As a result of art being considered a vehicle of transcendence of the Irish nation, heading towards national consciousness, literature picked up from mythology and folklore the very motifs of transcendence in order to stress the idea. It can be claimed that poems drawing from mythology were to lead people into the world of mythology, or perhaps the Otherworld, and thus create the feeling of adherence to an ancient nation; the transcendence being literal and metaphorical at the same time.
One of the most transcendental motifs that can be found in Irish literature is the Otherworld. It is hard to characterize the conception of the Otherworld among Celts; and the interpretations of it in literature vary even more. There is no doubt that Celts believed in life after death (MacCana 123) and the Otherworld is sometimes interpreted as the Elysian Fields, subsuming the land of the dead (MacKillop). However, more commonly it is seen as the realm of ancient gods – the Thuata Dé Danann, or “Tribes of the goddess Danu”, who, according to the 11th century manuscript Book of Invasions, used to inhabit Ireland before they were defeated by the mortals and consequently withdrew to the Otherworld. This world transcends “limitations of human time” as well as “spatial definition” (MacCana 124); and therefore the term “Otherworld” is rather vague and can be understood in many ways. Sometimes it is interpreted as a physical place, situated beyond the Western sea, as an underwater land, or a domain within hills or mounds – so called fairy raths (MacCana 124; Bramsbäck 48). Sometimes, on the other hand, it is a “realm beyond senses” (MacKillop), a world existing “beyond our immediate reality”, but “contiguous with our world” – a kind of alternative parallel reality, where deities, fairies and beloved dead dwell (Monaghan, “Introduction” 13; 370). It may reach into our world as a house appearing and disappearing suddenly19 (MacCana 124) or as the aforementioned fairy mounds, which are often considered to be portals into this alternative reality (Monagham 176,177). But whether as a physical place, or a realm coexisting with this world, but beyond our senses, the Otherworld is a realm of eternal bliss, peace, and plenitude, where death or old age do not enter:
“It is the country is most delightful of all that are under the sun; the trees are stooping down with fruit and with leaves and with blossom. Honey and wine are plentiful there, and everything the eye has ever seen; no wasting will come on you with the wasting away of time; you will never see death or lessening.” (Lady Gregory 289)
The blissful character of eternal beauty is emphasised in the other common names used for the Otherworld – Tír-na-n- og, meaning “country of the Young” (Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales 197) or The Land of the Living.20 Also, Tír-na-n- og was in the popular culture of the 19th century sometimes identified with mythological sites Mag Mall (Gaelic for “plain of delight”), where “life is endlessly joyous and sweet” (Monaghan 308) or Hy Brasil, a magical island in the West:
On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell,
A shadowy isle has appeared, as they tell;
Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest,
And they called it Hy- Brasail, the isle of the blest. (Griffin, “Hy-Brasil – The Isle of the Blest2,” ll. 1-4 in Fairy and Folk Tales 209)
The Otherworld is seen as a part of Ireland, where, according to Yeats’s essay “Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth”, “this world and the other are not widely sundered” (Writings on Folklore 58). This view emphasises Ireland’s picture as a nation possessing a transcendental character; they are a metaphysical people, in comparison with the practical English.
