Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

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Noblesse oblige. Yeats always had a great—one might say, excessive—reverence for the Irish aristocracy. He saw them as a rock of stability in a country regularly marked by social upheaval and revolutionary violence. The great families were also transmitters of culture—at least on Yeats's somewhat romanticized reading—and represented a bulwark against the growing commercialization of art that Yeats so heartily detested.

In The Countess Cathleen, the title character makes her supreme act of self-sacrifice because she takes seriously her role as protector and benefactor of the common peasantry. Once again, Yeats can be accused of idealizing the relationship between the Irish aristocracy and the peasants who worked on their land. But there can be no doubting Yeats's sincerity in believing that the upper-classes had a moral responsibility to their alleged social inferiors, and the Countess's selfless sacrifice is the ultimate example of this.

The importance of the soil. Yeats had a passionate belief in the almost quasi-mystical nature of the soil. It was the land that provided much-needed stability in the midst of chaos, famine, and widespread poverty. In The Countess Cathleen, the Irish nation is presented as having arisen from the land, and it is in the land that it must remain firmly rooted. In one particularly striking passage, Cathleen compares her heart to a tree that's grown to heaven, there to rustle its leaves until her people are saved.

The implications of Yeats's veneration for the soil are two-fold. First, it is only because Cathleen is firmly attached to the land of her ancestors that she's in a position to save her people. And secondly, the idealized Irish nation, as envisaged by Yeats and other nationalists, is to be based upon the values and culture of rural Ireland. Yeats abhorred what he saw as the bourgeois, materialistic culture of England, which he felt was gradually seeping into and debasing Irish life, especially Irish cultural life.

On Yeats's reading, then, Irish nationalism is not just a political but a cultural matter. Independence from the British is not enough; there must be established a nation that incorporates all of the finest elements of traditional Irish rural culture. Otherwise, the Irish will be but a shadow of their colonial masters across the water.

Mysticism. For Yeats, one of the things that made Ireland—particularly rural Ireland—special was its rich treasury of folktales, myths, and legends. Ireland was a land positively infested with spirits, fairies, and all manner of strange, other-worldly creatures; it was a land where strange, inexplicable things happened, the kind of place where the Devil could descend upon a remote village and try to buy the souls of peasants in return for gold.

Yeats delves deeply into Celtic legend and folklore for his telling of the story. In keeping with the old traditions, he presents manifestations of the spirit in all their various forms as perfectly real. The peasants' souls are real; the devils are real; and of course the soul that Cathleen signs away to save her peasants from starvation is also real. The material world, the world of wealth and gold, is conversely less real. It is a fake, artificial world that debases the Irish soul and the rich, vibrant culture which is its expression.

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