Yeats, William Butler
and the Little People
Strange Magazine, Number 4, ISSN 0894-8968
P.O. Box 2246, Rockville, MD 20852
In the late 1800s, William Butler Yeats came into contact with two
very unrelated movements, the Irish nationalists and the
Theosophists (an occult/magical sect), and took an active part in
both ... In 1890 he was "excommunicated" from the Theosophists by
their leader Madame Blavatsky, because of discrepancies in their
beliefs. Yeats then joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, another
occult sect, where he began to experiment with magic.
In contrast to the Theosophists, the Golden Dawn put emphasis not on
obscure and untraceable Indian and Buddhist masters, but on the
European mystical tradition, mainly the Kabbalah. Further
contrasting Madame Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn encouraged its members
to undertake occult experiments, "to demonstrate their power over
the material universe." ... Instead of giving Yeats theories as
Theosophy had done, the Golden Dawn gave him the opportunity and
method for constant experimentation and demon- stration. Yeats spoke
of it later as the chief influence upon his thought."
D.A. MacManus, one of the first to write a natural history of the
fairies, reports that his friend Yeats "was fully aware of the
'everyday aspect' of fairy lore and had great respect for it." In
fact, Yeats firmly believed in the objective reality of the
Brother Yeats and the Little People
by Ulrich Magin
In the last day of August 1938, according to the London Times
(September 6, 1938), John Mulligan encountered two fairies near
Ballingarry, West Limerick, Ireland. The day before, a boy named
Keely had seen one at the same place, a crossroad. The fairies were
two feet high, had hard, hairy, earless human-like faces, and were
dressed in red.
The first reaction of a "modern," educated person, after reading
this report, will be one of disbelief. But this initial reaction is
somewhat childish, and shows a lack of understanding of human
nature. I first became aware of the deeper layers of these folk-
beliefs when I visited Scotland some years ago and found myself
talking to people who had seen ghosts, or the Loch Ness monster, or
who firmly believed in goblins. And, apparently, they were all sane.
Few regions in Europe have firmer beliefs in goblins and other
supernatural creatures than Ireland. (In Iceland, another stronghold
of fairy-folklore, interpreters have officially been employed to
communicate with goblins as recently as 1984.) (1) The actual belief
in the "little people" is a very interesting topic, and in this
article I will discuss its sociological and psychological
I will also examine the influence the fairy-folklore had on modern
Irish literature, especially on William Butler Yeats, and how Yeats
incorporated the traditional ideas, as well as his personal
encounters with these beings, into his mystical belief- system and
his poetic writings. Yeats was deeply involved in the fairy-belief,
and made it the subject of his writings and poetry. He believed in
their reality, like his ancestors had done centuries before, and
justified his ideas with European and Oriental mystical tradition.
His mystic thoughts tied strongly to his poetic and political ideas,
so it is useful to begin with a "natural history" of the fairies to
show how they were described before Yeats took hold of the subject.
The Natural History Of The Fairies
Fairies are a universal phenomenon, known to every country and
people of the world. But while in most parts of Europe the belief in
fairies vanished with the beginning of the Enlightenment, it
continued in more remote parts of our planet, such as Ireland,
Scotland, and Iceland. While a certain (and often far-reaching)
similarity exists between the legends of the various regions, I will
concentrate on Irish goblins, fairies and banshees, as they,
obviously, were the main source of inspiration for Irish writers and
Fairies, in general, were (are) small, but not tiny, creatures,
about three to five feet in height, wearing mainly red or green
dresses. In contrast to ghosts, they were not regarded as
supernatural beings, but rather as actual beings with many
supernatural aspects. Their origin is not explained, but there is
general agreement among the people that the "little people" or
"gentle folk" are fallen angels. Scholars have classified them as
"natural spirits," being manifestations of natural forces rather
than immortal souls, like ghosts. Fairies can die, just as they can
give birth to children.
Elizabeth Andrews, a 19th-century folklorist, summarized the general
appearance of fairies in this way:
"The fairies are small people, but no mushroom could give them
shelter. The colour red seems to be clearly associated with these
little people. I have frequently been told of the small men in red
jackets running about the forts....Fairies have red hair." (2)
They also sometimes possess very large feet (3) and abnormally long
arms, "so long that they can pick up anything off the ground without
They live in raths and dolmens, the remains of prehistoric humans.
They often trade with people, and, if not disturbed, will be very
generous -- sometimes they show ordinary humans places where
treasure has been buried. If treated badly, they will take revenge,
making ill the animals of a farmer, disturbing his house in the
guise of poltergeists, or even tormenting humans.
But fairies were enraged not only when they had been cheated in
trade or treated badly otherwise, but also when their dwellings were
destroyed: their raths, forts, tress, bushes and paths. McManus (5)
gives the example of a house of which one corner had been built on a
fairy path. "Serious disturbances" were the result, so that the
original corner was finally removed. This ended the disturbances.
