Tag Archives: Maud Gonne

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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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats

OldWomanByFire2

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This is such a sad and poignant poem. Yeats appears to be writing to Maud Gonne, entreating her to read his words when she is old and nearing death in order to remember the love he felt for her. There is some beautiful symbolism included, particularly the fire, which represents both her life and the passion that Yeats felt for her. The fire is dying and turning to embers, or “glowing bars.” The shadows are the fading memories of the past.

While this is a beautiful and touching poem about his feelings for Gonne, there is more to it. As with most of Yeats’ poems, there is something mystical hidden within the lines. Yeats was well versed in kabbalah, so I suspect he was making a reference to the Shekhinah, which is essentially the divine feminine aspect of the godhead.

“In the imagery of the Kabbalah the shekhinah is the most overtly female sefirah, the last of the ten sefirot, referred to imaginatively as ‘the daughter of God’. … The harmonious relationship between the female shekhinah and the six sefirot which precede her causes the world itself to be sustained by the flow of divine energy. She is like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The unnamed woman to whom Yeats is speaking in the poem is described as having a “changing face,” which establishes the connection to the moon and reinforces the symbolic relationship between Maud Gonne and the Shekhinah.

Finally, I think there is a third interpretation to this poem. I believe that the woman to whom Yeats is speaking is also a symbolic representation of Ireland. Yeats was writing in the peak of the Irish Renaissance, and he felt it was paramount to restore Irish mythology to the national identity. Therefore, Yeats was implying that when the flames of the Irish Renaissance are not burning as brightly as before, then Ireland should refer back to his poems, to rekindle the passion and interest in the rich mythology that is part of Ireland’s heritage.

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“The Sorrow of Love” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

I read this poem a couple times through to try to get a sense of what Yeats was conveying. I suspected that he was making references to Maud Gonne, and a quick search online confirmed this. So then I thought about what aspect of his love for Gonne might be causing him sorrow, and I suspect it is connected with the symbolism of the fall in the Garden of Eden.

There is a definite impression of Eden, especially in the first and third stanzas. The reference to “man’s image” implies the archetypal being embodied in Adam. Also, the image of the “famous harmony of leaves” conjures a vision of the innocent state of man in the Garden, contrasted by the “lamentation of the leaves” which may refer to the use of leaves by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after the fall.

I get the sense that Yeats felt like he sacrificed something deep and meaningful to himself for Maud, or else he became separated from her and left lost and adrift like Odysseus, trying to return to her. I am not sure, but there is a tangible feeling of sadness associated with his love for Gonne.

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“The Rose of the World” by William Butler Yeats

Rose

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

We and the laboring world are passing by:—
Amid men’s souls that day by day gives place,
More fleeting than the sea’s foam-fickle face,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one stood beside His seat;
He made the world, to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

According to the literary analysis I read, this poem was written by Yeats to Maud Gonne, with whom he was in love. He expresses that she is the embodiment of beauty that is eternal and does not pass and fade “like a dream.” He compares her beauty with Helen of Troy’s, as well as with Usna from ancient Irish mythology. While I do not question that Gonne was the inspiration for this poem, I think that Yeats is also expressing something else here.

The first two stanzas address the temporality and impermanence of our lives, contrasted with the eternal, spiritual quality of Beauty, symbolized by the rose. For me, the key to understanding the hidden meaning in this poem lies in the third stanza, where Yeats asserts that Beauty is archetypal and existed before the existence of the archangels.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,

As the stanza continues, we are presented with the image of God just prior to his creation of the world. Beside him is an unnamed feminine presence. This would be the goddess aspect of the dyad, or the feminine half of the godhead. Yeats is claiming that Beauty is a characteristic of the goddess and existed before creation. Since Maud Gonne possesses Beauty in Yeats’ eyes, he can only assume that the goddess is manifest within her.

Yeats was very interested in mythology and the occult. Whenever I read a poem by Yeats, I always approach it from the perspective that he has hidden occult symbolism somewhere in the verse. In this poem, I believe that the rose is the symbol for the goddess, whose eternal beauty is expressed in human form through Maud Gonne.

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