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Yeats and the Flying Dutchman1

Warwick Gould

© Warwick Gould, CC BY 4.0

This is not a note on Yeats and Richard Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer (premiered in 1843). Instead, it concerns itself with the rôle played in the evolution of Yeats’s thinking by the influential myth of the ‘legendary ghost ship’ that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever, captained by a species of the Wandering Jew figure. I trace thereby the source of his early play Mosada (1886), and the influence of the myth in the form in which Yeats originally encountered it, on a subsequent early poem and story, and gesture to the development of his interest in Purgatories.

Wagner’s Dutch sea-captain is in search of a wife, Wagner having adopted from Heine the possibility of his Holländer‘s redemption by a woman’s devoted love. His captain can come ashore every seven years in quest of such a wife, and Heine and Wagner transfer the action from the Cape of Good Hope to the North Sea (off Scotland in Heine, off Norway in Wagner). These are later variants upon a mid-seventeenth century legend from the nautical folklore of colonial exploration and trade. The oldest extant version of Der Vliegende Hollander is said to date from the late eighteenth century.

Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.2

Fanciful or visionary explanations of the glowing ship in the sky have slowly yielded to the meteorological explanation for such recurrent manifestations. The well-known refraction and ‘bending’ of light, that optical illusion or mirage, known as a Fata Morgana can, under certain extreme and frequently stormy differences of air temperature, whereby a ship more than hull down on the horizon can appear as a ‘flying’ (usually inverted) ship in the sky. In the past, however, reports of such bizarre sightings in travel writings fed legends, which grew by what they fed on. Moreover, in the legendary accounts, the site of the action is usually the Cape of Good Hope. As international trade expanded, what was repeatedly found in travel writings ‘crossed over’ in to imaginative literature and its derivatives (including Wagner’s opera), particularly via early nineteenth century melodrama. Writers such as Scott, Tom Moore, Edgar Allen Poe—and possibly the Coleridge of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—fed into a literary tradition carried forward via multiple vectors.3

One such vector was John Howison’s story, ‘Vanderdecken’s Message Home; or, the Tenacity of Natural Affection’ (1821). It offers a name for the captain of an Amsterdam ship, the Cape of Good Hope as location of his tribulation, and the recurring motifs whereby the ghost ship’s crew offer letters to long-dead people (if accepted by passing vessels, such messages bring bad luck to those ship and their crew). Howison’s Hendrick Vanderdecken captains a vessel which had left Amsterdam seventy years prior to the setting of his story. Frustrated by foul winds which prevent his rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the captain is asked if he will put into Table Bay and replies: ‘May I be eternally d—d if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment’.4

These strands of the legend are reworked by a far more influential English vector, Captain Frederick Marryat (1792–1848) in The Phantom Ship,5 which Yeats seems to have read as a boy. The legend enjoyed an afterlife in such doggerel poems as ‘The Flying Dutchman’, by the Fenian convict, John Boyle O’Reilly (1844–90), to whom I return below.

Plate 39. Frontispiece to Captain Marryat’s The Phantom Ship (1839; rpt. London: Richard Bentley, 1847) engraved by J. Crowse. Private collection, London.


Mosada’s source has been long-sought.6 In fact it has been equally long-forgotten and therefore unexplored. The editor of The Irish Book Lover, John Crone, in one of his 1925 ‘Editor’s Gossip’ columns noted that ‘it has recently been brought to my attention that the opening scene [of Mosada]… bears a strong resemblance to a chapter in Captain Marryatt’s [sic] “Phantom Ship”’.7 Coming upon these words, I somehow knew that Crone’s informant had been correct. Yeats himself had written a poem entitled ‘The Phantom Ship’.8 Accordingly I read the first novel by Marryat which I had attempted since Mr Midshipman Easy at the age at which little boys in the 1950s found adventure and romance in such books as Marryat’s, R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Marryat’s The Phantom Ship might well be subtitled Son of the Flying Dutchman. It is set in the mid-seventeenth century, opening in a cottage in the small town of Terneuse where the Dutchman’s wife Catherine, prematurely wasted at forty years of age, is apparently possessed of some ‘deep-seated, irremoveable, hopeless cause of anguish, never for one moment permitted to be absent from her memory: a chronic oppression, fixed and graven there, only to be removed by death’.9 William Vanderdecken, a Catholic, has been gone seventeen years as Captain of the Amsterdammer, on his voyage to East India. After just six months, there had been a dreadful storm in Terneuse, the windows and shutters are blown in, and the Dutchman’s apparition manifests itself on the storm, telling his wife that he ‘hover[s] between this world and the world of Spirits’. For nine weeks Vanderdecken had attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope, had finally blasphemed, and now thinks he murdered his pilot. ‘I struck at [the pilot, Schriften]; he reeled; and, with the sudden lurch of the vessel, he fell overboard, and sank’. The Dutchman then swears by a fragment of the true Cross (which he gives to his wife in a reliquary she thereafter wears around her neck and which, on her death, passes to her son, Philip), that he ‘would gain [his] point in defiance of storm and seas, of lightning, of heaven, or of hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment’… an ‘oath registered in thunder, and in streams of sulphurous fire’. His ship nearly founders, and ‘in the centre of a deep o’erhanging cloud, which shrouded all in utter darkness, were written in letters of livid flame, these words—Until the Day of Judgment’.10 We will return to this irruption.