But fairies do not belong to folk legends alone: there have been,
and still are, many eyewitness reports, some very recent. These
sightings verify the claims made in legends and general
In the 19th century, a farmer saw, one stormy night, several little
creatures with red hair in a valley of the Mourne Mountains. A woman
of Tullamore Park, County Down, observed "wild looking figures with
scanty clothing whose hair stood up like the mane of a horse." (6)
A child of four or five years of age was lying in the grass at
Maghera, County Down, when "little men about two feet in height"
danced around him. His father chased the beings away, but his son
had become deaf, and only recovered ten years later. This is also
alleged to have happened in the 19th century. (7)
At Crom, near Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, leprechauns, mainly
accompanied by strange globes of light (preceding modern UFO
reports) were frequently observed at the beginning of the 20th
On a September evening in 1907, a French maid and Lord Erne's
governess were rowing across the lake when "they saw the small
figure of a man walking on the water from the direction of Crom
Castle past the ferry towards Corlat." (8)
Another leprechaun used to visit the priest's daughter at nighttime;
he would stand at one end of her bed grinning at her. This is a
well-known folk motif and a common hallucination, termed "bedside
visitor" by psychologists. (9)
These recent reports, as well as the uniformity of the traditional
stories, have always surprised and puzzled the scholars (as well as
Yeats, but more of him later), and they made several attempts to
explain them in some rational way. In doing so they more often
mirrored the spirit of their own time rather than the spirits they
were writing about.
Elizabeth Andrews, who conducted her research at the end of the 19th
century and early in the 20th century, following the doctrine of her
time, tried a rational/biological solution. In the 19th and 20th
centuries, until the atom bomb was dropped, the faith of the people
in rational science and progress was unshaken, and scholars thought
they could solve every problem or mystery if they had enough time.
(It is ironic that the most exact of all sciences, physics,
shattered that simple ideology with Einstein's theory of relativity,
and later, even more occult ideas.)
So, Andrews concluded that
fairies do not only exist, but that they are the last descendants of
a race of dwarfs -- a pygmy race that once lived all over Europe
(and so the rationality of the world was re-established).
"It is possible that, as larger races advanced, these small people
were driven southwards to the mountains of Switzerland, westwards
towards the Atlantic, and northward to Lapland, where their
descendants may still be found." (10)
(Note the innocent use of the word race, also typical of the 19th
century, that led to disaster in Germany later -- yet, at the
beginning of the 20th century, Andrews insisted that the Finnish
people were a different race than the other Europeans pygmies!)
Indeed, she produces evidence for that alleged race:
"Professor Kollmann mentions several places in Switzerland where
skeletons of dwarfs have been found ... If I might hazard a
conjecture, I should say that both in Ireland and in Switzerland
dwarf races had survived far into Christian times, perhaps to a
comparatively recent period." (11)
From a modern perspective, this viewpoint seems, to put it mildly,
without base; or our brave explorers hunting the snowman of the
Himalayas could save money and energy and hunt the missing link in
The 1970s, with sociology as science and ideology gaining new ground
among the rebellious youth, brought another theory -- this (equally
unbased) idea was offered in an otherwise brilliant book by Keith
Thomas. (12) He observed that fairies disliked dirt, and would
plague an untidy house in the form of poltergeists. Also, they would
take away children that were badly looked after, and substitute them
with an ugly, badly behaved changeling.
Now, following a strict, functionalistic sociological analysis, he
claims that fairy folklore such as this had been established to make
sure that women cleaned their house, or did not leave their babies
unguarded. The universal belief in goblins in the Middle Ages
therefore was a gentle way of control and education. Yet, while this
might explain why fairy folklore managed to stay alive for such a
long time, it definitely cannot explain the recent sightings, and I
doubt if it really explains any aspect of the phenomenon at all. I
personally met a police officer from the Orkneys, Scotland, who
every morning put a bowl of milk for the goblins outside to keep
them good-tempered. I would rather think that fairies are real than
that this man was following a traditional system of education.
The most recent idea (or, at least, the most popular theory at the
moment) is that goblins are folk-memories of the old pagan gods,
which were banned when St. Patrick arrived in the country. This
could explain why the "little people" are considered as fallen
angels. But with the new interest in witchcraft (and the many quite
curious feminist interpretations of it) and paganism, many authors
establish concepts that are hard to swallow, such as tracing back
individual fairies to Greek or Egyptian gods.) F. Logan's attempt is
by far the best that I have seen:
"The 'Old Gods,' the 'Good People' and the 'Fairies' are but a few
of the names given to the pre-Christian gods and goddesses of the
last Celtic invaders of Ireland. Their folk religion quickly took
root and, highly Christianized, proved remarkably resilient in the
face of change: for well over a thousand years the 'Old Gods' were
universally believed in and their lore considered history." (13)
There are other theories that sound crazy at first, but may be worth
consideration in the light of modern psychology. Jacques Vallee and
John A. Keel, (14) for example, discuss fairy lore in the context of
early observations of humanoids (UFO-occupants).