In Yeats’s work particularly, one other theme concerning the Otherworld repeatedly appears. Immortal love is depicted as inseparable from the Otherworld,
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover’s wows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs. (“The Man who Dreamt of Faeryland” 9-12)
Perhaps the importance of this theme is caused by the frustrations of Yeats’s personal love life with Maud Gonne; unable to find love in the real world of mortals, he views the Otherworld as a place to gain it – as can be seen in the following verses from a poem written for Maud, titled “The White Birds”:
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan21 shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Frustrated by his unrequited love, he endows his heroes with his own desire for immortal love – they seek the “love that the gods give” and which is “the soft fire / That shall burn time when times have ebbed away” (Yeats, The Shadowy Waters 19); often the mortal heroes who enter the Otherworld are taken there by their fairy lover, which is a common motif in Irish mythology and folklore generally, and not being restricted only to Yeats’s work.22
3.1.1. Otherworld as a physical place
In Yeats’s work, both conceptions of the Otherworld appear. The Otherworld as a physical place is generally depicted in voyage literature as far away islands in the west (Bramsbäck 48, Mac Cana 124) and perhaps the most typical mythological story of this kind served as a template for one of Yeats’s first famous poems The Wanderings of Oisín, which depicts Oisín’s journey to Tír-na-nOg. Oisín was the son of Finn, the central character of the Fenian cycle, who entered the Otherworld by becoming the lover and husband of Niamh, one of the Ever-living who fell in love with him.23 Having spent some time in the untroubled land (in fact three hundred years, but this he does not know), but still not finding what he was looking for, he returns to Ireland to find everything changed and the heroic age gone. Here he recounts his journey to the Otherworld to St. Patrick and from the dialogue the reader learns much about Tír-na-nOg. Yeats creates the otherworldly feeling through appealing to senses by the use of colourful images. According to Cairns and Richards, he uses colours “to evoke moods with a repetitiveness which seems almost didactic” (67) and thus he creates a world about which Forest Reid claims nearly 30 years later:
“It quite frankly has nothing to give, but its beauty, and that beauty is a pagan and sensuous beauty: its ethical, its moral significance is absolutely nil.” (36)
The other voyage story in Yeats’s work which is depicting mortals in pursuit of the Otherworld is dramatic – The Shadowy Waters, a play whose first drafts reach back into the early 1880s, with many revisions until the final Acting Version from year 1911 (Bramsbäck 30). The first published version, a dramatic poem printed out as a book in 1900, will be dealt with in this work, as it is closest of all versions to Yeats’s early poetics. The main mortal hero Forgael is also searching the seas in hope of finding the Otherworld, which he assumes to be his destiny, after it has appeared to him as a vision in a dream. The story of Forgael displays just his unyielding desire – another motif strongly connected to transcendental themes in Yeats’s poetry – and he never reaches the Otherworld; the play ends in his aspirations for an endless search, while the reader never gets a direct picture of what he is searching for.
However, in The Wanderings of Oisin, the Otherworld is described in detail – the three parts of the poem correspond to the three Islands of the Otherworld. Traditionally, in mythology “three” was supposed to be a “powerful number” (Monaghan 447) and it is used in folklore with magical connotations. Yeats, in his compilation of Irish fairy tales, describes Tír-na-nOg as “triple – the island of the living, the Island of victories and the underwater land” (Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales 197). The sources of Yeats’s version of the legend were mainly translations of two poems written in Gaelic: the traditional form of the legend – the 12th century Colloquy of Old Men, which is a dialogue between St. Patrick, Oisín and yet another hero Caoilte, both of whom, owing to their adventures in the Otherworld, survived to the Christian era, creating a “mood of nostalgic recollection of past glories” (MacCana 106); yet even a greater source of borrowings – the framework of the poem as well as certain motifs and images –was Michael Comyn’s 18th century Gaelic poem “The Lay of Oisín on the Land of Youth” (Alspach 849-853). One of the major alternations Yeats made in his version of the legend is the triple vision of the Otherworld – in Comyn’s version the third island is missing. (Alspach 851). Yeats made his hero go to three islands – first the Island of the Living (or the Island of Youth), which is a traditional Elysian blissful Otherworld, where “tangled creepers every hour / blossom in some new crimson flower” and joy and beauty are everlasting:
And here there is no Change, nor Death,
But only kind and merry breath
For joy is God and God is joy. (Book I, 284-6)
