Time, Space and the Nature of Sin in W.B. Yeats’ Purgatory

Ishani Basu, Nur Mohammad Smriti Mahavidyalaya, Murshidabad

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And we shall feel the agony of thirst,
The ineffable longing for the life of life
Baffled for ever; and still thought and mind
Will hurry us with them on their homeless march
Over the unallied unopening earth,
Over the unrecognising sea . . .
And then we shall unwillingly return
Back to this meadow of calamity,
This uncongenial place, this human life;
And in our individual human state
Go through the sad probation all again . . .
                                            (Empedocles On Etna, 36-46) 

Thus spoke Empedocles in Arnold’s poem before he leaped into the crater of Etna, after his failed attempt to ‘rationalize’ the universe (Watt 13). Yeats’ prototypical Old Man too, like Beckett’s absurdist characters, is imprisoned by the manacles of such ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ which Empedocles once envisioned. Turning back time and recreating their trauma is the only occupation open to them in cycles of each performance. Purgatory, a short one act play is entirely dominated by the Old Man’s visions of the sinful past, his convictions and action to bring peace of mind to his dead mother ironically culminating in the murder of his son. The boundaries of time and space meet and coalesce seamlessly to suggest the inviolable flux of the universe, which mankind tends to structure as past, present and future, as Yeats writes in Into The Twilight (1899):

And God stands winding his lonely horn;
And Time and World are ever in flight,
And love is less kind than the gray twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

Indeed what with man’s diminishing belief in God, corruption and moral failings as the after effects of industrialization, modern literature woke up to a terrible dawn of dislocation. The need to break away from the older traditions and forms of art was widely felt across Europe which produced a string of movements- Symbolism, Impressionism, Naturalism, Expressionism, Surrealism etc, all characterized by their deliberate disenchantment with the past. European drama under Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Yeats, Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter then became a full scale expression of disregard for classical precepts of plot construction and characterization. For modern Irish dramatists like Yeats, Lady Gregory, O’ Casey, and Synge, this break with tradition became conjoined with the founding of a national theatre. Thus theatre in Ireland became a place where a rich gamut of ancient Irish mythologies, plight of the countrymen, rebellions and national history found expression in the fluid framework of their experimental forms of drama (The Shadowy Waters (1906), At the Hawk’s Well (1917), Riders to the Sea (1904), Spreading the News (1904), The Rising of the Moon (1907), Juno and the Paycock (1924) etc.)

Perhaps it is Purgatory (1939) that saw the full genius of Yeats’s use of his “tradition and individual talent” (Eliot 13). Though it is a dramatization of the tensions of a modern individual trapped between a past he has himself destroyed (and relentlessly tries to salvage) and an uncompromising present which engenders only remorseless strangers, there is something ancient about its theme (Torchiana 425). The connotations range from the cathartic effects of Greek tragedy to the holy mountain in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatory) where souls are absolved from their sin through remorse, penance and confession. This explains the agony of the souls of Diarmuid and Dervorgilla in The Dreaming of the Bones (1919), wedded in mutual remorse, climbing the steep side of that mountain, confessing their sin to the soldier. Hitherto we shall find the flexible time frame of modern theatre merge with Dantesque overtone of timeless purgatorial journey of the soul. Also the play assimilates the ‘mugen nô’ form or the ‘dreaming back’ tradition of Japanese Noh drama, as a plausible explanation for the purgatorial dream it embodies (Sung). The effect is almost like a “stream of consciousness” novel, where linearity of time is defied by the circularity of individual thought (James 298).

In this disjointed world an Old man and a Boy appear. The setting itself is timeless, empty stage with a ruined house and a bare tree in the background, like the bare room of Beckett’s Endgame (Worth 129). The figure of the Old Man and the Boy recur in Yeats’s plays particularly in At the Hawk’s Well (1917) and On Baile’s Strand (1904), where they are mirror images of each other. Never before has the setting been so grim in Yeats except for Calvary (1920), not even in the mystery that surrounded The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1934); the well of eternal life, the dreamy cadence of The Shadowy Waters are replaced by a ruined house, haunted by memories and apparitions, where a blasted tree alone stands sentinel to two acts of murders (Worth 159). The once magnificent house is also a symbol of the glorious past of Ireland, which now lies in shambles. And the tree, another symbol of the blasted fate of Ireland is also the split image of the “silly old man”, a consequence of the corruption that befell the country after the death of Parnell (Yeats 33; Torchiana 424). The burnt house then triggers forth memories and visions of the Old Man who obsessively recounts the history of the house and the image of the house where “great men grew up, married, died” floats up before our eyes (35). Thus we have little physical action, as Yeats like his predecessor Browning was more interested in “action in character” (Browning 408).

