virtues became defined against English vices” (Cairns, Richards 63). Therefore, the Irish found their own singularity on the basis of its difference from “Englishness”.

This concept created a set of dichotomies. Mathew Arnold, drawing on Ernest Renan, ascribed to Ireland a feminine quality: he presented the “notion of the Teuton as the energetic, brutal warrior completed by Celt, the producer of civility and culture” (Cairns, Richards 45). From the basic dichotomy masculine vs. feminine, sprang a number of other dichotomies – emotional vs. intellectual, traditional vs. modern, artistic vs. practical, natural vs. industrial (Cairns, Richards 44-50; Kiberd 31-32). The Irish were seen to have, as opposed to the English, “the Celtic genius, sentiment as its main brains, with the love for beauty, charm, spirituality for its excellence” (Arnold qtd. in Cairns, Richards 48).6 All these qualities defined here as purely “Irish” were encompassed in ancient legends, which, moreover, were something that English culture, to a large extent, lacked.7 Ireland assumed the mystical role in direct opposition to secular England; the Irish are here associated with the Celtic race, which was seen as having something magical about it, something which Renan described as “a love of nature for herself, a vivid feeling for her magic, commingled with the melancholy a man knows when he is face to face with her, and thinks he hears her communing with him about his origin and is destiny” (qtd. in Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil 270). The mystical role assigned to Ireland predetermined building Irish identity via turning to a heroic past, mythology and the supernatural – which was seen as something singularly Irish, or perhaps Celtic. Through the legends they promoted, on one hand, all the positive elements of their identity which were defined by dichotomies such as traditional, natural, poetic; on the other, they breached the concept of Ireland being feminine – thus, subjected and passive – by depicting the heroic past with its warriors and gods: the ancient warriors are characterized “as symbols of a once-independent Ireland. The gods similarly represent the unpolluted Soul of Ireland, free from foreign influence” (Marcus 318). Mythology enabled the Irish to combine the supposed positive qualities inherent to the Celtic race (such as being poetical and artistic) with the rougher features – for example, Oisín, one of the most famous heroes of the Fionn Cycle, was described as “the warrior-bard” (O’Grady Selected Essays 109); and, more generally, to be accepted into the Fianna warrior group, one had to be skilled in poetry as well as fighting and hunting (Lady Gregory 123).

The main enemies of the Irish at the turn of the 20th century were “English ideas and English culture rather than English soldiers” (Marcus 314). Clinging to legends and folklore was felt to be the best weapon for fighting the so-called “West Britonism,” a term used by Douglas Hyde to denote the Irish people’s acceptance of English values and culture (Hyde, “Necessity for De-Anglicising”). The fairies and mythical heroes were expected to save the Irish from becoming overly similar to their colonizers – as already mentioned, the “supernatural folklore and imaginative wealth of the Irish peasant” were used as a weapon “against the modern industrial and commercial British spirit” (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1120). This identity based on mythology and folklore often had nothing to do with political preferences, but instead with cultural pertinence to a certain tradition. Samuel Fergusson, from the political point of view a conservative unionist, wrote epic poetry based on Irish legends, which strongly opposed all that Yeats associated with West Britonism and what he derogatively terms the “leprosy of the modern” (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1121).

