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Historical Context in The Song of Wandering Aengus

W.B. Yeats’s Interest in Myth and Folklore: As a child, William Butler Yeats became intensely interested in the folklore of his native Ireland, a passion which inspired his first poems. At twenty, Yeats became involved in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to the study of occult, esoteric, and hermetic traditions, as well as paranormal phenomena. While Yeats studied this material through much of his adult life, his early poetry is particularly steeped in mythical and occult ideas. “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” published in 1899 in the volume The Wind in the Reeds, is exemplary of Yeats’s early, mythically charged work.

The Story of Maud Gonne: In 1889, 24-year-old Yeats met 23-year-old Maud Gonne, an heiress, actress, and political activist. Yeats was immediately enchanted by Gonne, who, at six feet tall, struck an imposing figure. For more than a quarter of a century, Yeats pursued Gonne to no avail. Gonne married another man and began a family, an event which did not prevent Yeats from maintaining his passion for her. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” was written ten years into Yeats’s pursuit of Gonne, and Yeats’s unrequited passion is powerfully reflected in that of the mythical Aengus.

Historical Context Examples in The Song of Wandering Aengus:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

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"where she has gone..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

This poem describes Aengus searching for the love he encounters in this magical way, wandering the earth hoping to find her. However, in the Celtic myth, Aengus does not search for his lover. His mother and father search the earth and King Bodb actually finds her. Since Yeats’s story of Aengus differs from the poem, readers end up seeing his experiences more realistically. His love is not eternal and edenic; rather, it is the experience of both sadness and joy, loss and fulfillment.

"a glimmering girl..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

Yeats published “The Song of Wandering Aengus” in an 1899 collection of the same title. In the years from 1899 to 1902, Yeats proposed repeatedly to Maude Gonne, a women Yeats loved and pursued for much of his adult life. Though we cannot be sure that Yeats biography had any bearing on his art, it is worth considering the connection between Aengus’s endless, fruitless pursuit of the “glimmering girl” and Yeats’s similar pursuit of Maude Gonne.

"silver..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

In his book Ideas of Good and Evil, Yeats explains the use of gold and silver in these lines. He claims that “if you wish to be melancholy hold in your left hand an image of the Moon made out of silver, and if you wish to be happy hold in your right hand an image of the Sun made out of gold.” The two apples the speaker presents at the end of the poem represent the fluctuation between melancholy and joy. Aengus’s pursuit over time brings him both happiness and sadness. Unlike most in myths, there is no resolution offered in this poem to Aengus’s suffering or love.

"little silver trout...."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

In Celtic lore, Bean Naomha is a goddess of knowledge and wisdom who often appears in the form of a trout. The catching of the trout marks a step forward in Aengus’s insight and understanding. The Celtic tie between the trout and the goddess figure resurfaces in the “glimmering girl.”

"apples..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

The magical appearance of apples could be an allusion to the Celtic story of Connla. In Celtic mythology, Connla, the warrior with the fiery hair, was seduced by a maiden who gave him an apple that replenishes itself every time he ate it. For a month, Connla only ate the apple, growing more and more in love with the maiden who had fed it to him. By the time she reappeared, Connla would have done anything for her. She asked him to follow her to a magical island where every fruit he ate would replenish itself eternally. She promised him immortality with the caveat that he could never return to the human realm. In Yeats’s poem, Aengus follows this pattern in reverse: he leaves immortality for the mortal world while Connla leaves the mortal world for the immortal one.

"white moths..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

According to Celtic lore, moths were seen as the souls of the dead, flying about on their way to the afterlife. White moths in particular were understood to be omens of death. In the context of this poem, the “white moths… on the wing” signal Aengus’s mortality, one of Yeats’s most significant departures from the original myth of the eternally youthful Aengus.

"faded..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

In Celtic mythology, Aengus’ love Caer does not flee from him. Caer was the goddess of sleep and dreams. She would turn into a human on the Samhain, the Gaelic festival that marked the end of the harvest season, and transform back into a swan at sunset. Aengus found her chained along with 50 other maidens at the lake of the Dragon’s mouth. He was told that he could marry Caer if he could identify her as a swan. When he was successful in this task, Aengus turned himself into a swan and flew away with his love.

"apple blossom..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

The girl appears with an apple blossom in her hair because apple trees were sacred in Celtic mythology. Apple trees were emblematic of fruitfulness and immortality. They were often placed on the pillows of unwed youths to facilitate fruitful marriages. The apple blossom in this girl’s hair makes her a symbol of immortality and worthwhile pursuit.

"wand..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

Here, the speaker is talking about fashioning a fishing rod out of hazel wood. He calls the rod a “wand” in order to invoke Celtic mythology and the history of the Druids, the priests or soothsayers of ancient Celtic religion. Druids carried wands to facilitate prayer, channel the will of heaven or symbolize their own power. Hazel was thought to have protective powers and was therefore one of the most sacred and revered woods for wand making.

"hazel..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

Hazel trees were an important symbol in Celtic mythology. Legend claimed that in the Otherworld, the realm of the gods and the dead, nine hazel trees hung over the Well of Wisdom. The trees would drop hazelnuts into the water where they would foam and create “mystic inspiration.” Hazel trees are thus associated with wisdom, divine inspiration, and poetic powers.

"I ..."   (The Song of Wandering Aengus)

Since Yeats titles the poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” the “I” that narrates this poem is Aengus himself. Aengus is the god of love, youth, and poetic inspiration in Celtic mythology. He is said to be the product of an adulterous relationship between Dagda and Boann. To hide her pregnancy, Boann, his mother, made the sun stand still until Aengus was born. The most famous myth in which Aengus is featured is the story of Caer, the imprisoned woman he fell in love with in his dreams.

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