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The Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats lived at the time of Irelands declaration of independence from the United Kingdom. As an ardent nationalist, the author dedicated much of his work to celebrating his nation's heritage as part of the contemporary Celtic revival; often, he would focus on the enigmatic Cuchulain, a hero of Celtic mythology. Many of Yeats's significant works incorporate this figure, including the verse play On Baile's Strand (1903), the Noh plays At the Hawk's Well (1916) and The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), the poem Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea (1925), the verse play The Death of Cuchulain (1939) and the poem Cuchulain Comforted (1939). My research question is How does the changing figure of Cuchulain in the works of W.B. Yeats achieve a sense of unity and the renewal of Irish identity? I will begin by defining the meaning of Irish identity in its wider context, explain the desire for a separation from English culture and introduce Yeats's personal perspective. I will examine the character of Cuchulain in a literary sense and how thematic and stylistic devices are used to support his symbolic role. Observing the body of evidence makes it clear that Yeats's Cuchulain is a central figure in the development of his concept of Irish identity resulting from Celtic Ireland.
The Meaning of Irish Identity
In order to appreciate Yeats's interpretation of Cuchulain, one must consider who the character is, Yeats's personal views as well as
An International Companion to the Poetry of W.B. Yeats comments on Yeats' relationship with the character:
"...Cuchulain was many things for Yeats: a national symbol; the image of a brave and noble man, the man of action he longed to become; a symbol for his struggle for his country's intellectual freedom; an embodiment of his heroic-aristocratic philosophy." (Bushrui and Prentki 87)
Because of Cuchulain's special significance to the author, he transcends the level of a protagonist and becomes an outlet for Yeats to express his feelings towards leadership and heroism. What makes this depiction noteworthy is that Cuchulain's grandeur is of a dualistic nature: the character balances physical strength and aggression with a truly noble spirit. Although a mighty leader, Cuchulain is a man of many flaws. His later realisation of these causes him to gain knowledge and die a wiser man. Therefore, the two different aspects of his characterisation serve to portray Cuchulain as both a respected warrior and a man of great wisdom, celebrating Irish identity both through pride and intellect.
Throughout his life, Yeats dabbled in politics, his interest punctuated by his acceptance of a position in the Irish senate. However, these trysts often ended in disillusionment as he failed to discover a leader he could firmly believe in, his dissatisfaction with the contemporary Irish government prompting his interest in Benito Mussolini's right-wing politics. However, he soon drifted away from this ideology:
"As my sense of reality deepens... my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater... Communist, fascist, nationalist [etc.]... are all responsible according to the number of their victims" (Yeats/Jeffares 230)
Establishing Cuchulain as a Signficant Hero
Yeats's Cuchulain is a symbol of pride, channelling the author's ideals regarding leadership: "[Cuchulain was] the chief representative of the heroic age which Yeats would recreate and relive." (Bushrui and Prentki 87). The portrayal of Cuchulain thus glorifies archetypal heroism in order to generate a figure worthy of support. As a "hero most identified with Ireland" (Bell), Cuchulain embodies a quick-thinking, decisive ruler best suited to removing Ireland from British suppression, this characterisation defining the tone of Yeats's work pre-1939. Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea and On Baile's Strand depict Cuchulain as surrounded by "feasting men" as well as a "young sweetheart" who "ponders on the glory of his days" while "the harp-string [tells his praise]". Cuchulain is revered, his lifestyle an image of decadence: he is the centre of attention even in the presence of royalty and exerts a great deal of influence.
His power is so great that he can afford to be reckless. Due to his self-confidence, he is not afraid of "facing great odds" (The Death of Cuchulain) nor of challenging the "invulnerable tide" (Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea).
As a man of might, Cuchulain is well-suited to the role of the hero and to overcome the impossible.
However, his status also generates fear: in The Only Jealousy of Emer, Cuchulain is said to be "amorous", "violent" and "renowned". The tone of these words implies that he is a passionate man with a short temper. These traits - albeit earning him much respect - make him dangerous.
The early Cuchulain echoes the backdrop of political turmoil he was created against: "Whether under its daylight or its stars/[Cuchulain] stands amid his battle-cars." (Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea). He is always ready for battle, and as of Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea, remains undefeated ("No man alive, no man among the dead, /Has won the gold his cars of battle bring.").
His power is also apparent through his recklessness. Due to his self-confidence, he is not afraid of "facing great odds" (The Death of Cuchulain) nor of challenging the "invulnerable tide" mentioned in Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea. As a man of might, Cuchulain is well-suited to the role of the hero and to overcome the impossible.
