"Yeats's flight into fairyland begins in his early childhood with Celtic folklore, 'the chief influence of [his] youth,' and climaxes in his early twenties with the 1888 publication of his first book" (Ben-Merre 2008). Yeats was commissioned to "gather and record the fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry" in what eventually became Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (Foster 76). "The collection includes descriptions of witches, giants, a rather exhaustive taxonomy of the class of fairies, and an early gloss of the legend of Tir na nOg (T'yeer-na-n-oge)" (Ben-Merre 2008).
Rather than framing folktales as otherworldly, Yeats saw these myths as repositories for older cultural traditions that made a claim for the uniqueness of Irish heritage. In the introduction to his first published volume of poetry, Yeats notes that the "folk-tales are full of simplicity and musical occurrences, for they are the literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain, and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries: who have steeped everything in the heart: to whom everything is a symbol" (Yeats, cited by Ben-Merre 2008). Because of this perceived 'unchanging' nature of Irish folklore, Yeats viewed it as a stable source of Irish self-identification, a way to "perform some of the real political work going on in Ireland" and "to forge the national consciousness of his race" that there was value in Ireland's independent past (Ben-Merre 2008).
Critics, however, have called this Yeats' Ireland -- just as much a particular, modern version (despite its elegiac setting) as that of Joyce's mythical Dublin. Yeats "invented a country, calling it Ireland" (Ben-Merre 2008). There is very little archeological evidence to support the idea that Yeats' Ireland exists: the term 'Celtic' is a 19th century construction, not part of the self-identified mythology of the ancient pagan Irish. Yeats used ancient figures and infused them with his own concepts of what it meant to be 'pure' Irish.
Yeats' first extensive exploration of this fabled country was his epic poem, the Wanderings of Oisin, in which the pagan, Celtic hero Oisin's heroic deeds are chronicled as a symbolic model for readers. After living in various fairy kingdoms, Oisin returns to Ireland only to find it Christianized. Over the course of the poem he engages in a spirited debate with St. Patrick. Oisin represents a truer, purer form of Irish identity that existed before Christianity. Of the poem, Yeats recounts how "as a young, impressionable man, he 'found but one thing in Ireland that has stirred [him] to the roots -- a conception of the heroic life come down from the dawn of the world and not even yet utterly extinguished'" (Ben-Merre 2008).
The hero Oisin is entirely unlike the English concept of the Irish peasant -- he is proud, powerful, and nearly attains immortality. Yeats celebrates locations and ideals important in the nationalist self-stylization of the new, pure Ireland returning to its pre-Anglo roots. When Oisin is old and decrepit and returns to Ireland after being amongst the fairies, he misses his old comrades, the Fenians and rejects the moralistic, conventional Ireland embodied by St. Patrick (Sidnell 1979). Having spent most of his life in fairyland away from Ireland, Oisin is ultimately a hero of a mythic place rather than a real Ireland. By using Oisin as his focus, Yeats can also criticize conventional Irish morality even while celebrating Irish heroism.
In the heroism of Oisin, Yeats clearly takes on the mantle of constructed Celtic culture of the nationalists, even while he subtly critiques it. Thus, in his earliest works, Yeats' relationship with the nationalists was more problematic than his contemporaries such as Lady Gregory, who instead embraced direct translations of Irish myths and folklore. In her translation of the Oisin saga, Gregory focused upon the character's straightforward heroism as an exemplar of past Irish greatness rather than the more complex dialogue of Yeats' depiction of Oisin's interactions with St. Patrick.
Irish nationalism and essentialism
Yeats' vision thus fused the political and the Romantic, a theme which resonates in the mythological conception of 'place' that informed all of Irish nationalism:
Irish history, no less than that of any other modern European state, provides abundant illustrations of the desire for a single identity and for exclusive borders…a reactionary sense of place is integral to what we tend to consider both Irish nationalist and Irish unionist (pro-British) outlooks….modern nationalism has roots in nineteenth-century cultural essentialism, which promoted an idea of ethnic singularity and racial purity, associated with a Gaelic identity untainted by exogamy. Such a condition of ethnic purity cannot be said to exist, and never did, but was a convenient myth employed by political and cultural nationalists to help define the culture they were fighting for (Allison 2001).
