Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies


General motifs in the poetry on the Otherworld



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3.1.3. General motifs in the poetry on the Otherworld

Having described the Otherworld in Yeats’s work, next it would be suitable to point out a few recurring motifs which constitute Yeats’s depiction of the Otherworld generally, whether it is seen as a physical place or a realm beyond senses.

The presence of peculiar light in combination with various colours is perhaps one of the most powerful tools for Yeats to create an unearthly impression. Yeats distinguished between the “red flare of dreams” and the “common light of common hours” (The Land of Heart’s Desire 9). This peculiar light can be created through the aforementioned twilight, or by using verbs and adjectives which imply any sort of shimmering and glossing – “wave of moonlight glosses” (“Stolen Child” 13), “glimmering waves” (The Wanderings of Oisin I, 314), “midnights glimmer” (“The Lake Isle of Inishfree” 7), “gleaming bodies” (The Wanderings of Oisin III, 28 )”, “golden or silver skies” (“The Man who Dreamt of Faeryland” 21), “softness came from the starlight” (The Wanderings of Oisin III, 72). Images filled with this otherworldly light evoke the impression of perfect beauty and the reader may thus feel the power of the Otherworld. Forest Reid argues – though originally the comment was meant to describe Yeats’s prose, it may be well applied to some of his poems too – that through the dark atmosphere “flame wild unearthly lights that lure the soul to its destruction” (Reid 132). He uses uncommon descriptions, similes and metaphors to carry the reader off to the Otherworld, as their unusualness strikes the reader’s senses; such as “drops of frozen rainbow light” (The Wanderings of Oisin I, 184) or “the pale blossom of the moon” (The Wanderings of Oisin I, 288). In the former the combination of the motifs of drops, cold, colours, and light implied in the simile creates a mysterious beauty; whereas in the latter the word “blossom” bestows the moonlight with a sense of flourishing, fragrance, and unearthly glamour.47

Another motif closely associated with the Otherworld is the sound of dripping, or drops in general. When Oisín and Niamh arrive to the Island of Forgetfulness, they hear “dropping, murmurous dropping; silence and that one sound” (III, 18). The monotony of the dripping may be soothing to the soul – “peace comes dropping slow” [italics added] (Innisfree, line 5). Hearing water dripping from the depths of the forest might create a mysterious atmosphere, and seem magical, especially when it is combined with a personification like the following: “Leaning softly out / from ferns that drop their tears / over the young streams” (35-7). Perhaps the sound of dripping is also used because of the Irish rainy weather – yet another way how to distinguish the Otherworld as particularly Irish; and at the same time, by drawing corresponding links between Ireland and the happy Otherworld, Yeats is embellishing the vision of Ireland and making it “beautiful in the memory” (Yeats Autobiographies 126).

Related to the drops, dew is perhaps the most common motif in early Yeats’s poetry as such, especially in The Wind Among the Reeds. In his descriptions of the Otherworld, this motif appears over and over, completing the image of wet cold shimmering beauty; on the Island of the Living, Oisín and Niamh walk through “shadowy ways / Where drops of dew in myriads fall” (221-22); and in The Land of Heart’s Desire the Fairyland is told to be “deep in the dewy shadow of a wood” (8). There is something magical about dew; it is water that appears every morning on the leaves and grass without any obvious reason such as rain – this might have been seen as somewhat supernatural in the past. Moreover, occult practices consider dew an important element – in alchemy it is a component related to the “subtle form of the fire of nature” (Greer 132); all these connotations were probably known to Yeats and were made use of to create the Otherworldly character of his poems.48 He often combined the motif of dew, and all its magical connotations, with the other transcendental motifs, in order to strengthen the mysticism of his images: with the liminal twilight, to stress the vagueness between the two worlds, as in “dew ever shining and twilight grey”; and to reach beyond the earthiness, he uses expressions as “dew-drowned stars” – by creating a link between dew and something as unreachable as stars, Yeats draws the unattainable far away stars closer to our world, and, at the same time, it gives a yet even more transcendental value to dew.

