“A Terrible Beauty is Born"1: Nationalism and Mysticism in W.B. Yeats

            William Butler Yeats was a prolific writer in Ireland before the war for Irish home rule. His poetry and plays embodied the Irish spirit and culture. W.B. Yeats used his Irish nationalist feelings and Irish folklore to express the region of Ireland in his works.

          Cathleen Ni Houlihan, which Yeats wrote with Lady Gregory, relies on mysticism and nationalism to express Ireland. In dramas, Yeats must rely on the stage directions to describe the scene and the dialogue must express all he wants to say about Ireland. This leaves little room for him to actually display the region of Ireland fully. Due to this limitation the region must be expressed through the nationalistic story and the mysticism found within it. The title character Cathleen Ni Houlihan is the allegorical embodiment of a free Ireland; she represents what the Irish could have if they fight to free themselves from British rule. Cathleen Ni Houlihan originally approaches the Gillane house as an old woman, claiming that her “four beautiful green fields” (Yeats 7) have been taken from her, the four fields representing Ireland. Cathleen Ni Houlihan was clearly meant as a representation of a free Ireland, she claims she has been wandering because there are “too many strangers in the house” (Yeats 7). This is a reference to Great Britain ruling Ireland; the British are the strangers in the house of Ireland. Cathleen Ni Houlihan is looking for strong young men to fight for her, for Ireland, she mentions looking for the “strong sons” of a friend of hers but claims they were too busy “shearing sheep” to listen to her (Yeats 6). At the end of the play Michael, the son of the Gillanes, who is to be married follows Cathleen Ni Houlihan out to join the French in the fight against England. This is a commentary on the necessity of young men to fight for the country they love; Yeats is encouraging this type of love for country.  This Irish nationalism was occurring in the world that Yeats was living in, by writing about it in Cathleen Ni Houlihan, he was accurately representing the current region of Ireland.

          Cathleen Ni Houlihan turns into a young woman after Michael chooses to follow her, Patrick claims “she had the walk of a queen” (Yeats 11).  In a classic fairy tale structure the old woman turned into a beautiful young woman after she gained what she wanted, in this case the support of young men to fight for Ireland. When she is speaking to the Gillane family and explaining to them why she is out wandering they begin to wonder if she is “from beyond the world” (Yeats 8). Bridget and Peter Gillane decide that if she is indeed a spirit then they will treat her well. This expresses the Irish tendency to believe in folklore and legends. Irish mysticism leads many Irish to believe that it is possible for ghosts to walk the earth and visit with the living. According to Yeats’ work this is a common occurrence in Ireland, many inhabitants believe in the mysticism and folklore. Yeats uses the Irish belief in mysticism to display the region of Ireland as he saw it.

          Yeats’ poetry expresses the same themes of Irish nationalism and mysticism. In Yeats’ poem “Who Goes with Fergus?” the idea of mythology and nationalism are intertwined. According to the footnotes for “To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time” (Pethica 12), Fergus was a mighty king in Irish mythology and folklore, who “gave up his throne that he might live in peace hunting in the woods” (Pethica 12). Yeats’ poem, “Fergus and the Druid” chronicles this decision to give up his throne, in order to gain the same wisdom the Druid claims. By the time the events of “Who Goes with Fergus?” are occurring, Fergus has given up his place as king. This plays into the idea of mysticism in Yeats’ works, a mythical, wandering king is going to lead these young people to “brood on hopes and fears no more” (“Who Goes with Fergus?” 6). This leads the reader to believe that, according to the speaker, Fergus, who is not real, will be leading the people of Ireland to better times. The idea of nationalism is evident when the title of the poem is considered. From reading the poem you know that Fergus will lead Ireland to better times and the title, “Who Goes with Fergus?” is making it clear that you must decide. Will you go with Fergus and help to make Ireland better or will you continue on the same trajectory of worry and pain? This question, posed by Yeats to the reader is an example of Yeats’ tendency to express his own opinions clearly in his writing.