Some Irish writers such as James Joyce were famed for their lionization of the wandering exile (a theme most obviously present in Ulysses in which Stephen Daedalus and the 'wandering Jew' Bloom continually cross paths over the course of a single day in Dublin and which both parodies and celebrates classical English literature such as Hamlet). Although Oisin reflects a similar sense of estrangement, Yeats's sensibility was decidedly more conservative. Early on in his career, Yeats identified with cultural nationalists striving "to define their country as fundamentally opposed to Anglo-Saxon values and modern English identity. He was making an effort to create a consciousness of national difference between Ireland and its imperial neighbor as the first step toward further autonomy" (Allison 2008). For Yeats, Irishness was an essential, even a racial identity, one which was irrevocably tied to the land and which transcended historical space and time and thus existed in a kind of mythic space. "His cultural nationalist outlook, particularly in the early 1890s after the fall of Parnell, involved the willful embrace of Irishness as a matter of certain essential qualities. All Irish art should be rooted in and reflect these qualities. He saw the whole project as an imaginative, aesthetic, and political crusade" (Allison 2008).
However, Yeats' relationship with Irish independence became more ambivalent as it began to enter into the realm of 'the real' and took on the characteristics of decidedly non-mythological violence. "Yeats's reaction to the 'terrible beauty' of Easter, 1916 and its aftermath is conflicting. He had a desire to face its reality, but, at the same time, he was repulsed by its unnecessary violence. His 'Meditations in time of Civil War' demonstrates not only his circumspection, but also his dissatisfaction of sorts with public life. His resignation from the Irish Senate came a year before the revision of 'The Scholars' was published, and, as his health started to deteriorate, he resolved more and more to withdraw into a private world" (Ben-Merre 2008). Yeats previously believed that politics and art could be fused, an ideal which was destroyed given the resistance to the plays he produced at the Irish nationalist Abbey Theater.
"After the storm of protest at the Abbey Theatre productions of the Shadow of the Glen and the Playboy of the Western World, Yeats's conception of nationality was changing. In future, he would give witness to an idealized, 'imaginary Ireland,' self-consciously different from the real one he saw around him. Indeed, we see in many of his early essays that Yeats linked imaginative to political power, a connection implicit in cultural nationalism in general, founded as it is upon the idea that political struggle has an integral cultural dimension" (Allison 2008). It could be argued that Yeats' philosophy began to take on a certain degree of snobbishness, in his belief in the inability of persons to comprehend the 'true' Ireland. In short, Yeats seemed to intuitively perceive what would later be written about by Henry Tudor in his Political Myth: myth is reality but an expression of and myths which survive depend upon their ability to be reconfigured for a popular audience to suit the needs of the present moment (Tudor 15, 16-37, 38). "As the years passed, and Yeats became more resistant to the popular nationalism that emerged…the Anglo-Irish imagination, often associated with enclosed space, has retreated indoors into the safety of an exclusive home. In such poems, there is less stress on landscape and greater stress on the house, its traditions and immediate surroundings" (Allison 2008).
Conclusion: Comparing Yeats with Wilde and Lady Gregory
It should be noted that Yeats' vision of an ideal mythological Ireland is very different from that of previous Anglo-Irish fairytale writers such as Oscar Wilde, whose Irishness was almost masked and only later "the political, specifically socialist, valence of Wilde's fairy tales" has been emphasized by scholars "at least in part because of his own deliberate ambivalence about the intended audience for his fairy stories" (O'Connor 2008). Wilde's fairytales such as "The Happy Prince" depend on a contrast between the heartlessness of the rich and the need of the poor, and the charity of…