Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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3.2.3. Motifs connected the Sidhe

To create the above described image of the Sidhe, and to express the aforementioned themes connected to them in tradition, Yeats used certain motifs more than others. Of these the perhaps most remarkable is the motif of the wind, which is connected to Ireland in general;59 the strong association of this motif and the Sidhe in Yeats’s work has its roots in folklore, according to which the Sidhe certainly have “much to do with the wind.60 They journey in whirling winds” and “when the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by” (“Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 65-6). The belief that “The Sidhe are in the wind” can be noted in The Land of Heart’s Desire, when the wind carries away the primroses which were to protect the family, and the Bruins believe that it is the fairies who have taken them, and the child who “came running in the wind”(10). Yeats uses the wind to symbolize desire, as he claims: “wind and spirit and vague desire have been associated everywhere” (“Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 86). This “vague desire” is something which is characteristic of Yeats’s early poetry and is strongly linked to the Irish mind and spirit, as was pointed out before. An interesting combination of motifs is that of “wind” and “reeds” – both very typical of the Irish environment and scenery. The motif of “the wind among the reeds” can evoke different feelings in the reader – it can conjure an image of a nation thrown about by circumstances, at the mercy of something powerful and unconcerned, but still able to withstand it, as the reeds withstand the gusts of wind; or, on the other hand, it might be taken into consideration that it is the wind that makes the reeds speak, thus, giving a voice to an otherwise dumb plant – it speaks out for a voiceless people, perhaps through the power of the Sidhe: “The faeries and the more innocent of the spirits [. . .] lamented over our fallen world in the lamentation of the wind-tossed reeds” (The Celtic Twilight 174). In The Land of Heart’s Desire the final fairy song ends by repeating what they “heard a reed of Coolaney say”, when swayed by the wind.61 The very title of his most aesthetic collection (Jeffares, Man and Poet 106) is The Wind Among the Reeds, a term which Yeats associates with the poetry of Ireland. In the Celtic Twilight, he said about poems of an Irish peasant, that “they, with their wild music as of winds blowing in the reeds, seemed to me the very inmost voice of Celtic sadness, and of Celtic longing for infinite things the world has never seen” (16). This longing is what enables the Sidhe in the wind to act as psychopomps on various levels – they are guides who lead the mortals to the “land of heart’s desire”; whether that may be the Otherworld, or Ireland itself.

Another important recurring motif is that of a “host”. The Sidhe were often depicted as passing in groups, forming a host – “the merrier multitude” or “the Western host”, being the expressions the fairy child uses in The Land of Heart’s Desire (28). The word “host” carries a multitude of meanings, all of them applied in the poems and helpful to constitute the picture of the Sidhe: it can mean an “army”, originating in Latin hostis, “enemy”; or a “host” can be someone who receives or entertains guests, from Latin hospit, “guest”. This near-opposite double meaning expresses the ambivalence towards the Sidhe and fairies – looking upon them with slight mistrust, but accepting them as an inevitable part of the Irish tradition and of being Irish. For example, the title of a poem “The Hosting of the Sidhe” offers a sinister image of an airy host passing by, but also implies that the Sidhe are inviting the mortals to join them. The word has yet another meaning: Eucharist bread, from Latin hostia – “sacrifice”. The “host of the Sidhe” are the gods of old, and the meaning of “Eucharist” implied in the word “host”, brings the old religion to the level of Christianity; for the Sidhe still have a refined place in the religious and metaphysical lives of the Irish – “the unappeasable host / Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet” (“The Unappeasable Host” 11-12). Moreover, the etymology of the last meaning of the word, “sacrifice”, indicates that getting to know the Sidhe, and the acceptance of their world, requires a sacrifice of the joys of the human world. This can be seen in many poems, mainly in “The Stolen Child”, “Hosting of the Sidhe”, or the in play The Land of Heart’s Desire.