Maud Gonne, an ardent nationalist and close friend of the author, wrote to Yeats that the "Cuchulainns [of Irish mythology would]... free [them from] the hideous tyranny of English materialism" (qtd. in Cameron 2)
Character Flaws: Cuchulain as an Anti-Hero
Despite his the respect he gains as a hero, Cuchulain has many negative traits. He is overconfident,
brutal and pays little heed to the advice others give him. Cuchulain engages in numerous
extra-marital affairs, largely ignoring his wife, Emer, who loves him enough to tolerate these
escapades. The Only Jealousy of Emer - which mainly focusses on her - portrays Cuchulain in an
especially detrimental light. The play describes Emer's only display of jealousy towards her
husband's behaviour. She vows to murder Fand, her rival for Cuchulain's affection, but later alters
this resolve: after giving himself up to the waves during the bout of insanity after his son's death,
Cuchulain's spirit is in the hands of a god who will restore it to his body if Emer "[renounces] her
dearest hope... that her husband will grow weary of women and adventure and pass his last years by
her side" (Ross 357). In order to save Cuchulain, Emer complies; her selflessness results in Fand
accepting Emer as Cuchulain's wife and allowing the couple to drink a potion that will cause both to
forget the affair. Instead of victory through combat, it is Emer's nobility that restores Cuchulain's
life, indicating that Cuchulain is a flawed hero redeemed by another's altruism.
Age and Redemption: Changes in Yeats's Perspective
The theme of age signifies the connection between the two aspects of heroism and the development that must occur to experience both.
In Yeats' work, there is a clear distinction between young and old; old age signifies respect, reverence and wisdom and is contrasted by the energy and physical might attributed to the young. In comparison to the elderly, the more youthful characters are preoccupied with establishing their honour through combat - a possible reference to the younger, nationalist generation politically active during the 1920s.
Cuchulain's early characterisation reflects Yeats' search for an ideal Irish leader; thus, he is depicted as having youthful strength. In On Baile's Strand, the older King Conchobar notes that Cuchulain is keeping company with many young kings. He remarks that "graver company would better match your greatness and your years", suggesting that Cuchulain has not yet matured despite being middle-aged. Instead, he prefers to stay young and behaves accordingly: he is an energetic warrior who is "crazy for the shedding of men's blood, and for the love of women." (At the Hawk's Well)
Despite being married to Emer, Cuchulain is not content with settling down and has relations with many others, including Aoife, with whom he has a child. However, he is unaware of his son's existence until after he murders him in battle. After learning that his victim was his son, Cuchulain's is struck by grief so intense that his personality finally starts to reflect his age. By symbolically ending someone else's youth, Cuchulain loses his and gains a different perspective of the world.
This is most notable in the pieces chronicling Cuchulain's last moments, but is also alluded to in others. A notable example of the theme of age is the Blind Man referred to several times. His blindness suggests the decay common to agedness. In On Baile's Strand, this role is filled by Fintain, whose interaction with the young "fool" Barach juxtaposes the past against the present: Fintain is more interested in enjoying a feast than in Barach's retelling of legends. Furthermore, On Baile's Strand portrays the Blind Man as a great source of imagery. While younger generations are content living in the present, the Blind Man is the one reflecting on their legendary deeds.
Despite comparing youth against old age throughout his writings, this becomes more prominent in Yeats's 1939 publications: The Death of Cuchulain
Prior to Cuchulain's demise in The Death of Cuchulain, the character of Aoife states that she "is an old woman now". Much of Yeats' later work depicts characters in a similar frame of mind, forced to acknowledge their loss of youth. The Death of Cuchulain features a similar character named only as the "Old Man", who says: "I am old, I belong to mythology". The presence of old age in the works of Yeats indicates an appreciation of traditional Irish beliefs. Cuchulain Comforted mentions an "ancient rule", suggesting adherence to Celtic rituals. However, Yeats does not idealise old age, linking it to futility:
" I have been selected because I am out of fashion and out of date like the antiquated romantic stuff the thing is made of. I am so old that I have forgotten the name of my father.... [who was] so old that his friends and acquaintances still read Virgil and Homer." (Old Man, The Death of Cuchulain)
The passage of time and old age suggest a loss of physical strength and nostalgia for the past: the Old Man is "out of fashion", insignificant in the modern era. While it is this quality that causes him to be "selected" to narrate the tale, it is not specified whether he has been requested to out of respect for his wisdom or due to the fact that no young storyteller is interested in doing so. This can be interpreted as Yeats encouraging others to partake in the Celtic revival and join the older generation in celebrating Irish identity. While the tone of Yeats' writing when working with old age often sounds bitter or wistful, this theme also offers scope for character development.