According to Cairns and Richards, English materialism, which was creeping into Ireland, was fought, on the part of the Anglo-Irish, by trying to establish a society which would be parallel to the Celtic social order: “Industrialism and materialism are enemies to Ireland and will be fought via the concept of Ascendancy as the chieftains and their people” (56). From the ideological point of view, modernity, too, became the enemy; for in a nation defined “in terms of the past”, modernity poses “a threat to its ancestral integrity” and therefore might undermine the idea of national identity (Cairns, Richards 65). The past was something the nation could cling to, and, moreover, “in these first centuries the Celt made himself” (Yeats, Writings on Folklore 51), so it was to serve as an example for re-creating the nation in the coming times. At the turn of the 20th century, in his essay “Poetry and Tradition”, Yeats claimed that the Revivalists were forging “in Ireland a new sword on our old traditional anvil for that great battle that must in the end re-establish the old, confident, joyous world” (Poetry and Ireland 5). However, historical accuracy was not the goal in this process. In the same essay Yeats admits that it is “perhaps from this out an imaginary Ireland”, in whose service he labours (Poetry and Ireland 1; italics added). It was important that history and tradition were depicted in an appealing manner; being presented via myths, O’Grady claims, the ancient legends can become “kind of a history a nation desires to possess” (O’Grady, Selected Essays, 41; italics added). The Irish identity was incomplete, and people lacked certain virtues, because Ireland “lacked models for the development of its identity” (Marcus 81). The nation needed myths in order to create the desired history, upon which they could built their Irishness. According to Æ, mythical characters “begin to stir us with their power,” and “Angus, Lu, Ossian, Deirdre, Finn etc, will be found to be each one the symbol of enduring qualities” (qtd. in Williams 315).

Poets, who, in the late 19th century, brought these personifications of “enduring qualities” back to life, posed as bards of the nation. Bards had a special rank in Celtic society, being the conservers of tradition and rulers of knowledge. In pre-Elizabethan Ireland there were two types of poets: praise-poetry oriented bards, and the filidh – a professional class who had the status of “seers, teachers, advisors of the rulers and prophets.” (MacCana 14-15). These two classes of poets merged; and, consequently, the figure of a bard, performing all these functions, gained an extremely powerful position in the society, and assumed a nation-forming character. Yeats, in an article from the 1890s, observes that “this power of the bards was responsible, it may be, for one curious thing in ancient Celtic history – its self-consciousness” (Writings on Folklore 51). If the 19th century poets wanted to recreate the Irish “self-consciousness” once again, they had to model themselves upon the example of the Celtic bards; hence the tendency of Yeats’s to pose as a bard, which can be seen, for example, in his self-modelling into the role of “the Celt” who is returning from London to Ireland to fulfil the dreams of the National Literary Society (Yeats, Selected Criticism 17). Even though Yeats had no Celtic ancestors whatsoever, in his essay “The Irish National Literary Society”, (which is, in fact, a manifesto of his plans for Ireland in the early 90s), he refers to himself as “the Celt.” He defines himself as Irish by drawing a link to his ancestral race, to which he, however, does not belong from the ethnic point of view.8 He renounced the ethnic delimitation of the Celtic race, and sought for their identity in “more nebulous terms” (Cairns, Richards 67). Within these “nebulous terms” he, and other authors of the period, assumed the role of the bard, which is reflected in the use of heroic and mythical themes in the late 19th century poetry.9 The poetry of the 19th century bards often had the character of a manifestation, and, although it spoke about the past, it was looking towards the future – this stand is taken in Yeats’s manifesto poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” (Campbell 11) where he establishes the poet as a link in the continuum of the nation’s history; in the older Yeats’s words from 1927, the poet is singing “of what is past, passing or to come” (“Sailing to Byzantium” 32).
2.3. Role of Art in Ireland

Having touched upon the importance of art in the process of self-fashioning, the principles underlying this important role should be elaborated. The process of re-establishing Irish self-consciousness and national identity through history and mythology, using art as a vehicle, is rooted in the idea, already briefly mentioned, that art forms the society.

Yeats was influenced by Oscar Wilde’s reversion of the commonplace formula “Art imitates Life” into “Life imitates Art”; Wilde draws an example from classical Greece, explaining that “they [the Greeks] knew that Life gains from Art not merely spirituality, depth of thought and feeling, soul-turmoil or soul-peace, but that she can form herself on the very lines and colours of art” (Marcus 73). This conception gives grounds to Æ’s idea that through depicting mythical characters that embody the very virtues that Ireland lacked these virtues will actually be created. (Williams 315).