Author Stan Gooch thinks that ghosts, fairies and demons are
creatures of the unconscious mind. Yeats also thought that fairies
were symbolic expressions of a racial memory, which, through some
parapsychological process, become reality. Again, his book has some
remarkable ideas, but his occult reasoning asks for a gullible
reader. (Nevertheless, I think Yeats would have liked it.)
Fairies may also be very common hallucinations (which might be
perceived as Venusians in a metropolitan context). According to C.G.
Jung, hallucinations are,
"not merely a pathological phenomenon but
one that also occurs in the sphere of the normal." (16)
consider fairies and banshees as archetypal visions triggered by
stress, (17) we can also explain why all fairies of the world (and
not only the Celtic world) seem to be similar and why they resemble
modern eyewitness accounts so much. Certainly, stress situations
seldom occur in rural communities such as those from which we have
the most traditions, but the general acceptance of the phenomenon
may provide a similar trigger function. (That is, in sociological
terms, that observations of goblins are well within the norm.) If
fairy reports have this psychological origin, then to understand
them would be essential in order to understand a large group of
people in Ireland -- those who believe in or see fairies. That is
exactly what Yeats found himself, and explains why he was so
concerned with the "gentle folk."
The Goblin Folklore In Irish Literature
In seeking for the traces of the Irish folk-belief in goblins and
other supernatural beings, we can obviously neglect those writers
such as Sean O'Casey who are nationalists but concerned themselves
mainly with the present, or historical events, and not with the
cosmological concepts of the people; and writers like James Joyce
who found (or find) the newborn faith and nationalism and interest
in folklore amusing rather than worth consideration in their work.
On the other side, all authors writing about the life in the country
can be expected to deal with goblins, fairies and banshees, as well
as those interested in the resurrection of the old myths (which are
mainly the authors of the Irish Renaissance, Yeats, Lady Gregory and
A fine example for the first category is Cork-born writer Frank
O'Connor, whose short story First Confession contains a description
of a curious story, allegedly true, that O'Connor (or his hero, to
be correct) recounts as a childhood memory. When the protagonist is
instructed for his first confession by an elderly, obviously
neurotic woman, she relates the story of a sinner and the dreadful
consequences of his "bad confession" -- a journey into hell (as a
warning for potential future sinners among her flock):
"Another day she said she knew a priest who woke one night to find a
fellow he didn't recognize leaning over the end of his bed. The
priest was a bit frightened -- naturally enough, but he asked the
fellow what he wanted, and the fellow said in a deep, husky voice
that he wanted to go to confession ... the fellow said the last time
he went to confession, there was one sin he kept back, being ashamed
to mention it, and now it was always on his mind. Then the priest
knew it was a bad case, because the fellow was after making a bad
confession and committing a mortal sin. He got up to dress, and just
then the cock crew in the yard outside, and -- lo and behold! --
when the priest looked around there was no sign of the fellow, only
a smell of burning timber, and when the priest looked at his bed
didn't he see the print of two hands burned in it?" (18)
Here O'Connor mixes three rather distinct folk-motifs: the "grinning
man" or bedside visitor, (such as the leprechauns at Crom); the
banshee leaving a burning mark of her five fingers; (19) and a more
traditional ghost story.
It is likely that this hybrid supernatural creature is a real
tradition recounted by O'Connor from his time in Cork, but it's
unusual enough to leave room for doubt whether it's a genuine
tradition. This carelessness does not seem to be important in a work
that does not claim to represent true Irish folk-stories, but we
will later see that Yeats, who claimed just that, has sometimes been
guilty of a similar carelessness.
As I have pointed out, anyone who wants to describe the Irish
country people and their psychology must at one time or other refer
to their supernatural beliefs. Though the Irish folklore includes
many mystical creatures besides the "gentle people," like pucas
(animal fairies), horse-eels (lake monsters), mermaids and ghosts,
which have all been referred to by Yeats, I will concentrate on the
I have already given an example of how fairylore was incorporated
into literature in order to capture the attitudes and ideas of
people. The most serious attempt in this direction was undertaken by
W.B. Yeats, who not only collected fairy-folklore, but experimented
with magic and occult formulas to evoke the beings -- with success,
as we shall see. W.B. Yeats's philosophy in regard to these
creatures, and the way he used folk stories and his own experiences
in an attempt to create "literature/folklore" is the main subject of
William Butler Yeats was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1865. His
grandfather, also named W.B. Yeats, was a deeply orthodox rector of
the Church of Ireland. His father, J.B. Yeats, in contrast, was a
rationalist skeptic and atheist -- and W.B. Yeats was to unify both
in his character: He "erected an eccentric faith somewhere between
his grandfather's orthodox belief and his father's unorthodox
disbelief," his biographer Ellman writes. (20)
The family moved between London, Dublin and Sligo, and Sligo must
have been where Yeats heard first what was later to influence his
whole art and poetry: the fairy tales of the ordinary Irish people.