Philip has been encouraged to believe from infancy that his father is drowned, but at nineteen or twenty, is determined to go to sea against his mother’s wishes. When pressed about his father, Catherine Vanderdecken has a stroke. Rallying before dying, she tells Philip the truth: far from drowning his father still exists, ‘IN LIVING JUDGMENTCURSED’.11 He has left her a letter, now in a sealed room of the cottage, with his fortune. At this crucial moment in the story, the ‘widow Vanderdecken was no more’.12 Philip swears upon the relic that he will ‘avert [his father’s] doom, or perish’.13 A sub-plot emerges in the growing love between Philip and Amine, daughter of one Mynheer Poots, the local doctor who has attended his dying mother. Amine is Muslim; her father had been captured by Moors, sold to a Hakim (physician), trained by him in all his ‘knowledge of the art’ and has converted to Islam to be freed from slavery. Poots then marries an Arab, acquires immense wealth, loses it and escapes with wife and daughter among the wild Bedouin—a narrative, one imagines, immensely gripping for the young Yeats who later would write ‘Cycles Ago: in memory of your dream one July night’ and the Stories of Michael Robartes.14 Latterly Poots’s only ‘god is gold’,15 but Amine has learned some Arab medical secrets as well as Arab sorcery from her parents.

Philip goes to sea to learn his profession as a seaman, on a Dutch East Indiaman, the pilot of which is the mysterious and unearthly Schriften, who, despite being several times cast overboard, always seems to re-enter Philip’s increasingly complex adventures in ship after ship, trying to steal his relic (Plate 40). Philip rises in the Company, until he is eventually a Master and part-owner of one of its ships. There are several inconclusive encounters with The Flying Dutchman’s phantom ship on these voyages, and many pages of wreckages, adventures, and buried treasure in the Dutch East Indies and even Papua, doubtless thrilling to small boys. Amine’s father dies of a poison he had intended to administer to Philip: Amine has, in giving the potion to her father, to all intents and purposes murdered him while discovering his murderous attempt on her husband. Eventually Amine and Philip sail together on a Dutch East Indiaman under his command. Wrecked and separated, she ends up in Goa where, with a small boy, Pedro, she invokes Arab sorcery and gets a vision of Philip cast away on a desert island. Pedro is forced by the Inquisition to betray her by helping her to re-enact her sorcery in the presence of concealed Inquisitors (Plate 41).16

Plate 40. ‘Philip Vanderdecken—that’s the Flying Dutchman!’ from The Phantom Ship (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1874). Private collection, London.

Plate 41. Then I was not mistaken’,… cried Father Mathias, with looks of indignation; ‘accursed sorceress! you are detected’, from The Phantom Ship (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1874). Private collection, London.

Philip makes it to Goa in time to see her paraded and—refusing to renounce her Muslim faith in favour of a Christianity she has never espoused—burnt in an auto-da-fe. Pages and pages are devoted to the rituals, the meanings, and the elaborate trials and tortures of the (Portuguese) Goa Inquisition. Amine’s death drives Philip into insanity, and when, years later, he recovers enough to travel back to Holland, he encounters the Dutchman’s ship yet again. The crew press upon him mail to their loved ones, dead for many decades. By forgiving Schriften’s sins he finds himself divinely empowered to confront the Dutchman with his relic of the true cross. The Phantom Ship, its crew, Schriften, and the whole ‘insubstantial pageant’ dissolves and leaves ‘not a rack behind’.17

Of this tumultuous novel, Yeats takes for his Mosada its central element—a Moorish girl, inculcated into Arab sorcery, who refuses to recant, and who is set to die. Mosada sucks poison from a ring before recognizing her beloved Gomez (he is Vallance18 in the MSS) as the Inquisitor, Ebremar, just as he is too late to save her. Marryat’s Amine is most certainly not in love with her Inquisitor and ‘unrepenting faces her end’ (cf., VP 273), embraced by her beloved husband.

Mosada’s conclusion is admirably economical. At the beginning of the play we have been warned that Mosada and Gomez are what Shakespeare called ‘star-cross’d lovers’. Azolar (‘the star-taught Moor’, whom we never meet) has told Mosada that ‘it was decreed’ that she and ‘dark Gomez’ (who believes that she and all her people are ‘accurst | Of his sad God’) will one day meet. The decree has come from

…those wan stars that sit in company

Above the Alpujarras on their thrones:

And the meeting will take place

…when the stars of our nativity

Draw star to star, as on that eve he passed

Down the long valleys from my people’s tents (VP 690–91).

Mosada expires in Ebremar’s arms as monks and inquisitors enter.

First Inquisitor. My lord, you called?

Ebremar. Not I. This maid is dead.

First Monk. From poison; for you cannot trust these Moors.

You’re pale, my lord.

First Inquisitor (aside). His lips are quivering;

The flame that shone within his eyes but now

Has flickered and gone out.

Ebremar. I am not well.

’Twill pass. I’ll see the other prisoners now,

And importune their souls to penitence,

So they escape from hell. But, pardon me,

Your hood is threadbare19—see that it be changed

Before we take our seats above the crowd. (VP 704)

Ebremar’s self-repression here is perhaps rather too savage for him plausibly to pass as a tragic lover, but Yeats may well have been working towards what he would later praise as Shakespearian tragic ecstasy.20 His future as a lover being over, Ebremar clearly has a big future in the Church. The reader turns back to reflect on the Cardinal in the play’s epigraph

‘And my Lord Cardinal hath had strange days in his youth’—Extract from a Memoir of the Fifteenth Century’.

That date is a charmingly vague gesture. The Spanish Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición was established in 1478 by Ferdinand, and was shaped to regulate those who had converted from Judaism and Islam, especially after 1492 and 1502 when Jews and Muslims were decreed to leave Spain or convert.21 Yeats’s quotation has never been traced and was, in all likelihood, invented for an imagined book. ‘“In dreams begin Responsibility”. OLD PLAY comes to mind, as it too follows Walter Scott’s practice with such devices.22 For Marryat’s Amine (in the fourteenth chapter of the novel), the prophetic dreams she has conjured after summoning the ghost of her dead mother with drugs and ritual dictate her subsequent course of action.


