Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 May 2011

(Short Story) The Crucifixion of the Outcast by: William Butler Yeats

(Reaction) Woe to the Artist by: Antonio Conejos

Yeats's depiction of a gleeman (basically a wandering artist, a minstrel) is familiar to anyone who has suffered for being a performer. The Crucifixion of the Outcast is an intersection of various ills which befall an artist, namely: a) intolerance by those who view art as a corruption and b) the fickleness of the crowd.

The gleeman of the story is clearly skilled, a player with words, cursing in line, and with two assonances in every line of his curse. Unfortunately his quick tongue runs him afoul of the monks in the abbey he has chosen to spend the night in. (Artists then and now are not known for their prudence.) So fearful is the abbot that the gleeman's rhymes will turn people against the monks, he would teach his lines to the children, and the girls, and the robbers, that the abbot decides to put the gleeman to death.

Thus is the wandering minstrel persecuted because of his art. Art is used to being the scapegoat of censors and religious authorities who often see it as a corrupting and wicked craft which leads people astray. Literature, poetry, art, dance, music, comics, videogames, movies, all have been pilloried at one time or another for being breeding grounds of subversive themes and immorality. In Yeats's short story, the abbot even sees it as his divine duty to stamp out the gleeman in the name of the faith, Ill should we stand before blessed Saint Benignus, and sour would be his face when he comes to judge us at the Last Day, were we to spare an enemy of his when we had him under our thumb!

The abbot is also prejudiced against the gleeman because in his eyes a vagabond cannot have honor, For learn there is no steadfastness of purpose upon the roads, but only under roofs, and between four walls. Ironically though it is the abbot who is without honor. For one, while he persecutes the gleeman in the name of religion, his ulterior motive for doing so is to protect his reputation, Or else he would tell another of his craft how he fared in the guest-house and he in his turn would begin to curse, and my name would wither. Vanity then, the abbot's vanity, compels the murder of the gleeman.

Two, while the abbot holds himself out to be a religious Christian authority (he invokes the name of a Saint as the abbey's patron), his actions do not reflect the brotherhood and tolerance which is the basic instruction of Christianity. Moreover, the gleeman's curses against the abbot and the abbey are true, the public accommodations of the place are deplorable. In essence the gleeman is persecuted for speaking truth to power. Lastly, though the abbot claims to be on the side of what is proper Christian faith, his own beliefs do not cotton to Christian teaching. The abbot mingles elements of paganism with that of Christianity,Neither our blessed Patron nor the sun and moon would avail at all, says that abbot on those whom the gleeman has offended. While mixing Christianity and paganism is a common practice, one expects more from the abbot who is the figurehead of the faith in the story.

It is no matter though that the gleeman speaks the truth through his curses or that the abbot is bereft of moral or legal authority to kill a man. The gleeman is lead off the next day to be crucified. To the last he attempts to entertain, this after all is his calling. At first he performs for his guards, the young friars would see him: so he did many wonders for them. They grow tired of his tricks though, they turned on him, and said his tricks were dull and a shade unholy. The gleeman tells jokes and stories, and again the friars listen and then press him to move on. And the young friars, when they had heard his merry tales; again bade him take up his cross, for it ill became them to listen to such follies... And the young friars were made to hear him, but when he had ended they grew angry, and beat him for waking forgotten longings in their hearts.

Before the end, an audience gathers to gawk at the crucifixion. The gleeman wins the crowd over by donating what food he has, So he flung the bread and the strips of bacon among the beggars, and they fought with many cries until the last scrap was eaten. Yet the crowd too deserts him, when the sun was sinking, they also got up to go, for the air was getting chilly. An artist's audience is inherently fickle, hungry to tear down those who but a moment ago they exalted. Thus is the curse of fame in any age.

Ultimately the gleeman is left by man to the animals, who tear him to shreds. While art, the appreciation of the aesthetic, is supposed to be one characteristic which separates man from beast, the ending of Yeats's short story shows this to be a lie. For man is all too willing to sacrifice his artists to the wolves and the birds, carrion of a baser nature.


I'd never come across the term gleeman before this short story but knowing it now, it's a very eloquent word for describing artists in general. There is very little glee in the Crucifixion of the Outcast though. One feels Yeats's personal understanding that the artistic life is a painful one, beset by forces that would stamp out temerity, audacity and truth.

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