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Mortality, Heroic Image and Identity in Yeats's 'At the Hawk's Well'

O lamentable shadows,

Obscurity of strife!

I choose a pleasant life

Among indolent meadows;

Wisdom must live a bitter life.

―Yeats, ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (1917)

Year by year, human beings get older and older. Some of them interpret it as being mature, wise and experienced. On the other hand, some might think they are losing their youngness and public authority. Old/young, dream/reality and fate/free will –they could be the two sides of a coin. This article discusses Yeats’s view of himself and his isolation from Ireland during the independence period regarding heroic symbolism and dream versus reality. It helps to gain a sense of Yeats’s works as both a poet and playwright and to look into his mid-late years.

‘At the Hawk’s Well’

This play was published in 1917 and performed in 1916 in a small art room in London. The settings and styles were adopted from the Japanese Noh form in terms of the mask and dancing choreography of the guardian of the well, who represents a hawk and a possessed woman. This play is relatively short, about thirty to forty minutes, and the prospective audiences were those who knew Yeats quite well but not primarily those new to his works (The Letters of W. B. Yeats, cited by Yeats, 2001, p. 871).

The play has four (or six) characters: The Three Musicians, The Guardian of the Well, An Old Man and A Young Man. In a simplified setting using coloured cloth and embroidery, the Old Man has been waiting at the well filled with water that gives eternal life. The Guardian of the Well makes a prophecy - the coming of the water; however, the Old Man cannot consume the water. Later, the Young Man, Cuchulain, known as one of the heroes of ancient Ireland, reaches the well and waits for the water to show up. Towards the end of the play, the Guardian makes a hawk’s sound again when the Young Man suddenly realises his destined fate to battle following the legends of Ulster mythologies (McCracken, 2018) and leaves the well, the place of death. The play is often related to the tragedy of Cuchulain; ‘On Baile’s Strand’ (1904), ‘The Green Helmet’ (1910), ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (1917), ‘The Only Jealous of Emer’ (1919) and ‘The Death of Cuchulain’ (1939).

The Guardian of the Well written by Edmund Dulac
Figure 1. The Guardian of the Well. Dulac (1921).

Heroic Cuchulain, Dream versus Reality, and Old Yeats

Symbolism is one of the means to read closer to the play. For instance, the Old Man represents the old Yeats, who begins to be detached from his early heroic passion yet starts sticking more to his legacy. During his writing of the play, Yeats was in London and kept building his career as a poet and playwright. However, Easter Rising in 1916 was one of the unforgettable events of Irish independence. The Easter Rising on 24 April 1916, led by Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and other leaders in the organisation, created martyrdom and sacrifice from the volunteers (Encyclopedia Britannica). Although Yeats did not witness the rising, he attributed the poem ‘Easter, 1916’ to its memory. No amount of literature steeped in Irish folklore, myths, and legends filled the lacuna in Yeats developed during his physical absence in Ireland during the historical event.

On the other hand, the Young Man or Cuchulain, who initially seeks the water but later goes to the battle, is another symbol of the self-sacrificing young Irishmen for their nation’s independence, as McCracken (2018) writes. In relation to this, Cuchulain’s last declaration, "[h]e comes! Cuchulain, son of Sualtim, comes!" (Yeats, 2001, p. 306) echoes the heroic self-sacrifice of Oisin in Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin. In particular, the last stanza of the poem shows a similarity with that of Cuchulain.

It were sad to gaze on the blessèd and no man I loved of old there;

I throw down the chain of small stones! when life in my body has ceased,

I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,

And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or at feast.

(The Wanderings of Oisin, lines 221-24)

The Musician and the Old Man in 'At the Hawk's Well'
Figure 2. The Musician and the Old Man. Dulac (1921).