To describe the past time of the Sidhe and to stress their unbound and free character, Yeats often uses the motif of dance. When Oisín and Niamh came to the Island of the Living, they danced with the immortals, who “danced like shadows on the mountains” (I, 388); Mary longs for a “dance deep in the dewy shadow of the wood” (The Land of Heart’s Desire 8), in “The host of Air”, O’Driscoll and his bride Bridget joined the “faery” people for a dance before these carried Bridget away. This motif became increasingly important in Yeats’s later poetry, expressing, according to Allison Bate, something in Yeats, which is forcing him “to attempt a creation of an art separate from everything heterogeneous and casual, from all character and circumstance” (Yeats qtd. in Bate 1217), connecting dance and eternity (Bate 1218);62 but already in his early poems it was connected to immortality and those who danced the “wild and sudden dance” of the immortals, “mocked at Time and Fate and Chance” (Wanderins of Oisin I, 291). Dance in folklore is depicted as being the favourite past time of fairies, who “danced on and on, and days and days went by, and all the country-side came to look at them, but still their feet never tired.” (The Celtic Twilight 131). Their dancing is described in a rather mystical and unearthly way:

We foot it all the night,

Weaving olden dances

Mingling hands and mingling glances (“The Stolen Child” 16-18)

In The Land of Heart’s Desire, dance is used as a form of sorcery, when the fairy child “dances, swaying about like the reeds” (24) and thus charms Mary – perhaps carrying out a kind of initiation rite of Mary to the Otherworld. Dance also symbolises passion; not in the restricted romantic sense of the word, but in much broader terms – it can evoke the feeling of a vague unearthly passion. In Rosa Alchemica, Yeats describes a mystical dance which was an initiation rite into a magical order: “and every moment the dance was more passionate, until all the winds of the world seemed to have awakened under our feet” (“Rosa Alchemica” in Stories of Red Hanrahan 222). This kind of passion also runs through the feet of the dancing Sidhe in Yeats’s depiction of the otherworldly beings.

Another motif also connected to the unrestrained passion and sorcery of the Sidhe, though not as dominant as that of “dance”, is the motif of “fire.” In the Otherworld, love is seen as an “imperishable fire” (The Shadowy Waters 49), which emphasises the theme of eternal passion of its inhabitants. In the early version of The Land of Heart’s Desire, the fairy child, after dancing and forming around Mary a barrier of primroses, kisses the flowers and makes them to turn into “little twisted flames” (35). The Sidhe are sometimes depicted in a fiery way – as a part of the “embattled flaming multitude” (“To Some I have Talked by Fire” 10), which represents the transcendental unearthly powers in Ireland. In the “Hosting of the Sidhe”, Caoilte (who was originally a mortal hero, but probably achieved immortality by joining the Sidhe63) is “tossing his burning hair” – Yeats explains this image in the notes to The Wind Among the Reeds, by retelling a legend of Caoilte’s appearance to a king of Ireland years after his alleged death, while being “a flaming man, that he might lead him in the darkness” (69)64. The motif of fire was important also because of the relation to the character of Irish people as it was seen back in the 19th century – “as the most inflammable people on God’s earth” (Taylor qtd. in Yeats, Autobiographies 283). Depicting the Irish as fiery and inflammable, while attributing these very qualities to the Sidhe, might have worked as a means of self-fashioning; Yeats was creating national identity by remaking Irish people into “mystic Celts” (Cairns, Richards 67).