In The Only Jealousy of Emer, the ghost of Cuchulain states that "[he is] not the young and passionate man [he] was... [his] memories [weighing] down his hands, [abashing] his eyes." Although he is ashamed of his past actions and recognises that he can no longer undo nor relive them, age and experience have granted Cuchulain knowledge. He can now observe the world through wiser eyes and accept death nobly. It is apparent that the theme of age is crucial to bringing about this change in character. By learning from his errors, Cuchulain, over time, becomes more balanced. His old age signifies a kind of rebirth as Cuchulain's entire mentality changes, and despite his eventual death, he lives on in the minds and myths of the Irish. On Baile's Strand further advocates for the importance of appreciating both mature and youthful traits: "the blind man has need of the fool's eyesight and strong body, while the poor fool has need of the other's wit".
Although the juxtaposition of youth against old age occurs throughout his writing, this is more prominent in Yeats's 1939 publications: The Death of Cuchulain and Cuchulain Comforted describe the moments prior to and shortly after the hero is killed. While Yeats's previous work focussed on portraying the characters' strength and willingness to battle, there is now a distinct emphasis on degeneration as many are forced to acknowledge their loss of youth. In The Death of Cuchulain, Aoife directly states that she "is an old woman now" while Cuchulain has been so weakened in battle that he cannot fulfil his wish to "die upon [his] feet" without the support of a belt tying him to a pillar. Yeats's depiction of old age is therefore expressive of futility as the hero is enfeebled by his impending death. The atmosphere of decay is furthered by the presence of another "Old Man" who, this time, introduces the piece:
"I am old, I belong to mythology...I have been selected because I am out of fashion and out of date like the antiquated romantic stuff the thing is made of. I am so old that I have forgotten the name of my father..." (Old Man, The Death of Cuchulain)
Here, the Old Man makes it clear that his age makes him insignificant: he cannot keep up with "fashion" as he is made of "antiquated romantic stuff", knowledgeable about cultural ideals that are no longer considered relevant nor realistic. While it is this quality that causes him to be "selected" to narrate the tale, it is not specified whether he has been requested to out of respect for his wisdom or due to the fact that no young storyteller is interested in doing so. The author's tone becomes weary
This can be interpreted as Yeats encouraging others to partake in the Celtic revival and join the older generation in celebrating Irish identity. While the tone of Yeats' writing when working with old age often sounds bitter or wistful, this theme also offers scope for character development.
The presence of old age in the works of Yeats indicates an appreciation of traditional Irish beliefs. Cuchulain Comforted mentions an "ancient rule", suggesting adherence to Celtic rituals.
Mythological Roots: Style, Music and Imagery
Cuchulain Comforted describes the hero's final moments and bears a lingering, elegiac tone while the use of dialogue in Yeats' plays contrasts this using direct speech: allowing the characters to interact in this way causes them to seem more alive as the reader is forced to imagine their voice. Furthermore, the presence of figures such as the Old Man in the drama "The Death of Cuchulain" juxtaposes the past against the present as more contemporary figures introduce the reader to the setting. This extends Cuchulain's mythic significance as his tale is acknowledged as one noteworthy of being retold to newer generations. Despite the differences existing between styles, Yeats uses similar techniques throughout each. These include the portrayal of multiple heroic facets demonstrated during different situations
Despite the differences existing between Yeats's poetry and plays, the emphasis placed on the theme of music is common to both - he considered this motif to be a key aspect of Irish culture distancing it from British control:
"Irish poetry and Irish stories were made to be spoken or sung, while English literature has all but completely shaped itself in the printing press." (Yeats 97)
The prominence of music in Yeats' literature serves as a reference to Irish identity and relates to the oral tradition of retelling myths through song as well as the unspoken bond joining a community as a melody is played. Furthermore, music, which is composed to be played on infinite occasions, gives the impression that Cuchulain's tale is eternal regardless of the form it is conveyed in.
This premise gives both poetry and drama a lyrical, song-like quality. Rhyme and repetition is significant in each: numerous verses in Cuchulain's Fight With the Sea include rhyming couplets while repetition used in The Only Jealousy of Emer causes the text to sound as if it could be part of a song. In addition, music itself is often referenced directly - this is most apparent in The Death of Cuchulain. Here, the Old Man narrating the beginning of the play declares "before the night ends you will meet the music" before describing the musicians present and promising "a dance. I wanted a dance because where there are no words there is less to spoil."
and culminating in a life cycle. Cycle that will be retold from generation to generation.
