Mary Helen Thuente, Foreword to Representative Irish Tales, ed. W. B. Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979)

This volume contains the ‘Introduction’ to W. B. Yeats’s Stories from Carleton (1889) and Yeats’s two-volume anthology of nineteenth-century Irish fiction, Representative Irish Tales, which was first published in 1891 and which, despite its significance in Yeats’s early career, has long been out of print. Representative Irish Tales is a fine selection of Irish fiction and is as ‘representative’ of Yeats as it is of Irish novelists. Yeats’s introductory commentary and his editorial criteria and emendations provide an interesting perspective on a relatively unknown but influential phase of his early work.

Yeats’s characterization of contemporary poets in 1892, was also self-descriptive: ‘The typical young poet of our day is an aesthete with a surfeit, searching sadly for his lost Philistinism, his heart full of an unsatisfied hunger for the commonplace. He is an Alastor tired of his woods and longing for beer and skittles.’ [1] When Yeats wanted to ‘simplify’ and bring his work back down to earth after completing The Wanderings of Oisin in 1888, he turned to the folklore, life, and character of the Irish peasantry. His first literary treatment of the Irish peasantry and their folklore had been poetry modelled upon William Allingham’s and Samuel Ferguson’s ballads but he had soon become dissatisfied with this tradition as too artificial and too literary. He then started to learn about the peasantry for himself by collecting folklore from English-speaking peasants and by reading the Irish folklore in English that had been published throughout the nineteenth century. When he was selecting materials for his first anthology of previously published Irish folklore, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), his main interest had been the literary and occult use of the fairies. But he gradually realized that the character and imagination of the Irish peasant who believed in the fairies provided better subject matter. The fairies were not human and thus lacked the depth and tragedy that Yeats demanded of his materials; nor had. Irish fairy lore given Yeats the conclusive proof of occult phenomena he had hoped to find. So the Irish peasantry replaced the fairies as Yeats’s personification of energy, imaginative extravagance, and mystery. {7}

The Irish peasant had been examined in the greatest detail in Irish fiction, so in 1889 Yeats turned his attention to Irish fiction, selecting materials for Stories from Carleton (1889) and beginning, as he said, to read ‘all the chief Irish novelists of peasant life’ in preparation for his two-volume anthology of nineteenth-century Irish fiction, Representative Irish Tales, which appeared in March, 1891. In his ‘Introduction’ to Representative Irish Tales Yeats declared, ‘I have made the selection in such a way as to illustrate as far as possible the kind of witness they bear to Irish character.’ In a letter of December, 1889, Yeats had written to Father Matthew Russell of Representative Irish Tales, ‘I am trying to make all the stories illustrations of some phase of Irish life, meaning the collection to be a kind of social history.’ [2] The character and life of the Irish peasantry provided the focus for both anthologies.

Yeats selected five stories from William Carleton’s five-volume Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830-1833) for Stories from Carleton: “The Poor Scholar”, the story of a young peasant’s journey across Ireland in search of a clerical education; “Tubber Derg; or, the Red Well,” the tale of a peasant family’s eviction from their farm, “Wildgoose Lodge”, a nightmarish description of the revenge of one group of Irish peasants upon a rival faction; “Shane Fadh’s Wedding”, the boisterous account of a peasant wedding; and “The Hedge School”, a tale of the village life and secret societies of the Irish peasantry. Yeats used materials from ten Irish fiction writers in Representative Irish Tales, which includes the complete text of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, excerpts from Gerald Griffin’s The Collegians, Michael Banim’s The Mayor of Wind-Gap, Charles Lever’s Charles O’Malley and Charles Kickham’s For the Old Land, and several tales, including an anonymous one from an Irish chapbook.