‘After’ and ‘before’, ‘then’ and ‘now’ coalesce as the border of the bare setting is coloured with images invoked from the past: the blasted bark is juxtaposed with “green leaves, ripe leaves, leaves thick as butter, / Fat, greasy life” (34). All sense of time is lost, the entire action is a déja vu of the mother’s degradation out of which the Old Man was born and his murderous act fifty years before. Thereafter it becomes an uninterrupted flow of remorse of the “souls in Purgatory [the Old man and his mother] that come back/ To habitations and familiar spots”, to “Re-live/ Their transgressions, and that not once/ But many times; . . .” (34). In a moment we have the history of the nation in a symbolical rendering of the Old Man’s genealogy- the aristocratic past of Ireland (his grandmother) betrayed by the degenerative spirit of the middle period (as Yeats conceived it, from the Battle of Boyne to the French Revolution- the mother) under the corrupting force of French Revolution (the groom father), that led to ‘servile’ democracy sixty three years ago the play was written (the Old Man) and the final threat of the Civil War (in the Boy, ignorant and insensitive turning against his own father) (Torchiana 424). It is almost a chain of betrayal, the past betraying the present generation through its wrong decisions and sheer unchangeability, the present generation betraying the future making similar mistakes, and the future generation (the Boy), trying to deny both, and everything collapsing in the process: “For when the consequence is at an end/ The dream must end . . .” (34).

As in King Oedipus (the Old Man’s obsession with his mother and patricide harks back to the Oedipus myth) the marriage bed of the mother is the source of pollution begetting child that would slay the father (Worth 185). Her lust (relate Laius’s doomed desire), rolls the dice for other deaths to come – herself, her husband’s, the nation’s and its future generation’s (the Boy). The undercurrent of fatalism is strong, anticipating Beckett. The Old Man, Donald T. Torchiana points out, is a complex self, who shares Yeats’s own love for aristocratic eighteenth century (past), hatred of democracy (present) and mistrust of emerging ignorant generation (future) (424). Born in such a doubly fallen world of Ireland, he is thus justified (however crookedly) to further betray his blood or if we keep in mind the ritualistic pattern of Yeats’s later plays that Dennis Donoghue speaks of, this bloodshed becomes analogous of ‘bloodletting’, a measure to cure the body of infection (343). The body of Ireland (figuratively the house/ mother) is polluted by its inhabitants (second and third generation), they must be routed to prevent further damage. And this day he has returned to the scene of crime, the burnt house where the ghostly couple (his parents) unites to re -enact their lustful act of procreation, to save his mother’s soul. The celebration of conjugal lovemaking becomes a parody, an oft repeated punishment designed for his mother in her purgatory, where ‘remorse’ and ‘pleasure’ comingle. The old man beholds horrified the spectre of his mother at the lighted window waiting for her bridegroom yet not realizing the futility of his frenzied intervention.

The Boy’s voice attempting to rationalize the reveries of the Old Man undercuts them with skepticism. Uneducated and ignorant of past, he cannot help but doubt the grandeur of the desolate house, applaud the materialistic triumph of his grandfather, and call his father mad. His standpoint is thus amoral like Caliban: “what’s right and wrong? / My Grand-dad got the girl and the money” while the Old Man is overwhelmed with concern for a country gone to weeds (34). Hence we have a kind of double vision; a simultaneous consciousness of ruined house/grand house, delirium/ vision, blasted tree/ flourishing tree, “empty gap”/ lighted window, present/ past, sin/ redemption projected on stage (36). The Old Man can travel back in time, the son can only behold the past in ruins. In this sense, he is a seer, but to the voice of reason (the Boy), a madman. Still he is no Delphic Oracle, whatever knowledge he has gathered concerns the living, and therefore cannot yield the reason behind sufferings of the dead: “Go fetch Tertullian; he and I/ Will ravel all that problem out/ Whilst these two lie upon the mattress/ Begetting me.” (Ure 109; Yeats 37). Located in an earthly Purgatory himself, he can at the most sacrifice a mortal for the deliverance of his mother, but never undo the past or intervene into the spirit world like Christ to redeem souls.