The use of exotic imagery throughout Yeats' work signifies Ireland's connection to the mythological world: this is crucial both in regards to Cuchulain and when considering the Celtic revival because
By illustrating Cuchulain's environment, Yeats imagines an extraordinary realm that is home to heroes and scattered with memorable details. These include the surreal "horses of the sea" Cuchulain is said to fight in Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea, the personification of the "shroud that seemed to have authority" in Cuchulain Comforted and "the mountain witch, the unappeasable shadow... always flitting upon this mountain-side" mentioned in At the Hawk's Well. These descriptions are laced with magic, creating an appealing and extraordinary setting, and . The frequent mention of the human anatomy - "throats", - is effective because it grounds the surreal in human flesh, appealing to the reader's sense of touch as they discover the familiarity of their own body within the tale. Cuchulain's own eyes are said to possess seven colours. Descriptions also include disturbing objects such as the "creeping", "muttering" shrouds featured in Cuchulain Comforted. "war goddess" Morrigu of The Death of Cuchulain "is headed like a crow" and "has an eye in the middle of her forehead".
These grotesque images encourage the reader to sympathise with the hero as he is faced with these creatures and help further the bizarre setting of mythic Ireland. The author is often preoccupied with dreamlike or abstract imagery. In The Only Jealousy of Emer, Yeats writes:
"A dream is body;
The dead move ever towards a dreamless youth
And when they dream no more return no more;
And those more holy shades that never lived
But visit you in dreams."
The references made to dreams suggest an interesting relationship between Irish mythology and real life: although it is fictional, the emotions conveyed by it are so powerful that they are like dreams, which form part of the human subconscious. While dreams are fictional to a certain extent, they cannot be controlled: here, "a dream is body". This suggests that cultural legends are so powerful that they automatically resonate within the Irish because folktales form part of their heritage. The idea that magic can be discovered within a person serves to deepen the affection the Irish may have felt towards traditional tales. The Death of Cuchulain has Cuchulain reflecting on the shape of souls:
"There floats out there
The shape that I shall take when I am dead,
My soulââ‚¬â„¢s first shape, a soft feathery shape"
This description sounds tender because it describes a human soul as "soft" and "feathery" - qualities the reader can touch and associate with comfort and well-being. In addition, the soul is "[floating]", it has lost any burdens it may have carried during a person's lifetime and freeing them in death. The repetition of the word shape sounds as if Cuchulain is muttering softly, in awe of his conclusion. By giving concepts physical appearances and characteristics, Yeats encourages the reader to believe in the spiritual and its significance to the mythological world. The role of describing the unseen falls to the Blind Man mentioned in numerous of Yeats' works. Despite the character's lack of sight, he is often the source of the most vivid tales, indicating that the most colourful of worlds originate from inside a person and referring to the oral tradition of storytelling.
Through Cuchulain, Yeats contributes to the Celtic revival in that he revisits folklore in a way that is accessible to newer generations.
A sense of Irish unity is communicated by the author's choice of submerging Cuchulain in natural imagery. As a culture defined by its landscape, this reflects the formation of a link between the mythological world and contemporary Ireland as they share the same physical setting. This is most powerful in Cuchulain Comforted, in which the hero is returned to nature in death: the pillar he is bound to transforms into a tree and humans change "their throats [to have] the throats of birds", suggesting a circle of life as the dead become part of Ireland itself. The Only Jealous of Emer likens "a woman's beauty [to] a white frail bird, like a white sea-bird alone at daybreak after stormy night." The sea-birds are a reference to Ireland as an island nation where the ocean would have sustained many lives. Yeats' description of nature feels incredibly vivid and implies that the characters, albeit mighty warriors, remain connected to Ireland's flesh: her countryside. The purpose of using familiar surroundings introduces the reader to sights generations of Irish would have appreciated, bridging modern life with the ancient magic. This is reflected in
"Yeats was not interested in recounting the legend of Cuchulain for informational motives, but rather he used the legend of Cuchulain as a theme to communicate moments of intense feeling where the heroââ‚¬â„¢s plight resonates with the struggles the Irish faced in their day-to-day lives. (Vasconcelos)"
To answer the question How does the changing figure of Cuchulain in the works of W.B. Yeats achieve a final sense of unity and renewal of Irish identity? the significance of Cuchulain in Yeats's writing is to celebrate national identity through a hero with an ancient connection to Ireland, his development symbolising cultural triumph. In the wake of the Celtic revival and the creation of the Irish free state, Yeats's Cuchulain embodies the author's search for a leader capable of breaking free of British influence. However, Cuchulain's flawed traits prevent him from being an inaccessible ideal - the consequences of his aggression represent Yeats's reaction to the political situation in Ireland and his gradual distancing from right-wing nationalism. In order to acquire wisdom, Cuchulain must overcome his enemies as well as himself, finally becoming a man of both courage and humility suited to leading a cultural revolution. It is notable that Cuchulain's demise is not symbolic of failure, but transcendence from worldly conflict to a realm of spiritual unity with past Irish generations. Rooting his journey in Irish soil and referring to integral traditions such as music is a constant aspect of Yeats's work; this connects the reader to Irish rituals and renews their significance as Yeats uses them to supplement the role of Cuchulain in his literature.