All over Ireland there are prophecies of the coming rout of the enemies of Ireland, in a certain Valley of the Black Pig, and these prophecies are, no doubt, now, as they were in the Fenian days, a political force.
from A Note on “The Valley of the Black Pig” in The Wind in the Reeds, (1899) by W.B. Yeats
A Pig and A Bit of Doggerel
A new work of art has been added to the Porkopolis.org Art Museum. For me it is also the point of departure for considering how friends might utilize humor as a tension reliever and a coping mechanism for momentarily dispelling their concerns over the consequential matters that embroiled their days. Here, the humor employed is sarcasm and the implementation is through a humorous drawing of a pig and bit of doggerel.
The drawing and text, which are detailed below, are the kind of humorous device any group of family or friends might use. Yet the devisor here is the Irish nationalist, writer and artist George William Russell (Æ or A.E.). The subjects of the drawing are a black pig and Russell’s life-long friend, the poet and fellow Irish nationalist William Butler (W.B.) Yeats. And the drawing was sent as part of a comradely and congenial letter to the dramatist and folklorist Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, a mutual friend of Russell and Yeats.
Appreciated Colleague, Frustrating Friend
In 1985, Dr. Ronald Schuchard wrote a tantalizing evaluation of the Lady Gregory-Yeats Collection at Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library for Advanced Studies. The collection was relatively new and unplumbed by scholars then. Schuchard described the origins of the library’s collection and detailed some of his own exciting discoveries there for the Yeats Annual. 1
Amongst many other treasures that Schuchard described were two letters written by George Russell to Lady Gregory concerning their mutual friend, W.B. Yeats. In a letter of September 3rd 1898, Russell jokingly admonished Gregory by suggesting she make efforts to restrain their mutual friend, Yeats, from his nationalist “1898 activities.” 2
Here Russell was acknowledging to Gregory in sarcastic fashion an aspect of Yeats character – his obsessiveness – that he and Gregory certainly appreciated as Yeats’ colleagues while finding it occasionally frustrating as his friends.
A Pig Obsession
In an earlier undated June letter of that same year, Russell, again writing to Gregory, had also humorously mocked their friend’s obsessions. Here Russell alluded to Yeats’ poem “In the Valley of the Black Pig” – an apocalyptic poem about the eventual defeat of Ireland’s enemies – with a sarcastic critique of Yeats “inordinate love of the Black Pig.” 3
The June letter includes Russell’s own pen and ink caricature of Yeats with the black pig in his arms, accompanied by a brief expressive verse:
You know that this uncanny creature is more to W.B.Y. at present than god or love or country. He fondles it in his heart as a lover would the sweetest glance of his girl. I believe in dreams he tucks this weird animal under his arm and roams through the Vast.
I foresee Yeats and his Black Pig in many a ballad and tale of future Ireland and many a wild vision:-
Who is he that rides upon the storm?
Who carrieth a black porker
And sheds shadowy terror and laughter.
It is William MacYeats:
Bard of the Gael! 4
Sarcasm and Absolution
The valley in which the black pig lives is a place that Yeats and Gregory had plotted deep in Irish heritage and folklore. The common beliefs and values of all three of these friends also charted this valley in the collective psyche of the Irish people. And for Yeats at this time, as Russell and Gregory well knew, the valley of the black pig was a preoccupation obsessively on and in his mind. 5
Russell, Yeats and Gregory were an Irish triad, stalwart pillars of the Irish Literary Revival, devout and outspoken Irish nationalists and the literal architects of so much that has followed in the literature, drama, folklore study, art, and politics of Ireland. And the wide regard that the modern world continues to apply to these three, Yeats in particular, illustrates the pervasiveness of their influence beyond Ireland as well.
These two letters from Russell to Gregory are a taste, allowing us to imagine more, of how these formidable individuals might have employed humor in their private moments as a tension reliever. I see the letters as significant as well because the subject that Russell chose as a humorous distraction originated out of the same very weighty matters that embroiled their days.
Russell seized a chance to make light of Yeats obsessiveness through a bit of sarcasm. In times of unease or preoccupation, such jests among good friends are an excellent coping mechanism. Directed toward a treasured and esteemed mutual friend, Russell’s humorous sarcasm about Yeats obsession with the black pig is almost a momentary absolution that he wishes upon Gregory, Yeats and himself from the constraints and campaigns they all knew were still before them.
Did Lady Gregory ever show Russell’s black pig letter and drawing to Yeats? I have not researched the answer or even know if one exists. I suspect she did in some circumstance that she sensed was proper. I say this because the circumstances of the letters above have a commonality that many may see within the experiences of their own lives.
These three friends advised, consoled, supported and watched over each other through many personal difficulties and disillusionments in their lives. My own friends and family have often passed about a bit of sarcasm or other humors as a coping mechanism.
Perhaps our worrisome matters don’t rival the worldly worries of Russell, Gregory and Yeats, yet they were often well beyond the relative experiences we had until then endured. Experiences weighty enough, certainly, to have had us under the eye and in the concerns of those around us. Because we survived, these instances of humor are fond memories for us and we appreciate the flavor of the humor employed whether perpetrator or protagonist.
I like to imagine that in some as yet undiscovered depth of a Russell, Gregory or Yeats collection there is a margin note, a background notation or another letter that confirms Yeats was at some point made aware of Russell’s Black Pig letter and drawing. This would allow us some inspired imaginings of the ensuing, and I hope humorous, reciprocations…
It may seem that, having brought up Russell, Gregory and Yeats, I am just assuming that readers here must know enough about them to appreciate this entry. I certainly realize that this may not be the case.
These three friends played significant roles in the events of their times. They have left long and formidable shadows across the world in the spheres of literature, drama, art and Irish nationalism. For more information you might start here:
Lady Gregory: further information is at Wikipedia.
- Schuchard, Ronald. “The Lady Gregory-Yeats Collection at Emory University.” Yeats Annual 3 (1982): 153-166.[↑]
- Ibid., p. 154-5.[↑]
- Ibid., p. 155.[↑]
- Ibid., p. 155.[↑]
- Stephens, Michael. “In the valley of the black pig coming to terms with W.B. Yeats.” Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, Issue 1 (Winter, 1994): pp. 32-45.[↑]