With the exception of “John Sherman,” William Butler Yeats’s short stories mirror his attraction to the spirit world and reflect his fascination with good and evil. Since they were written during the fin de siècle period when literary and graphic artists, epitomized by the French symbolists, were expressing a world-weariness and pessimism that celebrated the triumph of evil, it is understandable that Yeats’s tales articulate that prevailing mood. These early fictional works also identify the themes which were to occupy Yeats’s poetic genius for the remainder of his life.
An integral part of the Irish literary movement, the tales have a dual purpose: to revitalize ancient Irish myths for modern Ireland and to serve as a model for artists attempting to write in Irish about Irish subjects. In the stories, Yeats celebrates the exploits of fairies and pagan Irish heroes which he discovered in the oral and written literary traditions; his tales thus become source material for other storytellers. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight, a collection of folklore gathered from local storytellers, became important source material for Yeats’s later work. In recording the fantastic behavior of the various spirits and their relationships to the country people, Yeats stored information which he used later to dramatize his belief in communication between the material and the immaterial worlds. “Dhoya” is an excellent example of a revitalized myth, and “The Twisting of the Rope” illustrates Yeats’s role as a mentor for others.
In “Dhoya,” Yeats writes about a local Sligo legend. He had recently edited Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), and his imagination was stimulated by the living nature of these expressions of the conflict between the natural and preternatural worlds. “Dhoya” honors an ancient Celt who lived before the time of the Pharaohs, Buddha, and Thor. In predating the time of known heroes, Dhoya, the Celt, exists before recorded history. It follows then that Yeats’s native Sligo has indeed an ancient history, for Dhoya is deserted at the Bay of Ballah, the fictional name of Sligo Bay. The Formorians, an ancient Irish tribe, abandon Dhoya, a giant of tremendous strength, because he cannot control the violent rages which come over him. While enraged, he kills those around him and destroys whatever he can touch. He is believed to be possessed by demons, and a plan is concocted to exile him to the Bay of Ballah.
Dhoya, living alone in the forests and along the beaches, experiences more frequent attacks, but they are directed against his shadow or the halcyon, the beautiful and peaceful legendary bird. Years pass, and a quality of timelessness adds to the mystical nature of the tale, for Dhoya is hundreds of years old. One day he kills a great bull, and the herd chases him until he eludes it by running into the deepest part of the bay, a spot called Pool Dhoya. To this day, and in Yeats’s day, the deepest part of Sligo Bay is known as Pool Dhoya, a fact which Yeats incorporates into the story to create a living legend.
Yeats also introduces legendary characters. Dhoya ranges over the mountains where Diarmuid and Grania, pagan lovers from the written Irish literature of pre-Christian Ireland, traveled. In time, Dhoya also experiences a love like Diarmuid. It comes to Dhoya as a gentle breeze upon his forehead, nothing more; but he longs for that touch, which remains only a touch for an untold number of years. Eventually, he develops a depression which he plans to shake off by building a huge bonfire at the rising of the moon. The unhappy lover prays to the moon and makes all kinds of sacrifices—strawberries, an owl, a badger, deer, swine, birds, and whatever else he can find to appease the moon. Soon thereafter, a voice calls “Dhoya, my beloved.” Trembling, Dhoya looks into the forest, sees a white form which becomes a flowering plant as he touches it. Dazed, the giant returns to his cave where he finds a beautiful woman cleaning and rearranging the spears and skins.
She throws her arms about his neck, telling him that she yearns for his love. Having left her happy people from under the lake where age, sorrow, and pain are unknown, she desires love in the changing world, a mortal love which her people cannot experience. Dhoya loves her with a mad passion which is not matched by the beautiful fairy, unnamed by Yeats. Then a man from under the sea appears to reclaim the lady. Holding a spear tipped with metal, he challenges Dhoya, whose rage returns as he fights to keep his love. He wins that battle only to lose to the fairy who reappears and challenges him to a game of chess. Before she leaves Dhoya, the fairy sings a strange love song which was part of “The Wandering of Oisin” (1889):
My love hath many evil moodIll words for all things soft and fairI hold him dearer than the goodMy fingers feel his amber hair.
This stanza is central to “Dhoya” and to the great poems which follow. The happy spirit is unhappy and seeks human love which is neither perfect nor perpetual—a paradox which haunts Yeats.
“John Sherman,” a realistic story which Yeats called a short romance and wanted to be judged as an Irish novel, is a variation of the Dhoya theme. Although the story lacks the cultural unity of the Irish novels of William Carleton, John Banim, and Gerald Griffin, it does demonstrate the great influence upon Yeats of William Blake, whose poetical works Yeats had recently edited.
The story takes place in Ballah and London, two contrary locations representing the virtuous countryside and the villainous city. There is also a set of contrary characters who, even if they were merged, would not represent the ideal character. John Sherman of Ballah and William Howard of London have different views on almost everything, yet they become engaged to the same woman. Mary Carton of Ballah and Margaret Leland of London are different, but both remain confused about their love for John Sherman. Sherman’s mother and Margaret’s mother really represent the country mother and the city mother; neither has a life beyond motherhood. Such artificial characterizations doom the plot of “John Sherman,” which—although intended as a love story—with a little revision could have become a comedy or farce. Certainly, it is the lightest piece of work that Yeats produced; however, unlike other Irish writers, Yeats lacked a comic sense.