The next island Oisín and Niamh visit is the Island of Dancing and Victories. Oisín spends the next hundred years in battle and feasting – on this island they encounter a chained maiden and a demon who holds her captive. Oisín fights him for a day, rests and feasts for the next four days “until the fourth morn saw emerge / his new-healed shape” (II, 220-21), causing their life on this island to be “with no dreams nor fears / nor languor or fatigue: an endless feast / an endless war” (II, 222-25). The ever-rising demon can symbolize patterns of history and cycles of life in general; a theme never too old for Yeats to explore. However, in the 19th century the chained maiden could have alluded to the subdued Ireland, which, having actually been named after the female goddess Ériu (160), was often personified as a maiden; in this poem, it would be the maiden in need claiming:
And I must needs endure and hate and weep,
Until the gods and demons drop asleep,
Hearing Aedh touch the mournful string of gold. (Book II, 85-7)
Aedh is a name common in Celtic mythology, but in this poem it probably refers to the god of death, whose harp brings death to anyone who hears him play (Jeffares, Commentary 524).24 Later, in the collection The Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats uses the name Aedh as his poetic alter ego, “a principle of mind”, as he calls him (The Wind Among the Reeds 73), and the poetic persona speaking through many of his poems in The Wind Among the Reeds.25The last verse: “Hearing Aedh touch the mournful string of gold,” can, therefore, imply the power of a bard to change things and transcend the power of gods and demons; if the maiden is seen as Ireland suffering hardship, the verse could refer to the power of poetry and art to create the new and free Ireland.
The last Island of Yeats’s Otherworld depicted in The Wanderings of Oisin is the Island of Forgetfulness – the part missing from Comyn’s original, and added by Yeats. On this island, whose atmosphere, with its “spacious woods” and “dripping trees”, is probably most uncanny of all the islands, the lovers encounter a “monstrous slumbering folk” (Book III, 27). These are sleeping giants with “faces alive with such beauty” (III, 51), curiously possessing some bird features. In this part of the book, Yeats probably made use of the popular legend about heroes sleeping in a cave, which he was doubtlessly familiar with; he actually incorporated into his compilation of Irish fairy tales of 1888 a story “The Giant’s Stairs” in which a young man discovers sleeping giants in a cave.26 Oisín and Niamh fall asleep as well,27 and in their dream, kings of old, heroes, and demons are “driving the dust with their throngs”; here Yeats might be, once again, touching upon the issue of art and inspiration in general – Oisín was characterized as the “warrior-bard”in the Fianna (O’Grady Selected Essays 109; italics added). Otherworldly dreams Oisín is dreaming bring him nearer to the heroes and characters from the legendary past; in the same way otherworldly visions endow the poet with inspiration from legends and myths. They spent there another hundred years, sleeping in a mystical dreamy atmosphere:
In a long iron sleep as a fish in the water goes dumb as a stone.28 (Book III, 95-6)
The form of the poem – dialogue of Oisín and St. Patrick and the first person narration – makes the depiction of the Otherworld much more personal and credible; thus avoiding a mere narrative description, but presenting a clash of the mythical pagan world and the Christian Ireland of the 5th century – which can be also seen as a clash of one’s dreams and memories with reality. This gives the poem a more individual voice and the hero is pursued by a modernistic feeling of alienation and estrangement from the community in which he lives. According to David Dwan, he “is not the last representative of an epic integrity, but is the living embodiment of its demise” (“Ancient Sect” 209), which, perhaps, enables easier identification of the hero with the Irish reader, who, too, is estranged from their country and community by not having a conscious national identity and not feeling pertinence to the Irish nation. The epic tale of The Wanderings of Oisin is interwoven with lyrical feelings of solitude and unfulfilled desire; in the second part of the poem, when Oisín grows homesick at leaving the Island of Dancing and Victories, he asks his fairy lover:
“And which of these
Is the Island of Content?”
“None know,” she said;
And on my bosom laid her weeping head. (Book II, 248-250)
From The Wanderings of Oisin, and from other poems dealing with the Otherworld, it can be clearly seen that the motif of an island is one of the most important motifs constituting the image of the Otherworld in Yeats’s poetry. There is something mystical about islands, as they emerge from either a lake or the sea, both of which often hide an unknown world underneath.29 They are detached from the land and the mundane reality – in one poem Yeats describes the Fairyland to be “upon a woven world-forgotten isle” (“Man who dreamt of Faeryland” 8). In mythology and folklore islands in general are often seen as “liminal places” (Monaghan 264), which means that they belong neither quite to the Otherworld, nor to our world; they are points of contact between the worlds, and, thus, were extremely important in myths and rituals of the Celts (Monaghan 289).
