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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The White Goddess as muse in the poetry of W.B. Yeats Slinn, Eunice


Inspiration as embodied in the mythical figure of the Muse is an insistent theme in Yeats' poetry. His particular concept of the Muse is drawn from Celtic mythology, and in its principal aspects is synonymous with Robert Graves' sinister White Goddess, which derives from similar or cognate sources in Celtic lore. The White Goddess is described in terms of a triad of mother, beloved and slayer, and may be considered the prototype for the Gaelic Muse, celebrated by poets as the Leanhaun Sidhe. Originally, the Leanhaun Sidhe was a goddess of the Tuatha De Danaan; the Danaans were the divinities of ancient Eire who finally "dwindled in the popular imagination" to become the fairy folk, or Sidhe. Fractions of Yeats' prose and his collections of Celtic stories portray the Sidhe's activities and the Muse's gift of deathly inspiration. The Leanhaun Sidhe and her fairy denizens predominate in Yeats' first major poem "The Wanderings of Oisin" and in his first three volumes of poetry. The Celtic theme of the seduction of a mortal by a fairy enchantress provides the controlling structure of "The Wanderings of Oisin." The ornately beautiful and sinister Niamh entices Oisin away from his cherished Fenian companions and from all human experience; however, after three hundred years in the immortal realm, Oisin longs to return to the insufficiencies of mortality. "The Wanderings of Oisin" establishes the equivocal dialectic of the fairy and human orders, of seductive vision and inescapable fact, which underlies much of Yeats' later work. The attributes of the Leanhaun Sidhe are also seminal. As White Goddess, she represents the beloved in whom the dualities of creation and destruction coincide; in addition she possesses individual qualities, notably, her sadness. Niamh is comparable to the fairy beguilers of Crossways and particularly to the Muse figures of The Rose. In this second volume, Yeats supplicates the Rose (the Celtic Muse) for the facility to sing Danaan songs. Her inspiration allows him to perceive the essence underlying the phenomenal world, but again the transcendent cannot deny the finite and the immortal Rose remains transfixed upon the Rood of Time ("To the Rose upon the Rood of Time"). Her role as White Goddess is emphatic: she prompts God to create the world, but conversely her beauty effects its destruction. The Wind among the Reeds embodies a climactic treatment of the flight into fairyland. The poet meditates upon the apocalyptic Sidhe with unceasing desire; there is no counterweight to alluring vision. In the poetry of 1904-10, the Muse retains her role of White Goddess, but becomes a creature of mortality. Since she is both changeful and subject to change, the poet laments her cruel fickleness and her transiency. Although mortal, she is the human original for the heroic archetype, and Yeats endows her with the epic savagery and recklessness of the Celtic warrior queens. The Morrigu becomes the source of inspiration. After The Green Helmet and Other Poems the Muse no longer serves as a major structural theme. Yeats becomes preoccupied with the finished work of art, the highly-wrought artefact, rather than with the inspiration for that work. The Muse is the legendary destructive beloved, Mary Hynes or Helen, but the poet creates her, she does not create him. The Muse as artefact proves the invention of the aged poet who cannot render an impassioned dedication to female beauty. "The Tower" is the most prominent poem to treat this change, yet even here Yeats reaffirms his dual allegiance to art and life, the resolution echoing the pattern established in "The Wanderings of Oisin." In the late poetry, the White Goddess as Muse is totally disavowed and Yeats turns to the persona of the fleshly Crazy Jane; interestingly, the aged poet celebrates the pleasures of the body and of the physical universe.

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