William Butler Yeats (1865–1939, pronounced “Yates”) was born in Dublin and raised in County Sligo and London.  In 1880, he returned to Dublin to become a painter like his father but discovered a penchant for poetry instead.  His work was influenced by a strong sense of patriotism and spiritualism.  In addition to the Celtic Revival, he embraced astrology, mysticism, the occult, and the Golden Dawn.  Many of the women in his life shared these interests, including his longtime muse and onetime lover Maud Gonne (1866–1953), who made his life miserable and his poetry good.  As Gonne shrewdly observed:

You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness, and you are happy in that.

Incidentally, Gonne expressed an aversion to having a sexual relationship with Yeats, despite claiming to be in love with him.  Yeats found this baffling.  He would.  In 1908, after they finally consummated their relationship, Gonne wrote:

I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you . . . and dearest, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.

A “don’t call me, I’ll call you” message if I ever heard one.

Nine years later, the 53-year-old Yeats married a 24-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, who he’d met six years earlier.  By day four of their honeymoon, Yates was dissatisfied with his young bride, who suddenly developed a talent for automatic writing that held his interest for several years.  After the birth of their second child, Mrs. Yeats not only lost her miraculous gift but also her libido and her husband, who began spending time away from home as if it were his idea.

Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for English Literature in 1923.  As an English major, I suppose that means I should be more familiar with his work, but I’m really only interested in “The Stolen Child”—a hauntingly beautiful poem about fantasy and reality, childhood and innocence.  Published in 1886 and republished in 1889, it’s one of Yeats’s best early poems.

♣ ♣ ♣

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 berrys

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 anxious in its sleep.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand and 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 and 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 and hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

♣ ♣ ♣

Sleuth Wood, Rosses, and Glen-Car are real locations in and around County Sligo.  The title of the poem is based on folklore about fairies kidnapping children and replacing them with others known as changelings.  This myth, combined with the poem’s haunting refrain, takes the stanzas from merry to chilling.

The first stanza may evoke the guilty pleasure of following Peter Pan out a bedroom window, but the last stanza sounds more like the Pied Piper luring a trusting child to . . . what?  Discontentment?  Disillusionment?  Disaster?  Death?  Deep down, we sense that the boy won’t survive in the fairies’ world—that his little lungs can’t live on their oxygen.  We dread that he’ll be found, facedown, in some puddle where his kidnappers left him, with the best intentions in the world, as if they knew better for him than his own kind.  But perhaps it’s better to die, bewitched and beguiled, than to live with the knowledge that the common joys have forever lost their luster.  If the child had understood what he was losing—if the fairies had warned him of the cost—would he have chosen differently?

The poem reminds us that there is no escape in fantasy because there is no escape from fantasy.  Fantasy is like the bittersweet echo of some long-forgotten dream—a siren that spellbinds even as it wounds.  Pity the ones that hear it calling.  Pity the ones that don’t.

 


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