Yeats also views islands as places of refuge, which gives them even more otherworldly qualities; since the Otherworld is seen as the ultimate retreat where, if chosen, one can fly before sickness, death or change. In a letter to Katrine Tynan he wrote that in his semi-autobiographical novel John Sherman he made one of his characters always seek refuge and peace on a little island – living there alone whenever he felt troubled; which was also, as a matter of fact, a dream of the young Yeats himself (Jeffares Commentary 34). On wild islands one could see “what lay hidden in himself” (Yeats, The Cutting of an Agate 176), which makes it a symbol of inner transcendence.30
Moreover, Ireland itself being an island, this otherworldly motif has a special place among mythological motifs which were supposed to create the national consciousness – on certain levels it implicitly identifies the vision of Ireland with the Otherworld; thus creating an imaginary vision of Ireland, which people could cling to as to an ideal, where wondrous stories are set, and where all is possible. Yeats believed that these stories and “images once created and associated with river and mountain” will work as a unifying force and “deepen the political passion of the nation that all, artist and poet, craftsman and day-labourer would accept a common design”31 (Autobiographies 240).
Islands play a crucial role in Yeats’s early poetry in general; in his perhaps most quoted early poem “The Lake Island of Innisfree”, an island is the central motif, which comes to be seen as a retreat from the commercial world to the world of natural beauty; and although in this poem it is a real existing island from Yeats’s childhood, it is described in a rather otherworldly manner, and possesses certain attributes which are, in Yeats’s poetry, usually connected to the Otherworld:
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning, to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of linnet’s wings. (5-9)
It is described as a place of peace, which soothes the poet’s soul, and might invoke the feeling of timeless bliss. But more interestingly, Yeats is using the very same motifs which are recurring in his writing on the Otherworld:32 drops (and generally the sound of dripping) – this motif keeps iterating throughout The Wanderings of Oisin; curious light which creates an unearthly shimmering impression – midnight’s “glimmer” and noon’s “purple glow”; “the linnet’s wings” – the motif of birds carries a lot of transcendental value; and “veils of the morning” – a veil of mist can conceal the unknown or it can be a passage which is yet to be drawn aside.
Seeing Otherworld as an island usually entails the motif of crossing water. The original classic voyage to the Otherworld in Irish literature is a Gaelic poem The Voyage of Bran composed in the late 7th or 8th century (Mac Cana 72; OCL 257), which established Bran as the perhaps most famous sailor in Irish literature. In Yeats’s work, crossing the sea plays a major role both in The Shadowy Waters33 as in The Wanderings of Oisin. In the former, water is depicted as “shadowy”, “misty” (26), “cloudy” (46), “empty” (32), “waste” (45), (though Forgael knows there is something awaiting him) throughout the play; in the latter, the sea gets more hostile gradually: Oisín and Niamh “galloped over the glossy sea” (I, 132) in the first book, whereas in the third book there was “foam underneath us, and round us, wandering and milky smoke” (III, 1). The hostility and haziness of the waters the heroes have to cross to get to the Otherworld stresses the immediate unattainability of what they are reaching for. In his notes to The Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats himself says that the sea can be described as “a symbol of the drifting indefinite bitterness of life” and that he believes “there is like symbolism intended in the many Irish voyages to the islands of enchantment” (Yeats, “Notes” to The Wind Among the Reeds 90). In modern times, crossing the sea may be interpreted as overcoming the “bitterness” of the era Ireland was in.
