Shortly after 1891 William Butler Yeats commented about his beloved Ireland
"Nationalist Ireland was torn with every kind of passion and prejudice, wanting so far as it wanted any literature at all, Nationalist propaganda disguised as literature. All the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland the blameless hero..."
He may have composed this poem not too long after his statement. The poem is an allegory about culture, landlordism and faith from a semi-mythic Irish past. Published in 1892, The Countess Cathleen aroused heated controversies when it was first performed in Dublin in 1899. Most scholars relate that it marked the beginning of the Irish Revival in the theatre.
The 1890s were busy and pivotal for Yeats. His family had returned to London where he co-founded and participated in the Rhymers club with Ernest Rhys, [Richard Le Gallienne, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde, among others. He founded the Irish Literary Society in London and in Dublin the National Literary Society, which spread throughout Ireland. During the same period, Yeats began to envision an Irish National Theatre, partly as a vehicle for his first effort at play writing, The Countess Cathleen, but also because he had begun to develop an idea of transforming and uplifting the Irish notion of culture through theatre and literature. In 1896, shortly after returning to live permanently in Ireland, he met Lady Gregory who sought to help the habitually impoverished and frequently ill Yeats. She provided him with summers in the country and it was largely through her efforts that the Irish Literary Theatre, later the Abbey Theater, came into being.
The play was frequently revived and almost as often revised, becoming at various points in Yeats' career a counter point of his relations with his theatrical
and literary public, of his changing perception of dramatic form
, and of the status of his pursuit of Maud Gonne
, for whom the play was written.
The blank verse drama by William Butler Yeats recounted in the compilation Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) takes place 'in Ireland in old times' . Two soul merchants came from the Land Under Wave during the winter famine and offer gold in exchange for souls. Countess Cathleen O'Shea sells of her vast estates and wealth in order to feed the peasants, yet the demons thwart her at every turn. Disguised as owls, the two merchants fly into her castle under the cover of darkness stealing the gold and poisoning her crop. With nothing left she sells her soul its value paramount because
< blockquote>... it was precious and transparent like a diamond......
for ten thousand pieces of gold and dies the next day, sacrificing her hope of salvation for the people. < /blockquote>
After her death as people came to her grave to grieve, an angel appears to tell them the Countess had offered her soul to give them eternal life. In the end she is forgiven, for her good intentions.
Poem is past copyright and lies in public domain
Countess Cathleen, The,:
The Countess' Soul:
William Butler Yeats Collection:
Yeats for Joyceans: