William Butler Yeats belongs to the Irish Renaissance, which began in the late 19th Century, reviving Celtic myths and legends. An interesting feature is that this cultural revival went hand in hand with the political and revolutionary awakening towards an independent Ireland.
"The Song of the Wandering Aengus" is perhaps Yeats’s most famous and cherished poem. It belongs in his early production and is a clear resonance of the Celtic elements that dominated literature in the so-called Irish Renaissance. Aengus is the Celtic god for youth, beauty and poetry.
The Song of the Wandering Aengus (1899)
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 ground
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something made a rustling sound
and some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
who called med by my name and ran
And faded trough 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 dappeled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun.
"The Hosting of the Sidhe" is another poem with clear Celtic references. Knocknarea is a hill overlooking County Sligo, Yeats’s home county. The other names are legendary figures from Celtic mythology.
The Hosting of the Sidhe (1899)
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
Niamh calling Away, come away
Away, come away
The winds awake, leaves whirl around,
Our cheeks are pale our hair unbound,
Our brests a-heave, our eyes a-gleam
Empty your heart of its mortal dream!
Our arms a-wave, our lips apart,
And if any should gaze upon our band
We come between him and the hope of his heart,
We come between him and the deed of his hand!
The host is riding 'twixt night and day
And where is there hope and deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair;
Niamh calling Away, come away
Away, come away
Compare the imagery of the two first poems with the two next ones, which are from Yeats’ later production.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919)
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above:
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor;
No likely end could bring them loss
or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balance all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man who knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
that has read and thought.
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
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