The Countess Cathleen

by William Butler Yeats

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Last Updated on February 7, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet, dramatist, activist, and politician. He was born in 1865 and grew up amidst a tempestuous time of modernization, colonial influence, and economic strife. His work carries the weight of his complex and politically-charged youth and bears the burden of his terrifying proximity to the Irish Potato Famine. The famine, which lasted from 1845 to 1852, swept across the country, killing millions and forcing millions more to leave their homeland. Death, mass migration, and nearly a decade of suffering took an exacting toll on Irish life and culture; their British colonizers did little to help, sending neither food nor aid to the wasting nation. 

For Yeats, who was born a little over a decade after the famine’s resolution, the toll was particularly devastating. The Ireland of his youth was dramatically different from the Ireland of the romantic past. Gaelic, the native Irish language, rapidly declined in response to growing English influence, and the landscape of whimsy, fae, and mythological groves became one of grim suffering and bleak lives.

Yeats yearns for a bucolic past of beneficent nobles, divine forces, and folklore lessons; moreover, he espouses a militant nationalism and distaste for all things modern and British. The Countess Cathleen is full to bursting with national pride and independent sentiment, acting as a folklore outlet through which Yeats espouses the romantic beauty of the Irish countryside and those within it. His love for the nation and its soil reflects his regret for the modern world’s encroachment upon what he views as Ireland’s collective past. The work is a nostalgic effort wrought by fading memory, in which Yeats reprises the fairytales of the nation’s past and reminds viewers of the unique and invaluable world of Irish thought, creativity, and history. 

The Countess Cathleen reprises this history. The play, which endured several alterations during the decades following its initial publication, details the lives of Irish peasants living on the titular character’s lands. The harvest is poor, resources are scarce, and the peasants are starving; out of desperation and hunger, they sell their souls in exchange for wealth. The Countess, their beneficent landlord, sacrifices herself to ensure the peasants' earthly and divine salvation, freeing their souls and preserving their happy, rural lives. 

The story sets up a set of carefully delineated dichotomies: heaven and hell, wealth and poverty, and nobles and peasants. These dichotomies reveal much about Yeats’s perspective and personal values. By comparing wealth with the Devil and poverty with God, he argues against the materialistic values beginning to overtake the lives of rural Irishmen. Moreover, he aligns traditional lifestyles with divinity, ascribing virtue and moral goodness to simple, unembellished lives. In short, the play criticizes the cultural homogeneity so often imposed by British colonialism and rejects modern tropes of success and value. 

This dichotomy not only comments on the pitfalls of modern materialism but also highlights the romantic—and innately paternalistic—dynamic Yeats finds in the aristocratic class. Countess Cathleen is a remarkably kind-hearted noblewoman. She willingly sells all the land and material goods to her name to preserve the spirits and lives of those living on her lands, acknowledging that no money or resource is more valuable than her ancestral lands and people. Cathleen is a caretaker of the land, the people, and the nation; her actions indicate the breed of aristocratic responsibility that Yeats demands from his fellow Irishmen. Everyone, he argues, is responsible for preserving the illustrious national identity that so rapidly slips away. 

Writing in blank verse allows Yeats the freedom to embrace the unique cadence of each character’s voice. In doing so, he creates a sense of shared desperation that, although different in appearance, is felt by each citizen. Cathleen hurts for her people and land, wounded as they are by the forces of evil. The peasants on her land are tormented by physical suffering, driven to desperate temptation by brutal necessity. Their sorrows meld into a united portrait of Irish history and anxiety as Yeats views it. Indeed, it is a lesson in anti-colonialism, national pride, and shared responsibility, in which Yeats locates the beauty of Ireland’s natural landscape and countrymen. 

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