His mother told him of leprechauns and goblins, and later he heard
the country people talk of their beliefs and experiences with the
"little people." A world where even the grown-ups believe in fairy
tales must be a child's wonderland. "The place that really
influenced my life most was Sligo," he wrote years later. (21)
From 1874 to 1880 he lived in England, where he went to school.
After that the family moved to Howth, where he would spend most of
his time outside, dreaming. He began to read and write poetry.
He failed to meet the entrance requirements to Trinity College, and
so studied at the School of Art in Dublin, where he studied
painting, and, more importantly, met George Russell (better known
under his pen-name "AE").
Russell was a visionary and Yeats, who had given up orthodox
religion in 1880, was initiated by him into the world of the
supernatural. Yeats wrote symbolistic poetry, and experimented with
visions and hallucinations. He learned to hate science, which he saw
as being in direct contrast to poetry, beauty and truth.
In the late 1800s, he came into contact with two very unrelated
movements, the Irish nationalists and the Theosophists (an
occult/magical sect), and took an active part in both.
Yeats is generally regarded as the founder, and certainly as a
leading figure, of the Irish Literary Revival, a rediscovery of the
old Celtic traditions and forms of art. He "discovered" and
supported many writers who became important personalities in the
movement, like John M. Synge and Lady Gregory. With Lady Gregory he
founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; first intended as a stage for
mystical and occult plays, it became an important place for all
genres of Irish theatre. (One of Yeats' own early plays, Land of
Heart's Desire, deals with peasants and goblins.)
In 1890 he was "excommunicated" from the Theosophists by their
leader Madame Blavatsky, because of discrepancies in their beliefs.
Yeats then joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, another occult sect,
where he began to experiment with magic.
During all this time of involvement with mystical and nationalist
groups, he kept on writing and campaigning for original, autonomous
Irish art. Yeats wrote prose, poetry, plays, essays, and parts of an
autobiography. Eventually, he became one of Ireland's most prominent
In 1922, one of the objectives he had always fought for, an
independent Irish state, was established. In 1924 Yeats was awarded
the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died, a very respected and
admired man, in 1939.
This brief sketch of Yeats' life shows two topics that stand out:
his interest in mysticism and his strong nationalism. Both are of
great importance in regard to Yeats's dealings with goblin lore.
Yeats And The Theosophical Society
In 1884, when Yeats read Charles Johnson's The Occult World, he
became convinced of the reality of occult phenomena and of the
claims of Madame Blavatsky, an extremely interesting modern mystic.
Blavatsky had founded the Theosophical Society, allegedly based on
secret Tibetan teachings. Despite the fact that the London-based
Society for Psychical Research had demonstrated in 1885 that the
lady was an impostor, Yeats trusted her more than the scientists, as
she confirmed his rejection of materialism.
"The Theosophists reinforced their doctrines with examples from
Eastern religions, from European occultism, mysticism, philosophy,
and, when it served their purpose, from science," according to
Yeats's interest in occultism was enormous:
to persist in a study which I decided ... to make next to my poetry,
the more important pursuit of my life ... The mystical life is the
centre of all I do and all that I think and all that I write," he
says in a letter in August 1892. (23)
It is only as a consequence of this strong interest that Yeats felt
a desire to experiment with the supernatural. But Madame Blavatsky
had forbidden her followers to "plunge too deeply into Theosophical
depths," and warned them of the dangers of black magic.
This could hardly satisfy Yeats, and he went to seances. On one
occasion the alleged supernatural phenomenon so impressed him "that
he lost control of himself and beat his head on the table." (24)
For this disobedience, he received severe criticism from Madame
Blavatsky. This happened in the summer of 1888, yet on Christmas of
that year he still believed in her and formally joined the Society.
"The Theosophists gave him support because they accepted and
incorporated into their system ghosts and faeries, and regarded
dreams and symbols as supernatural manifestations," Ellmann
Then, in December 1889, he began several experiments to satisfy
himself that occult phenomena were real -- without success. Though
he never doubted Theosophy, and continued to believe in the
supernatural world (as he did all his life), the experiments did not
help to settle the problems he had with Madame Blavatsky. The
relationship at this time had definitely cooled down. His last
public appearance at the Society took place in August 1890, after
which he was "excommunicated."
The Golden Dawn
Yeats, after his "excommunication," did not have to stand alone
against a fortress of rationality. On March 7, 1890, months before
his expulsion, he had joined the Hermetic Students of the Golden
Dawn, another occult sect, which had, among others, the notorious
Aleister Crowley among its members.