Moreover, his ageing calls attention to his change of poetic style. For example, in the first stanza of his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium‘, Yeats writes: “[t]hat is no country for old men. […] Whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (‘Sailing to Byzantium’, lines 1-6). These lines, according to Sharoni (1973), signal the poet’s grieving of his ageing. However, ageing failed to stop Yeats from writing. Also, in the same poem, he implies going to another phase of the world as he writes: “[o]nce out of nature I shall never take / [m]y bodily form from any natural thing.” This brings the vision of transitioning to another place or era and casting out his ageing body. In addition, as Sharoni (1973) also points out, the Old Man/Cuchulain's opposing forms can be found in Yeats’s other late poem, ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ (1933). This poem revolves around the discourse between a man’s soul and self in a round tower, where the self declares the pride of his life as "I am content to live it all again" (Yeats, 1992, p. 286, line 17), where the wise soul becomes “a stone” when he thinks of death (Yeats, 1992, p. 285, line 40). This parallels the silence of the Old Man in ‘At the Hawk’s Well,’ as he never shows up again as he says, “[o], do not go! The mountain is accursed; / [s]tay with me, I have nothing more to lose, / I do not now deceive you” (Yeats, 2001, p. 305), followed by Cuchulain’s declaration.

Furthermore, the Old Man, who loses Cuchulain and eternal life from the well, represents Yeats losing his “public identity”, as McCracken (2018, p. 148) points out. McCracken (2018) explicates that Yeats, who gained his reputation as a poet and playwright during Ireland’s struggle for independence, might have realised that he was losing his status with her liberation. Whereas Sharoni (1973), argues that Yeats’s anxiety about Ireland, even touched by hysteria, is implied by the possessed guardian of the well. This guardian is a woman acted by a male actor and a symbol of a supernatural being, such as a Sidhe, a fairy in Ireland. As Sharoni (1973) mentions, the guardian’s marionette-like movement could be indicating Ireland, which is forced to be heroic during the independence period but moving without Yeats. Although a Japanese Noh drama movement inspired the dance of the Guardian, her hawk voice and her leading of Cuchulain to death would still be another loss of the old Yeats.

Ainsley as Cuchulain
Figure 3. Cuchulain in 'At the Hawk's Well'.

Other scholars, such as Nikolova, figure that “the unity of being,” as Yeats wrote in his Four Years: 1887-1891, is yet “unattainable” in ‘At the Hawk’s Well’ (1997, p. 78). Yeats already knew that the world would never be unified, and divisions are deep between people and the world. Yet, he did not stop writing but expanded his poetical world, leading him to write more philosophical poems and works such as A Vision. In his later essay, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917), Yeats says, “passions, when we know that they cannot find fulfilment, become vision" (Yeats, 1994, p. 15). If this is read against ‘At the Hawk’s Well,’ his imagination (or ideal) and reality meet at the well surrounded by three hazel trees with no leaves. Recalling Yeats’s earlier days of Celtic Twilight and later grey years, Nikolova (p. 78) refers to this as the “twilight zone”. In this light, the hawk, which represents Yeats’s ageing soul, gradually gets connected to the philosophical world, as in his other poem ‘The Hawk’: “I, who had sat / Dumbfounded before a knave, / Should give to my friend / A pretence of wit” (Yeats, 1992, p. 198, lines 15-18).


So far, this article has discussed the relevance of the old versus heroic young and dream versus reality. Although Yeats felt estranged from his own motherland during its independence, his imagination kept him going. His inner struggles and growing age expanded his poetical world and ascended to a mature style. Similarly, the play, 'At the Hawk's Well', manifests Yeats's woes about the loss of heroic youth and dramatises the isolation and prophesising upcoming recognition of a wider perspective about the world.

Figure 4. Caricature of Yeats. Dulac (1915)

Bibliographical References

Allen Jr, J. L. (1960). Yeats’s Bird-Soul Symbolism. Twentieth Century Literature, 6 (3), 117-122. Duke University Press.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Easter Rising. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

McCracken, H. (2018). Reviving and Revising Cuchulain: W. B. Yeats’s Struggle to Create a Postcolonial Culture Hero. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 51(1), 147–172.

Nikolova, I. (1997). Yeats’s Revision of the Quest in at the Hawk’s Well: Towards an Allegorical Interpretation of the Signs in the Play. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 23(2), 77–87.

Sharoni, E. G. (1973). “At the Hawk’s Well”: Yeats’s Unresolved Conflict Between Language and Silence. Comparative Drama, 7(2), 150–173.

Yeats, W. B. (1992). The Poems (D. Albright, Eds.). Everyman’s Library.

Yeats, W. B. (1994). The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats Volume V: Later Essays (W. H. O’Donnell, Eds.). Scribner.

Yeats, W. B. (2001). The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats Volume II: The Plays (D. R. Clark, and R. E. Clark, Ed.). Scribner.

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