Be content to bear your burden, yet a little whilePilgrim’s Progress (p. 14)
Countess Cathleen is the name of a play (1898) written by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and loosely based upon a legendary figure in Irish folklore. In Yeats’ treatment, the Countess is faced with an impossible choice. In order to feed her people during a time of famine, she can sell her soul for their relief. There is much to contemplate as Yeats uses his art to offer a subtle rebuke aimed at the Protestant ascendancy of 19th Century Ireland, the Catholic complicity and acquiesce to it and how they collaborated to further the abuses suffered by the Irish people through nearly 800 years of British oppression.
In the presentation of the play, Yeats added a poem he wrote in 1893 from his Rose collection. Accompanied by a harp, it is offered to comfort the countess, after she completes the Faustian bargain that sacrifices her soul to rescue her people. James Joyce attended the premiere of this play at the tender age of 17 and believed these words to be the finest lyric ever constructed in all the world. It begins:
Who will go drive with Fergus now, / And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade, / And dance upon the level shore? / Young man, lift up your russet brow, / And lift your tender eyelids, maid, / And brood on hopes and fears no more.
Later in life, Joyce completes his epic masterpiece Ulysses (1922). It begins with the brash and bullish Buck Mulligan making a mockery of the Latin mass and harassing his more impressionable and introspective companion, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen is the continuation of the main character in Joyce’s earlier work, Portrait of An Artist As a Young Man (1914), and in both books is a projection of the author’s own twenty-two year old self.
Mulligan is on the attack, speaking from the parapet of a Martello tower in Sandycove, located just 8 miles to the southeast from the center of the city of Dublin. Bold and dauntless in speech, he spews his words with the rapidity and force of cannon fire, strutting forward with the irritating confidence of a playground bully, the hyperbolic overdrive one might expect from an equally proud and self-professed hyperborean [1:213]. Yet, another term jammed-packed with meaning!
But Stephen is more perceptive than his critic and understands the entirety of Yeats’ poem at a far more profound and complex level than what is being offered by Mulligan. Sorrow is not merely a mood you can turn off and on. Genuine melancholy is not just a temperament you can choose to abandon at will. The second stanza completes the poem, Who Goes with Fergus?:
And no more turn aside and brood, / Upon love’s bitter mystery, / For Fergus rules the brazen cars, / And rules the shadow of the wood, / And the white breast of the dim sea / And all disheveled wandering stars.
Those who fret over the condition of the world and their role within it are connected to something far greater than themselves or their personal problems. And often, those who intent to push them away from their troubles, like Mulligan with Stephen, or Antinous, Claudius, and Gertrude in Hamlet, do so for their own selfish purposes.
It is better, though more burdensome, to know how sadness is associated with careful perception and awareness, to confront the transience of our numbered days and the reality of entropy, to identify with those who suffer and recognize the long arch of lament that extends throughout time immortal. “The whole creation groans together in travail,” recounts the Apostle (Romans 8:22).
We should not rush too fast past this point. In my experience, still holding to the vitality of a faith obviously scorned and at points, legitimately denounced by both Mulligan and Dedalus, identification with those who suffer is the beginning of true compassion. We do not simply feel sorry for others we judge as misfortunate. We join with them in their discontent and courageously join this chorus present from the beginning of the world.