In contrast to the Theosophists, the Golden Dawn put emphasis not on
obscure and untraceable Indian and Buddhist masters, but on the
European mystical tradition, mainly the Kabbalah. Further
contrasting Madame Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn encouraged its members
to undertake occult experiments, "to demonstrate their power over
the material universe." (26)
That was more to Yeats's taste. (A
complete history of the Order of the Golden Dawn and its various
followers, including Yeats and Crowley, can be found in Colin
Wilson's The Occult.) (27)
Yeats saw a close relationship between "enchantment" in magic and in
literature. Again, he experimented, and met with immediate success:
"Early in his acquaintance with Mathers (tbe leader of the Golden
Dawn), the magician put the Tantric symbol of fire against his
forehead, and Yeats slowly perceived a huge titan rising from desert
sands. He was greatly excited because this kind of vision seemed to
him to confirm his beliefs in the supernatural ... Soon he was
experimenting upon all his friends and acquaintances, sometimes with
remarkable success ... Instead of giving Yeats theories as Theosophy
had done, the Golden Dawn gave him the opportunity and method for
constant experimentation and demonstration. Yeats spoke of it later
as the chief influence upon his thought." (28)
(See also Yeats's own account in Wilson's "The Occult".) (29)
As the subject of this article is Yeats's views about and use of
fairy folklore, I shall leave his mystical experiments here (we will
find some of them, in the form of attempts to raise fairies, later).
Yeats considered occult visions as very important, and he was fully
convinced that all phenomena experienced by him were objectively
real and genuine -- and I'm not in a position to judge this (though,
in my own materialistic Weltanschauung, most of it seems to be
rather strange). Add to these convictions Yeats's nationalism, and
you will realize why Irish supernatural beings were to play such an
important role in his work.
Irish Nationalism And Folklore
In the 19th century, Douglas Hyde, in an attempt to promote an
original Irish literature, founded the Gaelic League. He wanted a
"de-Anglicization" of Ireland. After all, he argued, a people is not
only a group of people, but a group of people sharing common ideas
and mythologies -- so, for the Irish to find their own identity, it
was essential to get rid of the British culture that ruled the
Yeats was soon among Hyde's followers, as well as other writers of
the Irish Literary Revival, who had the same objectives:
"Hyde, Yeats, AE, Synge and Lady Gregory, each wanted, though each
used different words to express his intention, to de- Anglicize, to
de-provincialize Ireland and to make it live again in all its
individuality as a Celtic country, different in race, in traditions,
in ancestral glories from the neighbouring island that had looked,
not only across, but down on it for so long." (30)
There were obviously two ways to do this: first, to use the Irish
language as basis for the literary work (as Hyde did), but this
meant also to provincialize the literature, as there was no large
audience for works in Gaelic; and second, somewhat more moderate, to
use the language and stories of the people, but to write in English
-- a language, after all, with one of the biggest possible audiences
in the world.
"Folk Art," writes Yeats in his Mythologies,(31) "is indeed the
oldest of the aristocracies of thought ... it is the soil where all
great art is rooted."
This view, combined with his great occult
interest, led to an emphasis on the mythological and supernatural
aspects of the folklife in Ireland; in contrast to, for example,
O'Connor, who also used the language of the people and Irish
settings, but stayed down-to-earth in the subjects he chose.
As in the Golden Dawn, Yeats soon found a home in the nationalist
movement -- which suggests that he always needed a firm group or
society to cling to or identify with, and that he might have had a
weak self-confidence which needed the safety of friends who shared
his ideas (especially when one had exotic ideas like the ones Yeats
held). Significantly, he explained later,
"from O'Leary's [the
nationalists' leader] conversation, and from the Irish books he lent
or gave me has come all I have set my hands to since." (32)
remember that Yeats had also called the Golden Dawn the "chief
influence" upon his thought. This feature of Yeats's character is
mentioned in none of his biographies, but it could explain his
belief in the occult: what a boost of his self-confidence it must
have meant to be able to communicate with spirits, and so prove to
the rest of the world that it had been wrong!
(Wilhelm Reich, the
eminent psychologist, in his study of fascism, explains that weak
characters constitute the main body of such movements and use
pathetic words like "race" to be part of a more important total;
this may also explain some other aspects of Yeats.)
It seems that his occult and nationalistic activities, although he
saw no relationship himself, tended to confirm each other; so that
'the interest in fairies and folktales, which he had learned from
his mother in his boyhood, now had the sanction of O'Leary's
authority," writes Ellmann. (33)
His occult experiments confirmed his nationalism, and his
nationalism, in some way, justified his magical experiments. (34)
The same mixture between occult and nationalist views led to
disaster in Germany, and therefore it is possibly no great surprise
to find Yeats among the supporters of the fascist General O'Duffy,
for whom he even wrote marching songs. (35) Though it is true that
he soon understood his enormous mistake and turned away from
fascism, it is also evident that his biographer Ellmann plays down
the whole episode. (36) Be that as it may, the role the Literary
Revival, and Yeats as one of its leaders, played in the
establishment of an independent Irish nation should not be
Yeats And The Fairies
Yeats's mystical beliefs, combined with his patriotic ideas, make
him a man who represents a continuum in the telling of folklore; a
man who is aware of both the poetic and political importance of
folklore and convinced of the truth of the stories.
