W. B. Yeats: Some Poems on Irish Folklore & Legend

“The Wanderings of Oisin”
“The Stolen Child”
“The Unappeasable Host”
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

The poems given on this page (chiefly in excerpt) illustrate W. B. Yeats’s use of folklore materials in very different periods of his life. In 1888 he was determined to ‘revive’ the ancient stories of Ireland and so he wrote the long poem “Wanderings of Oisin” based on accounts of Tír na nÓg [The Land of Youth] and the meeting between St. Patrick and Oisin - son of Finn Mac Cumhal and last surviving member of the Fianna (or Fenians) narrated in a Middle Irish text called Acallamh na Senorach [“The Colloquy of the Ancients”].
  Thirteen years later he was trying to embody a range of Celtic materials into a unified conception of Irish culture which he wished to think of as something that modernity in the wider world could not drive away. At this stage he was possessed by the idea that that atavistic presence of an ‘unappeasable’ company of ancient spirits very like the fairies of Irish tradition were part of the permanent population of the country. Unappeasable because they would not let the Irish escape from their supernatural grip.
 Typically, in evoking those beliefs, he mixes in an element stolen from Catholic pietism - and more specifically Marianism, since it is the Catholic peasants who seemed to have the monopoly on fairy lore in Ireland. (Yeats always spelt the word faery, but I will not follow him in that.)
 There was no lack of intellectual insight, culture or philosophy in the mind of W. B. Yeats and, by the the end of his career he had come to accept the idea that his life-long engagement with Irish myth and legend had been a poetical strategy after all, rather than a genuine encounter with the spiritual word - though, in a paradoxical way, it had been that too.
 He accepted also that the human spirit must seek the material for its beliefs in the “bestial floor” of its own instinctual nature - thus marrying his earlier folklore interests with a genuinely Freudian conception of the poet’s art. This is the position which he eloquently expressed in the moving mature poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Though deserted by his fanciful creations, he is all the more a master poet for that that.
 This is so because he has contributed to the making of the ‘artifice of eternity’ - something that is imagined and authentic at the same time. In this way imagination assumes the position of divinity and literature, in a sense, supercedes religion.

“The Wanderings of Oisin”
[...]
S. Patrick
. On the flaming stones, without refuge, the limbs of the Fenians are  tost;
None war on the masters of Hell, who could break up the world in their rage;
But kneel and wear out the flags and pray for your soul that
 is lost
Through the demon love of its youth and its godless and passionate age.

Oisin. Ah me! to be shaken with coughing and broken with old age and pain,
Without laughter, a show unto children, alone with remembrance and fear;
All emptied of purple hours as a beggar’s cloak in the rain,
As a hay-cock out on the flood, or a wolf sucked under a weir.
It were sad to gaze on the blessed and no man I loved of old there;
I throw down the chain of small stones! when life in my body has ceased,
I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,
And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or at feast.

End

[1888]

“The Stolen Child”

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
 
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

 
[1886]

“The Unappeasable Host”

The Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold,
And clap their hands together, and half close their eyes,
For they will ride the North when the ger-eagle flies,
With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold:
I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast,
And hear the narrow graves calling my child and me.
Desolate winds that cry over the wandering sea;
Desolate winds that hover in the flaming West;
Desolate winds that beat the doors of Heaven, and beat
The doors of Hell and blow there many a whimpering ghost;
O heart the winds have shaken, the unappeasable host
Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet.

[1896]

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“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

[...]

What can I but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

[...]

Now I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

[1939]

 

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ENG105: University of Ulster