In his nine-page ‘Introduction’ to Representative Irish Tales Yeats evaluates nineteenth-century Irish writers of fiction on the basis of how well they had depicted the Irish peasantry and their life. He excuses the literary shortcomings of some of his materials by declaring that the faults themselves were illustrative of Irish character. In the separate introductions to the individual authors which precede the selections from their fiction Yeats emphasizes the peculiarities of the authors’ lives as much as the nature of their fiction. For example, Yeats ignores Michael Banim’s humdrum life, and concentrates instead on his brother John’s fated love affair - while attending the funeral of his estranged lover, John caught a disease which was eventually fatal. In a similar {8} vein, Yeats points out that Charles Lever lived for a time among Canadian Indians and had an affair with an Indian maiden. This focus on the personalities and private lives of the authors, together with the emphasis on Irish character in the selections from their fiction, reflects Yeats’s growing interest in personality in literature and in life, which was in contrast to his praise of a few years earlier for the Irish ballad and its ‘impersonality’.

The ‘Introduction’ to Representative Irish Tales illustrates Yeats’s preference for authors who had been peasants themselves or who had grown up in close contact with the peasantry:

I notice very distinctly in all Irish literature two different accents - the accent of the gentry, and the less polished accent of the peasantry and those near them; a division roughly into the voice of those who lived lightly and gayly, and those who took man and his fortunes with much seriousness and even at times mournfully. The one has found its most typical embodiment in the tales and novels of Croker, Lover, and Lever, and the other in the ruder but deeper work of Carleton, Kickham, and the two Banims. There is perhaps no other country in the world the style and nature of whose writers have been so completely governed by their birth and social standing.

In an 1889 article Yeats had called William Carleton the greatest Irish novelist of the century because Carleton was a peasant and had ‘remained a peasant’ writing of the Irish countryside he knew so well.

Yeats’s own conception of the character of the Irish peasant resembled Carleton’s more than that of any other Irish novelist. In the ‘Preface to the First Series’ (1830) of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, Carleton declared that the author ‘disclaims subserviency to any political purpose whatsoever. His desire is neither to distort his countrymen into demons, nor to enshrine them as suffering innocents and saints, but to exhibit them as they really are - warm-hearted, hot-headed, affectionate creatures - the very fittest materials in the world for either the poet or the agitator - capable of great culpability, and of great and energetic goodness - sudden in their passions ... variable in their temper … at times rugged and gloomy ... often sweet, soft, and gay ... [3] But, whereas Carleton always emphasized the humanity of a peasantry known in the early nineteenth century chiefly for their brutality, Yeats sought a peasantry capable of deep passion and tragedy. In this sense, Yeats’s conception of the Irish character {9} owes more to Lady Wilde than it does to Carleton. In an essay on “Irish Nature” in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, Lady Wilde described the Irish character thus: ‘To believe fanatically, trust implicitly, hope infinitely, and perhaps to revenge implacably - these are the unchanging and ineradicable characteristics of Irish nature. … And it is these passionate qualities that make the Celt the great motive force of the world, ever striving against limitations towards some vision of ideal splendour.’ [4]

Yeats’s desire to present the life and character of the Irish peasantry was similar in motivation to the intentions of most nineteenth-century Irish novelists. Numerous introductions and prefaces to Irish novels had declared the same goal: to represent Ireland ‘as it really is’ for the first time. Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s comments as ‘editor’ of Castle Rackrent explained the need (which was to exist throughout the century) for novels based on Irish life: such works were ‘a specimen of manners and character which are perhaps unknown in England’. What little the English reader did know of Ireland was usually unpleasant —insurrections, conspiracies, duels. But the Act of Union in 1800 had made Ireland a matter of direct concern to the English public. Numerous novels about life in Ireland were produced during the century in answer to this desire for information about Ireland. [5]