The last motif related to the Sidhe, particularly important for Yeats as an artist, is that of a “voice.” The voices of the Sidhe are the inspiration for the artist; the “everlasting voices”, who talk to the mortals “in birds, in wind on the hill, / in shaken boughs, in tide on the shore”65 (“Everlasting Voices” 6-7). In The Land of Heart’s Desire, the voices of unseen beings speak the last words in the play, and continuously repeat what can be seen as Mary’s verdict, “the lonely of heart is withered away” (17, 33). But The Land of Heart’s Desire is not the only work in which Yeats stresses the importance of voices at the moment of someone’s death; in the short story “The Death of Red Hanrahan”, the poet Hanrahan is embraced by a woman of the Sidhe, who claims to be one of the “one of the lasting people, of the lasting unwearied Voices” (Stories of Red Hanrahan 76). The significance of the motif of a voice is brought about by the fact that the poet, inspired by the voices of the Sidhe, is a voice himself, inspiring the nation.



3.3. Transcendence

The two previous chapters have dealt with the Otherworld and its inhabitants, who act as psychopomps, leading the mortals towards transcendence; here, the act of transcendence itself, aided by the otherworldly beings, will be looked upon. In Yeats’s writings there are various instances in which the fairies, or the Sidhe, act as psychopomps to human souls and accompany them to a next stage of their being. There are various types of psychopomps and transcendence to be noticed in folklore, as well as in Yeats’s work, and a few categories can be drawn; yet it is impossible to clearly discern between them, as they often overlap.66



3.3.1. Death

As already mentioned, the Sidhe were often connected to death. In Yeats’s time a legend existed in Western Ireland, that “a battle over the dying” was fought “between the friends and enemies of the dying” among the Sidhe (“Notes” to Wind Among the Reeds 100).67 The fairy most closely linked to death in Irish folklore is probably the banshee (bean sidhe – Gaelic for “woman fairy”). Banshees are categorised as solitary fairies; though Yeats claims that, perhaps, a banshee is “a sociable fairy grown solitary through much sorrow” (Irish Fairy Tales 405). Appearing sometimes as hags and sometimes as beautiful women (Monaghan 34), they often foretell a person’s death by wailing in grief or clapping their hands (Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales 113). The more respectable and brave the dying person was, the more keening voices of banshees’ lamented over him; therefore, the cry of a banshee often stressed the factor of dead person’s greatness in praise poetry, as can be seen from the poem by Clarence Mangan, published in Yeats’s compilation of Irish fairy tales:

There was lifted up one voice of woe,

One lament of more than mortal grief,

Through the wide South, to and fro,

For a fallen Chief. (“A Lamentation” ll. 1-4, in Fairy and Folk Tales 117)

However, the banshee is “a folkloric rather than literary character” and did not occur in Irish literature before the 17th century (Monaghan 34). In Yeats’s work she appears in different forms – as various fairies who bear certain characteristics of a banshee.

In The Land of Heart’s Desire, the fairies singing outdoors bear certain accepts of a banshee, as their song about how “the lonely of heart is withered away” foreshadows Mary’s death. After she dies, the song of the fairies “is taken up by many voices, who sing loudly, as if in triumph” (33). The fairies’ singing accompanies her through her death and presumably leads her to the Otherworld. Such a companion in death is also the character Winny Byrne from the short story “The Death of Hanrahan” (The Stories of Red Hanrahan). Winny is an old beggar, whose wits were stolen by “the Others, the great Sidhe” (67-8), and she tends the poet Owen Red Hanrahan during his last illness in her hut. In the moment of his death she embraces him:

And then there came out of the mud-stiffened rags arms as white and as shadowy as the foam on a river, and they were put about his body. (75)

As he is dying, he marries one of the lasting people, who dwells in Winny’s body, and he can see lights which sometimes seem like a “wisp lighted for a marriage, and sometimes like a tall white candle for the dead” (76). The image of the flames, which are lighted at a marriage as well as at a funeral, strengthens the connection between the end of life in the mortal world and the new beginning in the Otherworld, where Owen Hanrahan’s soul has probably departed, after having joined Winny.