If he had not believed in the reality of the fairies, he would have
either treated them in an academic way, or as simple poetic stories,
but Yeats represents a traditional story-teller who knows about the
poetry and truth of his story -- there is no real difference in the
attitude of a simple countryman and Yeats's towards the supernatural
It is from this context that I now try to show how he used, changed,
collected and told fairy tales. Though Yeats' ideas about the
"gentle folk" have been referred to in passing, some clarification
is necessary. McManus, one of the first to write a natural history
of the fairies, reports that his friend Yeats "was fully aware of
the 'everyday aspect' of fairy lore and had great respect for it."
(37) In fact, Yeats firmly believed in the objective reality of the
creatures. (38) In 1888, he asserted in the preface of a book about
fairy lore which he had collected:
"that the Irish peasants, because of their distance from the centers
of the Industrial Revolution, have preserved a rapport with the
spiritual world and its fairy denizens which has elsewhere
disappeared. He makes speeches declaring his belief in the fairies,
though if hard pressed he will say that he believes in them as
'dramatizations of our moods'." (39)
Another definition of the fairies, made by Yeats under the influence
of the Theosophists, is also quoted by Ellman:
"The fairies are the lesser spiritual moods of the universal mind,
wherein every mood is a soul and every thought is a body." (40)
So here we find the "little people" not as an expression of the
imagination of the people, but as manifestations of the "universal
mind," which Yeats had substituted for the God of his grandfather.
This kind of pantheism is another expression of Yeats's attempts "to
bring together all the fairy tales and folklore he had heard in
childhood, the poetry he had read in adolescence, the dreams he had
been dreaming all his life." (41)
Yeats's writings on fairies can be roughly divided into three
distinct groups: first, his collections of original traditions;
second, his own allegedly genuine experiences; and third, the poetic
and dramatic writing that made use of the fairy lore.
In 1888, Yeats spent his holiday in Sligo collecting local
fairylore, and before 1890 he had edited several small books on
Irish fairy and folktales. In a letter to Katharine Tynan, written
in 1888, he speaks critically of his works:
"The worst of me is that if my work is good it is done very slowly
-- the notes to folklore book were done quickly and they are bad or
at any rate not good. Introduction is better. Douglas Hyde gave me
much help with the footnotes, etc." (42)
Here we find again that his mysticism and nationalism find their
best common expressions in fairy stories.
In the preface to his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish
Peasantry, he states, in a nearly scientific manner:
"As to my own
part in this book, I have tried to make it representative, as far as
so few pages would allow, of every kind of Irish folk faith." (43)
He later gave this up when he used traditional stories as a basis
for his own writings, or as illustrations for his own beliefs.
In his autobiographical sketches, Yeats explains how he gathered
some of the stories that later became his collections, or were used
as foundations for his own poetical work:
"We had a regular servant, a fisherman ... (My mother) and the
fisherman's wife would tell each other stories that Homer might have
told, pleased with any moment of sudden intensity and laughing
together over any point of satire. There is an essay called Village
Ghosts in my Celtic Twilight which is but a report of one such
afternoon, and many a fine tale has been lost because it had not
occurred to me soon enough to keep notes." (44)
This was in Howth, near Dublin. Yeats not only kept notes of the
stories his mother and the fisherman's wife told each other, but
also went to the country to collect stories in a more active way:
"Yes, he noticed, if you are a stranger, you will not readily get
ghost and fairy legends, even in a western village. You must go
adroitly to work, and make friends with the children and the old
men, with those who have not felt the pressure of mere daylight
existence, and those with whom it is growing less, and will have
altogether taken itself off one of these days. The old women are
most learned, but will not so readily be got to talk, for the
fairies are very secretive, and much resent being talked of; and are
there not many stories of old women who were nearly pinched into
their graves or numbed with fairy blasts?" (45)
His experiences with living traditions led Yeats to postulate that
"every Celt is a visionary without scratching." (46) This leads me
to Yeats's claimed first-hand experiences with super- natural
Early in his autobiography, Yeats relates the day his brother died.
"Next day at breakfast I heard people telling how my mother and the
servant had heard the banshee crying the night before he died." (47)
Later Yeats himself made -- with the aid of magic -- the
acquaintance of an earth spirit.
On another occasion, as he described in his Autobiographies, he
tried to invoke the "spirit of the moon." He continued invocations,
"night after night just before I went to bed, and after many nights
-- eight or nine perhaps -- I saw between waking and sleeping, as in
a cinematograph, a galloping centaur, and a moment later a woman of
incredible beauty, standing upon a pedestal and shooting an arrow at
a star." (48)
Yeats later discovered similar dreams and symbols, which led him to
believe that he had seen an archetypal image that was rooted in his
racial memory. He used this vision in a poem twenty years later,
according to Kathleen Raine (though she does not state which poem,
and I haven't been able to identify it).
This leads to the question of how Yeats used his first-hand
experiences and traditional stories in his poetic writings.
