Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

  1. Great analysis. I have nothing to add! You nailed it. (In my opinion.)

  2. showyaven

    Two lines stick out to me, and I’m not sure how to feel about them…
    “We come between him and the deed of his hand,
    We come between him and the hope of his heart.”
    This feels out of place from the rest of the emotion of the poem. Where before the lines it felt sing-songy, light, and happy. Afterwards, Niamh now feels luring; Caoilte, no longer like a beacon of light but like the warning colors of a poisonous frog. These lines remind me that their powers go far beyond what mortals might think.
    I’m curious, what do you make of these lines?

    • Hmm. Great question. I had to go back and read it again.

      So the “we” that come between seem to be the Sidhe, who as Rosenthal point out are both heroic and sinister. The deed of his hand is likely a reference to Yeats writing poetry, and the hope of his heart is either an independent Ireland and/or a deeper relationship with Maude Gonne.

      So if the Sidhe are coming between him and these things, one must ask, what does Yeats mean by “come between”? Does it mean that they are impeding the way? That is how it seems on the surface. But maybe not. Maybe, Yeats is saying that the Sidhe is the bridge between him and his poetry, and between him and the hope of his heart, that they must come to being before he can attain his dreams and aspirations.

      Not sure if this is what Yeats intended, but it seems possible. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful question. Let me know if my interpretation resonates.

      • showyaven

        Yes, it most certainly does resonate! I realize now that I had been fixed in my thoughts about two things.

        Firstly, I had been considering Yeats as part of ‘we’, that as narrator he was included in the grouping. After a more through reading I see part of the narrative is from Niamh’s perspective. Separating Yeats from the Sidhe provides a far more interesting reading.

        Secondly, as your reply helped me to realize, Yeats can be seen appealing exclusively to his Irish readers through the chosen mythology. Perhaps, as you’ve said, invoking a revolutionary spirit to spur on his Irish kin in their fight for independence.

        Thanks for getting back to me and giving me much to think about!

      • I’m humbled and honored that you found this helpful. I hope you continue to enjoy Yeats as much as I do. Cheers!

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