“Proud Costello, MacDermot’s Daughter, and the Bitter Tongue”
“Proud Costello, MacDermot’s Daughter, and the Bitter Tongue,” from The Secret Rose, is a love story which exhibits the intensity of Dhoya’s love for the fairy, but the lovers are mortals of the sixteenth century. Costello loves Una, daughter of MacDermot, who is promised by her father to MacNamara. Una loves Costello and sends a message to him by Duallach, the wandering piper. Costello must appear at her nuptial feast, at which she will drink to the man she loves. At the betrothal drink, to the amazement of all, she drinks to Costello; he is then attacked by the members of the wedding party and barely escapes with his life. Una dies without seeing Costello again, but at her funeral procession he sees the coffin and is considered her murderer. Loving her still, Costello swims to the island where Una is buried, mourning over her grave for three days and nights. Confused, he tries to swim back to the mainland but drowns in the attempt. His body is brought to the island and buried beside his beloved; two ash trees are planted over their grave site. They grow tall and the branches, like lover’s arms, entwine themselves, symbolic of the undying love between Costello and Una. This motif, common in folklore, appealed to Yeats’s sensibility because of the implied relationship between the natural world and the affairs of mortals.
“The Twisting of the Rope”
From another perspective, Yeats writes again about that relationship in “The Twisting of the Rope.” This story is one of the six connected stories grouped as the Stories of Red Hanrahan which tell of the plight of Hanrahan, a hedge schoolmaster enchanted by a spirit on Samhain Eve, the night (the equivalent of Halloween) on which the Celts believed spirits roamed the earth searching for mortals. Since his enchantment, Hanrahan has become a traveling poet of the Gael who sings of the past heroic age when the ancient Irish kings and queens ruled Ireland. The people, although they welcome Hanrahan into their cottages, fear him because he is of the other world and is able to charm others, especially young and impressionable women.
One night Hanrahan is observed casting his spell over Oona, an attentive listener to his tales; but her mother and a neighbor woman, watching Oona drift into the spirit world, plan to thwart Hanrahan’s influence. They cannot order the poet out of the house because he might cast a spell over their animals and fields, destroying cattle and corn, so they devise a scheme whereby Hanrahan is asked to twist a rope from the bundles of hay which the women bring to him. Feeding him more and more rope and praising him for the fine job of rope-making, they eventually get Hanrahan to the door and out of the cottage. Realizing that he had been tricked, he composes a song, “The Twisting of the Rope.” Douglas Hyde, who wrote the first Irish play for the new Irish dramatic movement (Casad-an-Sugan, 1901), selected Yeats’s short tale for production. His success in revitalizing Irish myth and encouraging the continuation of the written Irish literary tradition assures Yeats a prominent place in Irish letters.
Another aspect of Yeats’s personality was his fascination with the occult, an attraction which led him to explore Christian, Jewish, and Asian mysticism in his writings. As John O’Leary made Yeats conscious of the past political Irish culture, George Russell (Æ), to whom The Secret Rose was dedicated, indoctrinated Yeats into the Dublin Theosophist Circle, which was occupied with the study of Rosicrucianism. It was a subject about which Yeats could never learn enough, and in “Rosa Alchemica” he approaches the topic through the story of the life of Michael Robartes. Yeats says in an explanatory note to the collection of poems known as Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920) that Robartes had returned to Dublin from Mesopotamia where he “partly found and partly thought out much philosophy.”
This knowledge, which Robartes wants to share with his old friend, is revolutionary. It consists of an understanding that modern alchemy is not concerned with simply converting base metal to gold. On the contrary, the new science seeks to transform all things to the divine form; in other words, experiential life is transmuted to art. The process involves rituals through which novices are initiated gradually into the sect. Robartes brings his friend into a temple, but in order to proceed, he must first learn a series of intricate dance steps; then he is dressed in a costume of Greek and Egyptian origin for the mad dance. At this point the friend, fearing for his sanity, flees from the phantasmagoria.
“The Tables of the Law” and “The Adoration of the Magi”
“The Tables of the Law” and “The Adoration of the Magi” are two other short stories that deal with religious mysteries. In “The Tables of the Law,” Owen Aherne, like Michael Robartes, returns to Dublin after studying mysticism and alchemy. He hates life and cherishes a medieval book with its secrets of the spirit. Jonathan Swift, Aherne thinks, created a soul for Dublin gentlemen by hating his neighbor as himself. A decade later, the narrator sees Aherne again at a Dublin bookstore; his face is a lifeless mask, drained of the energy to sin and repent as God planned for mortal man. God’s law tablets make mankind commit sin, which is abhorrent to Aherne.
Michael Robartes, appearing again in “The Adoration of the Magi,” promises the return of the Celtic heroes. Three men in the tale, perhaps demons, watch the death of the Wise Woman. Civilization has not progressed; Christianity has not fulfilled its mission. The hope of nations lies in the reestablishment of the aristocratic order of the Celtic civilization. To a greater degree, Yeats develops this theme in later verse, essays, and plays with a blurring of the character of Cuchulain, the pagan Irish hero, with Christ and Saint Patrick.
Yeats’s reputation as a poet and a dramatist overshadows his renown as a storyteller. His tales have intrinsic worth nevertheless, and can be read as a prelude to his later great works.