Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

Metaphor of transcendence of the nation

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3.3.4. Metaphor of transcendence of the nation

All these mentioned forms of transcendence symbolize the transfiguration of an individual and their reaching out for new possibilities. But Yeats is also concerned about transcendence on a broader level in his world – “the quotidian social world” changing “into a higher invisible or supernatural realm” (Hirsch 56), which symbolizes the transcendence of the whole nation.73 At the end of the 19th century, Ireland, tackling with a political crisis, badly needed a guide who would lead it towards independence or Home Rule. Literature was to become the mediator between the reality and the desired outcome. This idea was already discussed in the chapter on the role of art in Ireland – art itself has an otherworldly character, as it transcends time and links the past, presence and future. Therefore, not only the Sidhe, depicted in literature and mythology were psychopomps, who symbolically lead Ireland to transcendence and national consciousness, but Yeast’s poems as such could be considered the guides of souls, leading the readers to a kind of, whether individual or national, transcendence.

However, Yeats, being a mystic, went even further and practised a kind of sorcery through his poems. The poem “The Secret Rose” is an invocation of something great which is to come. He ends the poem with words:

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,

Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose? (31-2)

One must keep in mind that the Rose, among other things, symbolises also Ireland. Here, it is some great revelation, either for the world, for Ireland, or for Yeats himself. What is interesting, is what led to these final culminating words – the greater part of the poem, Yeats is remembering episodes from Irish mythic past, which are enfolded in the “great leaves” of the Memory of the World. Therefore, on a level of mysticism and sorcery, the combination of mythology and poetry can bring some great revelation – it is though the ancient stories mentioned in the poem, that Yeats invokes the “Secret Rose”. He himself is the psychopomp, the leader of souls, the magician who though his art encourages the rose to bloom once again:

Come near; I would, before my time to go,

Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:

Red Rose, prod Rose, sad Rose of all my days. (“To Rose upon the Rood of Time” 22-4)

4. Conclusion

The main purpose of the thesis was to demonstrate how national identity can be constructed through literature, and, particularly, how the use of certain motifs and themes in Yeats’s poetry supports the process of Irish self-fashioning. As the Irish identity, to a large extent, depended on the people’s adherence to their racial Celtic substrate, and on differentiating themselves from the English, the Revival literature, which strove to support the self-fashioning process, turned to ancient myths and Celtic elements. Further, the thesis argued that the theme of transcendence in poetry symbolized the metaphorical transcendence of the Irish, who were reaching towards liberation.

The motifs Yeats chose to employ in the analysed works were closely connected to the Irish folk imagination of the 19th century; apart from the theme of mystic transcendence, the choice of the motifs points to themes topical in Yeats’s times and related to the strives of the 19th century Ireland: desire, freedom, aspirations, insecurity, and vision of happiness.

The motif of the Otherworld conveyed solace for the country people, who saw in it the vision of happiness. Moreover, the personal journey of a hero who reaches the Island of the Blest can bear parallels to the journey of the Revivalists to reach the “imaginary Ireland” (P&T), which would be independent. This symbolic value of the Otherworld is supported by the use of images which are typically Irish – apart from the fact, that as a physical place it is usually an island, the use of mist, weater, dew, drops, birds is extensive, all of these being motifs connected to Ireland. The implicit identification of the Otherworld and Ireland is yet strengthened by the fact that the Otherworld actually is in Ireland; it is the “other”, unseen, mystical part of the country, which gives Ireland as such a whim of glamour and nobleness.

The other dominant motif in Yeats’s Celtic poetry is represented by the Sidhe. They are the inhabitants of the Otherworld, and, being able to pass in and out of their invisible realm, they have also become the mediators between the two worlds. Therefore, it is they who enable the aforementioned transcendence. As is the case with the Otherworld, the Sidhe, too, are connected to sub-motifs such as wind, dance, and fire, which express themes of desire and freedom. Their very appearance, with their loose hair, unearthly beauty, unfettered character and unpredictable behaviour, reflects the very themes important in the revivalist literature.

