The Song of Wandering Aengus

    I WENT out to the hazel wood,
    Because a fire was in my head,
    And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
    And hooked a berry to a thread;
    And when white moths were on the wing,
    And moth-like stars were flickering out,
    I dropped the berry in a stream
    And caught a little silver trout.

    When I had laid it on the floor
    I went to blow the fire aflame,
    But something rustled on the floor,
    And some one called me by my name:
    It had become a glimmering girl
    With apple blossom in her hair
    Who called me by my name and ran
    And faded through the brightening air.

    Though I am old with wandering
    Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
    I will find out where she has gone,
    And kiss her lips and take her hands;
    And walk among long dappled grass,
    And pluck till time and times are done
    The silver apples of the moon,
    The golden apples of the sun.

    William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)


In his poetry of this period, The Song of Wandering Aengus from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), William Butler Yeats strove to break free from his earlier works by abandoning earlier self conscious, softness and facility, as a result his work became clearer and leaner and in this case it almost seems prophetic. William Butler Yeat's relationships with women were complex, among them Maud Gonne, Olivia Shakespear, Lady Gregory, Margot Ruddock, Dorothy Wellesley, Edith Shackleton-Heald and Georgie Hyde-Lees. He wove these often tortuous relationships into his major writings.
    When I wrote these poems I had so meditated over the images that came to me in writing 'Ballads and Lyrics', 'The Rose', and 'The Wanderings of Oisin' and other images from Irish folk-lore, that they had become true symbols. I had sometimes when awake, but more often in sleep, moments of vision, a state very unlike dreaming, when these images took upon themselves what seemed an independent life and became a part of a mystic language, which seemed always as if it would bring me some strange revelation. Being troubled at what was thought a reckless obscurity, I tried to explain myself in lengthy notes, into which I put all the little learning I had, and more wilful phantasy than I now think admirable, though what is most mystical still seems to me the most true.

    From William Butler Yeat's (1865-1939)
    notes, pp. 800,
    Allt & Allspach's Variorum Edition of the Poems

In Early Irish Myths and Sagas (Penguin Classics) author Jeffrey Gantz mentions that the story The Dream of Oengus appearing in early Irish medieval literature c746, is the "ultimate source of Yeats's poem 'The Dream of Wandering Aengus'". Using the same imagery of transformation, in the story a girl wearing 'a silver necklace and a chain of burnished gold' appears to Oengus, a prince of Irish gods, in a dream only to vanish when he attempts to welcome her. He sets about on a quest and soon finds her as a swan, Oengus has more sense than the Yeat's mortal fisherman. By promising to allow her to remain in the shape of a swan he turns himself into a swan. Flying away together the legend tells that any mortal hearing their song fell asleep for three days and three nights.

Written when he was 32, Yeat's saw himself as writing for his beloved Ireland. His nationalism is reflected in his work, much of which was inspired by traditional Irish lore. Derived from Celtic mythology,The Song of Wandering Aengus Yeat's composed this poem in County Galway in 1897, during a period where he and Lady Gregory were exploring supernatural beliefs. The poet recounts an experience over the course of three stanzas. A story of a quest for a 'glimmering girl,' the two inhabit a world of magic, great beauty, and deep poignancy. A timeless poem, evocative of the old folk tales of faeries disguised as animals. From the onset he sets the stage with an allusion to 'life's work':

    And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
    And hooked a berry to a thread;
    And when white moths were on the wing,
    And moth-like stars were flickering out,
    I dropped the berry in a stream
    And caught a little silver trout.
In the second stanza a metamorphosis occurs, it is love before first sight when he brings his spiritual prize out of the waters of the subconscious mind into the everyday world, it cannot stay for long. What is the dream /the salmon dreamin/ the pool of Connla/Under the hazels? and 'fades through the brightening air' beyond the threshold of fancy.

A marked shift in feeling in the last stanza Aengus is not desolate and dispirited by his failure to find the girl of his vision a second time, but he is equally unable to fit back into normal life. Nights and days pass as he is caught up in his plucking of "The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun." The poem has a wonderful complete quality to it. A clear beginning, middle and unsettled ending invites the reader to imagine and suppose. The fire of love and yearning denotes both passion and the wanderings of a life's journey; eternal hope - a believer's yearning for purpose and meaning. It is desire that determines the outcome. Life is incomplete, but at moments appears to transcend itself and yield moments of completeness or near-completeness, twilight occurs.

Later writings show Yeat's deepening and maturity as a poet. Greatly influenced by Georgie Hyde-Lees his wife since 1917, whose elaborate attempt at automated writing in A Vision (1925) wrote in prose trying to explain the mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that he used in much of his work. In it she discusses the eternal opposites of objectivity and subjectivity, art and life, soul and body that are the foundation of his philosophy.

The Song of Wandering Aengus was revived and popularized anew in the late'60s by folk singer Judy Collins in her song version, titled The Golden Apples of the Sun It was re released on CD in Hand Maids and Golden Apples in October 2001. More recently, this is the also the childhood poem that Captain Archer mentions in the Enterprise episode; Rogue Planet.

A leader of the Irish Renaissance and one of the foremost writers of the 20th century Yeat's is credited for bringing back poetry to the theatre from which it had long been absent, and fused realism with mythic vision to create poetic dramas as spare and pregnant with mysterious meanings as the images of a dream. Awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 Yeat's died in Roqueburne, France in 1939.

References:

Encyclopedia of the Celts:
celt.net/Celtic/celtopedia

Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/yeats01.html#c3

Rutland Boughton, The Immortal Hour, Opera, 1914.

WB Yeats - The Academy of American Poets:
www.poets.org

The Wondering Minstrels:
http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index.html

CST Approved.

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