Poetry Study Aid: The Ballad of Father Gilligan William Butler Yeats

The Ballad of Father Gilligan

William Butler Yeats

Ballad

A ballad is a narrative poem consisting of simple stanzas and usually having a refrain. Ballads have their origin in the folk tradition and are meant to be sung.
The prominent features of a ballad are the following:
narrative ( tells a story)
folksy (simple and pertaining to the oral  folk tradition)
musical
dramatic (full of dialogues and action)
usually has a sudden and unexpected beginning
Structure
The poem The Ballad of Father Gilligan by William Butler Yeats is a ballad.
The poem stanzaic in structure with twelve stanzas of four lines each (quatrain). In each stanza, the first and the third lines do not rhyme but the second line rhymes with the fourth line.
Theme
God is mercy, pity and love. The poem is an affirmation of a loving, kind God Who showers his beneficence to all his creations.
Summary
The Ballad of Father Gilligan is a touching narrative that illustrates God’s everlasting benevolence and how He intervenes in the life of an earnest priest at a time of immense need. Father Peter Gilligan was extremely concurred in the redemption of the souls of his destitute parishioners
Father Gilligan was fagged out in carrying out his priestly obligations day and night during an epidemic in the Irish countryside. He had to not only give the last communion to his poor folks who were dying in large numbers but also conduct funeral services for them.
One evening, completely exhausted by the strain of extensive duties, Father Gilligan had dozed. Suddenly he was jolted from his sleep by the urging call of another dying parishioner. In despair, Father Gilligan started to grumble and complaint that his life was without rest, joyless and always troubled.
For a man religious vocation, the outburst was tantamount to a grievous sin and a questioning of God. Realising his mistake, Father Gilligan sought God’s forgiveness for his irresponsible utterance and knelt down by the side of his chair and began to pray:
He tries to justify his words by saying that it was his exhausted body not his spirit that complained of the state of his life.
While he was praying, the wearied priest fell asleep by the side of his chair. Next morning, at dawn he woke up and realised his mistake. Shocked at his failure to perform his duty, he rode recklessly to the house of the dying man. He was received by the dead man’s widow.
The widow was surprised to see the priest again and asked him why he had come again. When the priest asked her whether the sick man was dead, she told him that the sick man died happily after the priest’s departure.  
The priest was humbled at this and knelt and prayed. He realised that God the Divine had compassionately sent an angel to minister the last ritual to the dying man so that both the sick man as well as the priest were saved from damnation.
The priest wondered at the benevolence of The omniscient omnipotent omnipresent God who had the whole universe as His Parish yet extended His Helping Hand to the humble priest in his hour of need.
Questions and Answers


Extract I



The old priest Peter Gilligan



Was weary night and day;



For half his flock were in their beds,



Or under green sods lay.



  1. How does the poem begin?



The poem begins abruptly without any prelude which is typical of a ballad.



  1. Why was the priest weary throughout?



Father Gilligan was thoroughly exhausted by performing his priestly obligations day and night, probably during an epidemic in the Irish countryside. He had to not only give the last communion to his poor folks who were dying in large numbers but also conduct funeral services for them.


  1. Explain:


  1. Flocks= A church congregation guided by a Priest. Here, the parishioners of Father Gilligan.
  2. green sods: Graves covered over by green grass.  The graves of the Parishioners who have succumbed to the calamitous epidemic.

  1. Why were his flocks either in bed or lying under green sod?
The parishioners of Father Gilligan were either afflicted with the fatal epidemic or they have already become the victims of the deadly disease.

Extract II
Once, while he nodded on a chair,
At the moth-hour of eve,
Another poor man sent for him,
And he began to grieve.

‘I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die’;
And after cried he, ‘God forgive!
My body spake, not I!’

  1. What is referred to as moth- hour of eve?
Moth hour = the time when moths come in swarms; this happens usually in the evening and also in the morning.
Moth-hour of eve here refers to the evening time when the moths congregate in large numbers.

  1. Why did another man send for father Gilligan? Why is the man referred to as ‘poor’?
The man was sick and was expecting death any time. He had sent for the priest so that he can receive the last communion before he passes away. It was imperative for a Catholic to receive the rites the rites of extreme unction meaning in the Catholic -tradition that the man died in a state of grace- so that his soul is salvaged and therefore, he can go to heaven.
The man was said to be ‘poor’ because of his poverty and also because he deserved sympathy as he was about to die.

  1. Why did Father Gilligan lament? What did he complain of?
Overburdened by his religious duties, the old Father Gilligan was extremely weary and exhausted. He lamented that his life was joyless and troubled and he had no rest at all.

  1. Why did father Gilligan ask forgiveness from God? What justification does he give to God for his errant words?
Father Gilligan was a priest in charge of the parishioners in the parish. It was his God given duty to look after them and perform their religious services. Therefore, Father Gilligan’s desperate outburst was tantamount to a grave sin and a challenging of God. Understanding his fault, Father Gilligan prayed for God’s forgiveness for his reckless words.
Father Gilligan endeavours to rationalize his errant words by saying that it was his exhausted body not his spirit that complained of the state of his life.

Extract III
They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind;
And God covered the world with shade,
And whispered to mankind.