Although Yeats’s selections in Representative Irish Tales represent most of the major Irish fiction writers of the century, he sought to counter three of the major ingredients of nineteenth-century Irish fiction: political and religious propaganda; sentimentality; and stage-Irish humour. Yeats’s critical judgments of Irish literature prior to his compilation of these two anthologies of Irish fiction had demonstrated his deep bias against propaganda, sentiment, and humorous caricature. Yeats had deplored Patrick Kennedy’s use of Irish folklore to preach moral maxims, and the political propaganda of the Young Ireland movement. Yeats had denounced Thomas Rice McAnally because ‘the Ireland he loves is not the real Ireland: it is the false Ireland of sentiment’, and had criticized a collection of tales by a contemporary Irish writer because, ‘Her whole book is simply a huge, iridescent tear. … [6] In place of the pathetic Irishman depicted in more lugubrious Irish fiction, Yeats’s early reviews and articles continually extolled the serious, reserved Irish peasant who was capable of deep passion. In his articles Yeats continually referred to Irish character in terms of ‘joy’ rather than humour, and he had {10} excluded materials from Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry which portrayed the foolish antics of the stage-Irishman.

The stories which Yeats selected for Stories from Carleton and Representative Irish Tales illustrate his attempt to replace political and religious propaganda with social history, lugubrious sentimentality with deep passion, and stage-Irish humour with joy and tragedy. Irish fiction was filled with propaganda about the heated political and religious controversies which - characterized Ireland’s relations with England during the century. In “The Trembling of the Veil” (1922) Yeats described the situation thus: ‘All the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland for blameless hero and poet; novelist and historian had but one object, that we should hiss the villain, and only a minority doubted that the greater the talent the greater the hiss. It was all the harder to substitute for that melodrama a nobler form of art, because there really had been, however different in their form, villain and victim. ... [7] In selecting materials for his anthologies, Yeats tried to hold a middle course between the extreme characterizations of the Irish and the English as ‘victim’ and ‘villain’. His selections do not belabour Irish suffering under English rule, nor do they depict the Irish peasantry as a group of barbarians about to overrun English outposts of civilization in Ireland. In his introductions Yeats minimized Carleton’s reputation as a propagandist, and did not use the more propagandistic of Carleton’s works, most notably Carleton’s famous, and most notoriously anti-Catholic tale, “The Lough Derg Pilgrim”. Yeats used Rosa Mulholland’s tale, “The Hungry Death”, which contained little of the intense Catholic and nationalistic propaganda so prevalent in most of her fiction. Yeats described Representative Irish Tales as ‘a kind of social history’ and praised Carleton as a ‘historian’, redefining history so as to exclude the divisive political and religious issues of Anglo-Irish relations and the ‘hopelessly dry-asdust’ traditions of Irish historical scholarship: ‘William Carleton was a great Irish historian. The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage. These things has Carleton recorded.’ [8] Yeats’s two anthologies present a panorama of the social life of the Irish peasantry rather than the political and religious controversies of the century.

However, as much as Yeats deplored political propaganda, Stories from Carleton and Representative Irish Tales are a form of pro-Irish propaganda. Yeats did include some implicitly anti-British {11} materials. In Stories from Carleton Yeats allowed Carleton’s disgressions about the unfair rental practices of the Anglo-Irish landlords to remain in “Tubber Derg”, although they could have been removed without affecting the plot in the same way that he had deleted descriptive passages from selections in his folklore anthologies. Whenever the Anglo-Irish gentry appear in Representative Irish Tales, it is in an unfavourable light. The antics of the Rackrent family are well-known. In Yeats’s selection from Gerald Griffin’s novel The Collegians, ‘The Death of the Huntsman’, a drunken master requests a dying peasant to sound the fox-hunting call for the entertainment of his drunken friends; the noble peasant, whose peace had already been shattered by their boisterous, drunken revels complies with the request and dies as a result. Yeats’s selection of material by Charles Lever entitled “Trinity College”, describes the ‘life of rackety and careless dissipation’ of the ‘young gentlemen’ of Trinity College, and satirizes a pedantic, ineffectual scholar. Yeats’s other selections are an obvious attempt to shape the reader’s view of Irish life and character. Yeats omitted all the virulent anti-Irish materials available to him, and concentrated instead on redefining the caricature of sentiment and humour which had represented the Irish character throughout the century.