In focusing on Marryat’s Moorish girl who, with the prospect of punishment for heresy as a sorceress and seer by an Inquisition by means of the auto-da-fe, kills herself. Yeats takes over Marryat’s Pedro, who, in his play, becomes the lame Cola, with maybe Amine’s Moorish doctor-father being hinted at in Yeats’s Azolar.23 Mosada otherwise offers no glimpse of Marryat’s engagement with The Flying Dutchman, his crew, and Purgatory. In 1887 however, Yeats turns to this topos in his poem of the same name. The highlighted passages in the entire poem quoted below are those which focus on one aspect of the Flying Dutchman legend, i.e., that he, and his crew, are souls in Purgatory.

The Phantom Ship

Flames the shuttle of the lightning across the driving sleet,

Ay, and shakes in sea-green waverings along the fishers’ street;

Gone the stars and gone the white moon, gone and puffed away and dead.

Never storm arose so swiftly; scarce the children were in bed,

Scarce the old and wizen houses had their doors and windows shut.

Ah! it dwelt within the twilight as the worm within the nut.

‘Waken, waken, sleepy fishers; no hour is this for sleep’,

Cries a voice at roaring midnight beside the moonless deep.

Hail dizzy with the lightning there runs a gathering band—

‘Watcher, wherefore have ye called us?’ Eyes go after his lean hand,

And the fisher men and women from the dripping harbour wall

See the darkness slow disgorging a vessel blind with squall.

‘Bring the ropes now! Stand ye by now! See, she rounds the harbour clear.

God! they’re mad to fly such canvas!’ Ah! what bell-notes do they hear?

Say what ringer rings at midnight; for, in the belfry high,

Slow the chapel bell is tolling as though the dead passed by.

Round she comes in stays before them; cease the winds, and on their poles

Cease the sails their flapping uproar, and the hull no longer rolls.

Now a scream from all those fishers, for there on deck there be

All the drowned that ever were drowned from that village by the sea;

And the ghastly ghost-flames glimmer all along the taffrail rails

On the drowned men’s hands and faces, on the spars and on the sails.

Hush’d the fishers, till a mother calls by name her drownèd son;

Then each wife and maid and mother calls by name some drowned one.

Stands each grey and silent phantom on the same regardless spot

Joys and fears in their grey faces that the live earth knoweth not;

Down the vapours fall and hide them from the children of a day,

And the winds come down and blow them with the vapours far away.

Hang the mist-threads for a little while like cobwebs in the air;

Then the stars grow out of heaven with their countenances fair.

‘Pray for the souls in purgatory’, the pale priest trembling cries.

* * *

Prayed those forgotten fishers, till in the eastern skies

Came olive fires of morning and on the darkness fed,

By the slow heaving ocean—mumbling mother of the dead.

(VP 718–19, emphases added)

In the Providence Sunday Journal of 27 May, 1888, Yeats’s poem had been titled ‘A Legend of the Phantom Ship’, and legend it is, or was. It does not, in his rendition, achieve any Irish local habitation, although one might read back into it some memories of life in the fishing-port of Howth. This Phantom Ship has somehow netted all of the drowned from one village—almost a foretaste of Riders to the Sea.

It is natural to wonder if this poem could have had an Irish forebear and here one must turn again to John Boyle O’Reilly’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’.24 A sample from its conclusion follows:

Once more the lurid light gleamed out—the ship was still at rest,

The crew were standing at their posts; with arms across his breast

Still stood the captain on the poop, but bent and crouching now

He bowed beneath that fiat dread, and o’er his swarthy brow

Swept lines of anguish, as if he a thousand years of pain

Had lived and suffered. Then across the heaving, angry main

The tempest shrieked triumphant, and the angry waters hissed

Their vengeful hate against the toy they oftentimes had kissed.

And ever through the midnight storm that hapless crew must speed:

They try to round the stormy Cape,25 but never can succeed.

And oft when gales are wildest, and the lightning’s vivid sheen

Flashes back the ocean’s anger, still the Phantom Ship is seen

Ever sailing to the southward in the fierce tornado’s swoop,

With her ghostly crew and canvas, and her captain on the poop,

Unrelenting, unforgiven! and ‘tis said that every word

Of his blasphemous defiance still upon the gale is heard!

But Heaven help the ship near which the dismal sailor steers,—

The doom of those is sealed to whom that Phantom Ship appears:

They’ll never reach their destined port,—they’ll see their homes no more,—

They who see the Flying Dutchman—never, never reach the shore!26

The association of the tempestuous Vanderdecken with devilish defiance, driving a ship around the Cape of Storms under a supernaturally exorbitant press of canvas against impossible weather—these are all aspects of the story familiar from such vectors as Howison and Marryat. But it is only Marryat who offers the defiant and repeated quests of the son of the Dutchman to redeem him, together with his Moorish wife, her Arab sorcery, and an auto-da-fe.

There is no evidence that Yeats knew O’Reilly’s poem, though he certainly knew of O’Reilly, because as editor of The Boston Pilot, O’Reilly published Yeats’s ‘How Ferencz Renyi kept Silent’ on 6 August 1887, as well as his subsequent columns ‘The Celt in London’.27 Yeats, however, had found all he needed on the subject—and much more—in Marryat’s novel. O’Reilly’s poem is an intermediary by a man who, well-educated, had also presumably read Marryat before being transported, and the poem remains merely an Irish forebear, and analogue, and not, I think, a source. Yeats’s abandoned or suppressed poems have perhaps understandably received very little critical comment.28 ‘The Phantom Ship’ seemed a fairly unremarkable addition to the myth of the Flying Dutchman, and its identity of title with that of Marryat’s novel merely confirmed Yeats’s distinct locus of attention, a legend of Purgatory. Yeats’s priest uses a Catholic catchphrase, words from the Prayer of St Gertrude, one of the most famous of the prayers for souls in Purgatory.