The last of the frequent motifs linked to the Otherworld in Yeats’s work which will be given attention to, is that of birds. In his work around 1900 a wide variety of birds can be found, to which he attributes different symbolism (Bramsbäck 85). Birds had an important place in Irish mythology and folklore – they were often companions of goddesses, either as sinister, death foreboding images, or as messengers of joy (Monaghan 46); the famous love god Aengus was closely associated closely with birds.49 In folklore a motif of a transformation of a soul into a white bird at the moment of death was common (Bramsbäck 86); this idea was used in The Land of Heart’s Desire, where Mary’s soul transforms into a bird as she dies. The Faery Child luring her, she is repeatedly referring to Mary as: “White bird, white bird, come with me, little bird” (31).50 Yeats was aware of the cultural meanings attributed to birds, finding evidence in the oral lore of country people or in older Gaelic literature (Bramsbäck 85). The connection to the Otherworld is obvious – either through the association with gods, or through the transcendental motif of the transformation of a soul into a bird. In The Shadowy Waters, “grey birds”, which are men who died, serve as “good pilots”, calling “from wind to wind” (21), showing him the way to the Otherworld. Birds are also the first creatures which Oisín and Niamh behold as they approach the Otherworld – “round every branch the song birds flew” (180). The motif of birds seems to complete the vision of the Otherworld not only because of their mythological and folkloric meaning, but also through other themes they may represent. Birds are generally seen as unfretted and free; the Otherworld, too, is seen as a place where there “is nor law, nor rule” (I, 282). The theme of freedom was, moreover, rather topical at the turn of the 20th century, when Ireland was aspiring to become a nation. Birds with their wings and flying towards the sky can also become a symbol of aspirations – trying to achieve something beyond one’s current reach, transcending one’s possibilities; and on a larger scale, the aspirations of Ireland as an independent nation.



3.2. Otherworldly beings

Having described the Otherworld and analysed its depiction in Yeats’s poetry, now its inhabitants should be looked upon in more detail. Often it is them who are the cause of the mortal’s entering the Otherworld, whether voluntarily, or against their will. They act as mediators between the worlds and as psychopomps51 – leaders of mortal souls, helping them to reach out beyond the borders of their constrained lives.


3.2.1. Classification and description of the otherworldly beings

The expressions Tuatha Dé Danann, Sidhe and fairies all refer to the inhabitants of the Otherworld; but they have quite different connotations, even though their meanings overlap to an extent. As mentioned before, the Tuatha Dé Danann, “The People of the Goddess Danu”, came to Ireland as the fifth invaders, which is described in Lebor Gabála Érenn, “The Book of Invasions.” They were a “magical race” (Monaghan 457) who “became skilled in the arts of druidry and magic” when living in the “northern islands of the world” (MacCana 58). Having defeated the previous inhabitants of Ireland, Fir Bolgs, and the demon-like Fomorians, they ruled the island for nearly 3000 years, only to be subdued by the last invasion of the Milesians, or Goidelic Celts, in the end. However, wielding many supernatural powers, they made the Milesians agree to split Ireland – the Sons of Mil took the surface of the land, while the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated to misty islands, bottoms of lakes, or fairy mounds (Monaghan 457); or, according to Lady Gregory’s Mythology, they “chose out the most beautiful of the hills and valleys of Ireland for them to settle in; and […] put hidden walls about them, that no man could see through, but they themselves could see through them and pass through them” (Lady Gregory 61). Seen either way, this world of theirs became later known as the Otherworld, and the Tuatha Dé Danann, who created it, became known as the Ever-Living. In folklore though, the inhabitants of the Otherworld are rarely referred to as Tuatha Dé Danann – it is rather a scholarly term, found in Gaelic texts and not commonly accessible in the 19th century. It was Lady Gregory’s mythology Gods and Fighting Men which was probably the most influential book treating the Tuatha Dé Danann written in her times. Yeats himself, however, did not mention the gods often. The only one from the Dananns to get credit in Yeats’s poetry is Angus Óg, the aforementioned god of beauty and poetry (Monaghan 21), sometimes seen as the god of love (Matson, Roberts 3), who plays a role in many of Yeats’s poems and dramatic pieces, being the patron of lovers and poetry.