This short story is probably the best prose account of the gradual transmission into the Otherworld through death which can be found in Yeats’s work. At first, it seemed to Red Hanrahan that he “was beginning to belong to some world out of sight and misty” (65); he moved on the edge of the worlds, somewhere between dream and reality because “sometimes he would hear coming and going in the wood music that when it stopped went from his memory like a dream” (65). Then “once in the stillness of midday he heard a sound like the clashing of many swords” (65), which is the above mentioned battle between the friends and enemies of a man who “is near his death” (70). At night he heard “the faint sound of keening” (65), which would be the banshee, and the sound of “frightened laughter broken by the wind” (65-6); and to show, that it is the Sidhe who lead the way and act as psychopomps, Hanrahan saw “many pale beckoning hands” (66). Later, in Winny’s house, he heard “voices, very faint and joyful” (72-3) and he knew that the room was filled by “some [beings] greater than himself” (72) who had “all power in their hands” (72). The short story follows, step by step, a death of a person, looked upon from a folkloric and at the same time mystical point of view.

In Yeats’s poetry, “The Unappeasable Host” is definitely noteworthy, as for dealing with the theme of transcendence through death. In this vague poem, the fairy and the human worlds overlap in the approach of death, while a host of the Sidhe passes by. Being written from the subjective perspective of a woman narrator, the reader does not learn whether all this is really happening or whether it is just a vision and some kind of a mystical experience of the dying woman:

The Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold,

And clap their hands together, and half close their eyes,

For they will ride the North when the ger-eagle flies,

With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold:

I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast,

And hear the narrow graves calling my child and me. (1-6)

The theme of death is present through various motifs such as the “narrow graves”, “heart fallen cold”; and, in connection to the Sidhe, the motif of clapping hands is important – as already mentioned, according to Yeats’s explanatory chapters in The Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry, banshees clap their hands to foretell a person’s death. The whole poem is written in a mystic tone, belonging to the supernatural world. Only the verse “I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast” (5) seems to be rooted in the real world; everything else is somewhat veiled and vague. The poem is also based on iteration of contrasting concepts, which creates certain bipolarity. The double vision of the world as the human and the supernatural is expressed by pairs of contrasting words and images, which represent also the contrast between life and death: such as “laugh – wail”, “cradles – narrow graves”, “clap their hands together – press my child to my breast”68. The contrast is also reinforced by the repetition of the word “child” in the expressions “my wailing child” and the “Danaan children” – the Tuatha Dé Danann. Therefore the same word “child” refers to the vulnerable wailing being, and to the Sidhe, who, perhaps, have the life of the “wailing child” in their hands. The host of the Sidhe, in this poem, with all their beauty and charm, are the guides of souls; and in the moment of death, Christian belief is displaced by old Celtic myth, because “The unappeasable host / is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet” (11-12).
3.3.2. Kidnappers

Another type of psychopomps among the fairies, or the Sidhe, are the kidnappers. They usually carry away a child, or a newly-wed bride, whom they fancy – in Yeats’s poetry and drama, the subject is dealt with in “The Stolen Child”, “The Host of Air” and the Land of Hearst’s Desire. In an essay “Kidnappers”, published in Celtic Twilight, Yeats displays folk stories he gathered, which talk about people who were carried away. The poem “The Host of Air” is based on one of these stories – a young man, O’Driscoll, joins a merry company among whom is his bride, “with a sad and a gay face”. While he is engaged in playing cards with them, the company is suddenly “gone like a drifting smoke” and carrying off his bride. In the story published in Celtic Twilight, the young man rushes home, only to find his bride dead; and in original version of the poem, the last stanza was more explicit:

He knew now the folk of the air,

And his heart was blackened by dread,

And he ran to the door of his house;

Old women were keening the dead. (Yeats qtd. in Jeffares, Commentary)

It may be just the soul which is stolen, after death – “when it has left the body, it is drawn away, sometimes, by the fairies” and “such souls are considered lost” (Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales 131). Or sometimes, when the fairies carry off a mortal, they leave “some sickly fairy child” instead, or “a log of wood, so bewitched that it looks like a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried” (Fairy and Folk Tales 55). They take away the body and soul and “the dead body was but an appearance made by the enchantment of ‘the others’, according to country faith” (Yeats, “Broken Gates of Death” in Folk Writings 176). This “country faith” is demonstrated in The Land of Heart’s Desire, where Bridget warns Mary’s husband to keep away from her body, because the fairy child has not only taken Mary’s soul, but her body as well, leaving “nothing, but a dead image behind” (Bramsbäck 89):

Come from that image: body and soul are gone.