Yeats is hence projecting Ireland and by implication the world as a spiritual wasteland, where man is compelled to sin and suffer in their self created purgatory, “animate [animating] that dead night [of sin]/ Not once but many times!” (Cave; Yeats 39). Individual (Old Man), and ancestral sin (seduction, “coarsening of blood”, squandering, destroying property carried out by his parents) has doomed the country, and reduced its inhabitants into mere shades, knowledge into mockery, sacrifice into murder (Torchiana 425). It is a house of guilt that passes on betrayal as heirloom. The mother betrayed not only the older and future generation also herself- her own soul through lust (and somehow one remembers Adam and Eve’s lustful union after eating the fruit of knowledge that Milton describes in Paradise Lost, Book IX, as the Old Man goes on reciting Eden Bower (1868) by D.G. Rossetti). She therefore can only be redeemed through purgatorial penance and mercy of God. Fifty years ago the Old Man had killed his father and run away, another murder cannot help to resolve that crime. His oedipal self shudders to see the father’s ghost walking the earth and making love. Frenzied he turns away to his son and finds him stealing money from his purse. His response “Come back! Come back!” is thus not only addressed to the son but a desperate call to dissociate him from that nightmarish vision (37). The son’s murder is even more ghastly than the narrative description of the earlier murder. Post betrayal, the son shares the horrible vision of his dead grandfather with his father and is doomed. He is truly a carrier of the genes of his forefather, a prodigal and a drunkard:

BOY: You never gave me my right share.

OLD MAN: And had I given it, young as you are,

You would have spent it upon drink. (37)

The father, son and the ghost grandfather can be seen as a type of perverted trinity extensively used by Dante in Inferno. Such is the pattern of their betrayal/sin that the three figures ultimately merge into one; the son killing the father, the father killing the son, a routine of expiation:

BOY: What if I killed you? You killed my grand-dad,

Because you were young and he was old.

Now I am young and you are old. (38)

The hoof beats return on the once gravelled path now covered with grass to spell his defeat. The purification of the family tree in “All cold, sweet, glistening light.” is a mere illusion (39). Past catches up, steel can wash away bloodstains but the hand that wielded it shall not go scotfree. Instead of finishing all consequence, the Old Man has widened his cycle of sin, “Twice a murderer and all for nothing.” (39).The souls of the living and the dead remain trudging their personal road for redemption. “Mankind can do no more” than turn to God or he is left like Cuchulain in On the Baile’s Strand (1904) fighting the waves, and be mastered by them (39). The Old Man prays not just for himself and his mother but for all sinners living and dead like Synge’s Maurya in Riders to the Sea (1904.)

