Cuchulain and the Sidhe: Vision and Tragic Encounter

  • Maeve Good
Part of the Macmillan Studies in Anglo-Irish Literature book series (MSAIL)


Yeats’s life closes with The Death of Cuchulain. He is the subject of one of the final meditations on death, ‘Cuchulain Comforted’. He has the last word: ‘No body like / His body has modern woman borne’ (CPI, p. 705). He is finally synonymous with the Irish nation as its alter ego or ideal self. Cuchulain is an obssession with Yeats from the close of the nineteenth century and he survives to the end as the heroic archetype. Yeats’s celebration of the heroic includes Swift, Tone, Parnell and, to an extent, Pearse; but it is Swift and Cuchulain who are most clearly and passionately delineated, Swift (discussed in Chapter 4) representative of passionate intellectual integrity, Cuchulain of heroic strength.


Modern Woman Irish Nation Final Meditation Exploration Ofthe Hostile World 
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  1. 1.
    Yeats, Preface to Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne. The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster (Gerrard’s Gross, Bucks: Colin Smythe, 1970) p. 15.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Yeats, in Davis, Mangan, Ferguson: Tradition and the Irish Writer, Tower series of Anglo-Irish Studies II (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1970) p. 47.Google Scholar
  3. 13.
    Yeats, The Celtic Twilight (Gerrard’s Cross, Bucks: Colin Smythe, 1981).Google Scholar
  4. 26.
    Yeats’s development as a playwright and his experiments with new theatre techniques arc well chronicled in James Flannery’s W. B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre: The Early Abbey Theatre in Theory and Practice (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1976). Flannery is one of the few critics to examine Yeats’s plays as theatre and to see Yeats’s innovations in the context of contemporary theatre development. Of particular interest in Flannery’s discussion is Yeats’s relationship with Gordon Craig (pp. 245–54, 262–72).Google Scholar
  5. 27.
    Reg Skene in The Cuchulain Plays of W. B. Yeats: A Study (London: Macmillan, 1974) defines the battle between Aoifc and Cuchulain as between sun and moon, ‘a wheel of love and hate’ (p. 39). Skene detects many correspondences between the Cuchulain cycle and Yeats’s phases of the moon as well as correspondences with ancient Celtic festivals. Thus On Bailees Strand falls at phase twelve of Yeats’s system (p. 52). In this system the final play, The Death of Cuchulain, falls in phase twenty-two, which is the summer solstice, ‘after which the sun begins to lose its battle with the forces of darkness’ and when ‘the solar year has run its course’ (p. 59). Skene’s identification of the Cuchulain cycle with ancient ritual is interesting but outside the scope of my study.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 28.
    L. E. Nathan, The Tragic Drama of W. B. Yeats (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1965) p. 7.Google Scholar
  7. 29.
    Dennis Donoghue, Yeats, Fontana Modern Masters (London, Fontana, 1976) p. 100.Google Scholar
  8. 30.
    J. M. Synge, Collected Works, IV (Plays, II), ed. Ann Saddlemyer (London: Oxford University Press, 1968) p. 267.Google Scholar
  9. 31.
    See also Richard Fallis,‘“I Seek an Image”: The Method of Yeats’s Criticism’, Modern Language Quarterly, XXXVII, no. 1 (Mar 1976) 72. Fallis comments on Yeats’s criticism as ‘an attempt to make the reader see what exists in the critic’s own inner eyes’. Thus Blake is visualised as ‘a man chained in his mythology’, Shelley seen ‘in a Neoplatonic landscape of caverns, streams and stars’, while ‘J. M. Synge is a rocky apocalyptic landscape’.Google Scholar
  10. 36.
    Anthony Bradley, in William Butler Yeats, World Dramatist series (New York: Ungar, 1979), quotes from a director of the play ‘who found it “well-nigh unstageable in any acceptable dramatic idiom” and tended to clash with the mood and content of other Cuchulain plays’ (p. 201).Google Scholar

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© Maeve Good 1987

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  • Maeve Good

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