William Butler Yeats and the Noh: Tradition and Multiculturalism

by Alison Armstrong

Anglo-Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats engaged in the transformation of his complex sense of self through visual symbols, tropes such as metaphor and metonymy, ritual dance gestures and musical responses. He was not unique in attempting to remake himself. Oscar Wilde was an early model. James Joyce needed to “fly by the nets” of nationalism, church and family; Americans Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were becoming more English than the English. Yeats’s own deeply felt Anglo-Irish dichotomies resulted in his impulse to “remake” his self-image. Influenced by William Blake, Yeats claimed he must create his own religious system or be enslaved by another. Embracing the “ancient fathers,” he began a life-long dialogue of self and soul to the ultimate goal, “unity of being.” The dual world of Celtic mytho-history captured his imagination, “the continuity in space and time between what we call our world and the other world—or worlds.”1 But his dialogue with world literatures also included traditions from ancient Japan and classical Greece. In mid-life, he was exposed to the elegant simplicities of the Noh theater of Japan, which provided a structure and atmosphere in which he recreated Celtic myths and ancient symbols so numinous that their meanings can never be completely explained. He claimed to have “invented” a form of “aristocratic” drama.2 His act of “misprision” would serve him well, even as the sentimental and archaic narrative content failed to fit comfortably with Japanese Noh sensibility.

                  Yeats devoted himself to developing a persona—the term is abstracted from classical Greek Per+Sona, the theatrical mask through which the sound (sona) of the actor’s voice was amplified. The trappings of heroic personae he derived from occult activities, classical Greek and Celtic mythologies. And an antique Japanese theatrical form valorized his Romantic poetic concerns. Elevating the personal as theatrical projection makes manifest the universal, which he understood as having its source in Anima Mundi.

                  Yeats created literary alter egos and projections for the sake of externalizing inner dilemma in dialogue, among them Leo Africanus (encountered in séances), Owen Aherne, Michael Robartes, Red Hanrahan, Kusta ben Luka and Giraldus Cambrensis. Richard Ellmann observed:

                  Sometimes he was content to think his real self was

                  in his verse. “My character is so little myself,” he put

                  in a manuscript book, “that all my life it has thwarted me.

                  It has affected my poems, my true self, no more than the

                  character of a dancer affects the movements of a dance.”3

He held ideas from youth to be reworked throughout his life. For example, his poem “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” (from In the Seven Woods, 1904) carried over into the play At the Hawk’s Well (1916). The idea for mortal Attracta serving an occult pre-Christian beast-god was “in my head,” he said, from the 1890s but not crafted into The Herne’s Egg4 until old age.

                        Yeats was also engaged in remaking his culture; ancient Irelandwas to inform the present. One important accomplishment was adapting the Noh form of theater from Japan. Even more than the dialogic poems from, say, The Green Helmet collection (such as the Hic & Ille exchange in “Ego Dominus Tuus” and Aherne & Robartes in “Phases of the Moon”), or short dramatic monologues (“To a Shade”), the Japanese Noh drama that he embraced from 1914 came to him at just the right time.5 Three years prior to his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917 and their subsequent work with automatic script, which resulted in A Vision, Yeats was introduced to Japanese Noh, which utilizes a dialogic process between reality and illusion, the living and the dead, artifice and nature. That he would settle on a young woman adept whom he was mentoring in the Golden Dawn Society, whose best friend, Dorothy, was the daughter of his first lover, Olivia Shakespeare, and the fiancée of his friend Ezra Pound, would seem fortuitous.

                  Yeats’s discovery of Noh at this time helped to focus his poetic ideals. It was Pound, through the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, who was to get the most credit for introducing Yeats to the Noh at a critical time in his personal and writing life. The craze for Japonisme, beginning in the late 1870s and continuing into the 1920s, affected London as it had France and America and touched the poetic imaginations of Symbolists and Imagists, as well as graphic artists (Arthur Wesley Dow),6 painters (Whistler, Monet), architects (Frank Lloyd Wright in America, Bedford Park in London, where the Yeats family lived while Lily studied with May Morris), craftspeople influenced by Japan directly (as was potter Bernard Leach by Hamada) or indirectly (many of those who exhibited with Vanessa Bell in her London Omega Workshops or with the Yeats sisters in their Irish Dun Emer workshops). Dow was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with Fenollosa; both had lived in Japan. Such intercultural contacts were varied and fruitful. Yone Noguchi (father of American sculptor Isamu, who studied in Paris with Brancusi) got to know Yeats in London, where he had lectured on Noh in the spring of 1914.7

