The Song of Wandering Aengus by W. B. Yeats

The late Irish poet William Butler Yeats needs no introduction. He is probably Ireland's most famous poet, and is acknowledged as a significant figure in literary modernism and twentieth-century European letters. Here, I look at one of his poems (and one of my favourites), the Song of Wandering Aengus, and examine briefly some of its mythical and symbolic importance.

Firstly, here is the poem in full. You can read it, or perhaps you can enjoy it with beautiful music and imagery in this enthralling video in which actor Michael Gambon reads the poem:

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.

The poem is based around the mythical figure of Aengus (usually spelt Oengus in the old manuscripts), who was a deity of the Tuatha Dé Danann associated with the great monument of Newgrange. Newgrange was known long ago as Síd in Broga, but after Aengus took it from his father, the Dagda (a chief deity of the Tuatha Dé Danann), it became known as Síd Mac Ind Óc (The sídhe or otherworldly abode of the Mac an Óg, the "young son", viz. Aengus/Oengus). More specifically, the poem relates (I think) to an episode of Irish myth called Aislinge Oengusso, the Dream of Aengus. In this myth, Aengus falls in love with a beautiful maiden who appears to him in a dream. But she vanishes. He becomes love sick for her and refuses to eat. He searches Ireland for her with the help of his Tuatha Dé Danann parents Dagda and Bóinn, and another of the gods, Bodb Derg. Eventually they find her, but she has changed into a swan. In order to have her love, Aengus must also become a swan.

The poem begins with a venture to a hazel wood. This sets a mystical tone, because hazel in Irish tradition is a symbol of wisdom, poetic inspiration, mythical knowledge and even kingship.1

Because a fire was in my head.

The fire might be a fire of inspiration, or some sort of mythical or poetic force compelling the poet to action. The Milesian poet and spiritual figurehead Amergin Glúngeal (Amergin of the Bright Knee) uttered similar words in his song or rhapsody when the Milesians had battled with the Tuatha Dé Danann and won their victory. "I am the god that puts fire in the head".2

And cut and peeled a hazel wand

The hazel wand is a significant symbol. It is the instrument of the diviner, of the mystic, of the poet. Hazel warded off danger, and could be used for magic. "The three things put by the Tuatha Dé Danann above all others were the plough, the sun and the hazel tree".Another mythical deity who wielded a hazel wand was Elcmar, who in some myths is described as the original owner of Newgrange. Elcmar is seen atop the ancient mound wearing a cloak and holding in his hand a fork of white hazel.4

And hooked a berry to a thread

The berry is a form of bait, or perhaps a bright, coloured treasure to lure a catch. But what is the poet attempting to catch?

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out

The moth is a creature that might be connected with Newgrange (the palace of Oengus) through the myth called Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín. After she is transformed into a fly or butterfly, Étaín is buffeted around Ireland by winds but eventually lands at Brú na Bóinne after being blown in through a window of Newgrange. If the stars were flickering out, it might be that the poet is describing the dawn, the coming of day, (reinforced by the mention of the "brightening air" later). Dawn and dusk are liminal times, when perhaps the poetic imagination is most alive.

I dropped the berry in a stream
and caught a little silver trout.

There are echoes of this symbolism (the dropping of a berry into water to catch a fish) in the story of the sacred Well of Segais, and indeed the Salmon of Knowledge (Breadán Feasa) which swam in its waters. The Salmon of Knowledge was said to have been nourished by magical hazel nuts which dropped into Segais from nine hazel trees which grew above and around the well. Later, Fionn Mac Cumhaill (whose name might mean "bright son of the hazel") gained all the wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge when he burnt his thumb on the fish while cooking it. Upon sucking his thumb, he was imbued with the gnosis.

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.

The inspired poet (in the guise of Aengus) had gone to fish for a trout. But this is not a story about catching food. It is, in essence, a poem about the poet's quest for something much greater. A prize, perhaps. But what is this mysterious thing that rustles on the floor, and who calls him by 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.