However, drawing Irish identity on Celtic art poses a problem, formulated by Lionel Johnson in his lecture “Poetry and Patriotism” when he asks: “After all, who is to decide, what is, absolutely and definitely, the Celtic and Irish note?” (Johnson, Poetry and Ireland 31). According to the popular opinion, based partly on the Renan / Arnoldian Celticism, Celtic poetry is “drenched in the dew of natural magic” (Sharp 23) and possesses a “strange, remote, far-away beauty in the music and in the colour (Johnson Poetry and Ireland 31), “dream-like music” (Sharp 44); further, the Celtic genius is characterised by a “strange melancholy” (Sharp 49). Therefore, art, to be considered Celtic, had to have a certain transcendental value which would reach beyond the crude reality into the supernatural and imaginary world of dreams and magic.

The art of the Young Ireland movement strove to represent the essence of Irishness. They “had provided some simple images” to help build up models necessary for the development of the Irish identity, which were lacking in Irish culture before, (Marcus 81) and did “much to the credit of Irish nature”, even if not availing “wholly to the advantage of Irish literature” (Johnson, Poetry and Ireland 28). The Young Irelanders’ poetry came to be treated as the canon and the one and only truly Irish art; in the words of Lionel Johnson, who shared many opinions on art with Yeats, “in the poetry of the Nation and of ‘Young Ireland,’ … we have a fixed and unalterable standard, whereby to judge all Irish poetry, past and present and to come” (Johnson, Poetry and Ireland 21). This, however, led to certain rigidity and Yeats, having in mind the future of Irish literature, was vigorously attacking their poetry, claiming the Young Ireland writing to be exceedingly vague and propagandistic – the verses were full of “vague, abstract words such as one finds in a newspaper” (Autobiographies 126). In his opinion, this kind of popularity was but “fleeting”, as it was united “with politics and economics” (Yeats qtd. in Marcus 75). Moreover, from the literary point of view, these poems seemed to him and his followers written carelessly; composed in a “rush of sentiment”, without paying much attention to “delicate graces of art”. Yet this very quality made them be considered great art in the eyes of the nationalists because, by “being unfettered as the Irish winds”, the verses could best express the nature of the Irish nation (Johnson, Poetry and Ireland 23).

Yeats opposed the commonplace thought of the era that poets “should hiss at the villain” and that “the greater the talent the greater the hiss” (Autobiographies 254); this hissing often turned melodramatic:

Who fears, with cause so holy,

The pirate Dane, the pirate Dane?

Although the Saxon, lowly,

Now brooks his chain! now brooks his chain! (“The Dalcassians’ War-Song” ll. 17-20 in The Spirit of the Nation 43)

These verses are trying to provide the aforementioned models for the development of national identity, which would be based on heroic deeds of old – the poem referrs to the battle of Clontarf where the Gaelic tribe of Dalcassians, led by Brian Boru, beat the Danes (OCH 100, 135). There is nothing individual about the poem; it is a voice of a nation heated by battle in times long ago. Through the use of questions and exclamations the writer means to appeal directly to the reader and the general choral tone is supposed to enable any reader to identify with the heroic warriors of old; which can be seen as an example of the pre-classical episteme, mentioned in the previous chapter, and the togetherness of an epic society based on similarity.

Yeats, however, found mere identification deficient, and so he aspired to affect the people in a more metaphysical way through the arts; in Ideas of Good and Evil, he looks back to the past and claims that “in very early days” arts were “almost inseparable from religion” (321). The artist “alone can know the ancient records and be like some mystic courtier who has stolen the keys from the girdle of time” and he is “the Creator of the standards of manners in their subtlety” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 10); these standards being necessary for self-possession, which arises from “deliberate shaping of all things, and from never being swept away, whatever the emotion, into confusion or dullness” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 9). Drawing on Kiberd, self-possession was a predisposition to freedom of mind and, consequently, the freedom of the Irish nation – “personal liberation must precede national recovery” (Kiberd 124). The Irish “self”, according to Yeats, was supposed to be created and shaped through truly good and noble art, which would be deliberately crafted by the “Artificers of the Great Moment” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 18), and through mastering the style – a notion which Yeats understands in much broader terms than is usually implied by the word (Kiberd 120). Poems such as the one quoted above lacked these qualities professed by Yeats, who, therefore, struggled to “substitute for that melodrama a nobler form of art” (Autobiographies 254). His own movement actually continued in providing models which the Irish nation lacked, “but in a more profound and enduring way” (Marcus 81).

