“Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This poem is too long to include in this post. For those who need, here is a link to the full text hosted on the California State University website:

Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea

In order to understand this poem, you need to know the three key characters: Cuchulain, a warrior from Irish mythology who served under the rule of Conchubar; Emer, who is Cuchulain’s wife; and the swineherd, Cuchulain’s son who is unnamed in the poem. The basic story which the poem conveys is a reverse Oedipus tale, where Cuchulain mistakes his son and slays him and is then overwhelmed by guilt.

In the beginning of the poem, the swineherd returns home to his mother who had instructed him to watch the shore for Cuchulain’s return. Anguished by her husband’s failure to return, Emer seems to perform an act of sorcery.

Then Emer cast the web upon the floor,
And raising arms all raddled with the dye,
Parted her lips with a loud sudden cry.

Emer then instructs her son to go and camp near Conchubar’s camp where Cuchulain is and to challenge him. Cuchulain, eager for glory, fights with his son and ultimately kills him.

After short fighting in the leafy shade,
He spake to the young man, ‘Is there no maid
Who loves you, no white arms to wrap you round,
Or do you long for the dim sleepy ground,
That you have come and dared me to my face?’

‘The dooms of men are in God’s hidden place,’

‘Your head a while seemed like a woman’s head
That I loved once.’

Again the fighting sped,
But now the war-rage in Cuchulain woke,
And through that new blade’s guard the old blade broke,
And pierced him.

‘Speak before your breath is done.’

‘Cuchulain I, mighty Cuchulain’s son.’

After slaying his son, Cuchulain is wracked with guilt and broods alone, inconsolable. Conchubar fears that Cuchulain will become overwhelmed with grief and will ultimately slaughter all the members of the party. This sets the scene for the final part of the poem, which to me is the most interesting.

Then Conchubar, the subtlest of all men,
Ranking his Druids round him ten by ten,
Spake thus: ‘Cuchulain will dwell there and brood
For three days more in dreadful quietude,
And then arise, and raving slay us all.
Chaunt in his ear delusions magical,
That he may fight the horses of the sea.’
The Druids took them to their mystery,
And chaunted for three days.

Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

There is a lot of symbolism woven into these lines. First, we have number mysticism, the numbers ten and three both repeated, emphasizing their importance. The number ten is a reference to the number of sefirot that comprise the kabbalistic Tree of Life, which figures prominently in Golden Dawn philosophy with which Yeats was well versed. Then the number three represents the trinity, as well as the three stages in the cycle of life: birth, life, and death. There are many other mystical connections with the numbers 3 and 10, but this should suffice for the purpose of this post.

The Druids then perform a chant with the intent of evoking “delusions magical.” Basically, the Druids are chanting mystical poetry which after a period of time causes Cuchulain to slip into an altered state of consciousness. The sea is a symbol for Cuchulain’s subconscious. He is thrust into his own psyche and there does battle with himself and his memories. He has no choice but to vanquish his inner demons and self-hatred; if he fails, he will drown in the sea of sorrow and lose touch with the realm of waking consciousness.

This poem works really well as a psychological allegory, but also contains some great mystical and mythological symbolism. I am pretty sure that there is more to this poem than what I included here and that someone who is more versed in Irish mythology would be able to draw deeper interpretations. If you uncover any other symbols or allusions in this poem, please share them in a comment.


Filed under Literature

9 responses to ““Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” by William Butler Yeats

  1. “He is thrust into his own psyche and there does battle with himself and his memories.”

    Most excellent look at this poem Jeff.


  2. Excellent study of Yeats’ poem on Cuchulain
    Always a joy to read your thoughts…
    Best wishes. Aquileana 😀

    • Thanks. The more I read Yeats the more in awe I am of his genius. And speaking of joy, it is always a joy to get comments from you. Have a wonderful and inspired day!

      Your friend, Jeff

  3. redcataract

    Hi, I like your interpretation. One query – Cu Chulainn killed his son by Aoife, the warrior woman. Is it possible it was that boy or did he kill both his sons? Not a good thing to have as one’s USP …

    • Hi. I’m glad you liked the interpretation, and wow – what a thoughtful query! Since I am not a scholar of Irish mythology, I did a little research and confirmed that he did kill his son by Aoife in a manner very similar to the one described in this poem. So it is possible that it is the same son. But it also seems that there are disparate versions of this myth, and Yeats being obsessed with Irish mythology, he might have been aware of alternate versions of the myth which he drew from when constructing this poem. So that’s the long way of saying “I don’t know.” But I really appreciate your query and if you find out something definitive, please share it with me.


  4. Guy Harkin

    The idea that he is keen for glory is unsustainable given the advice he gives his son to avoid killing him. “Is there no maid who loves you no white arms to wrap you round or do you long for the dim sleepy ground that you have come and dared me to my face” Cuchulain clearly wants to avoid the the violence which has been been part of his whole adult life which to a degree makes sense of the whole poem.