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.29

Suppressing unsatisfactory poems even before—and certainly after—The Wanderings of Oisin meant rejecting those—including Mosada itself—which were foreign-based. Thus Yeats rejects e.g., ‘Song of Spanish Insurgents’,30 or the Hungarian tale of 1848, ‘How Ferencz Renyi kept Silent’, even with its urgent political message for Ireland (the ‘Hungary of the West’, VP 709–15). But as his work grew more Irish, ‘tribeless, nationless’ poems set in ‘No Man’s Land’ also had to go (E&I 205; CW4 151).


The ‘Irishizing’ of the Purgatory topos was no easy matter for a poet from a Protestant background, but Yeats certainly tried it in the story suppressed after The Secret Rose (1897), entitled variously ‘Those who live in the Storm’ and ‘The Rose of Shadow’ (1894–97; VSR 227–31). Ostensibly a story arising out of ‘the great storm of October, 1765’ (VSR 231v.), ‘The Rose of Shadow’ concerns itself with the irruption during a violent storm of the ghost of one Michael Creed, the former lover of Oona Herne, into the cottage of her parents, Simon and Margaret Herne in Co. Sligo. Before gesturing to Yeats’s further dependence on Marryat’s novel, I will quote from it at some length because it is a rarely-accessed adjunct to the Hanrahan stories, suppressed by Yeats after its inclusion in The Secret Rose (1897).

Exactly a year before the events of the story, and during a storm, when the wind had blown ‘along the mountain of Gulben [i.e., Ben Bulben] and out to sea‘—an east wind in a region where the prevailing wind is westerly—Oona’s brother, Peter, had killed Creed ‘with a blow from a boat-hook’. Creed had been the ‘master of a coasting smack, and

the terror of the little western ports because of his violence and brutality, and the hatred of all peaceful households because of his many conquests among women, whom he subdued through that love of strength which is deep in the hearts of even the subtlest of them. (VSR 228).

Since then, Oona has remained submissive. Yet, the night before the new storm ‘as black and as bitter’ as that which has raged exactly a year before, she had put a ‘sod’ from Creed’s grave on the chair beside her bed.

‘Come to me, alanna’, it said; and I answered, “How can I come?” And it said, “Come with me when the wind blows along the Mountain of Gulben and out to sea”. Then I was afraid, and I put it outside on the window-sill. (VSR 228).

She is curious about the fates of ‘those who have done crimes’ and ‘those who have never confessed’, and asks her mother ‘are they put in a place apart, or do they wander near us?’

‘Child’, replied the old woman, ‘my mother told me that some are spitted upon the points of the rocks, and some upon the tops of the trees, but that others wander with the season in the storms over the seas and about the strands and headlands of the world. But, daughter, I bid you think of them no more, for when we think of them they draw near’.31

After this wonderfully inclusive, evasive reply, Margaret Herne sprinkles her daughter with holy water. Her action confounds folk knowledge with Catholic gesture, a peasant reflex—of which I have heard in far more recent times—where ritual is reduced to superstition. But Margaret’s action does presume a belief in a Purgatory, albeit imagined via Irish folklore rather than orthodox Catholic belief, and so a fair representation of Yeats’s early attempts to grapple with local belief patterns.

Oona has begun to chant in a trance, a ‘fitful, exultant air in a low voice’, becoming more and more entranced as the storm rises and drowns her words before. It then becomes ‘still, as though the beings that controlled it were listening also’. Her father interjects with a brutal blow to her mouth: her ‘evil air’ being one of Hanrahan the Red’s who had sung ‘it after he had listened to the singing of those who are about the faery Cleena of the Wave… it has lured, and will lure, many a girl from her hearth and from her peace’. Her mother adds that the song is

of a love too great for our perishing hearts… Hanrahan the Red is always seeking with wild tunes and bewildered words to answer their voices, and a madness is upon his days and a darkness before his feet. His songs are no longer dear to any but to the coasting sailors and to the people of the mountain, and to those that are ill-nurtured and foolish. Look, daughter, to the spinning-wheel… and be content (ibid.)

As ‘wild words of love became audible’ the temperature falls, and ‘an icy feeling’ begins to ‘creep about the room and into their hearts, as though all the warmth of the world was in that low, exultant song’. When Peter Herne throws more turf on the fire, but it goes out: ‘demons, whose coming kills the body of man, were in the storm listening to this evil song’. Oona brightens, and half rising from her chair sings ‘in a loud and joyous voice:—

O, what to me the little room,

That was brimmed up with prayer and rest?

He bade me out into the gloom,

And my breast lies upon his breast.

O, what to me my mother’s care,

The home where I was safe and warm?

The shadowy blossom of my hair

Will hide us from the bitter storm.

O, hiding hair and dewy eyes,

I am no more with life and death!

My heart upon his warm heart lies;

My breath is mixed into his breath.

(VSR 230–31; cf. VP 151–52)

While she had been singing,

an intense drowsiness had crept into the room, as though the gates of Death had moved upon their hinges. The old woman had leaned forward upon the table, for she had suddenly understood that her hour had come. The young man had fixed his eyes fiercely on the face of the girl, and the light died out of them. The old man had known nothing, except that he was very cold and sleepy, until the cold came to his heart.32 At the end of the song the storm began again with redoubled tumult, and the roof shook. The lips of the girl were half-parted in expectation…

Suddenly the thatch at one end of the roof rolled up, and the rushing clouds and a single star flickered before her eyes for a moment, and then seemed to be lost in a formless mass of flame which roared but gave no heat, and had in the midst of it the shape of a man crouching on the storm.33 His heavy and brutal face and his partly naked limbs were scarred with many wounds, and his eyes were full of white fire under his knitted brows’ (VSR 231).