From the beginning of his involvement with an Irish subject matter Yeats had identified a depth and steadfastness in Irish character quite different from the humorous, sentimental stereotypes of Irish fiction and the descriptions of James A. Froude and of Matthew Arnold. In 1886 Yeats had praised Samuel Ferguson as ‘the greatest Irish poet’ because his works embodied ‘more completely than in any other man’s writings, the Irish character. Its unflinching devotion to some single aim. Its passion ... [and] faithfulness to things tragic and bitter. … [9] Yeats’s early articles are filled with references to the implacability of Irish ‘passion’, and the word ‘sentimental’ occurs only in a derogatory sense. He inveighed against ‘convivial Ireland with the traditional tear and smile’ throughout his life.

His search for examples of deep passion rather than lighthearted sentiment in the Irish character is apparent in his selections for Stories from Carleton and Representative Irish Tales. In his ‘Introduction’ to Representative Irish Tales, Yeats remarks that Carleton, in whom ‘the true peasant was at least speaking’, brought ‘a passion, a violence, new to [the] polite existence’ of anglicized Dublin literary circles; Carleton’s fiction surpassed that of Lover, Croker, and Lever because Carleton combined humour {12} and passion, and because of ‘the sheer force of his powerful nature … full of violent emotions and brooding melancholy’. Carleton’s “Wildgoose Lodge”, the only story to appear in both Stories from Carleton and Representative Irish Tales, is a horrifying example of the deep passions which Yeats believed characterized the Irish peasant. In the story, one faction of Irish peasants set fire to the household of a rival faction. Women and children were pushed back into the flames when they tried to escape. Yeats included Carleton’s note that this ‘scene of hellish murder’ had indeed happened. In Representative Irish Tales, Carleton’s “The Battle of the Factions” describes how a young peasant killed a member of a rival faction with his scythe. The killer’s sister was in love with the murdered man and, unaware that the murderer was her own brother, she killed the murderer with a blow from behind and then went insane. The line between ‘passion’ and sentimental melodrama in such tales is indeed thin, but Carleton’s descriptions of violence, especially in “Wildgoose Lodge”, are generally unemotional and evoke a nightmarish world of undeniable energy and passion.

However, a number of Yeats’s selections, even some by Carleton, inevitably verge on melodrama because there was so much more sentimentality than vehement, cold-blooded passion in nineteenth-century Irish fiction. In Stories from Carleton, “Tubber Derg”, Carleton’s tale of a peasant family’s eviction, is filled with tearful partings and reunions, and sentimentalizes the death of a young child and the family’s visits to her grave. In “The Poor Scholar” Carleton describes the departure of a young Irish peasant to seek a clerical education as follows: ‘This to him was the greatest trial he had yet felt; long and heartrending was their embrace. Jemmy soothed and ‘comforted his beloved brother, but in vain. The lad threw himself on the spot at which they parted, and remained there until Jemmy turned an angle of the road which brought him out of his sight, when the poor boy kissed the marks of his brother’s feet repeatedly, and then returned home, hoarse and broken down with the violence of his grief.’ But both “Tubber Derg” and “The Poor Scholar” also contained nightmarish descriptions of famine which, if they did not actually convey passion, at least presented something far more serious in tone than ‘convivial Ireland of the tear and smile’. In “The Poor Scholar” Carleton matter-of-factly described starving and diseased peasants who, having been turned off their land and reduced to beggars, survived on weeds and furtively bled cows for food in prosperous landlords’ fields while cartloads of Irish farm {13} produce destined for English markets and under armed guard passed by the ditches in which the peasants lived.