Wanting to affect people’s spirituality, Yeats, being a descendant of the middle class protestant Ascendancy, could not stake upon Catholicism, as his friend Katharine Tynan did; but he rather fell back upon “esoteric symbolism as a direct communion with his fellow countrymen and via Celtic ‘Otherworldliness’, by-passing the influence of Catholicism by reaching out to what he supposed to be a more fundamental level of their spirituality” (Cairns, Richards 68). With the support of Æ,10 who was named “the spiritual inspirer of the Irish Literary Movement” (Graf 57), Yeats created a “kind of mystical nationalism” which combined theosophy and paganism (Graf 53). According to Æ, paganism was the one and only true religion of the Irish, and thus a force through which one could best strike the right note with the people’s national identity; in his own words “national sentiment seems out of date here [in Ireland], the old heroism slumbers” because “alien thought and an exotic religion have supplanted our true ideals and our natural spirituality” (Russell “Priest or Hero”). Paganism and fairy-lore is seen as something native, rooted deep in some hereditary identity11:

The faery tales have ever lain nearer to the hearts of the people, and whatever there is of worth in song or story has woven into it the imagery handed down from the dim druidic ages. (Russell, “Priest and Hero”)

However, Yeats was not interested in simply parroting old legends and folk tales; therefore he shaped mythological material as he found suitable. National literature, as he imagined it, could be created “only by a free use of what was at hand” (Alspach 886); which meant that he was mingling old legends with other Celtic elements, creating his own mystical Celtic Order and endowing it with individual poetic beauty, in order to make it nobler art.

In Irish literature on mythology and folk beliefs –whether written by Yeats and his circle, or by earlier writers – two leading themes can be discerned: the heroic and the transcendental. Both these strains serve to build different values necessary for self-fashioning a national identity. Heroic motifs would obviously give Ireland a “history which a nation desires to possess” (O’Grady, Selected Essays, 41) and break the widespread commonplace that the Irish are a feminine race who have “nothing masculine in the character” (Moran qtd. in Cairns, Richards 50). As was mentioned before, the heroic aspect of legends breaches the undesirable aspects of Celticism (the alleged subordinate femininity of the Celtic race); but, at the same time, the supernatural, which abounds in the heroic age, would support the claim that the Irish nation is metaphysical, artistic and connected to nature (the positive qualities brought about by Celticism). Following O’Grady’s legacy, mentioned in the previous chapter, that Irish history is a downfall “from a unified heroic age” to the contemporary fragmented nation (Whitaker 326), Æ, too, exalted the heroic character of Ancient Ireland:

It has been so from the beginning, from the time of the cursing of Tara, where the growing unity of the nations was split into fractions, down to the present time. (Russell, “Priest or Hero”)

With this perspective, it was only natural for the nationalists to turn the attention of art to motifs which would evoke ancient history. The very names of ancient heroes became symbols of free Ireland which were supposed to “stir” the reader “with their power” (Russell qud. in Williams 315) – to name but a few, Cuchullain12, the main hero-warrior of the Ulster cycle and according to Æ “the most complete ideal of Gaelic chivalry” (Russell, Imaginations and Reveries 30); the warrior and king Fergus; the leader of the Fianna, Finn McCoill, and the members of the Fianna, Oisín, Osgar, Caoilte, Goll; gods Lugh or Nauda, who in times of old were warriors and heroes too. However, especially at the turn of the 20th century, the heroic theme was more restricted to prose than to poetry – O’Grady’s multivolume Histories of Ireland (1879-81), alongside Lady Gregory’s Cúchulainn Muirthemne (1902) and Gods and Fighting Men (1904), are a fine example of the popularization of heroic myths in prose. In poetry, though, heroic motifs are present (primarily through Ferguson’s poems and translations), but later on in the 19th century, the heroic theme is almost always entwined with transcendental motifs. This can be noted in Yeats’s poetry in particular: his heroes always get, or try to get, to some other level of being; perhaps experiencing a different kind of life to what they had experienced before, whether through connection with supernatural powers, or, less directly, through love, madness or wisdom. With Oisín and his journey to the land of the Everliving, this transcendental theme is most obvious; but also in such poems as “Madness of King Goll”, “Fergus and the Druid” or “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea”, the warriors and kings are dealt with from a non-traditional perspective; Yeats stresses a change that has come upon them, or perhaps they are depicted as overcoming certain boundaries of their hitherto lives – they are “drifting like a river / from change to change”13 (“Fergus and the Druid” 31-2). Yeats also combined folk beliefs and fairy-lore with the ancient myths, dissolving the border between what is considered a heroic legend and what living folklore; in the words of Edward Hirsch:

