‘The Song of Wandering Aengus‘ by William Butler Yeats was written in the late 1890s and was first printed under the title “A Mad Song” in 1897. Its current title was not bestowed until its final publication in The Wind Among the Reeds in 1899.
The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which contains eight lines. The stanzas can be further divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains, according to where Yeats placed the punctuation. One will notice when reading this poem that the first half of each stanza represents the real physical world, while the second half is embellished, and rings of folklore.
This piece stems from stories based on Celtic mythology and tells one part of the life of the main character, Aengus.
Explore The Song of Wandering Aengus
The speaker is looking back on a pivotal moment in his life that solidified its direction for years to come. He begins by describing an average day in which he decides to go fishing, makes a rod from a hazel tree, and catches a “little silver trout.”
While his back is turned the trout turns into a “glittering girl” who says his name and then flees into the woods, disappearing. She was utterly beautiful with “apple blossoms” in her hair.
From that point in his life, he wandered the world looking for her. Even now, as he tells his story in his old age he still intends to find her, kiss her, and take her hand. They will remain together for the rest of time if only he could come upon her once more.
Analysis of 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.
Before beginning this piece it is important to note that it is being re-told by the speaker when he has advanced in years. He is no longer the age he was when this happened, so he is able to look back on it with some perspective.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing what should be a mundane scene in normal life. He is leaving his home and entering into the “hazel wood” for the simple reason that he needs something to do. There is a “fire…in [his] head” and he knows that he needs to leave his dwelling. This turns out to be more than just a lark, it is a pivotal moment in his life.
While out in the woods he decides to do some fishing. He peels a thin piece of hazel from a tree and cuts it into a “wand.”
It is a special time of day when there are moths flying all around him. This lends the scene a feeling of magic as if the woods in which he is venturing have more to offer than initially meets the eye.
He casts the string into the water with a berry as a lure. From this, he is able to catch “a little silver trout.”
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone 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.
The speaker has hooked his fish and left it on “the floor.” He was ready to prepare and cook it as a meal when he goes to “blow the fire a-flame.” But something stops him, he hears a rustling on the floor and then the sound of his name.
He turns, and the “little silver trout” has turned into a “glimmering girl.” The use of the word “glimmering” in this scene is perfect for the moment. It depicts the transition from a silverfish to an equally shining girl.
The girl is truly beautiful. She has “apple bloom in her hair,” which only enhances her features. She was the one who called his name and before he had a chance to do anything she “ran / And faded [into] 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.
This loss of the “glittering girl” haunted the speaker for years to come. Now, in his old age, he is looking back on this moment, still feeling as he did then.
He has wandered for a long time “through hollow lands and hilly lands.” He has seen all the world has to offer, all in an attempt to discover where this girl went. He has spent his life wishing to see her again and deciding what he will do when he finds her. The speaker states that he will, when he does eventually come upon her again, (a fact that is not in question) he will “kiss her lips and take her hands.” The two of them will stay together as they “walk among long dappled grass.”
It is his goal to spend whatever remains of his life with her. The two of them will “pluck” the “silver apples of the moon” until “times are done.” They will touch the true beauty of the world, find real happiness, and live peacefully until one or both of them are dead.
About William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. As a young man, he was educated in London and Dublin and spent the majority of his free time in western Ireland at a family summer home. Yeats published his first volume of poetry in 1887 and was very active in the Irish literary scene. Less well known than his poetry, Yeats also was a prolific writer of plays. He co-founded the Abbey Theatre that focused mainly on Irish Legends.
In 1922, Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate during a time in which his poetic and dramatic work was highly experimental and patriotic. Yeats wrote a number of protest poems against the Nationalist movement and he would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for his dramatic works. Yeats’ best work was still to come as he published the volumes The Wild Swans, The Tower, and Last Poems and Plays, along with a number of others, from 1919 till his death. These volumes solidified his place as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939, in Menton, France.