Yeats’s letters indicate that he consciously sought tragic material for his anthologies. Father Russell sent Yeats two humorous stories by Rosa Mulholland, but Yeats used neither, and preferred instead “The Hungry Death”, her story about a young woman’s heroically unselfish deeds during a devastating famine on an island off the West coast of Ireland. In selecting materials from Carleton’s Traits and Stories, the source of all but one of the stories by Carleton in Yeats’s two anthologies, Yeats invariably chose the more sombre and least melodramatic. For example, the bloody death of the girl’s lover and her brother and her own subsequent insanity in “The Battle of the Factions” do indeed verge on melodrama. But Yeats could have used a similar story by Carleton, “The Donagh or, The Horsestealers”, in which a thief kills his daughter while aiming at his brother and is blinded by her spouting blood.

The nature of the peasant characters in ‘The Donagh’ is another indication why Yeats did not use it – the father is a thief and the daughter is about to betray him for a reward. Yeats used the stories from Carleton’s Traits and Stories which contained the more noble and least humorous characters. The father in “Tubber Derg” is reduced to pauperism but refuses to beg; the narrator of “Wildgoose Lodge” has reservations about the violent action in which he participates. The peasants in the stories from Traits and Stories which Yeats did not use are generally foolish, lazy, and mercenary. For example, “The Poor Scholar” is a much more serious portrayal of a young Irish peasant seeking a clerical education than “Denis O’Shaughnessy going to Maynooth”, a story in Traits and Stories which Yeats did not use. James McEvoy in “The Poor Scholar” wanted to become a priest for noble, unselfish reasons, but Denis O’Shaughnessy looked upon the priesthood as a call to the dinner tables and monetary endowments available to Irish priests. O’Shaughnessy, who really wanted to marry, and eventually does, is a petty despot to silly peasants who mistake his unintelligible Latin gibberish for learning.

The serious and often noble characterization of the Irish peasant was a criterion apparent in Yeats’s selections from other authors as well. The unselfishness of Thady, the peasant narrator of Castle Rackrent, is well-known. In Banim’s “The Stolen Sheep”, a father refuses, under threat of imprisonment, to give evidence against his own son as a point of honour. The contrast between the nobility of the dying peasant and the shallow, drunken gentry {14} is the focus of Griffin’s “The Death of the Huntsman”. The heroine of Rosa Mulholland’s “The Hungry Death” gives away her food to starving peasants, and dies of starvation herself after having given food to the wife of the man she loves. In another obvious attempt to show that Irish subject matter was capable of seriousness and tragedy, Yeats used Griffin’s “The Knight of the Sheep” in which the Lear theme forms the basis of the plot.

Yeats did not completely ignore the humour which was an inevitable ingredient in most nineteenth-century Irish fiction; instead he attempted to transform it. Just as Yeats had admired Douglas Hyde as the best Irish folklorist because ‘his work is neither humorous nor mournful; it is simply life’, Yeats’s anthologies of Irish fiction contain humour as well as the seriousness and passion which he intended to show were also part of the Irish character. Yeats admired Carleton because his work combined ‘humour and passion’. In 1889 Yeats wrote to Father Russell that Carleton and the Banims were the best Irish novelists of the century because ‘they saw the whole of everything they looked at, the brutal with the tender, the coarse with the refined’. [10] Yeats’s anthologies contain a large portion of brutality, immorality, and drunkenness. Yeats does not idealize the Irish peasants; instead he attempts to portray their energy and extravagance, which were as much a part of their comedy and immorality as of their tragedy and virtue.