The contemporary (living) folklore of the Irish countryside and the ancient Gaelic literature (revived by archaeologists and translators) served as dual sources for a new Irish literature. It was Yeats’s typical move to bring them together. (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1121)

Yeats tried to stress both the transcendental and heroic themes in mythology, intertwining various influences of his predecessors; while taking from “Ferguson his pleasure in heroic legend”, “from Allingham and Walsh” he took “their passion for country spiritism” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 4). The theme of transcendence, side by side with the heroic theme, served to provide the lacking models for the development of the national identity, but in a less direct way – instead of imitation, symbolism is the driving force here. The turn of the 20th century was a transitory period in general and for Ireland all the more – writers were looking from the “nineteenth century to the coming times of the last century of a millennium” (Campbell 10); and the very depiction of transcendence in arts could symbolize the step the Irish people, as individuals and as a nation, were about to take. In real life they were striving to transcending the limits of life as it used to be, walking towards personal liberation and accordingly towards a complex national identity; and too, the transcendence of Ireland as a province into Ireland as a self-conscious nation.

Interestingly, Yeats and his literary circle displayed a tendency to push Irish people towards mysticism by depicting them in a particular way: they started a “process of turning the peasants into a single figure of literary art (“the peasant”)” (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1121); remaking the Catholic peasant into a “noble peasant” or a mystic Celt (Cairns, Richards 67) was an act of transcendence, in which “literature becomes an act of mythic recovery” (Hirsch, “Hanrahan” 882). Moreover, by making peasants the “essence of an ancient, dignified Irish culture”, the Revivalists created an image they could set against the English stereotype (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1121), and which would serve as a romantic symbol of Irish life being anti-commercial, deep, pastoral and mystic (Hirsch, “Irish Peasant” 1122). This peasant figure fabricated trough art was to become the audience of the art written at that time – a noble peasant “in grey Connemara clothes” (“Fisherman” 4).14 In the second half of the 19th century, peasants were transcended into symbols, which were supposed to serve as cornerstones to the Irish national identity. The poet was creating myths through his art, which would carry presence beyond the borders of harsh reality and thus, at the same time, recreate reality; Yeats’s idea of a poet was both as a “solipsist and communal mythmaker” (Hirsh, “Hanrahan” 882).

Moreover, Yeats believed that the Irish, having preserved “a gift of vision” (Yeats, Introduction to Secret Rose, in Red Hanrahan 78), were still able to feel and perceive as men in times of old could, when their souls were “naked to the winds of heaven” (Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil 51); thus possessing a character which is closer to mystical transcendence than that of the “more hurried and successful nations” (Yeats, Introduction to Secret Rose, Stories of Red Hanrahan 78). Plunging into mysticism in literature was parallel to looking into darkness; and in Ireland, according to Yeats, this would be understood better than elsewhere:

No shining candelabra have prevented us from looking into the darkness, and when one looks into the darkness there is always something there. (Yeats, Stories of Red Hanrahan 78)

Therefore, when employing Celtic and mystical themes in his poetry, Yeats was reaching out beyond the known reality, to find “something there”, make his art even more transcendental, and at the same time available particularly to the Irish nation.