First-Hand Supernatural Experiences And Folktales In Yeats's
Yeats devoted a whole book, The Celtic Twilight (later incorporated
into a larger volume, Mythologies), to these aspects. In this book,
he makes use of folklore and turns it into poetry -- still with a
fine sense for the language that ordinary people would use, but it
undoubtedly is Yeats -- perhaps the best solution of his attempt.
Mythologies relates stories of ghosts (which his mother had told
him); goblins (here he draws on his experiences, and tales he had
been told); and stories about popular superstitions, such as A
Sailor's Religion. In the book Yeats also pays tribute to his old
master of the Golden Dawn, Mathers. The tales The Sorcerers, Regina,
Regina Pigmeorum, Veni, A Voice and The Golden Age all deal with
Yates's own visions of spirits and ghosts.
Reading this book, one has the feeling of listening to ordinary
people sitting around a peat-fire and relating ordinary stories --
an enchantment few other books of this kind manage to create. But of
course Yeats as a poet and editor is always present. In regard to
fairies, Yeats quotes what a declared skeptic of the supernatural
had told him:
"one can question ghosts, and even God, but one never
doubts the fairies -- as they stand to reason." (49)
Yeats's poetry is also mainly based on old Irish sages, and, in some
parts, his adventures with the paranormal and folk traditions of it.
According to Kathleen Raine, who has made an in depth study of
Yeats's magical and occult beliefs and his role in the Golden Dawn,
(50) the poem A Statesman's Holiday (51) is based on the Tarot. (The
last paragraph of the poem is a description of the "Fool" card of
the Tarot.) The Tarot was also laid by the Theosophists and is
described, with much irony, in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land as a "wicked
pack of cards" with Madame Blavatsky under the pseudonym of Madame
Other poems deal with the fairies themselves, such as The Hosting of
the Sidhe, for which, like many other poems, he wrote an elaborate
explanation. (52) At the time of the composition of the poem, he was
also working on a series of six articles about fairies for various
periodicals, and the poem shows how this more scientific work got
its poetic expression. Yeats even includes in the poem minute
details of fairylore, such as the belief that whirlwinds mark the
passage of the "little people," without making it sound too
"The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round, Our cheeks are pale, our
hair is unbound." (53)
Other poems using fairy lore are A Lover's Quarrel Among the
Fairies, (54) which sounds very elaborate and therefore is less
convincing, and The Priest and the Fairy. (55) The latter poem
describes a goblin "three spans high as he rose to his feet" and his
hair was as yellow as waving wheat" -- in full accordance with the
traditional image. This goblin asks a priest where "the souls of
fairies go," a folk-motif known as "the fairy question."
"little people" were regarded as fallen angels (they sided with
Lucifer), so people say, their strongest desire is to return to
Heaven, but when they asked St. Patrick, he had to tell them that
they would never be allowed to return (though some versions of the
legends add that God himself, by means of a miracle, pointed out the
possibility of a return). However, since then, whenever the fairies
find a priest, they ask him this all-important question (and they
always get the same sad news). Yeats used the plot unaltered, and,
by adding dialect spellings and simple phrasing, tried to improve
the sense of authenticity. This example illustrates well the manner
in which he was working, and demonstrates Yeats's successful fusion
of folklore and poetry.
In one of his last poems, Under Ben Bulben, (56) in a kind of
resume, he reassures his readers of what he had always been trying
to tell them: "ancient Ireland knew it all." This includes both his
occult ideas and his nationalism. Under Ben Bulben is in fact a
summary of all of Yeats's philosophy, and well underlines how
important, even for our modem age, he considered the old traditions
of the ordinary people. The poem ends with his epitaph, confirming
its programmatic nature.
The Effect Of Yeats's Fairy Writings
After all of Yeats's obsession with supernatural creatures, what
effect did his collections, his poetic works, have?
The influence that Yeats had on the formation of the modern public
image of the fairies is not easy to assess. Hardly any book written
on folklore after his death fails to mention him, or to quote at
least two or three lines of one of his poems about the gentle
people. Indeed, the very name of Yeats has become a synonym for a
"collector of folklore." Lysaght complains in her books that most
people seem not to be aware that new folklore has been collected
since Yeats! (57)
Yet this has disadvantages as well as advantages. Some of what Yeats
has added to folklore (and he always added some of his own
philosophical ideas) has been taken for genuine folklore by later
writers -- so great is their trust in his authenticity.
In his Irish Fairy Tales (1892) he writes, based on a fictional
account by D.R. Anally (1888) that,
"when more than one banshee is
present and they wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of
somebody holy or a great one." (58)
Lysaght, in her thorough study of the banshee, found no single
instance of the banshee in the plural -- there simply never existed
such a folk belief. Yet Yeats's words are quoted in Katharine
Brigg's Dictionary of Fairies (1976) as authentic folklore.
Another time Yeats mentions the "fact" that banshee usually wear
green -- but this "stands isolated as literary invention," as
Lysaght puts it.