                  “Noh begins with a mask, and within the mask is the presence of a god” is the opening line of Donald Keene’s book8 on the classical theater of Japan. He defines an essential quality that inspired Yeats’s dramatic writing. He saw in Noh—the more serious ghostly Mugen, rather than the humorous Kyogen9—a concept of absolute beauty presented in a ritual framework, symbolic in all its elements, auditory and visual, with which to build his own ideal form of theater, noble in subject but open to comedy as well as tragedy.

                  Pound edited Ernest Fenollosa’s essay Classic Noh Theater of Japan: “[its] beauty and power lie in the concentration…costume, motion, verse, music unite to produce a single clarified impression. Each drama embodies some primary human relation or emotion…[its] poignancy carried to the highest degree.” The construction of a Noh play invariably follows this three-part pattern that we see in At the Hawk’s Well:

                  I) The ideogram Jo, meaning “beginning,introduces the plot or theme, in

                  which setting and characters are in their time and location, often introduced

                  by a traveller whose narrative is chanted against accompaniment of musicians

                  and chorus.

                  II) Ideogram Ha indicates the development or central action and includes dance

                  that extends the action by stylized movement with musicians.

                  Ha means “breaking” and can be subdivided to intensify the realization of the theme.

                  III) Ideogram Kyu, meaning “rapidity” indicates the conclusion. In a more rapid

                  pace, the plot is resolved, often with a climactic dance and final chorus, after which

                  all quickly leave the stage. The construction of the musical composition is closely

                  allied to the structure of Noh texts.10 

 The “traveller” in At the Hawk’s Well is the young hero Cuchulain, who would, in the last plays, appear as an old warrior utterly betrayed into killing his own son in battle, forsaking his wife and dying tied to an ancient standing stone overlooking a dry holy well and taunted by a fool. “The excitement Yeats must have felt on seeing Fenollosa’s notebooks,” says Liam Miller, “together with the play texts as ‘finished’ by Pound, and his awareness of …a parallel form for realization of his own dramatic themes is evident in [Yeats’s] Introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916).11 Yeats expresses his enthusiasm at discovering a kindred sensibility:

                 These Japanese poets, too, feel for tomb and wood the emotion,

                 the sense of awe that our Gaelic speaking country people will

                 sometimes show when you speak to them of…some Holy Well:

                 and that is why perhaps it pleases them to begin so many plays by a 

                 Traveller asking his way…a convention agreeable to me.…12

The function of the Noh mask was explained to Yeats by his Japanese literary friend Yone Noguchi in Londonin 1914. In adapting the Noh to his requirements, Yeats sought to express an absolute beauty, simplicity and condensation of associations through images such as Well or Bird. In his essays in Explorations (1910), Yeats had called himself “the advocate of poetry against the actor.”13 (1910) Noh’s “aristocratic form” answered to Yeats’s need. Implicit in the wearing and viewing of a mask is the dialogue between what is seen and what is hidden. In October 1910, he had written an essay for Edward Gordon Craig’s journal, The Mask. “The Tragic Theater” was concerned not with philosophical concepts but with dramatic conventions of formalism and intimacy through symbolic scenery, dance and masks. He preferred the actualities of visual effects and movement to abstract beliefs.