Plate 42. John Butler Yeats’s illustration for ‘The Rose of Shadow’ in W. B. Yeats’s The Secret Rose (1897). Private collection, London.

This irruption was illustrated by John Butler Yeats in the 1897 edition, on a slightly anticipatory facing plate (Plate 42). And there the story ends, except in The Speaker 21 July 1894 version, where it concludes with dispensable sentences on the destruction of house and family by the storm: ‘The rest of the roof rolled up and then fell inward with a crash, and the storm rushed through the house…. [they were all buried in] the barony of Amharlish’, under a ‘tombstone to say they were killed in the great storm of October, 1765’.34

Recovery of these abandoned words helps us to gesture back to the story’s source, in the opening chapter of Marryat’s The Phantom Ship. The Amsterdammer has been at sea for six months. Vanderdecken’s wife recalls a ‘dreadful night’ in Terneuse:

‘…when the gale blows, a sailor’s wife can seldom sleep. It was past midnight, and the rain poured down. I felt unusual fear,—I knew not why, I rose from my couch and dipped my finger in the blessed water, and I crossed myself. A violent gust of wind roared round the house and alarmed me still more. I had a painful, horrible foreboding; when, of a sudden, the windows and window-shutters were all blown in, the light was extinguished, and I was left in utter darkness. I screamed with fright—but at last I recovered myself, and was proceeding towards the window that I might reclose it, when, whom should I behold, slowly entering at the casement, but—your father,—Philip—Yes, Philip,—it was your father!’… When he had entered the room, the windows and shutters closed of themselves, and the candle was relighted—then I thought it was his apparition and I fainted on the floor.

When I recovered I found myself on the couch, and perceived that a cold (O how cold) and dripping hand was clasped in mine. This reassured me, and I forgot the supernatural signs which accompanied his appearance…. I felt as if I had embraced ice.35

The captain then tells her that he has lost his ship and how, that he ‘is not dead, nor am I yet alive. I hover between this world and the world of spirits’ and of his blasphemy, his killing of the pilot, his oath on the fragment of the Holy Cross and the natural sign of its being supernaturally registered, the ‘letters of livid flame’ in the centre of a ‘deep o’erhanging cloud’ proclaiming ‘UNTIL THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT’.36 He leaves her a letter, the shutters and windows burst open again, and he ‘sailed through the window… his form borne away like lightning on the wings of the wild gale, till it was lost as a speck of light, and then it disappeared’.37 His wife, on telling this last detail, expires into the arms of her son.

Allowing for the difference between a cursed husband caught ‘in living judgment’ and a ‘Demon Lover’38—which is another Celtic folk tradition to which Michael Creed has strong links—it is passages such as these which must have caught the imagination of the younger Yeats, and it is their attempt to capture such moments of irruption as moments when the ‘supernatural is present’ which fired his mind with visions of private purgatories.


A growing interest in the Irish folklore record of Purgatory finds recurrent expression in Yeats’s subsequent prose. A major trigger was provided by the visits of William Carleton and Caesar Otway to Station Island, Lough Derg, the ancient shrine of St Patrick said to provide access to a mouth of Purgatory; Otway being the helping hand in the editing of Carleton’s ‘The Lough Derg Pilgrim’ for Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry.39 In visionary experiments with Mary Battle, she saw the Gates of Purgatory (Au 267; M2005 28). The imagined spatial and geographical relation of Purgatory to Hell and Paradise clearly preoccupied many of Yeats’s peasant witnesses, with St Patrick’s Purgatory recurring again and again in Yeats’s and Gregory’s early folklore harvests and studies.

Such ‘broken bread’ of the ‘old Irish visions of the Three Worlds’ (e.g., those of such medieval figures as St Adamnan in certain c. twelfth century writings which have been seen as influences on Dante’s Divina Commedia)40 supplied the Purgatory topos, found in a further story at one time considered for The Secret Rose, ‘Michael Clancy, the Great Dhoul, and Death’.41 ‘The Prisoners of the Gods’, ‘The Broken Gates of Death’, ‘Away’ touch on Irish beliefs about Purgatory,42 as do the ‘The Celtic Element in Literature’ and the Blake essays in Ideas of Good and Evil and there are interesting scattered references either to Purgatory, or to St Patrick’s Purgatory elsewhere in Yeats’s occasional and abandoned prose. The revised and expanded version of The Celtic Twilight collects the very brief ‘Concerning the Nearness together of Heaven, Earth, and Purgatory’ (M2005 65). The orthodox doctrine of Purgatory was applied in such plays The Unicorn from the Stars, The Cat and the Moon and The Hour Glass (where the School Master has denied the existence of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory).


Though you may not undo what you have done,

I have this power—if you but find one soul,

Before the sands have fallen, that still believes,

One fish to lie and spawn among the stones

Till the great Fisher’s net is full again,

You may, the purgatorial fire being passed,

Spring to your peace. (VPl 603–05)

As yet, none of Yeats’s acquired Irish Purgatory-lore had been internalized. That process was initiated as he tried to bring into a unified field of consideration Irish folklore, modern ‘spiritism’ (as he called what we might now name ‘spiritualism’), and a reform of his own theatrical practices during WW1. In ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (1914), in consideration of theatrical techniques appropriate to the ‘pain of the ghost in a Buddhist purgatory’, in his introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916), Yeats moves towards what might be called ‘belief self-assessment’, which becomes unignorable in If I were Four-and-Twenty (1919).

