Within ‘The Death of Cuchulain’ Yeats delves into the mythological history of Cuchulain, an Irish hero, son go the god Luch. He’s an important figure, specifically to the Ulster region, and is said to have lived in the first century B.C.His stories appear in the Ulster Cycle.
Within the poem, Yeats explores themes of heroism, legend/myth, and identity. Through the use of dialogue, Yeats is able to flesh out characters from the various stories around Cuchulain and craft a story of the end of his life that fits in with the larger collection of works about him. The mood is mostly solemn throughout. The characters are all fairly downtrodden, with the best of their days behind them.
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Summary of The Death of Cuchulain
The poem takes the reader through a series of events that bring in Cuchulain’s wife, Emer, and son Finmole. Emer sends her son to fight her husband after getting the news that “With him is one sweet-throated like a bird”. There is another woman in his life, someone who is only described as “young” and “sweet”.
Finmole goes to fight his father, does not reveal his identity, and is killed. Cuchulain mourns his death for three days. While in the forest, the king tells his druids to cast a spell on the old hero and send him to his death in the waves. They do so and Cuchulain fights with the sea for four more days before succumbing.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Death of Cuchulain
‘The Death of Cuchulain’ by William Butler Yeats is a ninety-seven line poem that is divided into uneven stanzas of text. The longest is around twenty lines and the shortest is only one line long. The poem takes the form of a play, telling the story of the last days and moments of the Irish hero Cuchulain’s life. This dramatic retelling of the original story is gripping and divided loosely into four sections.
Yeats did not choose one single unifying rhyme scheme for the poem, but a great deal of the lines rhyme AABBCC. There are alternations on this pattern at points in the text and at others, it dissolves altogether.
Poetic Techniques in The Death of Cuchulain
Yeats makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Death of Cuchulain’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and allusion. The latter, allusion, is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. There are several examples of this technique in the poem. A reader can find connections back to a wider chronicling of Irish mythology, as well as past stories detailing the heroic exploits of Cuchulain.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “cloth” and “care” in line three and “drive” and “door” in line twenty.
Yeats also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The best example can be seen in lines twenty through twenty-two where “And” begins all the lines. Then also later on in the poem, from lines forty-five through fifty-two where “And” starts five more lines.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance, the transition between lines five and six as well as that between line nineteen and twenty.
Analysis of The Death of Cuchulain
In the first lines of ‘The Death of Cuchulain,’ the speaker begins by describing the emergence of “A man” from the sunset. He announces himself as “Aleel, the swinherd”. He speaks directly to Emer, the daughter of Forgail and the wife of Cuchulain. The man reminds Emer, and informs the reader, of his history. He was told to go “dwell in the sea cliffs,” hidden by the vapour. There, he watched. But, now he says this time is over.
Emer is yet to know it, but Aleel brings with him news that will shock her. She pauses after he addresses her initial and then parts her lips to cry. Without any prior information about what’s playing out here, a reader should feel a bit of shock at this outburst. It changes the mood of the entire piece.
Aleel addresses her again, describing the might and power of her husband Cuchulain. He has “slain so tightly armies” and “so great kings”. With these vague allusions to the hero’s life, he sets Emer up for a particular piece of information. There is no one, he concludes, who has been so successfully heroic as Cuchulain.
Emer replies, providing the reader with more detail about the scene. The man is trembling, as if afraid. Emer senses that something is wrong and Aleel proves her right. He casts himself to the floor and weeps openly. The floor is described as “web-heaped,” harkening back to the activity Emer was engaged in when he entered into her “dun”.
The next thing Aleel says is “With him is one sweet-throated like a bird”. This phrase leads her into a rage.
Emer speaks to those around her and asks that Aleel be beaten and driven from her home. They should hit him with “thongs,” or pieces of “hide,” animal skin, and get him away from her.