                  In Noh, objects are infused with intense emotion. As an item for contemplation, Yeats acquired one of two types of Noh mask, representing a young man and generally used for supernatural characters. “The face is noble, impassive, pale…. The poet said he wished to have masks which were ‘images of these profound emotions that exist only in solitude and in silence.’”14 While he and Georgie lived in Oxford, Yeats saw Noh masks in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Hiro Ishibashi, in a 1963 talk at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, remarked:

                 The choice of mask [in traditional Noh] determines the type of character,

                 and it can determine the nature of the play itself. A mask is not a

                 supernatural disguise, but a temporary transformation. Yeats was

                 concerned with the mask’s power to transcend human traits and create

                 an intimacy between audience and players. He also believed in the

                 mask as a symbol of events and emotions created by the artist.15

 Masks had been in Yeats’s imagination before his discovery of Noh, as we see in one of his many dialogic poems:

                          THE MASK

              A] ‘Put off that mask of burning gold

              With emerald eyes. ’  

              B] ‘O no, my dear, you make so bold

              To find if hearts be wild and wise,

              And yet not cold. ’


              A] ‘I would but find what’s there to find,

              Love or deceit. ’

              B] ‘It was the mask engaged your mind,

              And after set your heart to beat,

              Not what’s behind.’


              A] ‘But lest you are my enemy,

              I must enquire.’

              B] ‘O no, my dear, let all that be;

              What matter, so there is but fire

              In you, in me?’

                                      (from The Green Helmet)

Motifs sustained from this 1910 poem into late poems such as “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1936) and “The Black Tower” (1939) imply something hidden coming into materiality through symbolic images; the ineffable inhabits sensory emblems. In life, climbing up and down the ancient circular stairs of his Norman stone tower, Thoor Ballylee, Yeats was physically manifesting in space the abstract image of a “perning gyre,” perhaps the only “dance” movement he ever made.Yeats wrote in 1919: “I want so much an audience of fifty, a room worthy of it…half a dozen young men and women who can dance or speak verse or play drum and flute and zither, and all the while, instead of a profession, I but offer them ‘an accomplishment.’”16

Unity of Being was pursued through dialogues set up in certain poems, but symbolically enacted in Four Plays for Dancers, three of which were written around the time of his marriage: At the Hawk’s Well (begun in 1916, while living with Pound at Stone Cottage, Sussex), his first experimental play; The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), in which he imagined himself as Cuchulain; The Dreaming of the Bones (1919); Calvary (1920). Half the subsequent plays, including The Cat and the Moon (1926), Resurrection (1931), Purgatory (1939) and The Death of Cuchulain (1939, his last) are faithful to the stark simplicity of Noh. Richard Taylor reminds us: “There is no actual evidence that Yeats read all of Fenollosa’s. . .material, but the principles extracted by Pound can be shown to have exerted great influence on Yeats’s dance plays. Pound elucidated the three principles that Fenollosa had derived from Japan—that Noh is concerned with an intense emotion fixed upon idea and not personality, upon a service of life rather than analysis of a specific problem; that unity of image through repetition with variation

brings intensification to the emotion expressed; and that Noh is a complete art in which poetry is assisted by music, dance and mime expressing intense emotion.”17

Yeats’s understanding of the Japanese Noh was filtered through Pound’s understanding of Fenollosa’s understanding, but the form offered what the playwright was already striving for: the focus of a strong passion “outside personality.” Yeats later reveals in A Vision (1937): “I know now that revelation is from the Self, … and that genius is a crisis that joins that buried self, for certain moments, to our trivial daily mind.” Yeats’s tragic hero brings about his own absurd dilemma; his pride prevents correct understanding and action until too late. The old man waiting vainly for the water of life in At The Hawk’s Well is a Noh-type of the tragic irony of Oedipus and Creon in Sophocles. Yet it was derived from an unpublished Noh play that celebrates the emperor and ends happily.18

A Japanese acquaintance gave cachet to his “Celtic” play. Michiko Ito choreographed and danced the Guardian of the Well19 in the first performance of At the Hawk’s Well. Ito had studied the eurhythmics of Emil Jaques-Dalcroze, who taught: “If we can experience—be rightly conscious of—a perfectly unified piece of action, we shall in that moment experience total unity, that is, Life.”20 Roy Foster says that, although Ito recalled little of the Noh theater (except adolescent distaste for it) while in his native Japan, his European studies prepared him to undertake what Yeats envisioned. Eurhythmy, or “right movement,” was one of several techniques attuned to Yeats’s efforts to incorporate certain essentials in his dramatic “accomplishment”—correct Voice (Florence Farr21 from Indian sources), correct Mask (Noh),22 correct Movement (Ito, Jaques-Dalcroze) and right Music (Farr, Dulac, Anthiel, Partch and Edwin Ellis’s father, who was an expert on harmonics).23

