Yeats & Ireland’s World of Faery

Glencar Waterfall

Glencar Waterfall

St. Patrick’s Day

What would St. Patrick’s Day be without a poem by William Butler Yeats? Here’s an early lyric from his most romantic period, written in 1886 and appearing in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. In response to a weeping adult world, our child self imagines escaping to a magical fairy world.

As wonderful as the Celtic fairy world appears, however, the child will give up something vital if he or she runs away:

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

Okay, for some of us mice in the cupboard aren’t in the same category as lowing cattle and bubbling kettles. Still, there’s something lacking in the fairy world of frothy bubbles. As Frost would say, “Life’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” While it’s fine to venture into fantasy from time to time (or climb high into birches), warm-blooded Ireland is ultimately Yeats’ place for love.

The Stolen Child

By William Butler Yeats

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 gray 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
For he comes, the human child
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand

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  • Don Flanagan

    Another view of fairyland as seen by Yeats is provided by G.K. Chesterton, in both Orthodoxy (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy.vii.html ) and All Things Considered (http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/all-things-considered/31/ )

    GKC finds Yeats’s vision wanting and untrue to the nature of fairy tales, which often depend on what GKC calls the doctrine of conditional joy. I think the “Ethics in Elfland” chapter in Orthodoxy one of the most profound and moving analyses I have read, and a lot easier to accept that the Yeats version.

  • Robin

    Thanks very much for this, Don. I’m still working on digesting the Chesterton article. In my fantasy class, I teach that fantasy is always oppositional and cannot exist on its own. It’s always a mirror opposite of reality and thus always contains within it the reality that it is pushing against. I think that’s why Yeats, when weighed down in care, imagines a fairy land where there is no care. But in the end I understand him saying that a fairy land where this is absolutely no crying also has no substance. That’s why we have to return to the world.

    It’s interesting how Yeats’ vision would evolve so that, in “Circus Animals Desertion,” he says the outward trappings of the old tales no longer enthrall him the way they once did. But like Chesterton, he sees deep truths underlying those tales and that is what, in his old age, fascinates him. Originally, he writes,

    Players and painted stage took all my love,
    And not those things that they were emblems of.

    But now he realizes that the stories originated out of the deep and sometimes sordid workings of the human heart:

    Those masterful images because complete
    Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
    A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
    Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
    Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
    Who keeps the till.

    He may have vaguely sensed this when he was young, just as Chesterton did. Now, like Chesterton, he sees the deep truths in fairy tales.

  • Don Flanagan

    Thanks for your note. I just happened upon your website recently and like it a lot, Having become interested in Chesterton several years ago, I was familiar with his critique of the early Yeats. Hence my post.


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