Humour posed the least threat to Yeats’s purposes. Sentimentality contradicted the depths of emotion he was seeking in Irish fiction, and propaganda injected abstraction rather than energy into the fiction, but humour, as Yeats’s selections indicate, did not have to demean the Irish character. When an author such as Charles Kickham offered only scenes of sentiment, propaganda, or humour, Yeats invariably chose the latter. The humorous scene from Kickham’s novel, For the Old Land, entitled “The Pig-Driving Peelers” in Representative Irish Tales, is quite different in tone from the sentimentalists and propaganda which pervade the rest of the novel. The humour of “The Pig-Driving Peelers” does not demean the character of the Irish peasants involved as humour had belittled the Irish gentry in “Trinity College” by Charles Lever. The humorous tales in Representative Irish Tales convey a sense of energy and extravagance rather than mocking laughter. The Irish peasants are never portrayed as the foolish butts of laughter they had been as comic stage-Irish caricatures. In “The Pig-Driving Peelers”, Carleton’s “Condy Cullen and the Gauger”, Lover’s “Barny O’Reirdon”, Maginn’s “Father Tom and {15} the Pope’, and the anonymous “Darby Doyle’s Visit to Quebec”, the fantastic actions of the Irish peasants ultimately succeed and get the best of the non-peasant characters - the peelers, the tax collector, the learned navigators, the Pope, and the wealthy passengers. According to Yeats, the wild comedy of “Shane Fadh’s Wedding” in Stories from Carleton possessed ‘almost Chaucerian breadth and power’. [11]

The dramatic contrast between such humorous stories and the scenes of nightmarish violence and famine in other selections is quite effective. Benedict Kiely’s description of Carleton’s fiction –that it seemed ‘as if he were writing about a wake where noise and merriment were a mask for mourning’ [12] – conveys the mingled sense of comedy and pathos which characterizes Yeats’s anthologies. Their ultimate effect is one of reckless energy and vitality rather than light-hearted sentimentality.

The conception of the Irish peasant as visionary – so prevalent in Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) – is also apparent in his two anthologies of Irish fiction. When Yeats included Croker’s “The Confessions of Tom Bourke” in Representative Irish Tales, a selection which had also appeared in Fairy and Folk Tales, he appended a lengthy extract concerning the aesthetic, religious, and mysterious character of Irish fairy doctors from Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. In his selection ‘The Mayor of Wind-Gap’, an excerpt from Michael Banim’s novel The Mayor of Wind-Gap, Yeats introduces an aura of mystery which was not in his source. In the novel Banim had given twenty-three pages of explanatory commentary between the arrivals of two people during the Midsummer bonfires. Yeats omits the twenty-three pages and so in his excerpt the second figure arrives immediately after the first and no explanation is given for their bizarre appearance and actions:

At the crisis of the mystical festivity, a fellow uncouthly swathed from his neck to his heels in twisted straw ropes, wearing a ridiculous mask, and wielding a stick with a puffed bladder tied to its extremity, flapped and banged his way through the motley crowd with as much agility as his cumbrous clothing would permit. ... He was followed by another man of proportions as muscular as his own, fantastically dressed in female attire, also wearing a grotesquely, terrific mask, and armed in the same manner as his supposed protector. This absurd pair dashed through the shouting throng, dealing indiscriminately their blows on every head. {16}

The sense of mystery thus achieved is similar to the other-worldly dimension Yeats had sought to convey in Fairy and Folk Tales.

Because Yeats tried to minimize the propaganda, sentimentality, and comedy which had characterized nineteenth-century Irish fiction, Representative Irish Tales is more ‘representative’ of Yeats’s conception of the peasant than of Irish fiction in general. In addition to selecting materials from representative authors which reinforced his own notion of the Irish peasant, Yeats omitted some important nineteenth-century Irish fiction and novelists from Representative Irish Tales. He included none of the historical fiction which had made up a major portion of the Irish fiction of the century. Instead, he redefined ‘history’ as the common everyday life of the people. Yeats included no selection from Mrs. S. C. Hall’s numerous tales of Irish life, but not surprisingly, since her intention had been to point out the defects in the character of the Irish peasant. In the ‘Dedication’ to her Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1840), Mrs. Hall explained, ‘My design was to exhibit and illustrate those peculiarities in the Irish character which appear to be the root of evils in their condition. …’ [13] Even more significantly, Yeats included no selection by Sydney Owensen, Lady Morgan, who published more than seventy novels and the first of whose ‘National Tales’, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), was one of the most popular and influential Irish novels of the nineteenth century. The Wild Irish Girl went through seven editions in two years and, together with Tom Moore’s Irish Melodies, established the sentimental stereotype of Ireland which was no truer than that of the eighteenth-century stage Irishman. Yeats’s omission of Lady Morgan’s fiction would have been considered unusual by the nineteenth-century reading public. In a symposium discussing the ‘Best Hundred Irish Books’ in the Freeman’s Journal in 1885 to which noted Irishmen, ‘whose judgment on literary questions is held in universal and deserved esteem’, contributed letters, only John O’Leary, Yeats’s mentor, objected to including Lady Morgan’s fiction. [14] Earlier in the century William Carleton praised both Mrs. Hall and Lady Morgan as among those Irish authors who had all depicted the Irish as ‘capable of thinking clearly and feeling deeply’. [15]

