Daniel Albright, ed., The Poems of W. B. Yeats [Everyman’s Library] (London: J. M. Dent 1990, 1992).

Notes on “The Wanderings of Oisin”, pp.397-98.

This long poem was Yeats’s first important success - Oscar Wilde, one of its earliest reviewers, praised its ‘nobility of treatment and nobility of subject matter, delicacy of poetic instinct, and richness of imaginative resource’ (The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, p.150). Yeats was not to become a distinguished narrative poet - he tended to rely on an abundance of cunningly contrived tropes and pictures, all presented at about the same speed, where a more economical poet, like Chaucer or William Morris, would offer swift summary gestures and a better control of pace. Kinesthetic precision, fascination with weapons, tools, and other action-helpers, sympathy for muscular strain, were all missing from Yeats’s armamentarium. As Wilde noted, the reader becomes exasperated by Yeats’s interest in ‘“out-glittering” Keats’. In addition, the characters in his narrative poems are often figments of various extreme passions, trying to escape from the confines of a human identity - for example, not one of these personages has a sense of humour. But in this poem Yeats succeeded by confining the narrative elements to a kind of frame: the hero gallops over the sea to three islands, each a flat picture, a domain of suspended animation, where the action slows to zero or mechanically repeats itself - a lyric parody of narrative. Yeats never again found a plot for a narrative poem that lent itself so well to his gifts.

 The sources of the fable were mixed. The opening of the poem was based (as Yeats noted) on “The Lay of Oisin in the Land of Youth” by Michael Comyn (Micheál Coimín), a ‘half-forgotten’ Gaelic poet; the closing of the poem was based on ancient dialogues of Oisin and Patrick (Transactions of the Ossianic Society, 1854-63); ‘The pages dealing with the three islands ... are wholly my own, having no further root in tradition than the Irish peasant’s notion that Tir-u-au-oge (the Country of the Young) is made up of three phantom islands’ (Letters, I, pp.176-77). (Yeats knew little Gaelic and read all these poems in translation. For a learned discussion of the Gaelic sources, see James Blake’s article, in Anglo-Irish and Irish Literature [Uppsala, 1988], pp.39-48.) Comyn’s lay told how Oisin and Niamh voyaged to one island, where {397} Oisin killed a queen-imprisoning giant; then they reached their destination, the Country of the Young, the blessed isle, where they settled down and had three children; at last Oisin grew homesick and returned to Ireland. Yeats’s islands are far more gaudy, hallucinatory, and sterile; each is a plausible and specious paradise, and yet each finally famishes what it purports to satisfy, and must be rejected.

 The influence of Tennyson is probably as important as that of Comyn and the old dialogues of Oisin and Patrick. Tennyson’s “The Palace of Art” (1832) showed how the artist’s soul is driven mad by its desire to immure itself in a prison of beautiful images; and his “The Voyage of Maeldune” (1880) –based on old Irish sources – told of a legendary Irish warrior who sailed to ten islands, each of which seemed to promise at first bliss and at last death. (This poem is a kind of sequel to “The Lotos-Eaters” [1832]; the 1889 text of Yeats’s poem also seems to allude to “The Lotos-Eaters” when Niamh speaks of the ‘poppy-hung house of the twilight’ [VP, p.8].) The Silent Isle, the Isle of Shouting, the Isle of Fruits, the Isle of Witches – each gluts some desire so thoroughly that there arises anomie, violence, or morbid torpor. Yeats’s poem is similar in that each of Oisin’s three islands extrapolates some normal desire – sex, aggression, sleep – into some monstrous failed dream of all-embracing fulfilment. Instead of imagining one coherent heaven, Yeats, like Tennyson, shattered his locus amoenus into sinister demi-paradises, reflecting the fact that human desires have no single goal: ‘There are three incomparable things which man is always seeking – infinite feeling, infinite battle, infinite repose – hence the three islands’ (Letters, I, p.141). For Tennyson as for Yeats, the healthiest desire seems to be the desire to wake up, to escape from fantasy: both Maeldune and Oisin end their voyages back in Ireland.

 The themes and characters of The Wanderings of Oisin persisted in Yeats’s imagination until the end of his life. The confrontation of the pagan hero and the Christian saint remained his central dialectic: the conflict between the primary (servile, obedient, democratic, Christian) and the antithetical (creative, noble, hierarchical, pagan). (All this is spelled out in A Vision –see Introduction XI.) Yeats’s sympathies were, of course, for the antithetical. Oisin’s denunciations of Patrick may recall Nietzsche’s analysis of Christianity as a religion fit for slaves; but the young Yeats’s anti-Christian rhetoric came not from Nietzsche but from his mythological sources – and from Swinburne (see the note to II, 134). And yet, it is finally the antinomy that Yeats celebrates, not one side or the other.
 The interminability of the dialogue between Yeats’s inner Oisin and his inner Patrick is shown in a letter of 1932, summarizing his poem “Vacillation”: ‘The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme – Usheen and Patrick’ (Letters p.798). Yeats also continued to be fascinated with the poem’s construction of artificial paradises. In one of his last poems, “News for the Delphic Oracle”, Yeats lampooned {398} Oisin and ‘Man-picker’ Niamh as ‘golden codgers’, and deposited them on a fourth island, a preposterous and unstable heaven that falls apart as the poem proceeds. Even when he was young, Yeats feared that, in The Wanderings of Oisin, ‘perhaps only shaddows have got them selves onto paper ... the whole poem is full of symbols – if it be full of aught but clowds’ (Letters, I, p.98). But the success of the poem lies in its power to dispel shadows, to undo seductive false worlds. If, as Auden said, the purpose of poetry is ‘to disenchant and disintoxicate’, then The Wanderings of Oisin is Yeats’s fullest, most comprehensive poem.
 The text was substantially revised in 1895.

[...; line-by-line annotations here ensue.]

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