On the positive side, Yeats surely focused attention on the whole
topic, and, inspired by him, a number of good collections of
stories, as well as non-fiction books about fairies (for example,
McManus' The Middle Kingdom, which is dedicated to Yeats) have been
But though Yeats's influence must be considered strong among
scholars or lovers of literature, the general public, while
remembering him as a collector and poet, ignores his views to a
Fairies And Goblins After Yeats
Disney's Cinderella and other cartoons did far more than Yeats could
ever have done to influence the public image of the fairies. D.
McManus, a close friend to Yeats, bitterly observes in his excellent
volume on fairies, The Middle Kingdom:
"Today, the word 'fairy' has come to be associated with everything
that is unreal and childish. Shakespeare was probably one of the
first to draw attention to small sprites, giving them great names
and an importance that no tradition has justified. From this arose
the nursery fairy stories of the nineteenth century, and we now have
the colourful fantasies of Walt Disney and his confreres, flitting
with gay and vivid insouciance across the cinema screen. By all
these steps the word 'fairy' has shifted away completely from its
medieval concept of a powerful spirit in human form which should be
treated with respect, if not with a little fear, and has now become
attached to dainty little winged figures flitting like butterflies
from flower to flower or doing ballet dances with a starlit wand.
The traditional fairies, though rarely dainty are sometimes lovely;
but far more often, when small beings are reported to have been
seen, they are described as elflike." (59)
And, lastly, it is sad to note that Yeats's serious treatment of the
fairies had no influence at all on the formation of general opinion:
Lysaght reports that most witnesses are now afraid to talk about
their sightings (and hearings) of banshees because of their fear of
being ridiculed. I assume that is the case with fairy observations
as well. So many important folk-accounts, which could influence some
future writers in the way they did Yeats, will become lost forever.
Robert J. McCartney, "Supernatural Summit in Store for Reagan,
Gorbachev," The Washington Post, October 5, 1985.
Elisabeth Andrews, Ulster Folklore (Reprint of 1913 Elliot Stock
edition; Wakefield: EP Publishing, 1977), p. 2.
Ibid., p. 34.
Ibid., p. 42.
D.A. MacManus, The Middle Kingdom (London: Max Parrish, 1960), p.
Andrews, p. 2.
Ibid., p. 4.
Hugh Malet, In the Wake of the
Gods (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 183.
Stan Gooch, Creatures From Inner Sphere (London: Rider, 1984).
Andrews, p. 45.
Ibid., p. 62.
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: 1971).
Patrick Logan, The Old Gods (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1981).
John A. Keel, Strange Creatures From Time and Space (Greenwich:
Gooch, op. cit.
C.G. Jung, "On Hallucinations," in Collected Works, vol. 18 (London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 461.
Jung, "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle," in Collected
Works, vol. 8 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 440.
Frank O'Connor, My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1982), p. 44.
Patricia Lysaght, The Banshee (Dublin: The Glendale Press, 1986),
Richard Ellmann, Yeats-The Man and the Masks (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1979), p. 7.
Ibid., p. 24.
Ibid., p. 60.
Ibid., p. 94L
Ibid., p. 63.
Ibid., p. 67.
Ibid., p. 86.
Colin Wilson, The Occult (London: Grafton Books, 1979).
Ellmann, p. 93f.
Wilson, p. 129.
Lorna Reynolds, "The Irish Literary Revival," in The Celtic
Consciousness, ed. Robert Driscoll (Port Iaoise: Dolmen Press,
1981), p. 383.
W.B. Yeats, Mythologies (London: 1959), p. 139.
Ellmann, p. 46.
Ibid., p. 289 -- expresses a similar idea.
Elisabeth Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London:
Macmillan, 1981), p. 210.
Ellmann, pp. 276-78.
MacManus, p. 12.
Ibid., p. 154.
Ellmann, p. 116.
Ibid., p. 67.
W.B. Yeats, Selected Criticism and Prose (London: Pan Books, 1980),
Ibid., p. 421.
Ibid., p. 279.
Ibid., p. 41 5.
Ibid., p. 278.
Kathleen Raine, Yeats, Tarot and the Golden Dawn (Dublin: Dolmen
Yeats, Mythologies, p. 7.
Raine, p. 33.
Yeats, The Poems (London: Gill and Macmillan, 1983), p. 583.
Ibid., p. 622.
Ibid., p. 55.
Ibid., p. 518.
Ibid., p. 520.
Ibid., p. 325.
Lysaght, p. 16.
Ibid., p. 88.
MacManus, p. 23.
Other Works Consulted
Richard Fallis, The Irish Renaissance (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan,
Robert Driscoll, "The Aesthetic and Intellectual Foundations of the
Celtic Literary Revival in Ireland," in The Celtic Consciousness,
ed. Robert Driscoll (Port Iaoise: Dolmen Press, 1981), pp. 401-425.
G.J. Watson, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival (London: Helm,
1979), pp. 87-150.