But if I were four-and-twenty, and without rheumatism… I would go—though certainly I am no Catholic and never shall be one—upon both of our great pilgrimages, to Croagh Patrick and to Lough Derg… Europe has nothing older than our pilgrimages.43 In many little lyrics I would claim that stony mountain or all Christian and pagan faith in Ireland, believing, in the exultation of my youth, that in three generations I should have made it as vivid in the memory of all imaginative men among us, as the sacred mountain of Japan is in that of the collectors of prints; and I would, being but four-and-twenty and a lover of lost causes, memorialize the bishops to open once again that Lough Derg cave of vision once beset by an evil spirit in the form of a long-legged bird with no feathers on its wings.44

A few years ago Bernard Shaw explained, what he called ‘the vulgarity and the savagery’ of his writing, by saying that he had sat once upon a time every Sunday morning in an Irish Protestant church. But mountain and lough have not grown raw and common; pillage and ravage could not abate their beauty; and the impulse that gathers these great companies in every year has outlasted armorial stone.

Then, too, I would associate that doctrine of purgatory, which Christianity has shared with Neo-Platonism, with the countryman’s belief in the nearness of his dead ‘working out their penance’ in rath or at garden end: and I would find in the psychical research of our day detail to make the association convincing to intellect and emotion. I would try to create a type of man whose most moving religious experience, though it came to him in some distant country, and though his intellect were wholly personal, would bring with it imagery to connect it with an Irish multitude now and in past time (CW5 36–37; 310–11nn.; Ex 266–68).

Given that this was written after the period of intense re-engagement in the thought of Emmanuel Swedenborg,45 in mediumistic practice and psychical research, it is clear that Purgatory was ripe for reinterpretation by this fundamentally Protestant mind. Yeats thought he had witnessed direct experience in spiritualistic practice of the accessibility, or ‘nearness’ of the dead.


The way was thus clear for what then seemed Yeats’s deepest thinking about Purgatory in the concept of the after-death ‘Shiftings’ in the first version of A Vision. See CW13 189–90). Further dramatic deployment followed A Vision, as in The Words upon the Window-pane.

Dr. Trench.

Sometimes a spirit re-lives not the pain of death but some passionate or tragic moment of life. Swedenborg describes this and gives the reason for it. There is an incident of the kind in the Odyssey, and many in Eastern literature; the murderer repeats his murder, the robber his robbery, the lover his serenade, the soldier hears the trumpet once again. If I were a Catholic I would say that such spirits were in Purgatory. In vain do we write requiescat in pace upon the tomb, for they must suffer, and we in our turn must suffer until God gives peace. Such spirits do not often come to séances unless those séances are held in houses where those spirits lived, or where the event took place. This spirit which speaks those incomprehensible words and does not answer when spoken to is of such a nature. The more patient we are, the more quickly will it pass out of its passion and its remorse. (VPl 944–45; CW2 470).

While Yeats was explicit in his denial that any ‘character upon the stage spoke my thoughts. All were people I had met or might have met in just such a séance’ including ‘the old man who was half a Swedenborgian’,46 it is difficult not to remember that he himself attended scores of such séances, even if no longer of quite the Swedenborgian persuasion he had once been attracted to.47 But the thinking was to go even deeper—and clearer in dramatic realization than it had been in A Vision. ‘I never remember the dream so deep’, wrote Yeats of the frenzy of excitement in which he wrote Purgatory (1938), his masterpiece in which Purgatory is a state of remorseless re-enactment rather than purgation. Nor was the play ‘“an allegory… My plot is my meaning”’, he told the Irish Times48 after the play had opened. At its first night—his last appearance at the Abbey—he told the audience that he had ‘put into this play… my thoughts about this world and the next’;49 a crisp summation of a lifetime’s brooding development via legend, folklore, and a constantly reconfigured set of beliefs in reincarnation and spiritism which make up this Protestant revision of Catholic orthodoxy in the social and political setting of the new Republic of Ireland.

T. S. Eliot remarked that in Purgatory, and only in that play, Yeats had ‘solved his problem of speech in verse, and laid all his successors under obligation to him’.50 When Eliot meets Yeats as the major spirit of his ‘familiar compound ghost’ in ‘Little Gidding’ and Yeats’, as ‘dead master’ warns him of the third of the ‘gifts reserved for age’, the ‘rending pain of re-enactment’ | Of all that you have done, and been’, I suggest that Eliot also understands Yeats’s thinking on Purgatory.51


Though Yeats left Marryat behind, he could not rid himself of Purgatory. Reflecting on these matters at Schiphol Airport, hub of the Royal Dutch flag-carrier airline, I noticed the fuselage motto—in English—‘The Flying Dutchman’—under the company logo that KLM’s intercontinental planes bear. I briefly wondered if I was suffering from ideas of reference, or whether the legend of the Dutchman is itself obsessional.52 Airports being notorious, I soon recovered enough to see that Purgatory itself has received an upgrade—the motto gestures to ceaseless travel in the sky—even if the copy-writers had been oblivious to national legend. The Dutchman was only temporarily grounded at Schiphol.53

One of the privileges of editing this journal is that of re-visiting primary documents in the harmless drudgery of editing others’ work. Reporting the appearance of Mosada in Book Auction Records, Colin Smythe’s preceding article quotes some ‘Editor’s Gossip’ from The Irish Book Lover in 1925.54 Checking Smythe’s quotation, I rediscovered as indicated above the source of Mosada in Marryat’s novel. Perhaps advanced research is but the privilege of rereading primary documents and reviewing the new perspectives they open up.