Crossing the sea is depicted as timeless – the sailors on the ship are losing count of time and Oisín claims twice he does “not know if days / or hours passed by” (19-20). Interestingly, in both works there is a Christian motif of walking over the water, which points out to the omnipotence of the otherworldly beings, linking the Celtic Otherworld to Christian symbolism – Niamh’s horse gallops over the sea; and in The Shadowy Waters, the sailors claim that “something that was bearded like a goat / Walked on the waters” (14) and bid their captain Forgael look for the Otherworld.34
According to James Lovic Allen, crossing the water is a predominant “journey pattern” especially in connection to a trip to “a paradise-like isle or shore”, which is Eden-like in certain respects (Allen 94). The Otherworld, and everything it can stand for outside the world of mythology, is somewhere beyond reach; and the water is a metaphoric division between the reality and the stage – whatever it may be – to which the character, the poet, the reader, and perhaps the whole nation are attempting to transcend. In The Shadowy Waters, Forgael is sailing across misty seas “to seek / His heart's desire where the world dwindles out” (14) – the water being the barrier between his desire and the reality. When he speaks about his discontent with the real world and earthly love, he even uses the motif of water to express the distance he feels towards mortal women: “When I hold / A woman in my arms, she sinks away / As though the waters had flowed up between” (The Shadowy Waters 19). The motif of a journey in Yeats’s work is “the archetypal, mythic, or ritual journey, emblematic of man's course through life toward some ideal or transcendent goal” (Allen 93) and crossing water seems to symbolize overcoming the barrier which hinders the move to a next stage;35 whether for an individual, or for the whole nation and its consciousness.
3.1.2. Otherworld as a realm beyond senses
Often in Yeats’s work, the Otherworld is seen as a parallel co-existing reality which ordinary mortals cannot perceive. There are, however, “points of exchange between the two worlds” – whether geographical sites, such as fairy mounds, islands, bogs or lakes; or temporal instances of liminality, mostly twilight, dawn or certain days of the year (Monaghan 289). Not surprisingly, the motif of twilight is very frequent in Yeats’s poetry of the 19th century; knowing that twilight was often seen as a touch point between the two worlds, the motif gives his poetry an otherworldly hue in general:
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh heart again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn. (“Into the Twilight” 1-4)
The above quoted excerpt comes from the poem “Into the Twilight”, in which the poetic persona, being tired and “out-worn” in time, seems to be seeking refuge in an otherworldly reality, although the Otherworld itself is not mentioned throughout the poem. He is talking about Ireland in general, but it is a mystical Ireland, governed by nature; it is a place where “the mystical brotherhood / Of sun and moon and hollow and wood / And river and stream work out their will” (10-12). Therefore Yeats creates an illusion in his poems that there are two Irelands – the world of the mortals and the “mystical brotherhood” behind it.
This mystical world can be entered through some of the aforementioned liminal places, in folklore mostly the fairy raths; or just simply through being granted insight (MacCana 124). Usually one can enter only when they are chosen – “specially selected human beings whose destiny is the Otherworld” (Bramsback 47). The notion of being chosen is a tricky one – even though the Otherworld is described as a world of bliss, to mortals it seems strange and unknown and they usually do not want to be chosen; it is the fairies and inhabitants of the Otherworld who do the choosing, often against the will of the mortals. Sometimes the person who is taken away to the Otherworld dies in the world of the mortals – in The Celtic Twilight, Yeats retells a story of a beautiful woman, Mary Hynes, who “died young because the gods loved her” (45); or they might turn crazy – they “are at times ‘away,’ as it is called, know all things, but are afraid to speak.” (“Notes” to The Wind Among the Reeds 67).