The Sidhe act as psychopomps, leading the mortals into the Otherworld; whether through death, kidnapping, love, or art. The figure of a psychopomp became increasingly important in the late 19th century, because, as mentioned, the transcendence to the Otherworld could be seen as a metaphor: in the real world it corresponded to the transcendence of a subdued nation into the Irish nation; a process in which art, in this case particularly poetry, played the role of the psychopomp. Or, perhaps, poems could be seen as the aforementioned liminal places – the “points of exchange” (Monaghan 289) between the two worlds and the gateways into the Otherworld. Then it would be the poet himself, who would be the psychopomp, guiding his readers’ souls towards finding their own national identity; which certainly was one of Yeats’s ambitions.

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The thesis offers an insight into the early poetry, drama and prose of William Butler Yeats, focusing on the Celtic elements. These, in the late 19th century, were meant to aid the process of so-called self-fashioning – in Ireland, as in this present thesis, the term is used to denote the formation a national identity, or sense of the national self. The work is divided into two major parts: the theoretical, where the historical and cultural background is briefly outlined; and the analytical, which deals with certain motifs in Yeats’s work.

The first, theoretical part, deals first with the historical development of the era and the events that lead to the formation of the Irish Literary Revival. Then the work moves on to the exploration of the process of self-fashioning. Mythology and folklore have proved to be an essential base for this process and the Irish Literary Revival leaned on myths exceedingly. The second part analyses Yeats’s poems and searches in them for Celtic elements. The theme which is analysed in greatest detail is the theme of transcendence in mythology, and therefore, the motifs like the Otherworld and the Sidhe (fairies) are paid most attention to in the thesis. Some poems, or parts of poems, are subdued to close-reading, which has shown how tightly the theme of transcendence is tied to the strivings of the Irish for personal, as well as national freedom.


Práce je zaměřena na ranou poezii, dramata a prózu Williama Butlera Yeatse obsahující Keltské prvky. Ty v 19. století napomáhaly snahám o takzvané sebeurčení. V Irsku, jak v mé práci stojí, se tento termín používá k označení vznikání národní identity nebo pocitu sounáležitosti národa. Práce je rozdělena na dvě části: teoretickou část, kde je krátce načrtnuta historie a kulturní pozadí tématu, a analytickou část, jež se zabývá určitými motivy v Yeatsových dílech.

První (teoretická) část pojednává o historickém vývoji oné éry a o událostech, jež vedly ke vzniku Irského literárního obrození. Dále v práci zkoumám proces sebeurčení. Folklór a zejména mytologie se prokázaly být základními kameny Irského literárního obrození, které na nich stavělo. V druhé části rozebírám Yeatsovy básně a hledám v nich Keltské prvky. Nejvíce rozebírám tématiku transcendence v mytologii, a tím pádem se zde nejvíce soustřeďuji na Onen svět a takzvané Sidhe (bytosti z Onoho světa). Podrobnou analýzou některých básní nebo jejich částí se ukázalo, jak úzce spolu motiv transcendence a boj Irů za osobní i národní svobodu souvisí.

1 Unless stated differently, all the poems are taken from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Wordsworth Editions Ltd.. Pagination is not stated in the parenthetical reference, only the line numbers.

2 In the Collected Poems, The Wanderings of Oisín is set separate in the end of the book and the first collection roughly corresponds to the now known The Crossways (The 1889 Poems were republished and renamed in 1895 with some minor changes and exclusions of various poems Yeats no longer found suitable for his purposes).

3 However, by the 1890s they drifted apart, and Yeats considered her poetry “uninteresting”. The positive opinion he had had of her in the 1880s had changed.

4 It is closely associated with the Sidhe (Yeats, “Notes” to Wind among the Reeds 79), supernatural mythological beings who will be dealt with in the subsequent chapters of the present thesis.

5 This, however, sometimes led to the reinforcement of the stereotypes which the Revivalists sought to dismantle, but according to Declan Kiberd, this “was an inevitable, nationalist phase through which they and their country had to pass en route to liberation” (32).

6 Arnold, however, did not consider the Celts as capable of achieving freedom, or even autonomy. Nor was it desirable from his point of view (Cairns, Richards 47-8). The role of Celticism was, in English eyes, to sustain the subordinate position of Ireland – it was England’s Victorian middle-class wife.