The Japanese sensibility of Yugen24 determines the sparseness of scenery and calm mystery in the Noh. Gordon Craig’s spare stage designs, e.g., for The Hour Glass (1911), had already prepared the way, aesthetically, for employing Noh. Japanese artistry contained the simplicity that appealed to Yeats as he aged. The irony of the old man who kills his son in a vain attempt to free his mother’s ghost in Yeats’s late play Purgatory exemplifies a debased, disinherited hero who commits the folly of attempting to alter history. The irony here is as intense as in Sophocles’ Theban plays or Euripedes’ Bacchae.

                        It was only by watching my own plays that I came to understand that this

                        reverie, this twilight between sleep and waking, this bout of fencing, alike

                        on the stage and in the mind, between man and phantom, this perilous

                        path as on the edge of a sword, is the condition of tragic pleasure and to

                        understand why it is so rare and so brief.25

The Zen term Mu, or emptiness, is akin to the atmosphere Yeats developed once he was conscious of Noh, for it agreed with his poetic observation, “Where there is nothing, there is god.” Yet his disposition craved ceremony, repetition and ritual. In Noh, he found the ritual appropriate to his dream of an aristocratic theater. As he aimed to elevate his Irish plays through Noh, so Zeami before him had elevated Noh from a popular genre in Japan.26/p>

                  Yeats’s unified self-image—Cuchulain, as he styled himself in a chart working out correspondences between his wife and lovers, the characters of On Baile’s Strand—was continually challenged by unrequited love and failures of intellectual and spiritual achievements. These he explored openly in his poetry and plays in which, as in the Noh, he reworked certain large themes: nature gods versus the rationality of the Christian era; the folly of desire; the mutability of this world, the lure of the “artifice” of eternity, the temptation to step outside time through art—captured in images such as the golden mechanical bird of Byzantium, of the life-giving water that fades away from the Hawk’s well, of the enchanting girl who runs away in the brightening air. And none of it could be taken literally, for the ineffable can only be shown and experienced in the inner senses, in the mind that thinks in images, the mind that “moves upon silence”—the sensibility of Yugen. Linear language of the intellect can never get it right.

“The central image for us…is the Mask and what it meant for Yeats,” Terence Brown rightly observes.27 Perhaps the most representative mask for Yeats is Tragic Joy, as expressed by the old Chinamen climbing the miniature mountain of lapis lazuli.28 Like the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, they cannot complete their journey, will never reach the little mountain hut toward which they seem to toil, nor hear the musical instrument carried by their servant. Yet, “their eyes, their glittering eyes are gay.” Yeats’s dialogue with world literature was also one of appropriation, from old Japan or classical Athens. The downfall or peripetia of the Irish hero, whether of Congal in The Herne’s Egg or of Cuchulain in On Baile’s Strand, is the downfall of Oedipus, the ur-hero for whom anagnoresis, the moment of recognition, occurs too late. Emer’s forced denunciation of her husband in The Only Jealousy of Emer is akin to the ironic brutality of Dionysus in The Bacchae of Euripedes. The perfectly cruel vengeance of the god is like the geis (ironic curse) of ancient Irish heroes for whom the divine and magical are indeed one.29 “Mad Ireland hurt me into song,” Yeats had claimed. His resolve to achieve Unity of Being resulted in a prodigious body of work that publicly explored his most private and most human suffering and joy.

Alison Armstrong transcribed and edited “The Herne’s Egg by W.B. Yeats: The Manuscript Materials (1993), a volume in the Cornell University Press series, The Manuscripts of W.B. Yeats. She lectures at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.