In the ‘Introduction’ to Representative Irish Tales, Yeats admits that there are many imperfections in the fiction he anthologized. But, as he explained in 1895, although there were ‘many imperfect books’ in nineteenth-century Irish literary tradition, ‘under a mound of melodrama or sheer futility’ there was hid a ‘fire which cannot be had elsewhere in the world. [16] By his {17} own account, Yeats sought ‘powerful emotion’ and ‘noble types and symbols’ in the life and character of the Irish peasantry. [17] But ultimately the Irish peasant depicted in Irish fiction was unable to satisfy Yeats’s search for a uniquely Irish subject matter through which to convey passion and heroism. As Yeats declared in retrospect in 1908, it was often impossible to distinguish essential Irish elements from foreign qualities in ‘Irish novelists of the nineteenth century’, for it was ‘impossible to divide what is … Irish, from all that is foreign, from all that is an accident of imperfect culture, before we have had some revelation of Irish character, pure enough and varied enough to create a standard of comparison’. [18]

The anglicized peasants whom Yeats encountered around Sligo indicated how the elemental energy of Irish peasant life had waned in the course of the century. As early as 1889, Yeats admitted that ‘in Griffin and Kickham the tide began to ebb … It has quite gone out now - our little tide. The writers who make Irish stories sail the sea of common English fiction’, whereas the earlier writers such as Carleton and the Banims had made one ‘see life plainly but all written down in a kind of fiery shorthand that it might never be forgotten’. [19] Yeats’s realization that the suitability of the Irish peasant as a literary subject had waned in the course of the century deepened during the 1890s. In 1896 Yeats acknowledged that ‘Carleton lived only just in time to describe [the] manners and customs’ of ‘this strange Gaelic race … as they had been left by centuries of purely Gaelic influence, for the great famine changed the face of Ireland, and from that day a hundred influences which are not Gaelic began to mould [sic] them anew. His autobiography describes the actual wakes and faction fights and conspiracies and hedge schools and pilgrimages out of which he fashioned the half imaginary adventures of the “Traits and Stories”, and describes them not as one who observes them with the philosophical indifference of the historian, but with the moving sympathy of one who has himself mourned and conspired and learnt and taught and gone on pilgrimage, and to whom all these things are natural and inevitable’. [20] Even if the great famines of the 1840s had not destroyed Irish peasant life as Carleton knew it, the peasant life which Carleton celebrated could never have been ‘natural and inevitable’ to someone like Yeats who had not grown up a part of it.