The claustrophobic setting of the Old Man’s compulsive thought telescoped before us brings out torments of the soul so convincingly that it comes close to the pathetic narrative of Count Ugolino in Inferno, Canto XXXIII. Trials and errors of memory occupy the characters of the three Yeatsian ‘ghost plays’ The Dreaming of the Bones (1919), The Words upon the Window Pane (1934) and Purgatory (1939) yet there is a crucial difference, while the earlier plays depict the individual minds slighted and haunted by the oppression of memory and their distorted shadow in the present with no hope of release engaging in ritualistic performance, in Purgatory (1939) Yeats throws the onus on the Buddhist concept of ‘nirvana’ or transcendence over worldly desires and sins as the key to salvation (Sung 114). Hae Kae Sung’s 1998 essay discusses the possible influence of an old nô play Motomezuka on Purgatory in this light, where the protagonist, a young woman’s ghost is trapped in the fiery hell of her own delusions, unable to attain salvation despite a kind priest’s prayers (110). Ironically enough, the influence of Dante also proves strong as the very title of the play suggests. That Yeats’ sinner (the Old Man’s mother) is bound by her guilt to the burnt down house is reminiscent of the lustful in the seventh terrace of Dante’s Purgatory where the sinners have to repeatedly pass through fire before their sins are finally absolved and they reach the earthly paradise beyond the wall of flames. The Old Man who has taken up the mantle of Motomezuka’s priest in this spiritual wasteland soon discovers that only the sinner’s piety and a mortal’s prayer can hasten the soul to its redemption as Guido Guinizelli (Purgatory , Canto xxvi) had pointed out to Dante on his pilgrimage. However, the ambiguity about the fate of the Old Man remains, who of course is no Dante, but has been going around the burnt house like the trimmers on the vestibule of hell (Inferno), engaging in mindless violence against his kin. Also, the re-enactment of lustful act of the mother problematizes the very concept of ‘purgatory’ where ideally the sinners confess and repent their sins, doing penance to be redeemed, meaning her predicament is bound to end up as Unai of Motomezuka unless she stops brooding over her sin and turns to faith. T.S. Eliot comments on the inherent fatalism of the situation: “. . . Purgatory is not very pleasant, either. . . I wish he had not given this title, because I cannot accept a purgatory in which there is no hint, or at least no emphasis upon Purgation. . . .” (302.) That is not to say that the mother’s future is as bleak as Diarmuid and Dervorgilla or Paolo and Francesca, that would not necessitate ritual bloodletting and the Old Man’s desperate attempt to salvage her soul. On an altogether different plane the mother could be seen as the symbol of Ireland as Donald R. Pierce points out submerged in purgatorial penance in the contemporary scene (73.) Hence, the return to faith although seemingly impossible becomes all the more imperative for not just the Old Man but the old poet as well.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “From Empedocles on Etna”. Selected Poems and Prose. Ed. F.W. Watt. 1964. UK: Oxford; Delhi: Oxford, 1976. 70-71. Print.

Browning, Robert. Quoted by W.B. Yeats. “An Introduction for My plays”. Modern Irish Drama : A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: Norton, 1991. 408. Print.

Cave, Richard. Rev. of Two View of Purgatory: Beckett and Yeats at the Edinburgh Festival,1977.2003.25January2009<http://www.english.fsu.edu/jobs/num03/num3Cave.htm>

Dante, Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Mark Musa. London: Penguin, 1984. Print.

—.The Divine Comedy: Purgatory. Trans. Mark Musa. London: Penguin, 1984. Print.

Eliot, T.S. Quoted by M.H. Abrams. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. 1999.Singapore: Thomson, 2004. 197. Print.

—.“The Poetry of W.B. Yeats”. The Permanence of Yeats. Ed. James Hall and Martin Steinmann. 1950. London: Macmillan; New York: Collier, 1961. 302-3. Print.

—.”Tradition and Individual Talent”. Selected Essays. London: Faber, 1951. 13. Print.

James, William. Quoted by M.H. Abrams. 299. Print.

Pearce, Donald R. Yeats’ Last Plays: An Interpretation. ELH. 18.1. Mar. 1951: 173. .JSTOR. Web. 20 June 2015

Sung, Hae- kyung. “The Poetics of Purgatory: A Consideration of Yeats’s Use of the Noh form.” Comparative Literature Studies. 35.2. 1998: 107-115. JSTOR. Web. 20 June 2015

Synge, J.M. “Riders to the Sea”. Harrington. 72. Print.

Torchiana, Donald. T. “Purgatory”. Harrington. Print.

Ure, Peter. “From Grave to Cradle”. Yeats the Playwright: A Commentary on Character and Design in the Major Plays. 1963. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1969. Print.

F.W. Watt. “Introduction”. Selected Poems and Prose. By Matthew Arnold. Ed. F.W. Watt. 1964. UK: Oxford; Delhi: Oxford, 1976. 13. Print.

Worth, Katherine. “Yeats’s Drama of the Interior: a Technique for the Modern Theatre”. The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett. 1978. London: Athelone, 1986.

Yeats, W.B. “Into the Twilight”. Collected Poems. 1937. London: Macmillan, 1955. 66.

—.”Purgatory”. Harrington.

—.”On Baile’s Strand”. The Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. 2nd ed.1952. London: Papermac, 1982.

Ishani Basu is Assistant Professor in English, Nur Mohammad Smriti Mahavidyalaya, Murshidabad.

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