Just as occurs in the story Aislinge Oengusso, when Aengus's dream maiden is revealed as a changeling, who can transform into a swan and back into a human on alternate years, the silver trout, perhaps fished from the Milky Way of the poet's dreams, is transformed into a "glimmering" girl. Is she human? Or is she a spirit? He must follow her to find out, but she fades into the brightening air. The sun has risen, and the poet has reached a moment of inspirational zenith.

Though I am old with wandering

An apparent contradiction. Aengus, the "young son" of mythology, is eternally youthful. The poet describes himself as old with wandering. But due to the eternal nature of the Tuatha Dé Danann, it is possible to be eternally youthful, while being described as old – i.e., having lived through many earthly ages.

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

The gods were said to have inhabited the "hollow hills". In other words, their world was, in a sense, adjunct to ours, or indeed wholly within yet separate to it. In older Irish traditions, access to the otherworld could be attained through the sídhe, or mounds, which appear to act as portals to this realm of the gods.

I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;

Just as in the story of the Dream of Oengus, the poet undertakes to find this mysterious changeling woman, who in reality is his psychopomp, his guide through otherworld journeys. She is akin to Dante's Beatrice, a soul guide to lead him to paradise. There are similarities here with Yeats' poem The Stolen Child: "Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. With a faery, hand in hand, For hte world's more full of weeping than you can understand."

When he finds her, he must kiss her and have physical contact with her in order for the sacred union or heiros gamos to be consumated.

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.

Of course, time and times will never be done. They will walk among the long dappled grass of an Elysium, or a Tír na nÓg (land of eternal youth) for all of time.

The symbolism of the apples is both cosmic, relating to ages of time, and non-temporal. They might pluck, and indeed eat apples, but the imagery here is of the passing of ages. The silver apple of the full moon appears to have bites taken out of it as it wanes towards invisibility, but is then replenished again. The sun (although modern scientists know has a finite lifetime) is considered in mythology an eternal thing. 

One of the beautiful heavenly otherworlds of Irish myth is known as Eamhain Abhlach ('The Region of Apples'). Manannán Mac Lir, the TDD sea god, lived there. "It is an island full of trees bearing the most beautiful golden apples."5 Lugh Lamhfada, one of the chief TDD deities, was said to have been raised there. Eamhain Abhlach has been compared with the Avalon of Arthurian myth.

In another story, Connla, son of the high king Conn of the Hundred Battles, is offered an apple by a fairy woman from the Land of Promise (Tír Tairngire). He is sated for a month by the apple, requiring no other food or drink. When the fairy woman returned at the end of the month, Connla sailed away to be with her forever.

And that's where we find Yeats, as Aengus, entranced by his beautiful psychopomp, who he follows off into eternal realms, away from the telluric realities of corporeal life and all of its dreariness and sorrows. The fire in his head is satisfied by the imagery of the soul guide, with the lovely apple blossom in her hair, taking him to elevated places of the soul, beyond the earthly concerns of billowing fires and cooking food.

© By Anthony Murphy. April 2018.

Sources:

1 Mac Coitir, Niall (2003), Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, The Collins Press, p. 72.

2 See various translations of the Song of Amergin at this page: http://celticmythpodshow.com/Resources/Amergin.php

3 Mac Coitir, op. cit., p. 79.

4 I discuss the significance and symbolism of Elcmar's fork of white hazel in my book 'Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past (2017), The Liffey Press, pp. 262-9.

5 Mac Coitir, p. 84.

More Blog Sections

Ancient Sites

Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.

Read Articles

Myths & Legends

Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.

Read Articles

Astronomy & the Sky

There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.

Read Articles

Videos and films

Videos featuring Anthony Murphy/Mythical Ireland or relating to the many diverse topics explored on the website. 

Read Articles

My Books

Information and posts about Anthony Murphy's books. These include Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers, Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, Land of the Ever-Living Ones, The Cry of the Sebac and Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past.

Read Articles

This page was last updated on 2nd April 2018 @ 10:12 PM