Art is transcendental itself (Campbell) – culture of a nation should transcend time. The poem which is perhaps the clearest manifestation of this thought in the 1890s is “Apologia Addressed to Ireland in the Coming Days.” 15 This poem, written in 1892, later became the closing poem of the 1895 collection The Rose, in which Yeats first combined nationalism and occultism (Parkinson 19); the ancient Irish is blended here with the occult and cabbalistic.

The poem was written as a manifesto of Yeats’s ambition to become the Irish bard – to be accounted “true brother of a company / that sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong” (2-3). He places himself into the posteriority of the most famous Irish poets: “Nor may I less be counted one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson” (17-18). The poem is very conscious of the role of art, which transcends time. Art, in general, links the past and the “coming times” of the future; furthermore, having in mind the rebirth of the Irish nation, it also brings back the “beginnings of history of the world which, even at that time, still contained Ireland” (Campbell 13). Artists are those who can sing “of things discovered in the deep, / where only body’s laid asleep” (21-22), because of the power of art, which connects all, and which also transcends reality; for it brings alive the supernatural in this world – “For elemental creatures go / about my table to and fro” (23-24). Art can, according to Yeats, combine various strains of thought, such as the occult, folk and mythological – the “elemental beings” and “wizard things” are melded in one with “faeries dancing under moon” and with druidic rites; as they all come out of the Anima Mundi, the racial memory which stores all the experience and thought (Parkinson 10-11). Art enables people to reach out into the Anima Mundi, understand and interpret it. Moreover, adding a new occult dimension to the mythological and folk materials Yeats was handling in his poetry enabled him to reach “beyond nationality into universality” (Jeffares Commentary 47). In his essay “Ireland and the Arts”, Yeats argues that arts in Ireland “will find two passions ready to their hands, love of the Unseen Life and love of country” (Ideas of Good an Evil 322); which is a principle Yeats adheres to in his own poetry, combining the “Unseen Life” – with roots in occultism as well as in folklore – and nationalism. In the “Apologia” he acclaims to continue writing poetry for the Irish cause, addressing the future people of Ireland16:

I cast my heart into my rhymes,

That you in the dim coming times,

May know how my heart went with them

After the red rose bordered hem. (45-48)

Art, to be able to become great, must be personal; “some actual man” has to be perceived in a beautiful piece of art (Ronsley 7). That is why Yeats must “cast his heart” into his poems, often indiscernibly mingling the personal and the national (unlike the propagandist poets of the age); this tendency of combining the national and the personal in his poetry is typical of the collection following the “Apologia” The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), which can be considered the most Celtic, as for imagery. The mentioned “red rose bordered hem” Yeats claims to follow in his poetry alludes to the central symbol used in the whole collection The Rose. It is a vague and complex symbol which “combines physical and spiritual, pagan and Christian”; it was an important symbol in the Order of the Golden Dawn; in Irish folklore, Rose was the name of a female personification of Ireland (Jeffares, Commentary 22-26). Combining all these elements, “the Rose” became a mystical symbol for Yeats, denoting spiritual and intellectual beauty, Ireland, love and perhaps inspiration.17

Transcendence in the art of Yeats’s circle was manifested through themes which dwell on the brink of the supernatural: poems dealing with the fairies and their natural world, humans crossing to the Otherworld, with all the joy and sorrow it may bring, fairies and old Celtic gods serving as guides of the souls of these chosen humans; or often the transcendence can be of a less supernatural, but nonetheless mystical, value – achieving something, or perhaps reaching towards one’s higher self through love, wisdom, art and poetry. The purpose of these poems, too, was supposed to become something new, special and transcendental which should actually bring Ireland through her “Great Moment” (Yeats, Poetry and Ireland 18)18; as Yeats declared in his autobiographical Ireland after Parnell, Irish poetry was supposed to be a “manner at once cold and passionate, daring long premeditated act” and the Irish people, “bitter beyond all the people of the world” will get through their art “nearest to the honeyed comb” (Autobiographies 255).




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