ACIS Logo Purgatory: Yeats’ “Negotiated Space” and Final Resolve on Irish Identity and Independence

“Cast a cold eye,

On life, on death

Horseman, pass by!”

-“Under Ben Bulben”

In 1938, Yeats was hard at work, scrambling to finish his endgame plays, Purgatory and The Death of Cuchulain. The Man and his Mask, Poet and Image, needed to face the inevitable and die with dignity before being raised to new life. The task at hand was to dramatize the lines in his death-piece, “Under Ben Bulben”: “Many times man lives and dies / between his two eternities, / that of race and that of soul.” The farewell to man comes in Purgatory, while the farewell to soul plays out in The Death of Cuchulain. The urgency Yeats felt to finish these plays sprang from his desire not only to complete his system in A Vision, but also to leave a legacy of hope for antithetical influx, a new beginning, and a new turn of the Great Wheel.

I have made my case for The Death of Cuchulain as Yeats’ endgame to the Cuchulain saga elsewhere, but in this paper I argue that the endgame of Purgatory is rooted in the “crisis of conscience” Yeats underwent after the Irish Rebellion that led him to the ambiguity about the “terrible beauty” of that event in his poem, “Easter 1916‚” as well as the vacillation in his play, The Dreaming of the Bones, written in 1917 but first performed publicly in 1933, where two hapless spirits from Ireland’s past, Diarmuid and Dervorgilla, fail to convince a Young Irelander to forgive them for betraying their country by letting the enemy in. More than two decades later, between March and May 1938, Yeats is finally ready to raise his voice for subjectivity and forgiveness in the drama he defined as “the tragedy of a house” and appropriately called Purgatory.