Tag Archives: Cuchulain

“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.

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“To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.

RosyCrossGDThis is a pretty cryptic poem. The title suggests that there is Rosicrucian symbolism woven into the verse, the rose and the cross being the symbol of the order. Yeats would have been familiar with this symbol, being a member of the Golden Dawn (which used the Rosy Cross as a symbol) and he was familiar with various occult symbols. He is definitely drawing on occult symbolism as well as Irish mythology. Cuchulain and Fergus were part of the Irish Red Branch cycle, or Ulster cycle. The Ulster cycle is a collection of medieval Irish legends and sagas that influenced Yeats. For a brief overview, click here.

I get the sense that Yeats considered himself to be like the Druid, conjuring a realm of magic as he sings his sacred bardic poetry. The second stanza in particular has the feel of a mystical chant. He repeats the opening phrase of the stanza “Come near” three times, like an invocation. The fact that he says this three times would have had occult symbolism also, three being a mystical number. Finally, the following lines imply that Yeats is conjuring in a sacred language, that of God which is unknown to all but a select few.

But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.

I am not sure what language Yeats is referring to. If I had to guess, I would say either ancient Irish or the sacred Enochian language of angels, possibly both. (Click here to read the Enochian Dictionary online.)

In addition to the rose and the cross being a symbol of occult mysticism and evocation, I suspect that Yeats was also using these to represent the Irish renaissance. The rose would therefore symbolize the blossoming of Irish culture. The cross would represent a sort of crossroads in time, where the past is intersecting with the present. The rose or Irish culture, a symbol or rebirth, is blossoming in the center of the crossroads.

Although I took a class on Yeats in college, I confess that I am not that knowledgeable in regards to the Irish mythology in much of his poetry. If any of you have some additional insight into Cuchulain or the Ulster Cycle, please feel free to share it here.

Thanks, and read on!

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