Yeats and Deirdre: from Story to Fable

  • Virginia Rohan
Part of the Yeats Annual book series (YA)


The manuscripts of Deirdre, a thousand pages of holograph and typescript that in the end were sculpted into a 759-line one-act play, bear the marks of Yeats’s lifelong struggle to fuse personal utterance and public theme, self and subject. Yeats began work on his play by acquiring a welter of historico-legendary information from the many retellings of the story that had preceded him. In itself, this was not inimical to the process of playwriting; in fact, it may even have been his preferred starting point. Curtis Bradford, describing the writing of the austere and symbolical play The King of the Great Clock Tower some three decades after Deirdre, implies this was a common practice for Yeats:

The drafts of The King of the Great Clock Tower, out of which A Full Moon in March grew, proliferate in many directions. In early drafts the King is the half-legendary Irish chief, O’Rourke of Breffany, whose great-grandfather had married Dervorgilla, and whose “body has inherited a passion/For women worthy death.” As Yeats refined the telling of his fable, this Irishizing almost disappeared, and King, Queen, and Stroller, divested of personality, emerge as emblems of certain eternal aspects of human character. Then the King went, and essential man and essential woman play out an essential drama.1


Chess Game Passionate Love Natural Imagery Irish Literature Medieval Romance 
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  1. 1.
    Curtis Bradford, Yeats at Work ( Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965 ) p. 291.Google Scholar
  2. 9.
    Nutt, Alfred, and Meyer, Kuno, Voyage of Bran, II (London: David Nutt, 1897 ) p. 3.Google Scholar
  3. 27.
    R. I. Best’s Bibliography of Irish Philology and of Printed Irish Literature gives the following reference for the translation to which Marstrander refers: Heinrich Zimmer, “Keltische Beitrage”, Zeitschrift für Deutscher Alternum, XXXII (1888) pp. 196–334. Curiously enough, although the Tragedy of Dervorgilla is listed by Eleanor Hull as a tale “personal to Cuchullin”, she lists no published translation. (“Appendix I: Chart of the Conachar-Cuchullin Saga” in Eleanor Hull, The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature (London, 1898 ).Google Scholar
  4. 32.
    Mercier, Vivian, “The Morals of Deirdre”, YA 5 (1987) 224–31.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Warwick Gould 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Virginia Rohan

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