“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 …
As we prepare to celebrate all things Irish this week on St. Patrick’s Day, enter the poetic dream-vision or “aisling” of Irish poet W. B. Yeats with EDSITEment’s new feature, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” appears in Common Core State Standards, Appendix B, as an Exemplar for Poetry grades 6–8; however it can be readily adapted for use with high school students as well.
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” is one of Yeats’s early lyrical poems published in 1897 under the title "A Mad Song." The current title was applied when it was finally published in his 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds. With this poem, Yeats paints a simple, yet nuanced story containing many allusions to Celtic mythology and traditional Irish lore. His speaker is an old man reminiscing about an event long ago when he was compelled to go out to cut a branch for fishing. With it, he caught a magical silver trout, which then transformed into a vision of a “glimmering” maiden. The life-quest he set for himself was to seek this girl who called his name before she vanished.
Traditional Irish Culture
One of Yeats long-standing missions was to revive traditional Irish culture, and one way he acted upon it was by integrating Celtic mythology and Irish folk lore into his poetry and plays. Several archetypal images appear in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” that have special significance in the Irish folk tradition—the fisherman, the silver trout, the hazel bough, and the apple.
In Celtic mythology, the figure of Aengus Óg manifests as a god of youth and beauty and in some versions he oversees the domains of love and poetic inspiration. The speaker in Yeats’s poem derives the name of this god and perhaps some aspects of his character. While “The Song of Wandering Aengus” is not a straight rendition of the myth, the story in the poem bears a resemblance to an episode that details the profound impact a dream-vision had on the mythical Aengus Óg.
Learn about the significance of these traditional Irish symbols and mythic Celtic figures in EDSITEment’s companion background article, “Traditional Irish Sources in “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” emerged out of a type of Irish poetry known as the “aisling”, which is the Irish word for “dream-vision.” Aislings are often allegorical and frequently recount a visit of an otherworldly female figure who appears to a poet in a dream-vision and beguiles him with her beauty. Many early aislings were political and this female apparition served as a metaphor for the Irish homeland or for the Irish people. She is a type of spéirbhean (“sky-woman”) who sometimes appears as a young maiden and at other times as an old crone.
Yeats adopted elements of the aisling poetic genre in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by including a “glimmering” maiden who captivates the speaker. There is a widespread belief in literary circles that this poem is somewhat autobiographical. Yeats had a long-term unrequited love for an Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889, shortly before the poem was written. Gonne was a woman equally famous for her passionate nationalist politics as for her remarkable beauty. She remained a profound influence on Yeats’s writing throughout his career.
Here is a small sampling of the questions offered for discussion and aligned to the Common Core State Standards. There are links to suggested answers provided in the feature.
- This poem tells a story. Work through this series of questions to uncover the actions as well as the characters described in the poem;
- Identify the different forms of nature in the poem: energy, animal life, and plant life. Discuss how the poet uses them symbolically and how his inclusion of them impacts the reader.
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3 Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision
- Dreams are a recurrent theme throughout Yeats’s poetry. Consider “The Song of Wandering Aengus” alongside another poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” which was published in the same collection. Discuss how the two poems are similar and different.
- Compare the imagery used by Yeats in this 19th-century love aisling, with a late 20th-century aisling written by the celebrated Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann.”
Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.5 Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
For additional background on the life and work of the poet, see the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation entry on “W. B. Yeats” and NEH Humanities magazine article, “The Voice of Nationalism: One Hundred Years of Irish Theatre.”