Author: William Butler Yeats
First published: 1934
Locale: Dublin, Ireland
Time: The 1920's
Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth century satirist and poet, here a spirit called up in a séance. The ghost of Swift resembles the man at a more or less recognizable point in his life, during old age but before his descent into madness. In his two dialogues with the spirit forms of the women whom he loved, the satirist's wry cynicism has turned to bitterness and paranoia. In countering Vanessa's passionate offer of marriage, he describes his own “disease of the blood” and the more general malaise of a debased humanity. Swift is caught at that point in his late life where intellectual arrogance is waging a losing struggle with the social chaos that he believes is about to engulf him. His ghostly encounter with Stella, whose poem provides the “words” of the title, represents, however, a brief recurrence of the younger Swift, capable of redemption through intellectual grace and courage.
John Corbet, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, a specialist in Swift's life and work. Corbet's initial skepticism about contact with the spirit world dissolves as the play progresses; the ghostly colloquies between Swift and Vanessa and between Swift and Stella convince him that he has discovered the “mystery” behind Swift's celibacy. Although the revelation affords Corbet a measure of intellectual exaltation for its own sake, he also clearly views the discovery as a stepping-stone in his own scholarly advancement. To an extent, Corbet also serves as provider of literary background. His historical and critical asides to Dr. Trench and to Mrs. Henderson supply the audience with facts about Swift's life and his relationships with Vanessa and Stella, insights crucial to an understanding of the play.
Dr. Trench, an elderly scholar, president of the Dublin Spiritualists' Association. Trench serves as the play's moral and intellectual pivot; like Corbet, he is an intellectual, a man of reason. He also has become convinced of more ghostly realities, enabling him to glimpse the boundary between reason and passion. At the same time that he holds the overly emotional and superstitious impulses of the other séance participants in check, he lends credibility to the séance's central action, the calling up of ghosts. As Corbet acts as dramatic channel for literary and historical information about Swift, Trench serves as an interpreter of spiritualist practice and Dublin legend.
Ester Vanhomrigh, called Vanessa, Swift's lover and protégé. Vanessa appears in the first of Swift's two dialogues with the women he loved. She describes her loyalty and passion to an obdurate Swift and rationally demands a reason for his refusal to marry. Why, she asks, has he raised her from her humble station, educating and “refining” her, if he does not love her? When Swift counters that he feels disgust at the prospect of siring children, she leaves him to his solitude.
Esther Johnson, called Stella, Swift's lover. The second of the women in Swift's life, Stella is more nearly his equal than Vanessa. In his brief scene with her, he describes his admiration for her intellectual excellence and specifically praises her poem to him. She is the representative of those women who are able to love “according to the soul,” and, at least according to Swift, thereby possess greater happiness than those who experience bodily love. During the opening scenes of the play, Trench informs Corbet that the house in which the séance takes place originally was Stella's.
Mrs. Henderson, a simple Irishwoman, a medium through whom the spirits of Swift, Vanessa, and Stella pass. Mrs. Henderson's role is largely passive. She serves first as a conduit for the exchanges between Swift and his lovers, then as ignorant reflector of Corbet's scholarly knowledge. In a very real sense, she is the stock figure of “old Ireland,” the peasant woman to whom the movement of history and the rise of great individuals are nonsense. By the same token, she is both literally and metaphorically possessed by Ireland's past and by its madness. As the play ends, she is left alone. While she modestly goes about making tea, she simultaneously serves as the mouthpiece for Swift's tragic ravings.
Cornelius Patterson, a gambler. Bent only on the materialistic benefits of his contact with the “Other World,” Patterson is the stereotype of the twentieth century materialist interested only in his own gain.
Abraham Johnson, an evangelist. Johnson futilely seeks to reconcile the reality of the spirit world with the teachings of Christianity. As ignorant as Mrs. Henderson is of Swift's importance, he is able to see the writer only as an embodiment of evil and must be restrained from disrupting the séance.
Mrs. Mallet, an experienced spiritualist. Like Patterson and Johnson, Mrs. Mallet's interest in spiritual contact comes from self-interest; unlike the two men, however, she is free from selfishness. Her principal aim is to contact her drowned husband. Her longing for the beloved dead thus mirrors, in miniature, the larger themes of the play.
Miss Mackenna, another veteran spiritualist, secretary of the association.