7 At best, “English rulers appropriated Welsh origin stories, e.g. in the form of Arthurian mythology” (Stroh 27).

8 Both his paternal and maternal ancestors came to Ireland from England in the 18th and 19th centuries and belonged to the middle class protestant Ascendancy (Jeffares Man and Poet).

9 It can be seen also in the diction of certain poems, which sometimes attempt to approach the style of the Celtic masters of old; a good example of this adoption of poetic diction can be found in Ferguson’s poems, who “was nearer [than young Yeats] to the epic tradition of the Gaelic poetry (Jeffares 38).

10 Yeats together with Æ had an ambition to create an Irish magical order, The Castle of Heroes. A few other Golden Dawn members, particularly Yeats’s uncle George Polexfen, and MacGregor Mathers were involved; the rituals of the Castle of Heroes were parallel to those of the Order of the Golden Dawn, but based on Celtic mythology and neopaganism (Greer 89).

11 This thought corresponds to the passage on the epic integrity dealt with earlier in the previous chapter – the legends and folklore, being handed on from generation to generation, form a continuous thread linking the 19th century Ireland to the past; and, therefore, apart from creating the nation’s ancestral line, they retrieve the mentioned “epic ballad age” (Yeats, Nationality and Literature 98), with its unconscious adherence to this ancestral line.

12 In the early 20th century Cuchulain became a role-model and in many ways was a symbol of the Easter Rising in 1916; a continuous line was drawn from the ancient hero through Christ to the revolutionaries of the 18th century (Kiberd 196, 212). Cuchulain was the personal hero of P.H. Pearse – in Æ’s words, during the Easter Week there was an imagination in Pearse’s soul and “that of a hero who stood against the host” (Kiberd 196) and in a poem of Yeats’s, “Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side” when fighting at the Post Office in Dublin (“Statues” 25).

13 There is an interesting iteration of this motif in Yeats’s later poetry. The motif of a flowing changing river is used in his poem on the “Easter 1916”, where it symbolizes the “living stream” of life and constant change – not only the water is moving, but even a “shadow of cloud on the stream / changes minute by minute” (49-50); change and the flow of life was a very important theme in Yeats’s later poetry.

14 In 1916 Yeats wrote about this fabricated peasant that he is “a man who does not exist / a man who is but a dream” (“Fisherman” 35-36).

15 Later know as “To Ireland in the Coming times.”

16 A poem which is similarly looking towards his future readers is included in the Wind among the Reeds and it is titled “The Fish”; the fish symbolizing Yeats’s thoughts or words. Although now, at the moment of writing, they are not yet seen and appreciated, “The people of coming days will know / about the casting of my net” (3-4). Fish are a peculiar motif in Yeats’s work (seen as symbols of thoughts, words, or perhaps poems) and in Celtic mythology in general – they symbolize wisdom (Monaghan 196) and they can be seen as messengers to the Otherworld: in a poem by Yeats “A Man who Dreamt of Faeryland” it were fish who “sang what gold morning and evening sheds” (8) are in the Otherworld and aroused in the fisherman the desire to transcend the possibilities of the world he lives in. This symbolism, mythological on one hand, Yeats’s own on the other, emphasizes the transcendental value of art – fish being works of art, which open new horizons for the reader.

17 This symbol was not restricted to Yeats’s poetry; it played a role in his prose as well – two of his prose collections, The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica, bear the symbol in the title and, in a number of stories, the symbol appears. Interestingly, the very expression “red rose bordered hem” is mentioned in one of his short stories, “The Crucifixion of the Outcast” and connected to Irish art; a gleeman, who is a modern version of a Gaelic bard, talks about his life as an artist: “And I have been the more alone upon the roads and by the sea because I heard in my heart the rustling of the rose-bordered dress of her who is more subtle than Aengus, the Subtle-hearted, and more full of the beauty of laughter than Conan the Bald, and more full of the wisdom of tears than White-breasted Deirdre, and more lovely than a bursting dawn to them that are lost in the darkness” [italics added] (“The Crucifixion of the Outcast” in Stories of Red Hanrahan 96-7). Here the “rustling of the rose bordered dress” seems to be an inspiration for the gleeman, and the lady wearing the dress seems to be his Gaelic muse, more divine than all the gods and ancient heroes.

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