After this is done, “Finmole,” her son comes into the story. She goes to see him where he’s driving cattle in the field and speaks to him. Emer asks that he stop wasting his time with the “flocks and herds”. He’s too strong. He has the “heaviest arm under the sky,” and she adds, there is a “man to die”. This is a reference to Cuchulain whose fate plays out in the last lines of ‘The Death of Cuchulain’.
In response, Finmole, who is Emer’s son, and Cuchulain’s, protests her compliment. He says that his father is the only one with legendary power, but she protests. Her son, she says, is taller and mightier than his father now. Cuchulain is weary and tired of battle at this point in his life.
Her son seems to accept that there’s a task for him and wonders where he needs to go and what he needs to do.
In the thirty-eighth line, Emer speaks about the Red Branch kings. This is a reference to the name of two of the three royal houses of the king of Ulster. They are having a “tireless banquet,” one that does not end. In order to locate it, the son only needs to go to “Where the sun falls into the Western deep,” or where the sunsets.
She tells her son what he needs to do and sends him on his way. Thus ends this section of the dramatic retelling of Cuchulain’s death. The next part picks up at the banquet.
Yeats goes into detail about what can be seen at the banquet. He spaces about its location, in amongst the shelter of the wood and near to the “gray tide” of the ocean. It is there that the multitudes gathered and feasted. Cuchulain is there as well and described as “old”. He is not quite the same as he used to be.
Alongside him is another, “his young dear one” who looks into his eyes and sees deep into his past. These very lyrical lines make use of techniques like alliteration and anaphora to describe something of Cuchulain’s past. His old days have “wonder” and “depth”. This “wonder” is also reflected in the music and the stories being told at the banquet.
The most important Red Branch king, Concobar, is playing the very harp that tells these stories. This shows something of the care they are all taking with his legacy.
In line fifty-four Cuchulain speaks. He inquires, seemingly randomly, into the identity of someone he’s heard singing outside in the woods. He has a sweet-sounding voice and the hero would like to know who he is.
Someone is dispatched immediately to find this out and comes back without the information. Instead, the singing man told him that he’ll only give his name at “sword point,” or under the pain of death. From the sixty-second line, a reader will understand that this man is Cuchulain’s own son. He is repeating back to them the same as his mother told him to relay, that he needs “one / Who has a like vow from our triple dun”.
Cuchulain is the only one among the grand feast who can boast such a vow and he cries out this fact. Through the compression of time and events, Cuchulain reaches the young man, fights him “in the leafy shade” of the forest, and speaks to him.
Cuchulain does not recognize his own son immediately and instead threatens him with death. He doesn’t understand why this man would put up such a fight, he seems to be asking for death. Cuchulain asks him if he has nothing to live for. If there is no “maid” who loves him that he would like to return to.
In the seventy-first, line Cuchulain starts to recognize the young man. He appears to him like a “woman’s head / That” he once loved. But, the fighting speeds up again and the “war” that had been sleeping in Cuchulain wakes up again. In a dramatic moment, Cuchulain pierces his son’s shield and stabs him. With his last breath, he admits his identity to his father.
Cuchulain decides to put his son out of his misery immediately and was shocked by what had occurred. It was a burden on him, something that struck him deeply. So much so that he says with his “head bowed on his needs”.
The “sweet one” from inside the banquet was sent out to find Cuchulain by the king and comfort him. She foes so, and touches his hair. Everything she does is in vain though. Her “sweet” body does nothing to comfort him.
King Conchobar seems to see an opening here and speaks to his “Druids round him ten by ten”. He tells them that Cuchulain is going to stay outside for three days in “dreadful quietude” and then, all of a sudden, he’s going to rise up in a rage and slay everyone.
In order to keep this from happening the Druids are told to “cast on him delusions magical”. He should be made insane by these spells and forced to fight the “waves of the loud sea,” a losing battle that the king hopes will kill the old hero. The Druids do as they were told. They chanted and swayed and when they finished, the spell was cast.
In three days, just as Conchobar had predicted, Cuchulain gets up ‘with a moan” and when to the ocean. There, he “warred…with the bitter tide” until he could fight no longer. His life ends in amongst the waters of the ocean.