Literature: The “Green” Fairy-Faith of W. B. Yeats
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
~W.B Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894)
In his 1893 preface to The Celtic Twilight: Faeries and Folklore, W. B. Yeats writes that, through this volume of stories, he wishes “to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this unmarred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them.” In doing so, however, he was not simply responding to the spiritual malaise and disenfranchisement that inspired so many late Victorians to seek alternative sources of wonder and systems of belief. He is also reviving the cultural identity of “mother Eire” through the literary trope of the fairy—a figure that “greens” the literary landscape of the country by both recalling a pastoral idyll of pre-modern Ireland and personifying a nationalist ideal of the “Emerald Isle” itself. Looking closely at Yeats’s texts like Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Irish Fairy Tales (1890), and The Celtic Twilight (1893), this light and lively talk will discuss how Yeats’s faeries encourage readers to consider a mystical relationship with nature that explores the liminal spaces between poor and rich, rural and urban, ancient and modern, indigenous and colonialist, material and spiritual. It is a vision of a distinctly Irish, nationalistic pastoral that anticipates and fosters the communal pride that Yeats later imagines galvanizing people “wherever green is worn” after 1916.
Christine Roth is a faculty member of the English Department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where she teaches nineteenth-century British literature and directs the graduate program in English. She also teaches courses on ecocritical approaches to literature for the Environmental Studies Department. Her recent publications include “The Zoocentric Ecology of Thomas Hardy’s Poetry” (in Victorian Writers and the Environment, Routledge, 2016) and “The Narrative Promise: Redesigning History in La Gazette du Vieux Paris.” (CEA Critic, 2016). Her work on Thomas Hardy’s elegies for household pets is forthcoming in a collection titled Victorian Pets and Poetry from Routledge in 2020.