1 Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

2 See It seems to have been a ‘common story’ by 1790: see John Macdonald, Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia and Africa during a Series of Thirty Years and Upwards (London: published by the author, printed by J. Forbes, 1790), 276.

3 See the brief, popular account in Jonathan Eyers, Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions (London: Adlard Coles Nautical, i.e., A. & C. Black, 2011), 68–71. Wikipedia offers something more substantial at

4 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 9:1 (May 1821), 125–31.

5 London: Henry Colburn; Philadelphia: E. L. Carey & A. Hart, 1839. The edition read by Yeats is unknown, and no edition remains in his library. The book was widely reprinted in the nineteenth century. The texts quoted below are taken from the London: Henry Colburn, 1839 edition and checked against later reprintings including the London: George Routledge & Sons, 1874 illustrated edition (possibly the edition used by the young Yeats); and Stroud: Nonesuch pb., 2006 editions, hereafter distinguished by date. The Phantom Ship is also available in a searchable Kindle edition. The London: Richard Bentley, 1847 edition has an engraved frontispiece by J. Crowse, and is perhaps a precursor to Gustave Doré’s 42 magnificent illustrations for Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (London: Doré Gallery; Hamilton Adams & Co., 1876). For the Crowse image see Plate 39.

6 NC 453–54 lists what little sketchy work had otherwise been done on the subject.

7 The Irish Book Lover 15:4 (October 1925), 54–55.

8 VP 718–19, and first published in The Providence Sunday Journal, 27 May 1888 (3) as ‘The Legend of the Phantom Ship’, republished as ‘The Phantom Ship’ in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and then suppressed by Yeats—so well, one might think, that subsequent comment has been almost wholly discouraged ever since. The poem is quoted in full below, pp. 272-73.

9 The Phantom Ship, I:4–5 (1839); 2 (1874); 12 (2006).

10 Ibid., I, 25–26 (1839); 8–9 1874; 19–20 (2006).

11 Ibid., I, 19–21 (1839); 11 (1874); 18 (2006).

12 Ibid., I, 27 (1839); 11 (1874); 20 (2006).

13 Ibid., I, 75 (1839); 30 (1874); 41 (2006).

14 For ‘Cycles Ago’ (including full text), see Warwick Gould and Deirdre Toomey, ‘“Cycles Ago…”, Maud Gonne and the Lyrics of 1891’, YA7 184–93.

15 The crispest summary is provided by Amine in the fifth chapter, ibid., I, 100ff. at 115 (1839); 40ff. at 47 (1874); 56ff. (2006).

16 Established as a branch of the Portuguese Inquisition (est. 1536) in 1560, suppressed 1774–78, abolished 1812: see, with broadly similar aims as those of the Spanish Inquisition: see below pp. 269–71and n. 21.

17 The Tempest, IV, i.

18 The name ‘Vallance’ (the spelling varies: see W. B. Yeats The Early Poetry, Vol. I: Mosada and The Island of Statues, ed. George Bornstein [Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987], 21–126ff.) acknowledges his origins in Valencia. Later in his reading, Yeats encountered in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin (London: Dent, 1895; YL 111), Raphael de Valentin, if you please…. [the family has a coat of arms and] ‘a fine motto: NON CECIDIT ANIMUS. We are no foundling child, but a descendant of the Emperor Valens, of the stock of the Valentinois, founders of the city of Valence in France, and Valencia in Spain, rightful heirs to the Empire of the East. If we suffer Mahmoud on the throne of Byzantium, it is out of pure condescension, and for lack of funds and soldiers’ (48).

19 The scene is full of Shakespearean parallels, most obviously in plot terms with the finale of Romeo and Juliet. It also echoes another love-death by poison, that of Cleopatra, in Antony and Cleopatra where Charmian’s words in V: ii, ‘Your crown’s awry; I’ll mend it, and then play’ work similarly, if not, of course, as a command.

20 See, e.g., E&I 522–23; CW5 213.

21 It was not abolished until 1834: see

22 See The Phantom Ship, II, 28ff. (1839); 131ff. (1874); 148ff. (2006); VP 269. On epigraphs see Warwick Gould, ‘An Empty Theatre? Yeats as Minstrel in Responsibilities’, in Jacqueline Genet (ed.), Studies on W. B. Yeats (Caen: Groupe de Recherches d’Etudes anglo-irlandaises de C.N.R.S., 1989), 79–118, at p. 82 and n. 20, where some of Scott’s ‘mottoes’ from The Monastery, The Abbot, Peveril of the Peak, Woodstock, and The Fair Maid of Perth are cited.

23 There is a sense in which the Arab seer/sorceress theme persists through to the Solomon and Sheba poems, e.g., ‘Solomon and the Witch’ (VP 387–89) and to ‘The Gift of Harun al-Rashid’ (VP 460 ff.). Elizabeth Brewer Redwine groups the early ‘enchantresses’ Vivien (from Time and the Witch Vivien and its precursor, ‘Vivien and Time’), Naschina (from The Island of Statues) and Mosada herself as projections from Yeats’s early infatuation with Laura Armstrong, who, as he remarked to Katharine Tynan, ‘woke me from the metallic sleep of science and set me writing my first play’ (CL1 154–55). See Redwine’s ‘“She Set me Writing My First Play”: Laura Armstrong and Yeats’s Early Drama’, Irish University Review 35:2 (Autumn-Winter 2005), 245–58.

24 The poem was first published in late 1867 in the hand-written newspaper, The Wild Goose: A Collection of Ocean Waifs aboard the Hougoumont, the last ship to transport convicts to Australia. A set of all seven issues, preserved by descendants of John Flood, another Fenian on the Hougoumont, was presented to the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. O’Reilly, poet and journalist, escaped from Western Australia to America where he became editor of The Boston Pilot and a close associate of the leaders of Clan-na-Gael.

