Language and Myth in Yeats’ Poetry: Reflections on Historical Influences and Overlap

This week entailed a personal exploration of some of the fine poetry of W.B. Yeats. Surveying a broad array of his prose, I was delighted by his rich imagery, simplistic diction, and the many mythological allusions. Yeats’ work comes at a time of the Irish Revival Period in literature and poetic works, a period in which Dublin intellectuals, in particular, sought to construct a new form of inherently Irish creative works by drawing on the imagery of primitive Ireland, as well as more ancient Celtic stories and spiritualisms. In poems like “the Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Yeats’ allows us a mental transportation back to the pastoral scenery of rural Ireland, seemingly in a time before modernization, or colonization, while “the Song of Wandering Aengus” details the magical transformation of a fish to a girl in a hazelwood who entices the fisherman into a lifelong search for her love. This period of Literary REvival came at the same time as much of the concern over Irish language and the newly formed Irish political sphere born out of war and rebellion against the English.

Yeats’ motifs reflect his occult spiritualism ties as much as his return to traditional themes drawn from Celtic religions and oral histories or tales. It brought to mind one of my favorite books, the Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle. Doyle is a Franco-Irish author living in Dublin. Her mixed lineage seems to inherently follow in the footsteps of James Joyce and many other Dublin writers, who left Dublin to stake their name in the literary sphere without giving into the allures of London society as discussed by Casanova, giving her a unique lens of Celtic tradition and French gothic through which she views her storytelling. The book revolves around a group of modern teens living in a small Irish village. The village concerns a modern gentrification that becomes the site of ancient magic, and spellwork spurred on by the witch who mans the local pub. It presents a unique blend of modern-day generational conflicts, issues of race, gender, and sexuality in tandem with mythological themes from Celtic and Western continental cultures. In one scene, the spell the group conducts calls for waters of the river Lethe, but notes they can substitute with the Irish equivalent of moonshine. This reminded me of the way in which Yeats’ found inspiration not only in Celtic myth, but also Greco-Roman as evidenced by his poem “Leda and the Swan.”

The novel also draws upon motifs of Irish and French language in contrast to English, a theme found in The Irish Paradigm: “At the same time as the Protestant architects of the Irish renaissance were imparting literary value to the nation’s literary “heritage” and supplying, in English, the foundations for a new national literature, an influential group of scholars and writers sought to promote a national language in order to put an end to the linguistic and cultural ascendancy of the English colonizer” (307). This reminded me of a scene from 2018 Black ’47, which depicts the story of an Irish Connaught Ranger who takes revenge on the English government for the horrors of their treatment towards his family during the Great Famine. Previously, Feeney had witnessed an English judge unjustly try a peasant man who only spoke Irish. Refused a translator, the man had no ability to plead his case and was tried essentially for not speaking English. Feeney sets out to attack each person in the chain of power responsible for the unlawful deaths of his family caused by the English system, and the Judge sentenced his brother to hang after he stabbed a bailiff attempting to evict his family during the winter.

In parroting back his own heartless claims to the Judge in Gaelic, Feeney reasserts the power of the Irish language, and the people, over the attempts of England to colonize and assimilate the Irish people whom they viewed as lesser. As Paradigm notes “Indeed, as Declan K.iberd has argued, the Irish language was now ‘the language of the poor and, in truth, a decisive mark of their poverty'” (308). Here, Feeney’s action incites a reappraisal of Irish because its use becomes valuable to the Judge, who had previously dismissed its worth at all. In a similar way, the Gaelic revival movement in Ireland at the same time as the Literary revival reflects the ways in which adoption of traditional themes, words, and customs can not only be used to create a romantic or pastoral look back into the past but reunite a culture with a decisive political purpose.

2 Comments

  1. Hi, Spencer! I think it’s really cool how Yeats’ continues to be such an inspiration for current writers, and I thought your post was very well thought out! Its interesting how the great writers of the Irish Literary Revival were able to incorporate magic and mysticism into their works, and how they created a whole new style of writing that still influences writers today. I’m definitely very interested in reading “The Spellbook of the Lost and Found” now, and I always think its amazing when a novel can apply history to present day issues and renew a sense of wonder for the past.

    1. Thank you, Brenda! Yes, absolutely! Moira is a newer author so she only has 3 books out and another on the way to my knowledge, but she’s INCREDIBLE! Her first book, the Accident Season, is about a group of teens partying in an abandoned old estate in an Irish village that’s become inhabited by faeries or ghosts or both and it’s wonderful, but Spellbook is by far her cream of the crop to me. She even quotes a Yeats poem in it!

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