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 Ireland for the young woman in his dreams. He tells his mother and she searches the whole of Ireland for the maiden, but after a year, she still had not found the woman. Then Aengus called his father in to help search for the maiden. After a year of searching, his father could not find her. Finally, a king and friend of Aengus' father was called to search for her. After a year, he found the elusive young maiden.
In the poem, Yeats strays from the actual myth of Aengus. Yeats wrote, "Though I am old with wandering/ Through hollow lands and hilly lands." In the actual myth, Aengus was still young when he found his love. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" was about longing and searching, rather than about a song of found love.
The subject matter of the poem alone helps illustrate Yeats profound sense of nationalism. By choosing a Celtic god over the more traditional use of Greek or Roman gods in poetry, the poet attempted to elevate Irish mythology in the world of literature. In the early 1900's, a professor at Trinity College by the name of Atkinson summed up the common misconception that Europeans held of Irish writing. He stated that, "Gaelic Irish literature was intolerably low in tone with very little idealism in it, and very little imagination" (Skelton 9). (Coincidentally, Yeats may have attended Trinity College, but his low marks in grammar school disqualified him for admission [ William]). The entrenched bias against Celtic culture began to unravel as more material about Irish folklore made its way into the mainstream and the Irish Literary Renaissance was born (Thuente 39).
Many of the early works of Yeats share this common theme of Celtic folklore and myth. As the poet continued in this manner, it becomes clear to the reader that the thematic elements of the work become more focused. The poet moves towards a distinctly Irish sensibility with regard to love of country and this can be seen in his work. In the poem, " To Ireland in the Coming Times" Yeats...