          In Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” he once again relies on Irish mythology, folklore, and mysticism as a theme. According to the footnotes of the text, Aengus was the Celtic god of youth, beauty, and poetry. This poem is Yeats’ interpretation of the legend of Aengus and the woman he fell in love with that he longed to find again. The speaker utilized in this poem is that of Aengus, himself, and is his thoughts about the woman he loves, the first time they met and his desire to find her again. This is one of Yeats’ early poems, originally written in 1897, when he seemed to rely heavily on mythology in his poetry. It was written shortly after “Who Goes with Fergus?”, another poem that chronicles an ancient Celtic myth. This poem relies on imagery brought to life by the Celtic mythology, “It had become a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair/who called me by my name and ran/and faded through the brightening air.” (“The Song of Wandering Aengus” 13-16).  This image of the girl Aengus loves is obvious to those who are familiar with the stories of Aengus. Yeats’ use of folklore in this poem expresses the Irish region and common beliefs that those who lived there held. By experiencing a story so steeped in Irish culture, the reader can begin to imagine what the region of Ireland was like for Yeats.

          In his poem, “Easter, 1916” Yeats responds to the Easter uprising of 1916, where 700 Irish rebels tried to overthrow the English. This poem relies heavily on Irish nationalism as a theme. Yeats specifically names men involved and killed for their participation in the uprising, “MacDonagh and MacBride/and Connolly and Pearse” (“Easter, 1916” 75-76). Yeats laments these men’s deaths; he praises them for what they could have done with their lives and their sacrifice for Ireland. He describes Thomas MacDonagh as “He might have won fame in the end,/so sensitive his nature seemed/so daring and sweet his thought” (“Easter, 1916” 28-30) and seems to express remorse that this poet had to die for Ireland before his poems were well-known. Yeats even laments the death of MacBride, the man who shared an unhappy marriage with Maud Donne, the woman Yeats loved, “He had done most bitter wrong/to some who are near my heart” (“Easter, 1916” 33-34) . Yeats writes: “He, too, has resigned his part/in the casual comedy;/He, too, has been changed in his turn/ Transformed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born” (“Easter, 1916” 36-40). This admittance that MacBride has made a sacrifice and was “transformed utterly”, or killed, but for Ireland, and thus “a terrible beauty is born” signifies that Yeats’ realized that the rebellion was necessary and that this would not be the end of the struggle and fighting for Ireland’s freedom to rule themselves.  Yeats seems most concerned that their deaths may have been for nothing, “Was it needless death after all?/ For England may keep faith” (“Easter, 1916” 67-68). By writing this poem and naming those men, along with his concerns about their sacrifice, Yeats ensured that their deaths were not for nothing. He brought their deaths to the attention of everyone who read his poetry and used this poem to express his nationalistic view that Ireland should be able to rule itself. At this time Yeats’ poetry was being read by more than the Irish and he could use his notoriety to spread the word about this issue. This is a poem in which Yeats’ view and opinion is unquestionable.

          The nationalism theme is more subtle in Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming”.  There is an image of chaos in this poem “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (“The Second Coming” 3) and the poem was written shortly before the war for Irish independence.  This poem uses images of war and religious undertones to convey Yeats’ opinion that the current age was going to end and a new, more objective age would begin. Yeats believed that Ireland should be free to rule themselves and this is evident in his images of chaos. The Ireland he was seeing in his daily life was chaotic and teeming with conflict as they attempted to be free. Yeats realizes that they cannot continue like this, “the centre cannot hold” (“The Second Coming” 3). This poem is Yeats’ revelation to the world that war between Ireland and England is imminent.

          Yeats always included nods to his country, Ireland in his works. He used the folklore of his country as well as his own nationalistic pride to represent Ireland in his plays and poetry. In the beginning of his career he focused more on the folklore and mysticism of Ireland to represent the culture of the land in his writings. As he grew more political so did his writings, culminating in the war between Ireland and England. Yeats was bold in his opinions, supporting the Easter rebellion and warning of imminent war, however, his main goal was to clearly represent Ireland as its own distinct region in literature.




Works Cited

Pethica, James. Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000. Print.

Yeats, William Butler and Lady Gregory. “Cathleen Ni Houlihan.” Modern and Contemporary Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2009. Print. 3-11.

Yeats, William Butler. “Easter, 1916.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000. Print. 72.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000. Print. 76.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000. Print. 24.

Yeats, William Butler. “Who Goes With Fergus?” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000. Print. 18.


[1] Yeats, William Butler. “Easter, 1916” 1916.