25 Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 gave the Portuguese name Cabo das Tormentas (‘Cape of Storms’) to what has since become more generally known as the Cape of Good Hope.

26 See John Boyle O’Reilly, Songs from the Southern Seas and other Poems (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1873), 179–90 at pp. 188–90; Songs, Legends, and Ballads (Boston: The Pilot Publishing Company, 1878), 144–60 at pp. 159–60.

27 See CL120 and passim. Yeats’s connection with O’Reilly was through John O’Leary. O’Reilly’s paper then took Yeats’s Irish Letters, ‘The Celt in London’: see CW7 passim. See also CL2 625. O’Reilly’s poems are not represented in Sparling’s Irish Minstrelsy, Yeats’s A Book of Irish Verse, The Cabinet of Irish Literature, or The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.

28 Deirdre Toomey and I seek to remedy that in working towards the next edition of Jeffares’ New Commentary.

29 It is ‘a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins’ (2 Maccabees 12:46): see According to tradition, God promised St Gertrude the Great, a thirteenth-century Benedictine nun and mystic, that 1000 souls would be released from Purgatory each time it is said devoutly (the Church having endorsed the doctrine of Purgatory from the Councils of Florence and Trent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries right up through Vatican II in the 1960s).

30 See John Kelly, ‘“Song of Spanish Insurgents”: A Newly Discovered Poem by Yeats’ (YA3 179–81).

31 VSR 228, folklore also found in ‘The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows’ (VSR 45; M2005 120) and, for a note on Yeats’s probable reading of T. Crofton Croker’s Researches in South of Ireland etc. (1824) on this matter, see M2005 327 n. 12.

32 Yeats at the end of his life describes the ‘the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death’ of Shakespearean tragedy’ in strikingly similar terms ‘all must be cold… The supernatural is present, cold winds blow across our hands, upon our faces, the thermometer falls… “Tragedy must be a joy to the man who dies”’ (E&I 523; CW5 213).

33 See John Newton, Olney Hymns, in Three Books: I: On select texts of scripture; II. On occasional subjects; III. On the progress and changes of the spiritual life (London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1806), Bk II, Hymn 15, ‘Light shining out of darkness’ (William Cowper):

‘God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm’ (255).

34 I.e.,Ahamlish’, which is in fact not a Barony but a Civil Parish of 50 townlands in the Barony of Carbury to the north-west of Ben Bulben. Ahamlish Cemetery (with Drumcliffe, one of the two principal cemeteries in North Sligo), lies between Grange and Cliffoney and not far from Streedagh Beach, in the Townland of Moneygold, i.e., Muine Dhualtach, or the field or good patch of Dualtach. I thank Martin Enright, President of the Yeats Society, Sligo, for this information and translation.

35 The Phantom Ship, I, 23 (1839); 10 (1874); 19 (2006).

36 Ibid., I, 24–25 (1839); 12 (1874); 20 (2006). Vanderdecken’s ghost uses modes of address which recall those of the ghost of old King Hamlet, repeating ‘my time is short’ and ‘Mark me’ as King Hamlet uses ‘Brief let me be’ and ‘List, list, O, list!’ (Hamlet, I, v.).

37 Ibid., I, 26 (1839); 11 (1874); 20 (2006).

38 See Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1861), II, 195–98.

39 YL 347. For a modern reprint see Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry with a Preface by Barbara Hayley (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe; Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990), I, 236–70.

40 For ‘broken bread’ see Ex 60; CW5 66. See ‘Happy and Unhappy Theologians’ (M2005 28–30 and, for the claimed influence on Dante, 240 n. 11).

41 UP1 310–17; see also VSR xvii.

42 UP2 74–87; 94–107; 267–83.

43 The abandoned epilogue (c. 1917) of Per Amica Silentia Lunae grows from Yeats’s fascination with pilgrimages to St Patrick’s Purgatory: see CW5 253–54.

44 Later explored in the ‘The Pilgrim’, first published as A Broadside 10 (New Series) (October 1937): see VP 592–93.

45 See ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (Ex 30–70; CW5 47–73).

46 Ex 363–64; CW2 718.

47 One recalls his statement to the Swedish press during his visit to collect his Nobel Prize, that he had even been inclined to be married in a New Swedenborgian church: see Life 2, 245–46 and n. 124, for this news percolating from the Swedish Nya Kyrkans Tidning (December 1923) and into the London Swedenborgian paper New Church Life (April 1926).

48 Irish Times (13 August 1938). See also Life 2, 618–19; 627ff.

49 Irish Times (10 August 1938).

50 See T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), 20.

51 See Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (eds.), The Poems of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), I, 204–05.

52 Perhaps Umberto Eco is right: ‘Moral: there exist obsessive ideas, they are never personal; books talk among themselves, and any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party’. See his Reflections on The Name of the Rose (London: Secker and Warburg, 1985), 81.

53 Other questionable attempts to update the legend include Albert Lewin’s script and film, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951). James Mason as the Dutchman is a John Singer Sargent figure, enraptured by the beautiful wife he has killed centuries ago. In 1930, his luxurious ocean-going yacht arrives in a Spanish Riviera resort after his latest seven-year bout at sea, and he works on a swagger portrait of her latest incarnation, Pandora (Ava Gardner). Alas, redemption through requital again eludes him.

54 See above, See above, p. 251 n. 22, and p. 266. Bruce Stewart’s 2004 edition of The Irish Book Lover: An Irish Studies Reader Taken from Issues of The Irish Book Lover (1909–1957) has also become an invaluable aid. See ‘Publications Received’ below, p. 460.