The theme of a conflict between the Otherworld and the world of mortals is dealt with in a play by Yeats, first staged in 1894, The Land of Heart’s Desire.36 It is a work based on one of the most common folklore themes, in which Yeats grasps the essence of Irish imagination (Bransback 46, 59). On May Eve,37 a day of supernatural powers in folk tradition, a fairy child tempts a newly wed bride, Mary, to renounce the mortal world where she will “grow like the rest; / Bear children, cook, be mindful to the churn” (29) and go with her, instead, to the “Land of Heart's Desire”,
Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,
But joy is wisdom, Time an endless song.” (28)
The Otherworld is described as blissfully as may be, with the always recurring motifs of beauty, joy, endlessness, dance, the “merrier multitude” (28) of divine beings; which are all motifs used also in The Wanderings of Oisin to describe the Island of the Living. In opposition to this, Yeats sets a world “of drudgery and misery” (Bramsbäck 69), which does not allow dreaming – for, in the words of the priest, ancient legends Mary likes to read are but “foolish dreams” – with gloomy prospects of growing “old and bitter of tongue” (29). Further, the latter world is expressed in words that evoke the ordinariness of the life Mary lives, such as “butter”, “eggs”, “fowl”, “churn”. If she does not leave for the “Land of Heart’s Desire,” she will “grow like the rest” – emphasising the lack of possibilities in the mortal world to transcend one’s own conditions; losing any kind of individuality and just melding with “the rest.” However, no matter how beautiful the Otherworld is, the fairy child who is offering its beauties to Mary is depicted, in opposition to the priest, as the antagonist of the play, who tricks her way into the favour of the family. Therefore, she is able to lay her charms on Mary, so that she wastes away, dying in the mortal world, only to be led away into the “the woods and waters and pale lights” (30); the combination of these three motifs – paleness, trees and water – often constitute Yeats’s vision of the Otherworld.
Mary herself “dreads and longs for the Otherworld” (Bramsbäck 59); although from the very beginning of the play she desires to “dance / Deep in the dewy shadow of a wood” (8), she still longs to stay with her husband, whom she loves greatly, and she still clings to “mortal hope” (30). The Otherworld is in its essence absolutely non-human, and the ambivalent attitude of most of the humans towards it stems from not being able to understand it and to identify with its inhabitants; for example, the pastime in the Otherworld is described in ways which cannot be associated with anything human:
Yet I could make you ride upon the winds,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame. (26)
The “winds”, “tide”, “mountains” and “flame” represent all the elements; the natural setting and the dynamic verbs used, such as “ride”, “run” and “dance”, create the notion that the inhabitants of the Otherworld not only belong to the natural world, but are personifications and manifestations of the elements themselves; or perhaps incarnations of boundless passions, which is somewhat at odds with the milder human ways of seeing life.38
The reader, or the audience, may feel ambivalent about the ending; and so does Mary – there is an “and yet” in her decision to leave into the fairy world:
“I always loved her world—and yet—and yet—” (31)
The non-articulated doubts expressed by the dying young woman carry their emotional impact and strength in not being specified. Mary dies without revealing what she actually wants, and the focus of the play stays with the family; the reader, or the audience, do not follow Mary’s journey to the Otherworld. This way, the veil is not drawn, and the Otherworld remains mysterious. All the reader gets is the description made by the fairy child, and an insight provided through Mary’s daydreaming. The blissful depiction of the Otherworld as a heavenly place of many delights is at odds with Mary’s unwillingness, or even fear, to obey the tempting powers of the Fairyland. Yet even more so, when the reader realizes that it is Mary herself who evoked these powers; not only is she “courteous to them” (10) – spreading primroses, in front of the door, and giving them milk and fire,39 but she invokes them directly, calling them, moreover, by the expression “faeries”:40 “Come, faeries, take me out of this dull house! / Let me have all the freedom I have lost” (15). The Otherworld, depicted through descriptions of great beauty, is a stage to which one should aspire; and the fact that the Otherworld is deeply rooted in Mary’s own self – the child lays her claims on Mary using the words: “I keep you in the name of your own heart” – even emphasizes the idea that everyone has their own Otherworld to which they might aspire. Yet the play also depicts human fear of transcending their own possibilities and the conflict between desire and fear.
