A ballad is usually a short narrative poem telling an interesting story. Since Yeats' poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" tells the story of how God himself took pity on the weary Gilligan and sent an angel instead of him to minister the last communion to a dying parishioner and thus ensuring that his soul went to heaven, the title of the poem is indeed very apt. W.B.Yeats' poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" is a literary ballad based on an incident either true or fictional belonging to the poor illiterate Irish folk.Since Yeats' ballad is a literary ballad he has deliberately worked into his poem some of the characteristics of the traditional ballad which belonged to the oral tradition and was never written down.
Summary and Analysis:--Yeats tells a story in verse. An old priest was weary and sad because most of his flock had died. He was sent for by a sick man, but fell asleep in his chair before answering the call. The stars multiplied and God talked to mankind.In the morning, Father Gilligan awoke with a start, realizing that he had not done his duty. He rides to the sick man's house where his wife answers the door and says that the man has died. Father Gilligan is horrified and cries "mavrone!" until the woman thanks him for coming the previous night. He falls to his knees and thanks God for sending an angel down to do his work when he was too tired to do so.This poem takes a ballad form - a traditional form, usually sung, with regular, short stanzas that tell a story. It has a more overtly religious content than most of Yeats's poems. As a protestant who turned to theosophy and mysticism, Yeats usually stays away from Catholic themes. Yeats also usually stays away from the Irish language, which he uses in this poem when he writes, "mavrone!" which is the Irish, "mo bhron," a cry of grief. The poem not only speaks to the poverty of rural Ireland, but also to their extreme religiosity. The priest is horrified by the fact that he did not make it to the bedside of the sick man before he died because no one performed the rites of extreme unction, meaning in the Catholic tradition that the man did not die in a state of grace, and therefore cannot go to heaven. The divine intervention which caused this not to be the case is an affirmation of a loving, kind God. Yeats intends this ballad as an homage to the traditional poetry and legend of his country. He was a collector of similar Irish stories and songs and appreciated their immediate, naive beauty. Certainly this tale draws upon the character as well as the form of the traditional Irish ballad.He has employed the ballad quatrain throughout his poem,comprising eight syllables in the first and the third lines which do not rhyme and six syllables in the second and fourth lines which rhyme.
Another important feature of the traditional ballad which Yeats has incorporated in his poem is repetition. For instance he has repeated "moth-hour" twice to poetically describe dusk and dawn. in order to emphasize the rural background of his ballad. The traditional ballads belonged to the illiterate rural folk and were passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. The poor illiterate villagers never possessed a clock or a watch and they always told time by the changes which took place from time to time in Nature.In the Irish countryside, both at dusk and at dawn the countryside would swarm with moths. The villagers would ascertain that it was either dusk or dawn by the presence of the moths.Just as Father Gilligan had dozed he was disturbed from his sleep by the urgent call of another dying parishioner. Wearily, Father Gilligan began to grumble and murmur about his lack of rest:
But the very next instant he checks himself seeks God's forgiveness and kneels down by the side of his chair and begins to pray. However, shortly Father Gilligan is completely overwhelmed by sleep. Soon, it is night and once the stars appear in the sky the moths disappear,The tired Father Gilligan slept the entire night kneeling down by the side of his chair. Early in the morning, at dawn he woke up to the cheerful sound of the chirping sparrows and once again the moths which appeared in the twilight reappeared at dawn:his soul Poor Father Gilligan realized his mistake and rushed off to the house of the dying parishioner, only to be greeted by the dead man's widow with the news that he had actually come earlier on and had ministered the last communion to the dying man and by doing so had ensured the salvation of: