An Exploration of Symbolism in the Works of J.M. Synge and W.B. Yeats: Perspectives Across Theater and Verse
Writing from the late 1880s to the dawn of modern Ireland in the first two decades of the 20th century, Yeats and Synge penned their works during a period of national liminality; or what critic Seamus Deane refers to as “the long process of its [Ireland’s] transformation from a British colony into a modern, independent state”[i]. The literature of both writers is reflective of this transitional context, and is exhibited in how they draw from past tradition to forge a distinct literary identity. This can be explored in their use of symbolism, as both rely on myth and folklore – often Irish in origin – to portray a country in the process of reclaiming its own voice and autonomy. Nevertheless, what brand of nationalism this technique is used for is occluded by the contradictory nature of their works, not in the least because Synge’s depiction of Irish peasantry in his plays were seen by nationalist groups to perpetuate stereotypes, and Yeats in his poems appears to prioritise the flourishing of the arts above that of the good of the masses. Moreover, the way in which they deploy shared symbols differs; the former uses his linguistic knowledge of Irish – a skill Yeats never mastered – in attempt to fuse together Gaelic tradition with the predominant English language. In contrast, the latter blurs dreamscape with landscape, challenging naturalism through appealing to almost Berkeleyan framework to justify the mystical through literature that reflects not an objective, but a mind-dependent reality.
Both Yeats and Synge use symbols that are often plucked from Irish folklore to create narratives that borrow from the traditions of realism and the fantastic, yet paradoxically both writers claimed their works to be realistic presentations of Ireland. The language of Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen is saturated with – at times – obscure symbols, such as in the Tramp’s advice to Nora: “maybe if you’d a piece of grey thread as a sharp needle – there’s safety in a needle”. The use of the needle for protection from “evil spirits” originates in the wisdom of an old man Synge encountered in the Aran islands[ii], a specificity that is indicative of a determination to represent the peasant psyche. Indeed, Synge’s inspiration for the play came from overhearing servant girls in the kitchen of his boarding house, stating in his diary that astute representation and observance is the “matter, I think, that is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form.”[iii] Thus, despite the fact his language indulges in the mystical, Synge asserts that his works are accurate representations of Ireland itself; a country that he sees as inextricably tied to the “imagination of the people”.
Yet not all the symbols within the play are this esoteric, for example the Tramp himself acts as an anonymous personification of Synge’s simultaneously wild yet idealised Irish landscape. This is most evident in his final piece of dialogue: “come along with me now, lady of the house, and it’s not my blather you’ll be hearing only, but you’ll be hearing the herons crying out over the black lakes”. The Tramp manages to beautify the depths of the “black lakes” through appealing to the autonomy it provides in comparison to the constraints of domesticity of Nora’s life with Pat: “you’ll not be sitting up on a wet ditch the way you’re sitting in this place”. The critique of Irish domestic life through the symbol of a personified, exotic Ireland in the form of the Tramp, provoked reactionary responses from contemporary nationalists, famously Arthur Griffith who stated “Mr. Synge-or else his play has no meaning-places Norah [sic] Burke before us as a type-‘a personification of an average’-and Norah Burke is a lie. It is not by staging a lie that we can serve Ireland or exalt art”[iv]. The representation of Nora can be directly contrasted to that of Yeat’s ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ whose is the female, symbolic peasant embodiment of the heroism of Ireland yet is also desexualised as she proclaims, “with all the lovers that brought me their love, I never set down the bed for any”. In contrast female sexuality is at the heart of Synge’s controversy, also shown in The Playboy of the Western World whereby the female peasants lust after the Christy despite his supposed patricide. Much of the backlash against Synge derived from how he questioned, in his use of symbolism, constraints put on upon a movement that had to consistently show, in the words of Lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats, and Edward Martyn, “that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism”[v].
Nevertheless, akin to Synge, Yeats also gives voice to the “imagination of the people” in his play Countess Kathleen, as Teig cries out in the very first scene “they’ve the shape and colour of horned owls. And I’m half certain they’ve a human face”. Yet these views are not simply expressed as representations of the peasant psyche, rather the folklore of the play becomes the basis of the narrative, reflective of Yeats’ own interest in spiritualism. With the arrival of the merchants, the fairy element becomes a part of the reality of the diegesis; despite their supernatural nature the merchants are presented as being just as material or objectively real as any other character in the play. Thus, the symbols within the play are not simply representational, but in this instance, they are literalised. This is a fact that is explicitly addressed when the first merchant states:
“It’s strange that she should think we cast no shadow, For there is nothing on the ridge of the world That’s more substantial than the merchants are That buy and sell you”.
The “substantial” nature of these beings is emphasised in how they are material enough – or at least as material as any other object – to cast “shadow”. Their reality may seem at odds with the otherwise naturalistic presentation of the lives of peasants afflicted with famine; as the piece displays in the words of critic Michael McAteer “the kind of seriousness characteristic of Ibsen, concealed within the frivolity of its fairy motif”[vi]. This presents a duality that cannot solely be justified through appeal to a supposed Irish imagination, as one must also refer to Yeats’ own interest in occultism – a facet of his life that has been well documented by critics. Yeats himself claimed, following his disillusionment with Victorian neo-religion, “I made myself a new religion”. The framework from which he constructs his “religion” can be explored in the poem ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’, in which Ireland is personified in the female form of “the red-rose-bordered hem / Of her”. Through its literalised symbols (“elemental beings go / about the table two and fro”), Yeats fuses the physical and the spiritual. Likewise, the subjective and the objective are also conflated as in the line “from our birthday, until we die / Is but the winking of an eye”, with the implication being that our reality and life consists of mind dependent perception – the closed or “winking” eye representing the death of this reality. This theme is echoed in the “lidless eye” of ‘Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation’, here the unblinking eye of the eagle – ultimate perception – is under threat of artistic annihilation at the hands of reduced income rents prompted in part by a growing nationalist influence in governmental policy. While the former poem saw Yeats wishing to place himself amongst the nationalist icons of “David, Mangan, Ferguson”, in the latter he places artistic blossoming – which he sees as intrinsically tied to the maintenance the aristocratic house (“where passion and precision have been one / Time out of mind”) – above nationalist, or at least populist, sympathies. Moreover, the dread of artistic stagnancy is further expressed in The Fascination of What’s Difficult whereby the symbol of Pegasus is used to represent Yeats poetic impotence – with the rhyme pattern itself undermined by the use of enjambment, especially when contrasted to strict line by line rhyme scheme of ‘To Ireland in Coming Times’. The later poem lacks fulfilment, or any structural or narrative climax, except in the tongue in cheek aspiration that he (Yeats) will “find the stable and pull out the bolt” and allow his artistic desires to rein free once more.
Regardless of ideological variances between his earlier and later works, Yeats uses symbolism in his poems to focus on the value of poetry and art itself, as Seamus Deane argues in Celtic Revivals, “Irish literature tends to dwell on the medium in which it is written because it is difficult not to be self-conscious about a language which has become simultaneously native and foreign”[vii]. The importance of establishing identity through language is something that Synge showed particular fascination in, and unlike Yeats, he spent much time studying and mastering the Irish language, stating in his diary “American lack of literary sense [Is] due to the absence in America of any mother tongue with a tradition for the whole population”[viii]. Synge hoped to instill “literary sense” through appealing to the luxury of having an old linguistic tradition. Indeed, as Declan Kiberd argues “He [Synge] saw that he could never hope to return to the other side – that an attempt to re-impose Irish would lead only to another barren century for literature – but he resolved to fill the rift by uniting the divided traditions”[ix]. Synge operated in a paradox of being beloved by those who had little knowledge or interest in the Irish language, and being treated with disdain by many of those who knew it. Yet irrespective of his critical reception, the way in which he fuses his knowledge of both English and Irish has an enduring effect on his symbolism. For example, Kiberd notes the striking similarities between the ‘Chanson de la malmariée’ from Dantá Grá, which narrates the story of a woman whose husband “is hard and dour; he batters her. He fails to meet her sexual needs. She strikes out against the marriage … she would love her husband to die – she would make off with a young lover”[x], and The Shadow of the Glen. Both plotlines closely resemble one another with the “géaga fuara” (cold limbs) of the chanson mirrored in the Nora’s description of Dan as “cold every day that I knew him”. Not only is symbolism contained within the play, but following this analysis the play itself can be seen as symbol for the old Irish tale. As Kiberd concludes: “Each of his plays and poems represents a fusion, in a single work, of both traditions and an attempt by the power of his imagination to make them one”[xi]. To extend upon this point, the symbolism inherent within this tradition, in conjunction with an understanding of Irish literary heritage, allows Synge to forge a distinctly Irish identity in the face of a “simultaneously native and foreign” English lexicon.
While Synge attempts a lexical fusion of Irish and English, Yeats opts for a fusion of the mystical and material hand in hand with the subjective and objective. In his review of Maeterlink’s essay on mysticism, Yeats proclaimed “we are in the midst of a great revolution of thought, which is touching literature and speculation alike; an insurrection against everything which assumes that the external and the material are the only fixed things, the only standards of reality”[xii]. Yeats fluid assessment of reality – one in which the physical and spiritual coincide – has been compared by some critics to the philosophy of George Berkeley, a proponent of idealism whose principle “esse is percipi” revolved around the idea the denial of a mind-independent reality. Yeats himself references Berkeley in 1929 poem ‘Blood and the Moon’:
And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream, That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem, Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
Thus, if we are to take the position that Yeats conforms to the tenants of idealism, then his claim that fantastical dreamscape can provide knowledge of our reality is justified. Within Berkeley’s conception of reality, all perception, both veridical and that of dreams, are in essence mind dependent. This justifies his realistic presentation of the merchants, elemental beings, and ‘fairies’ that engulf his writing – spiritualism and materialism cannot be distinguished from one another. Another crucial facet to Berkeley’s philosophy, is how it avoids the pitfalls of solipsism through appeal to the omniscient mind of God in keeping all ideas, those of oneself and others, in existence. The need for structure within a philosophy that’s conception of reality revolves around subjective experience resembles the search for structure within Yeats’s literature, such as ‘To Ireland in Coming Times’, where liminality is reflected externally in the growing power of Irish nationalism and during a period Yeats himself believed exhibited a “great revolution of thought”. The symbol of the “red-rose-bordered hem”, itself being the part of the dress that provides structure around its edges, can be seen as an attempt to form structure through poetry, within a period of liminality. Both writers appear to use symbolism in an attempt to bind together binaries. In the representation of peasant folklore Synge uses symbols in an attempt to accurately represent what he sees as a nation bound in the “imagination of the people”. Nevertheless, his symbolic use of the peasantry conflicted with many contemporary nationalists who saw his treatment of their characters as immoral and not in line with the framework established by other writers including Yeats. Due to this critical backlash, much of his valuable linguistic advances have been overlooked until Kiberd’s rightful reappraisal of his ability to accurately combine symbolism derived from Irish with an English lexicon. While Yeats was also committed to portraying the imaginations of the peasantry, his use of symbolism is also deeply entrenched in his own fascination with the supernatural and the occult. While he exhibits conflicting views on nationalism in part because of a prioritisation of the value of the arts and poetry, his symbolism can also be viewed as an expression of a conception of reality that isn’t strictly realist, in part due to its appreciation of the fantastical.
Indeed, one could even interpret Yeats work by appealing to a Berkeleyan idealism as a justification for his blurring of the material and the spiritual. Crucially then, it is clear that both writers strive for a fusion of dualities; for Synge, this manifests itself in a linguistic fusion of English and Irish tradition, while in Yeats this follows the fusion of the material with the spiritual. This attempt at some form of unity can be seen as a necessary for the literature of a nation attempting to forge its own unified national identity, with the works mentioned precluding events such as the victory of Sinn Fein in the 1914 election.
Endnotes and References:
[i] Deane, Seamus. Celtic revivals: Essays in modern Irish literature 1880-1980. Faber & Faber, 1985.
[ii] Synge, John Millington. Playboy of the Western World and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1998.
[iv] Williams, Raymond. Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. Random House, 2013.
[v] Pilkington, Lionel. Theatre and Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
[vi] McAteer, Michael. Yeats and European Drama. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
[vii] Deane, Seamus. Celtic revivals: Essays in modern Irish literature 1880-1980. Faber & Faber, 1985.
[viii] Synge, John Millington. The Aran Islands. Penguin UK, 1992.
[ix] Kiberd, Declan. Synge and the Irish language. Springer, 1979. P42
[x] Ibid p47
[xi] Ibid p65
[xii] W. B. Yeats, “The Adoration Of The Magi” , in G. J. Watson, ed., W. B. Yeats: Short Fiction Harmonsworth: Penguin 1995
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