You have thrown your arms about a drift of leaves

Or bole of an ash-tree changed into her image. (32)

But the kidnappers need not be connected with death – they can steal a child or a new-wedded bride and keep these mortals to live among them in the “bloodless land of Faery” where, according to folk beliefs, mortals are “happy enough, but doomed to melt out at the last judgment like bright vapour” (The Celtic Twilight 118). Or, perhaps, the soul can be carried off, leaving the body untouched, yet without wits – there are places where one should not sleep, for there is a possibility that if they do, they “may wake silly”; such as the aforementioned Rosses point (Yeats qtd. in Jeffares 1968, 13), or fairy raths. In the “Death of Red Hanrahan”, the Sidhe stole Winny Byrne’s wits “one Samhain night many years ago, when she had fallen asleep on the edge of a rath” (The Stories of Red Hanrahan 68); and one of the Ever-living found dwelling in her body. Perhaps the contact with the Sidhe, and the transcendental value of their madness, is what gave “the fools of the Celtic stories” wisdom “that was above all the wisdom of the wise” (“Notes” to Wind Among the Reeds).

The most famous kidnappers in Yeats poetry are the fairies in “The Stolen Child”. Their voice resonates throughout the poem, but it is most distinctly heard in the refrain:

Come away, O human child,

To the waters and the wild,

With a faery hand in hand

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. (9-12)

The verses sound rather theatrical and convey a really strong appeal. One wonders, whether the child even has a chance to say “No”. A very strong contrast between the human child and the fairies is present. The rhyme “child-wild” is somewhat expected,69which makes the refrain easy to remember; and, together with the regular rhythm, it sounds almost like an incantation. However, the tone changes in the fourth stanza and the last refrain. It is still spoken by the fairy, but the addressee shifted from the child to someone third – there is no more the necessity to lure him, since the fairies have triumphed and are leading him away: “Away with us he’s going, / the solemn eyed” (lines 42-3). Also, the minor chances in the last refrain make a great difference, as for the effect it has:

For he comes, the human child,

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

From a world more full of weeping than he can understand. (lines 50-53)

The final refrain is less dramatic and theatrical. It is no longer an appeal and there is no argumentation, which is expressed by the change of “for the world’s more full of weeping” to “from a world more full of weeping than he can understand.” The child is stolen, nothing can be done about it, and the world will stay the same as it was, for those who remain – still “full of weeping.” Moreover, the very last verse seems to imply that also the child’s departure will cause the weeping mentioned in the poem, but he will be no longer touched by it; for he has gone beyond the scope of the human world.


3.3.3. Art and love

Another important instant of fairies or Sidhe acting as psychopomps in mythology, particularly important for Yeats, are the stories of people who achieve transcendence through art or love. It can be transcendence to a physical Otherworld, such as that of Oisín, but it can be just an insight to the world of art, or being changed through love. Depicting psychopomps like this means seeing them more on the metaphorical level – many a time they lead the souls to a different stage of knowledge and being. Art and love are connected in the figure of the Leanhaun Sidhe (Gaelic for “fairy mistress”) – a fairy who seeks love of men and becomes their muse, giving inspiration to the poets who, however, pine away under her influence. According to Yeats, “most of the Gaelic poets, down to quite recent times, have had a Leanhaun Shee”; they die young and are carried to the Otherworld, “for death does not destroy her power”70 (Fairy tales 404-5). The theme of a poet under the power of a Leanhaun Shee is treated by Yeats in many of his narrative works; his poet-heroes, for example, Michael Hearne from the Speckled Bird, but most notably, Owen Red Hanrahan, must experience some kind of epiphany or transcendence to become real poets. A Yeatsian poet-hero is described as “solitary, contemplative, an outcast in search of ineffable experience, a doomed wanderer and exile in search of eternal beauty” (Hirsch 59) and this eternal beauty comes to him as a fairy mistress, who is for Yeats “both the muse of the Gaelic poet and an emblem of the deep cost to the romantic artist” (Hirsch 61). However, the Leanhaun Shee “is simultaneously life-giving […] and life-denying” (Hirsch 61), and she leads them to their moment of epiphany and transcendence at the cost of renouncing the human world.