Whereas the Otherworld conceived as a physical place is usually described by the mortal visitors, such as Oisín, the Otherworld conceived as an alternative reality is depicted through the eyes of the inhabitants of the Otherworld – mostly fairies, especially in literature based on folk beliefs. It is so in The Land of Heart’s Desire, where the fairy child is tempting Mary and describing the bliss of the world with the greatest possible beauty, but also in one of Yeats’s earliest poems, “The Stolen Child”, dating back to 1886. The addressee of the first three stanzas is a child, lured from the human world by fairies. They describe nature and their life, depicting, in beautiful images, what he would gain if he went with them “to the waters and the wild” (10). The last stanza forms a contrast by showing what he lost, having gone off with them. Some of Yeats’s early poetry was criticised as “attempts to deny civilization and its discontents by escaping to the Happy Island of Oisín or Tír na nOg” (Kiberd 103), but in this poem, as in The Land of Heart’s Desire, the Otherworld is not presented as an ultimate solution which would be undoubtedly positive, because the reader can realize what the “stolen child” and Mary have to renounce – the latter losing her mortal love and the possibility to “watch the turf smoke coiling from the fire / And feel content and wisdom in your heart” (13); and the “stolen child” missing forever the peaceful cosy atmosphere of a mortal home.
Unlike The Land of Heart’s Desire, where the tension is created by the fairies having an adversary, such as the priest or the Bruin family, in “The Stolen Child”, the conflict is wound around the depiction of two worlds, both of which are appealing in unique ways:
Here the two worlds are not set against each other as in The Land of Heart’s Desire, but they overlap and co-exist in symbiosis. Still, they create a tension, expressed by a set of dichotomies.
The basic obvious dichotomy of human vs. fairy incorporates other dichotomies – the most evident is woods vs. the house with all its human details as the “kettle” or “the oatmeal chest”. For the fairies, nature is their home; they live “where dips the rocky highland of Sleuthwood in the lake”, on the “leafy island”, or in the “hills above Glen-car” (line 29). This dichotomy, setting the house and the woods in opposition, can be noticed in The Land of Heart’s Desire too, where the Bruins’ house is seen as a safe place of simple peace, whereas the world behind the door poses a threat, and the woods are obviously the abode of the fairies.41 It is worth noticing that when describing the nature which encloses the Otherworld, Yeats uses names of concrete places in Ireland. This has a few reasons: firstly, the Revivalists saw Western Ireland as the “repository of Gaelic values” (Allison 61); by using concrete places Yeats stresses the Gaelic otherworldliness, but makes it more accessible and imaginable for people; secondly, he sees these points as “meeting places, locations of cultural unity and energy, regenerative sources for his imagination and for the nation at large (Allison 56); thirdly, these concrete places are meeting points of imagination and reality and by attributing otherworldly values to these real places, Yeats is implicitly shoving Ireland towards transcendence – individual as well as national – and towards the mentioned cultural unity, which was, at that stage, still the imagined ideal; and fourthly, some of these places carry otherworldly connotations by themselves – they are ancient mythological sites or places mysterious in folk imagination and merely mentioning is enough to create associations concerning fairies or ancient gods.42 Therefore the nature of the Otherworld is the real nature of Ireland itself.
The above mentioned contrast is also connected to the dichotomy of wildness vs. domestication: animals mentioned in the first part are “herons”, “water-rats” and “trout”43 whereas in the last stanza it is “calves”, which are tamed animals, and “mice”, animals often living among people. The fairy world clearly favours freedom, symbolized, among other things, by the animals mentioned; in contrast to people who are constrained by the “world full of troubles” (line 22).