When the Tuatha Dé Danann retreated into the Otherworld, they became known as the Sidhe (sídh, “fairy” in Gaelic). Originally, sídh meant “hill” or a mound that served as a passage to the Otherworld52 (Monaghan 419); and the people hiding in these mounds were referred to as Aes Sidhe, “The People of the Fairy Mounds” (Monaghan 169). Eventually, the aes was dropped, and name of their dwelling became to denote the fairies themselves (Bramsbäck 49). Although sídh means fairy in Irish, the connotations of the word are more mystical than those of the word “fairy”, perhaps because there is a noble air about them – they are unearthly, beautiful and shadowy. Sometimes they are called “the host of air”,53 as “they journey with the wind” (Yeats, “Notes” to The Wind Among the Reeds 65); the manner in which Yeats describes them in one of his prose stories implies a sense of mysticism and airiness:

And before them and beyond them, but at a distance as if in reverence, there were other shapes, sinking and rising and coming and going, and Hanrahan knew them by their whirling flight to be the Sidhe, the ancient defeated gods. (Stories of Red Hanrahan 58-59)

The same ambivalence which enfolds the Otherworld can be also noticed when speaking, or writing, about the Sidhe. Sometimes they are depicted as a “gay, exalting and gentle race” (“The Man who Dreamt of Faeryland” 20) with brows as “white as fragrant milk” (The Wanderings of Oisin I, 204), emphasising their beauty and nobility; sometimes they are portrayed with neither positive nor negative connotations, yet in words which evoke a mystical sensation in the reader – showing them as essentially non-human, and beyond the mortals’ comprehension because of their feelings connected to unearthly passion, which is outside of the human concepts of right and wrong – “the wayward twilight companies / who sigh with mingled sorrow and content / because their blossoming dreams have never bent / under the fruit of evil and of good” (“To Some I Have Talked by Fire” 6-9); and sometimes their portrayal is clearly dark, shadowy and sinister, stressing the connection of the Sidhe to death,54 or to baleful powers of nature, such as “desolate winds” (“Unappeasable Host”); one of the most tenebrous descriptions of them is expressed in the following simile, which presents their tendency to sometimes take over a mortal’s soul: “the dark folk who live in souls / of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees” (“To Some I Have Talked by Fire” 4-5).

They are not particularly interested in the world of people and rarely intervene into the world of the mortals (MacCana 65); usually they live their own lives, do not care for much attention, even “resent being talked of” (Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales 4). Moreover, “if any one becomes too much interested in them, and sees them over much, he loses all interest in ordinary things” (Yeats, “Notes” to Wind Among the Reeds 66) – sometimes just glancing upon their unearthly beauty is enough to become glamoured and drop the “mortal dream” (“Hosting of the Sidhe” 5), renouncing hopes of happiness in the ordinary world; and being endowed with the dreams and desires of the immortal beauty of the world of the Sidhe:

And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart. (“Hosting of the Sidhe” l0-12)

Sídh is sometimes used synonymously to fairy, but the term “fairy” encompasses less mysticism, and is more general – it may refer to “different beings of the Otherworld” – the Tuatha Dé Danann (or sometimes referred to as “Dannan children” in Yeats’s work), elves (in the English diminutive conception of little pixies55), or even ghosts (Monaghan 167). Fairies in Yeats’s work are “more complicated and less human” – “pretty and kind”, yet “lawless angels” who “live in the elements of “air, water, and fire” (Parkinson 26); very different from “trumpety little English fairies” (MacNeice qtd. in Parkinson 25). Yeats tried to create a systematic classification of Irish fairies, which analysed types of fairies “imaginatively rather than scientifically” (Bramsbäck 28).56 Yeats distinguishes between two types of fairies – the sociable fairies and solitary fairies (Yeats, Irish Fairy Tales 402). The most common of the sociable fairies are called also trooping fairies, or sheehogues; these are the typical Irish “Good People” or “Wee Folk” (Yeats, Irish Tales 402; Monaghan 168), who live in fairy raths, steal children and sometimes act mischievously, but are otherwise “on the whole good” (Irish Fairy Tales 403). The solitary fairies are, on the other hand, “nearly all gloomy and terrible in some way” (Irish Fairy Tales 403) – perhaps the most famous is the Leprechaun and other similar spiteful creatures; the Pooka, described as a “wild staring phantom”, which takes forms of various animals and is “only half in the world of form” (Yeats, Fairy and Folk 100); various water spirits, which are a kind of will’o’the’wisps, and house spirits (Yeats, Writings on Folklore 23); the Banshee, whose wailing is an omen of death (Yeats, Fairy and Folk 113); and, finally, the Leanhaun Sidhe, one of the most important fairy figures in Yeats’s work, who is the fairy mistress and muse of poets who become her slaves (Irish Fairy Tales 402-3).

The Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry, also explain the origin of the fairies – from the outlook of Christian peasants that they are “fallen angels”, not good, nor bad enough to be either redeemed or damned; from the more pagan view that they are “gods of the earth”, or, they are placed on one level with the Sidhe and the Tuatha Dé Danann, they are “the gods of pagan Ireland”, who, with the arrival of Christianity, “when no longer worshiped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination and now are only a few spans high” (11).

In Yeats’s times, the faith in fairies or the Sidhe was still widely spread among the peasantry of western Ireland. In his introduction to Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry, he actually stresses the fact that people believed in fairies in Ireland, whereas in England this faith has been long dead (3); thus using fairy lore as one of the self-fashioning tools, seeing it as purely Irish, un-English, and, therefore, as a distinctive feature of the Irish nation. However, Yeats was blamed that he was “merely trying to bring back a little of the old dead beautiful world of Romance into this century of great engines and spinning jennies”, when he claimed that the Irish peasant still believes in fairies (Yeats, Writings on Folklore 77). Yeats gathered his information from country people; he “wandered about raths and faery hills and questioned old women and old men” when he “was tired out or unhappy” (Autobiographies 96). Among these people, he mentions, in his writings, most often Paddy Flynn and Biddy Hart, who became to be viewed symbols of the peasant wisdom. He claims that in Ireland, “no matter what one doubts, one never doubts the fairies” (The Celtic Twilight 8) – even when all other faith has failed, people still have the fairies to stick to. As for Yeats himself, in his Reveries of Childhood and Youth, he explains how his emotional intuition reflected in his own faith in fairies: “I did not believe with my intellect that you could be carried away body and soul, but I believed with my emotions and the belief of the country people made that easy” (Autobiographies 96).
3.2.2. Themes of freedom, desire and uneasiness

When speaking about themes connected to the inhabitants of the Otherworld, and the motifs they are expressed through, it is impossible to draw generalizations – the motifs are sometimes very complex and express more than just one theme. Therefore, first the themes which are most closely connected to the Sidhe57 will be analysed; then the most recurring motifs in Yeats’s work concerning the Sidhe will be dealt with on their own in a separate subchapter. Generally in folklore, as well as in Yeats’s poetry, three themes are strongly connected to the inhabitants of the Otherworld – desire, freedom, and uneasiness. All of these themes were extremely topical in the late 19th century Ireland, which found itself in an age of transition, changes, and uncertainty about picking the right way take in order to achieve the desired outcome.

When describing the Sidhe, Dananns and fairies, their freedom and unfettered character is always stressed:

But we in a lonely land abide,

Unchainable as the dim tide,

With hearts that know nor law, nor rule,

And hands that hold no wearisome tool (The Wanderings of Oisin I, 337-340)

The mention of the “wearisome tool” clearly shows that the freedom of the Sidhe was also seen as liberation from the daily drudgery of the Irish people, for whom the vision of the Otherworld was an escapist fantasy from their ordinary lives; its inhabitants were happy because their hands were free of “wearisome tools”. In the above quoted excerpt, boundless sea is used as the motif which expresses the theme of freedom – “unchainable as the dim tide”; but other accurate motifs, such as wind and dance recur in Yeats’s poems. Generally, movement is important to express freedom – when speaking about the Sidhe, dynamic verbs are often used, and the poems seem to be, at all times, in restless fluttering motion. A good demonstration of this can be found in the poem “The Unappeasable Host”, which is written in first person from the perspective of a mortal woman, while a host of the Sidhe is passing by. The whole poem is in motion; nothing is still, apart from the mortal woman, who is the speaker, and her child – therefore everything supernatural is on the move. If the reader makes a list of the verbs used in the poem, almost all of them express a somewhat violent circulation – “ride”, “flies”, “calling”, “cry”, “hover”, and “beat”, “blow ”,“ shake”; the Sidhe move freely at their will, and there is nothing to tie them up. Even their appearance shows them as unrestrained and free:

Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,

Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,

Our arms are waving, our lips are apart. (“The Hosting of the Sidhe” 7-9)

These three verses not only show the unfettered character of the Sidhe, through motifs of their unbound hair, heaving breasts, waving arms; but also a kind of ecstasy rooted in their freedom – the “eyes agleam” and “lips apart” indicate that the Sidhe indulge in their freedom to the point of rapture. Dishevelled hair is also a motif connected to fairies and the Sidhe which would express a degree of freedom; in the Land of Hearts Desire, the fairy child is described to have “wild hair the winds have tumbled” (1912). In his notes to the first edition of The Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats says about them that “they are almost always said to wear no covering upon their heads, and to let their hair stream out” (“Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 66), an image which emphasises the theme of freedom in Yeats’s work.

