Myth & History Used in W. B. Yeats Poetry

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      Myths and history form an integral part of Yeats’s poetry. His early poems have a lot to do with Irish mythology and are loaded with symbolic meanings. In his poems, he also referred to the rise and fall of civilizations. He believed that the nature of civilization changes after almost every two thousand years. In considering the achievements of Yeats as a poet one has to keep in mind the treatment of history and mythology in his poems. His choice of Irish mythology and folklore as subjects for his poetry was a conscious choice. Born and brought up in a land where mythological figures were an integral part of the popular imagination, Yeats made Irish mythology and folk lore a source of inspiration for his poetry.

Irish Background

      The mythology which Yeats came to use extensively in his early poems was directly derived from the great body of Irish heroic legends. This mythology which had left the Irish imagination had for the young Yeats a fascination which Greek and Roman mythology had for the poets of the Renaissance. For him it was something which he wholly absorbed and made a part of his imagination. It was his firm belief that a literature not imbued with passion and ancient beliefs is always in the danger of degenerating into what he called a chronicle of circumstances or passionless fantasies.

Influence of Folk-Lore

      Some of the famous tales that fascinated Yeats were (1) The tale of Deirdre, alone among women who have sent men and with her loveliness and wisdom. (2) The tale of the sons of Tuireami, with its intelligible mysteries, an old Grail Ghost. (3) The tale of the love of Cuchulain for an immortal goddess, and his coming home to a mortal woman. (4) The tale of the flight of Grania with Diarmud, strangest of all tales, of the fickleness of women. (5) The tale of Oisin coming out of the fairyland of his memories arid lamentations. Characters like Cassandra, Helen, Deirdre, Lear, Trisham, Oisin, Cuchulain etc. thus keep appearing in the poetry of Yeats.

      Yeats’s long poem The Wanderings of Oisin shows Oisin coming into contact with many mythological figures like Niamh. His play The Land of Heart's Desire also uses mythological material. Then there are The Rose poems in which he tries to see the working of the rose in the legends of Celtic mythology. He sees a special connection between this and the Cuchulain legend and the religious rites of the Druids.

      The poem The Rose of the World tries to merge the two traditions in the Helen-Deirdre image. The poem A Prayer for My Daughter also make reference to Helen, to Venus Aphrodite, to Vulcan and to the Hom of Plenty. In the poem, The Tower, a mythology is introduced which is created by Yeats himself in the figure of Hanrahan who is called “old lecher with a love on every wind.” The poem No Second Troy again refers to the Helen legend. The poem Leda and the Swan makes use of Greek mythology.

      Yeats himself admitted that his work was covered with embroideries out of old mythologies, dragons, gods, moons and fairies. His plays, essays and speeches also bear ample evidence of his love for Celtic mythology and folk-lore. To Yeats, folk-art amounted to being ‘the oldest of the aristocracies of thought.’ To him folk-lore provided rich food to the poet’s imagination.

Yeats’s Handling of History

      Among the poems which give expression to Yeats’s sense of history are poems like The Second Coming, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, September 1913 and Easter 1916. The Second Coming is a good illustration of Yeats’s theory of the rise and fall of civilization as propounded in A Vision. This poem is most remarkable for the expression of his notion that history consists of cycles and that every civilization has a time span of its own. According to him, the present cycle of history which began roughly with the birth of Christ is about to end and it is likely to be replaced by another cycle, the ruling authority which may be very terrifying and cruel.

      Easter 1916 deals with the contemporary history of Ireland. The Easter Rising of 1916 had taken Yeats by surprise. Those very revolutionaries whom he had come to despise attained heroic stature and it seemed to Yeats that a terrible beauty had been born. It was then that he realized that these Irishmen had stopped “burning damp faggots” and had achieved a permanence which he set down to celebrate in this poem. The heroic intensity had transcended the cycle of ordinary life, and achieved permanence in the midst of flux. It is this permanence and the heroism which Yeats celebrates in his poem Easter 1916, although he had his doubt about the expediency of the political upsurge and the actions of the rebel heroes.

      Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen is a product of Yeats’s reflections upon the changes brought about by the violence which followed the Easter Rising. His attitude is at once social and romantic.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love, and love’s what vanishes.
What more is there to say?

      The brutality of the Black and Tans was particularly in Yeats’s mind when he wrote the stanza beginning, “Now days are dragon-ridden....”, and ending with the line: “are but weasels fighting in a hole.” The collapse of Yeats’s Irish ideal is an evil so complete and dramatic that for the time being it blots out the very possibility of good. And with the good are eclipsed all the accumulated objects of art.


      Yeats’s handling of myths and history is really competent even when he believed in developing and sticking to his own very individual and very private sense of history and mythology. What is much remarkable is the wonderful poetic use he made of these notions and gave us poems which even when expounding one or the other notion remain superb.


Critically estimate Yeats’s handling of history and myths with particular reference to his poems.

Discuss the myth-making power of Yeats.

Write a brief critical note on W.B. Yeats’s use of myths. Illustrate from the poems you have read.

“Myths and history form an integral part of Yeats’s poetry.” Discuss.

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