Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Robert F. White


A great amount of W. B. Yeats's writing attests to his fascination with the preternatural. Indeed, it seems that Yeats felt the sacred experience to be somehow central in the living of a full life. Further, in his essay "The Celtic Element in Literature," he proposed that all great literature arises out of the passion which flows from the sacred experience. Yeats thought that drama as well as poetry, then, must plumb this core of life. And in his essay "The Tragic Theatre" he declared that great tragedy deals with feelings and experiences which are universal and timeless and which break down "the dykes that separate man from man." Throwing the audience and actors into the Anima Mundi, his plays were to be vehicles for the sacred experience.

If one grants that Yeats attempted to "touch" the sacred through his plays, he next might wonder whether this "religiosity" can be evaluated or measured in some objective manner. Do the plays, for example, really present a "sacred" experience, and, if so, in what ways are they "sacred"? Mircea Eliade's book, The Sacred and the Profane, in defining three concepts which were attendant to primitive sacred experience: sacred space, sacred time, and myth, offers itself as a possible tool for effectively measuring Yeats's literary religiosity.

The first chapter of this thesis, then, attempts to summarize Eliade's findings on primitive religious experience, especially those regarding sacred space, sacred time, and myth. The next two chapters treat two of Yeats's essays which are relevant to this query: "The Celtic Element in Literature" and "The Tragic Theatre." These essays give the reader Yeats's views on the primitive religious experience and on the "religious" experience which he tried to construct into his plays.

With these theories in mind, the thesis then turns to two plays representative of Yeats's dramatic art: "At the Hawk's Well" and "Purgatory." It finds that the plays, measured with Eliade's criteria, do contain trappings of the sacred. The well, for instance, in "At the Hawk's Well" seems to have some of the characteristics and functions of primitive sacred poles or other sacred spots. And the characters in "Purgatory" seem to come into contact with a type of sacred time in the recurrent appearances of the spirit of the Old Man's mother. Both plays, too, seem to be written in a mythical style.

When the thesis turns to the content or "message" of Yeats's myths, however, a paradox emerges. While Yeats could hold that all great literature is nourished by the sacred passions, he could not advocate the sacred experience to the common man. According to Yeats, the quest for the sacred was for only the hero. For the common man Yeats advocates humanistic values, those values found in the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," and a mundane style of life. This is why the sacred experience is neither gracious nor salutary for the characters in the plays; they experience a "troubled ecstasy."

It is in this matter that Yeats departs from traditional religious convictions, for, if Eliade is trusted as an authority, the sacred has always been the source of Being, stability, and order for the common man.