The Countess Cathleen

by William Butler Yeats

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Veneration of the Elite 

Many academics have noted the love of national folklore and tradition that occupy much of Yeats's creative endeavors. His long-standing reverence for the Irish aristocracy is one aspect of his widespread appreciation for the traditional mores of Irish life, as is its expression in The Countess Cathleen. Yeats viewed the noble elite as a rock of stability—financial, cultural, and creative—in a country regularly marked by social upheaval and revolutionary violence. In his romanticized reading of the aristocracy’s role in national life, he saw them as servants to the public, transmitters of culture, and a bulwark against the growing commercialization of art he so heartily detested.

In the play, the titular character sacrifices her wealth, body, and soul for the sake of her people. Cathleen makes this supreme act of self-sacrifice willingly because she sees it as an obligation of her position; she takes her role as protector of and benefactor to the peasants living and working on her land seriously. The historical accuracy of her actions is dubious, and some might rightfully accuse Yeats of unduly idealizing the relationship between the Irish aristocracy and the peasants who worked on their land. But none may doubt his sincere belief that the upper classes had a moral responsibility to their alleged social inferiors: of this, the Countess's selfless sacrifice is the ultimate example.

The Importance of the Land

Yeats had a passionate belief in the almost quasi-mystical nature of the soil. Amidst the chaos of famine and widespread poverty, the land provided much-needed stability and familiarity for those suffering. In the play, Yeats presents the Irish nation and its people as having arisen from the land; it is there that the ailing nation must remain rooted. In one particularly striking passage, Cathleen compares her heart to a tree growing up toward heaven, there to rustle its leaves until her people are saved.

The implications of Yeats's veneration of the soil are two-fold. First, it is only because Cathleen is firmly attached to the land of her ancestors that she is in a position to save her people. According to Aleel’s dream, she will die if she remains. However, she nonetheless stays because she is obligated to preserve her land and people; she is the custodian of the land and must bear the weight of that responsibility. 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.

In 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. The nation’s roots are buried deep in the soil, inextricably entangled with the land upon which it arose; it must be protected, or all hopes for Irish independence and authenticity are lost.

The Omnipresence of Mysticism

For Yeats, one of the things that made Ireland—particularly rural Ireland—special was its rich treasury of folktales, myths, and legends. His 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...

(This entire section contains 780 words.)

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gold. The Countess Cathleen is loosely based, as Yeats explains in the “Notes” section of the play, upon a collection of folklore he discovered. He was taken with the romantic story but, despite efforts to locate further information, could find neither the author nor the source. The play itself is a celebration of the mystic, oral traditions from which it springs as well. 

In this retelling of this traditional story, Yeats delves deeply into Celtic legend and folklore. In keeping with 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. These mythical forms are physical; the divine figures of angels and demons are even more so. 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.