    1. Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts, translated by Miles Dillon (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1982), p. 11
    2. Quoted in “Introduction,” Selected English Writings of Yone Noguchi, An East-West Literary Assimilation, Volume 2, Prose, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992), p. 13.
    3. Quoted in James Flannery, W.B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theater (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 245.
    4. Written in Majorca in 1935–36 in failing health. Yeats was also translating the Upanishads with Shri Purohit Swami.
    5. Roy Foster, W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Arch-Poet, Vol. II (Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 2003), p. 34.
    6. See Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, with new Introduction by Joseph Masheck (Berkeley: University of California Press, 13th edition, 1997). Masheck discusses the interactions among La Farge, Dow, Fenollosa and others influential in spreading the aesthetic of Japan. See also Julia Meech and Gabriel P. Weisberg, Japonisme Comes to America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), pp. 47–51.
    7. Roy Foster, The Arch-Poet, Vol. II, pp. 34–37.
    8. Noh, The Classical Theater of Japan (Tokyo, 1966), p. 19.
    9. Yeats’s farcical play, “The Cat and the Moon,” is kyogen-influenced, intended by him to be a light relief between two of the more serious Plays for Dancers.
    10. Liam Miller, The Noble Drama of W.B. Yeats (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1977), pp. 195–96. Similar descriptions appear in Foster and Taylor.
    11. Published by the Yeats sisters (with a title page device by Robert Gregory of bell/waterfall/fish) as Certain Noble Plays of Japan, from the Manuscripts of Ernest Fenollosa, Chosen and Finished by Ezra Pound, with an Introduction by William Butler Yeats (Churchtown, Dundrum [Dublin]: The Cuala Press, 1916).
    12. Liam Miller, pp. 193, 195.
    13. Explorations (London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 177.
    14. Hiro Ishibashi, “Yeats and the Noh: Types of Japanese Beauty and Their Reflection in Yeats’s Plays,” No. VI in The Dolmen Press Yeats Centenary Papers 1965, edited by Liam Miller, Preface by Jon Stallworthy (Dublin: Dolmen Press; London: Oxford University Press; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: DuFour Editions, 1968), p. 133.
    15. Hiro Ishibashi, op. cit., p. 154.
    16. “A People’s Theater,” The Irish Statesman (1919).
    17. Richard Taylor, The Drama of W.B. Yeats: Irish Myth and the Japanese No (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 63.
    18. See Taylor’s Chapter 4; he is skeptical of Yeats’s adaptation of Noh.
    19. This dance is the defining action of the play that integrates the other characters and expresses the mystery of the ever-unresolved situation that seduces the young Cuchulain, who does not realize that the old man was once young, too.
    20. Valerie Cooper, The Eurythmics of Jaques-Dalcroze (London: New Handworkers Gallery, sixteen pages handprinted and paperbound, n.d.), p. 5.
    21. Florence Farr died in Ceylon in 1917, the year of Yeats’s marriage.
    22. See Hiro Ishibashi, op. cit. Plates II through XII show the several stylized types: young boy, woman, etc., pp. 154–63.
    23. Edwin Ellis was the older colleague with whom the young Yeats edited the illustrated poetry of William Blake.
    24.  “The element of style most pervasive in …noh is called in Japanese Yugen, an aesthetic principle originated in Zen metaphysics. Yugen designates the mysterious and dark, what underlies the surface.” Introduction to Selected English Writings of Yone Noguchi, Yoshinobu Hakutani (Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992), p. 24. “All the courtly aristocratic aspects ofJapan earned Yeats’s praise,” said Hiro Ishibashi at the Yeats International Summer School,Sligo, in 1963, op. cit.
    25. “The Tragic Theater,” The Mask (1910).
    26. See Richard Taylor, et al., for details.
    27. Terence Brown, “Mid-Life Mask,” Life of W.B. Yeats (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 257.
    28. The source of his inspiration, a large carved piece of lapis mounted on a Chinese carved wooden base, the gift of a friend, was on view in the National Library of Ireland Yeats exhibition, 2008–09.
    29. Sjoestedt, Gods and Heroes of the Celts, pp. 11–25. In the Irish tradition, there is “a continuity, in space and time, between what we call our world and the other world—or worlds.” This evokes the notion of Yugen, the essential feeling of Noh. InIreland “the hero, always struggling against the supernatural and seeking to dominate it” is very much in accord with the Greek Prometheus and Oedipus, as with the Irish Cuchulain that Yeats claims for his own persona.