The other important theme connected to the Sidhe is that of desire. Yeats’s early work is full of motifs which express desire – either spiritual (the desire of mortals for the immortal world, or for a kind of spiritual epiphany); or romantic – longing for immortal love. These are usually intermingled indiscernibly, and achieving one often entails achieving the other as well – this is the case of Forgael, who inseparably links love and the Otherworld; or the case of the fisherman in the poem “The Man who Dreamt of Faeryland”; or Oisín and Niamh, Cúchulainn and Fand, and other such mythological couples. The Sidhe seem to be connected to “vague desires and hopes” (Yeats, “Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 86) and their desire does not dwindle; it is “the immortal desire of immortals” (“Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 93). In The Wanderings of Oisín, Yeats employs an interesting motif, which expresses an unfulfilled everlasting longing – Oisín and Niamh, while crossing the sea to the Otherworld, encounter two phantoms:

We galloped; now a hornless deer

Passed us by, chased by a phantom hound

All pearly white, save one red ear;

And now a lady rode like the wind

With an apple of gold in her tossing hand;

And a beautiful young man followed behind

With quenchless gaze and fluttering hair. (I, 139-45)

Yeats borrowed the motifs of the hornless deer and red-eared hound, who change into the lady and the young man, from the Gaelic poem by Michael Comyn (Alspach 852-53). He adopted this shape-shifting motif to such an extent, that he used it later in another poem of his own “Mongan Laments the Change that has Come upon Him and His Beloved” – “Do you not hear me calling, white deer with no horns! / I have been changed to a hound with one red ear” (1-2). The very motif of a hunt is a symbol of desire; and in his notes to the Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats claims that “this hound and this deer seem plain images of the desire of man ‘which is for the woman,’ and ‘the desire of the woman which is for the desire of the man,’ and of all desires that are as these” (92-3). The image describes eternal unfulfilled desire; for anytime Oisín and Niamh pass the sea, these two phantoms are chasing each other, never to achieve their goal. They are obviously otherworldly beings – white animals with red ears come from the Otherworld, according to Celtic folklore (Hemming 71); and they, apart from romantic desire, express the “Celtic longing for infinite things the world has never seen.”58 It reached beyond this world, and those who got overcome by this kind of desire, “found no comfort in the grave” (“The Man who Dreamt of Faeryland 48). By giving such a great importance to the theme of desire in his early poetry, Yeats is definitely voicing his own romantic frustrations; yet he also makes it clear that this longing is not just his own, but it is a “Celtic longing” – a general feeling of a nation, long deprived of welfare, which is striving to achieve liberty and peace. The Irish desire, whether it belonged to the mortal, or immortal world, helped the Irish to identify themselves with the Sidhe – a “chosen race”, who rejoice in spite of “whatever ravelled waters rise and fall” (30-1); something denied to the Irish for centuries, being the subdued race, tossed and turned by the “ravelled waters.”

However, as already mentioned, the Revival was not homogenous – there was no agreed way to fashion the Irish identity (OCH 319), making the last two decades of the 19th century a turbulent period full of hopes and desires to achieve national and personal freedom; but leaving the nation quite uncertain about how they were to be achieved, and which is the right path to take. The fairies were to lead the way; however, in popular depiction, as well as in poetry, the fairies were shrouded in ambivalence. The uncertainty of the era may be reflected in the uncertainty and uneasiness about those who were to symbolise the transition into the new age. People feared and awed the Sidhe, who were a mysterious race from beyond the realms of the mortal world; moreover, the Sidhe were capable of evoking in mortals contradictory feelings at the same time:

He heard while he sang and dreamed
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay. (“Host of Air” 9-12)

The fairy piper from the “host of air” creates a feeling of ambivalence in the mortal listeners; in the same way nothing was black and white in the reality, and the contradictory feelings about many national matters were at place, as can be seen from Yeats’s bitter description of the era given in his Ireland after Parnell.


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