Yeats’s study of nineteenth-century Irish fiction was part of his larger quest for a suitable Irish subject matter. As Yeats declared in 1895, although the ‘forms’ of life of pre-Famine Ireland have {18} passed away’, the ‘substance which filled these forms is the substance of Irish life’: the ‘same dominant moods’ - the ‘savage strength’, ‘tumultuous action’, ‘overshadowing doom’, ‘abounding vitality’, ‘wild Celtic melancholy’, and ‘almost spiritual grandeur’ - once available in the life of the Irish peasantry were still available in another Irish subject matter, ancient Irish myth. [21] It was to this tradition that Yeats turned after experimenting with Irish literary ballads, Irish folklore, and Irish fiction. But his involvement with Irish fiction was not merely an isolated phase of his development. Yeats originally formed the critical vocabulary of ‘joy’ and ‘vehemence’ and ‘tumultuous passion’, which he applied to his characterizations of ancient Irish heroes in his later poems and plays, during his study of the Irish peasantry. Yeats’s editions of Irish fiction are proof that when young he strove against the very sentimentality he has been accused of by critics of his early work, and that even during his so-called ‘Celtic Twilight’ period he admired what he described as ‘the abounding vitality’ of Carleton’s ‘vast multitude of grotesque, pathetic, humorous persons, misers, pig-drivers, drunkards, schoolmasters, labourers, priests, madmen …’ [22] In 1908 Yeats summed up his involvement with nineteenth-century Irish fiction: ‘I do not speak carelessly of the Irish novelists, for when I was in London during the first years of my literary life, I read them continually, seeking in them an image of Ireland that I might not forget what I meant to be the foundations of my art, trying always to winnow as I read ... it was from the novelists and poets that I learned in part my symbols of expression.’ [23]

Mary Helen Thuente


Notes
1. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Rhymers’ Club’ (April 23, 1892), in Letters to the New Island, ed. Horace Reynolds (Harvard UP 1934), p.146.
2. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis 1954), p.143.
3. William Carleton, ‘Preface to the First Series’ (1830), Tales and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, ed. D. J. O’Donoghue (London: J. M. Dent 1896), I, xxv.
4. Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland wtih Sketches of the Irish Past (London: Chatto & Windus 1889), pp.144-45.
5. Thomas Flanagan, The Irish Novelists: 1800-1850 (Columbia UP 1959), pp. 37-38.
6. Yeats, ‘Irish Wonders’ (30 March 1889), in Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats: First Reviews and Articles, ed. John P. Frayne (London: Macmillan 1970), p. 139; ‘The Three O’Byrnes’ (23 Nov. 1889), Letters to the New Island, p.89.
7. Yeats, ‘The Trembling of the Veil’ (1922), The Autobiography of W. B. Yeats (1938; rep. NY: Collier 1965), p. 138.
8. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, Stories from Carleton (London: Walter Scott, 1889), p.xvi.
9. Yeats, ‘The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson’ (9 Oct. 1886), in Uncollected Prose, p.87.
10. Yeats, Letters, p.143.
11. Yeats, ‘Carleton as an Irish Historian’ (3 Jan. 1890), in Uncollected Prose, p.168.
12. Benedict Kiely, Poor Scholar: A Study of the Works and Days of William Carleton (London: Sheed & Ward 1947), p.195.
13. Mrs S. C. Hall, ‘Dedication’, Stories of the Irish Peasantry (Edinburgh: Chambers 1840), p. 5.
14. The Best Hundred Irish Books: Introductory and Closing Essays by ‘Historicus’, and Letters (Dublin: 1886), pp.10, 28.
15. Carleton, ‘Author’s Introduction’ (1842), Tales and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1896), 1, xxxi.
16. Yeats, ‘Irish National Literature, IV: A List of the Best Irish Books’ (October, 1895), Uncollected Prose, p.385.
17. Yeats, ‘Old Gaelic Love Songs’ (October, 1893), Uncollected Prose, p.295,
18. Yeats, ‘Samhain: 1908’, in Explorations (NY: Macmillan 1962). p.235.
19. Yeats, Letters, p.143.
20. Yeats, ‘William Carleton’ (March 1896), in Uncollected Prose, p. 396.
21. Yeats, ‘Irish National Literature, I: From Callanan to Carleton’ (July 1895), in Uncollected Prose, p. 363-64.
22. Ibid, p. 364.
23. Yeats, Samhain (1908), p.235.

 

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