In the poem “The Hosting of the Sidhe”, a whole host of unearthly beautiful beings are the inspiration of the poet and therefore act as psychopomps, guiding his soul into and through the world of poetry. However, they have a similar effect as the Leanhaun Shee has on those who “gaze on” their “rushing band” (10) – they come between “him and the deed of his hand” and “him and the hope of his heart”; thus bereaving him of the mortal hopes of happiness in this world, but replacing them with a sense of beauty:

“The host is rushing 'twixt night and day,


And where is there hope or deed as fair?” (13-14)

In this evaluative conclusion carried out by the speaker of the poem, he seems to imply that they are so beautiful, that it might be worth sacrificing human happiness (satisfaction with the human life and world) for the ideal of beauty towards which they could lead his soul. The host of the Sidhe has given the speaker his poetic abilities, but there is a price to be paid: the Sidhe interfere with his human life, and “to attain this immortal beauty in a single timeless moment the Yeatsian hero must leave the time-bound human world for the supernatural otherworld” (Hirsch 62).

The Leanhuan Shee is often connected to death, as Winny Byrne is, in the last story from the Stories of Red Hanrahan – as the poet is dying, she enters into a kind of mystical marriage with him, and, being one of the “lasting unwearied Voices” (76), she is also his muse, who was with him throughout his life, but whom he was still seeking; when she reveals herself, she whispers to him: “You will go looking for me no more upon the breasts of women” (75). In this case, the poet hero “must die a physical death in order to attain the irreducible and indefinable mystified essence” (Hirsch 63). However, this need not be always the case; the transcendence through art and love may be only metaphorical, as mentioned before. It is concerned mainly by the “hero's spiritual growth and development” and “his developing faith in a higher, invisible level of being” (Hirsch 52).71

Yeats’s concern with the theme of transcendence though art and love, enabled through a relationship with a fairy muse, definitely has much to do with his own romantic obsession with Maud Gonne. In his eyes, she was the incarnation of the immortal beauty of the Sidhe;72 he stressed her godlike character in his autobiographical writings as well as in his poetry:

With a beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern? (“No Second Troy” 8-10)

He gives her attributes which could easily be used to describe one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She, by “being what she is” (No Second Troy 11), became his psychopomp, carrying his soul helplessly away, and becoming an inspiration of much of his poetry; in The Wind Among the Reeds she is the most frequent object and addressee of his love poems, which are full of unyielding devotion. This, together with the Celtic imagery and choice of the motifs, creates a transcendental impression:

And therefore my heart will bow, when dew

Is dropping sleep, until God burn time,

Before the unlabouring stars and you. (“He Tells of the Perfect Beauty” 6-8)

Maud was well aware of being Yeats’s muse. In her autobiography, she recorded a dialogue with Yeats, where she says: “The world should thank me for not marrying you” … “because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness” (Jeffares, Man and Poet 113). Just as the Gaelic muse Leanhaun Shee, Maud “is an emblem of the poet's necessary fatal attraction to the predatory muse” (Hirsch 61), who enables him, through love, to move to a different, and higher, stage of being.


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