Yeats, Nationalism, and Myth
by Matthew Bell
The poetry and plays of W.B. Yeats often take subject matter from traditional Celtic folklore and myth. By incorporating into his work the stories and characters of Celtic origin, Yeats endeavored to encapsulate something of the national character of his beloved Ireland. The reasons and motivations for Yeats' use of Celtic themes can be understood in terms of the authors own sense of nationalism as well as an overriding personal interest in mythology and the oral traditions of folklore. During Yeats' early career, there was an ongoing literary revival of interest in Irish legend and folklore. Books with such titles as Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, The Fireside Stories of Ireland, History of Ireland: Cuculain and his Contemporaries, Irish Folklore, and dozens of others were useful to the young Yeats (Kinahan XII). By 1889, Yeats would assert that, "[I had] worked my way through most, if not all, recorded Irish folk tales" (Kinahan XV). By this time, he had written an introduction for and edited, Irish Fairy and Folk Talks. Immersing himself in the rich and varied world of Celtic myth and folklore, Yeats would contribute to the literary world poems and plays that embrace his native legends while promoting his own sense of nationalism.
One poem that illustrates how Yeats melds folklore and nationalism is "The Song of Wandering Aengus." In the poem, Yeats refers to Aengus, the Irish god of love. He was said to be a young, handsome god that had four birds flying about his head. These birds symbolized kisses and inspired love in all who heard them sing. Part of the story is that, at one point, Aengus was troubled by the dream of a young maiden. In the dream, this young woman is everything that his heart desires and he quickly falls in love with her and becomes love sick upon waking. He began to search all of... [continues]
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