  1. Elaborate:
They slowly into millions grew,
And leaves shook in the wind;
Here the poet describes the gradual descend of the night. The stars appeared one by one (peep out) and gradually grew into a large number and the leaves of the trees throbbed in the evening breeze.

  1. What was the priest doing at this time? Why?
While the evening slowly turned into night, the worn out Father Gilligan who had knelt to pray to God for forgiveness for his errant words, leaned on a chair and slept. He slept blissfully neither aware of the passage of time nor conscious of the responsibility of the religious service he had to perform to the dying man.

  1. What nature of God is brought up here?
And God covered the world with shade, / And whispered to mankind?
Here God is compared to a tender loving mother putting her child to sleep, covering the child with blanket and singing soft lullaby to it. Similarly, the Loving God brings relief to the toiling humanity by covering the earth with the comforting darkness of night and blessing the troubled souls with balm of soothing sleep.

  1. What is the figure of speech used in the extract?
The figure of speech used to compare God to the tender loving mother is a metaphor.
Extract IV

Upon the time of sparrow-chirp
When the moths came once more.
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Stood upright on the floor.

‘Mavrone, mavrone! the man has died
While I slept on the chair’;
He roused his horse out of its sleep,
And rode with little care.

  1. What is meant by Upon the time of sparrow-chirp?
Sparrow chirp refers to the early morning hours when the birds like sparrows twitter.

  1. Why does the priest cry out ‘Mavrone, mavrone?
Mavrone has two meanings; it is a cry of sorrow (the word probably originates from the Irish word mobhron; mo meaning my and bhron meaning sorrow).
The word also means Little Mother suggesting Virgin Mary the mother of Jesus Christ.
The priest cries out in dismayed grief for not going to the sick man’s bed to perform the last rites.  

  1. What aspect of a ballad do you find here?
He roused his horse out of its sleep,/And rode with little care.
A ballad is usually dramatic; with action and dialogue. Here, the reckless driving of the priest is an action that conforms to the features of a ballad.

  1. What does the line And rode with little care show about the mental state of the priest?
The priest was so despondent for neglecting his religious duty to offer the last communion to the sick man. Moreover, he also feared that one of his parishioners will be damned because of the priest’s shirking of his appointed task. Hence, the priest, anxious and concerned, remorsefully rides recklessly to the sick man’s house without caring for his own safety in the mountainous terrain of the Irish village.
Extract V
He rode now as he never rode,
By rocky lane and fen;
The sick man’s wife opened the door:
‘Father! you come again!’

‘And is the poor man dead?’ he cried.
‘He died an hour ago.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
In grief swayed to and fro.

‘When you were gone, he turned and died
As merry as a bird.’
The old priest Peter Gilligan
He knelt him at that word.

  1. Why does the sick man’s wife ask ‘Father? you come again!’?
The sick man’s wife was surprised to see the priest. Already her husband had received the last sacrament from the priest and he had passed away happily. So the widow could not understand why the priest had come again.
In all probability, Yeats might be accepting the Catholic concept Bilocation, that is, the ability (said of certain Roman Catholic saints) to exist simultaneously in two locations

  1. How did the sick man die?
The sick man after receiving the last rites died happily as merry as a bird
The poet uses the figure of speech simile compares the mood of the dying man to a merry bird.

  1. Why was the father overcome with grief at the words of the widow?
The priest was so heartbroken for failing in his religious responsibility to provide the last communion to the sick man. Furthermore, he also dreaded that one of his parishioners will be anathemised because of the priest’s skulking of his decreed task.

  1. He knelt him at that word. Why? What does it show of his character?
When the priest inquired her if the sick man was dead, she said to him that the sick man died cheerfully after the priest had left. The widow’s word made Father Gilligan realise that the ever merciful God had extended His helping hand to him.  
The priest was humbled at this and knelt and prayed. He realised that God the Divine had compassionately sent an angel to minister the last ritual to the dying man so that both the sick man as well as the priest were saved from damnation.
Extract VI
‘He Who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

‘He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.’

  1. Explain: ‘He Who hath made the night of stars/ For souls who tire and bleed,’
Earlier the poet had evoked the image of God who brings ease to the labouring mankind by spreading over the earth the soothing darkness of night and blessing the troubled souls with balm of soothing sleep. Here we find almost a repetition of the idea where the poet asserts that God had made the night for the troubled humanity.

  1. What did God do in order ‘to help me in my need’?
Father Gilligan was saved from damnation for shirking his duty by the merciful intervention of God Who had sent one of His messenger angels to the earth to offer the last communion to the dying man. Thus when Father Gilligan was in dire straits God has extended His helping hand to him.

  1. Explain: ‘He Who is wrapped in purple robes,/With planets in His care,
Robes are here long flowing garment used for official or ceremonial occasions by a priest of the Church. The poet imagines the Almighty God as a Parish Priest whose Parish is the whole universe.

  1. What do you understand about the character of Father Gilligan from his words ‘Had pity on the least of things’?
Father Gilligan was immensely grateful towards God for His intervention to rescue him from probable damnation. The words of Gilligan speak of the priest’s deep religious belief and also his endearing humility.