Another interesting dichotomy is chill vs. warmth. The coldness of the fairy world44 comes from the strong presence of water in this world; dew, lakes, streams are everywhere: “wandering water gushes” (28), “ferns that drop their tears” (line 36). Even the “dim grey sands” (line 14) in the moonlight seem moist and cold. Water is seen by Yeats as something singularly Irish – in The Celtic Twilight he claims “that the water, the water of the seas and of lakes and of mist and rain, has all but made the Irish after its image” (135); the Irish, living in a moist and rainy climate, got formed by their environment and water is one of the constituents of their identity. Therefore, it is but natural that the Otherworld oozes with water, which makes the Irish people associate themselves with it. The motif of dew is also often connected to the Otherworld – in The Land of Heart’s Desire, Mary wishes to dance “deep in the dewy shadow of a wood” (8) and this adds to the chilly impression.45 Contrasted to this, the fourth stanza depicts the warmth of the human world with the “warm hillside” and the boiling water in the kettle. The chill in the wet wild nature also brings about a kind of unquietness vs. peacefulness of the child’s house, where the kettle “sings peace into his breast” (47). The fairies dance all night, and seem always in motion; “unquiet dreams” (34) are mentioned; the water is “wandering” (28); and even moonlight, which is usually something constant, comes in “waves” (14). Dance is an important motif connected to the Otherworld – fairies never get tired of dancing (The Celtic Twilight 130). Generally, this unquietness, which is disturbing for the mortals, may be caused by the impression of constant motion; which can be also noted in other poems, especially in “The Unappeasable Host”.
Still, the fairies possess a wonderful mysterious beauty, as opposed to the meekness of the human life; establishing another dichotomy, aestheticism vs. ordinariness. The images and colours are more exotic (“reddest stolen cherries” [italics added] (8), pools “that scarce could bathe a star” (31), “ferns that drop their tears” (36)), in comparison with the ordinariness of the images in the last stanza (“brown mice” [italics added] (48), “oatmeal chest” (49), “kettle on the hob” (46)). There is a strong aesthetic aspect about the Otherworld, which can send chills down the spine: “Where the wave of moonlight glosses / the dim grey sands with light” (lines 13-14).
The last, but not least, important dichotomy, portrayed in this poem is abstract vs. concrete. The first three stanzas are much more vague and dreamy, while the last one is filled with little concrete details. The fairies’ “mingling hands and mingling glances” (line 18) is not a still image and presents the reader with difficulty of imagining it; it is a motion and a vague fleeing moment. The fairy world might be beautiful, but it is essentially empty for mortals. The verses “to and fro we leap / and chase the frothy bubbles” (lines 20-21) probably express best the vagueness and dreaminess of the fairy world. The motifs of “froth” and “bubbles” invoke the feeling of something being hollow and unreal, as if the fairies were chasing just after an illusion which is not real. Also, the motif of rushes surrounding the pools where the fairies live (line 30) supports the theme of the fairy-realm’s emptiness – rushes are hollow from within. The abstractness is stressed by the distance and inaccessibility of the Otherworld. It is “far off, by furthest Rosses” [italics added] (15); the repetition of “far” moves the realm beyond human reach and gives it a fairytale-like quality. The appeal of the refrain uses just the words “come away” (line 9), leaving the “away” dreamy, abstract, and unearthly, beyond the scope of human understanding. Abstraction is the main feature of the Otherworld – it creates the hazy impression, and, thus, stresses the transcendental value of a dream that is to be achieved. Moreover, Celticism saw abstraction as one of the stereotypical characteristics of the Celtic nations, and, therefore, depicting the Otherworld behind this misty veil of abstraction yet even more stresses its Celtic singularity. One of the most famous Celticists, Ernest Renan, quoted by Yeats in his essay “The Celtic Element in Literature” claims that the Celtic race “has worn itself out on mistaking dreams for realities” (qtd. in Yeats 1903, 270)46 – a prose image which corresponds to the poetic image of “chasing frothy bubbles” (21).
The poem is told from the perspective of the fairies, so the Otherworld is presented initially as the ideal solution to escape troubles. The reader, however, has got a human perspective and reading the poem written in the first person from the point of view of fairies creates tension in them; and the reader moves on the brink of the real and supernatural. The poem itself, therefore, is a point of liminality; works like this were supposed to be the doors to the realm beyond earthly senses, carrying the reader off to the Otherworld.