“The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats
"I think a kind of half ballad, half lyric ... is the kind of poem I like best myself—a ballad that gradually lifts ... from circumstantial to purely lyrical writing. ... I only learnt that slowly and used to be content to tell stories . ... One must always have lyric emotion or some revelation of beauty…"
—Letter from W.B. Yeats to Dora Sigerson (1899)
Teacher guide “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by W. B. Yeats includes information about the poem and discussion questions. Supplementary documents provide contextual background on Irish traditional sources including Celtic mythology and Irish aisling poetry.
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“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.
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.
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.
William Butler Yeats wrote “The Song of Wandering Aengus” on January 31 sometime in the late 1890s. It was first printed in 1897 under the title "A Mad Song." The current title "The Song of Wandering Aengus" was applied when it was finally published in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). These early collected poems displayed Yeats's mastery of the lyric form as well as his passion for Celtic mythology and Irish folklore, which were to fuel his poetic genius throughout his career.
“The Song of Wandering Aengus” is deceptively simple, yet it paints a haunting story containing many mythological allusions and nuanced levels of meaning. The 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 was then transformed into a vision of a “glimmering” maiden. The life-quest he set himself was to find this girl who called his name before she vanished.
In the poem, Yeats contrasts two realities: the earthly realm of ordinary life and the mystical otherworld of dreams. He wrestles with conflicting desires—the ongoing need to handle the practical things of life and the strong compulsion to follow one’s dreams. To express this conflict, Yeats employs a break in the middle of each stanza signaled by a semicolon or colon. This shift underlines the gap between the earthly, physical world and the mysterious, magical otherworld. It moves the reader from the concrete world of the particular to the abstract world of the universal.
For background on the life and work of the poet, see the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation entry on “W. B. Yeats” and Stephen Watt's, “The Voice of Nationalism: One Hundred Years of Irish Theatre,” Humanities 20, no.1 (1999).
The seven questions in this worksheet can be adapted for use in a classroom discussion or literature circle and are aligned with Common Core literacy standards for grade 8. In whatever venue, make sure that students provide evidence from the poem in their answers. (See also the teacher version with suggested answers.)
- Question 5 discusses the terms below and their meanings from the EDSITEment literary glossary: assonance; repetition; alliteration; consonance; and meter.
- Question 7 references another poem about dreams also published in The Wind Among the Reeds, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”
Five questions for further discussion are found in the accompanying worksheet. However, before delving deeper into the poem, you will need to read and discuss the information included in Traditional Irish Sources for “The Song of Wandering Aengus” with students. After reading this contextual background, the questions can be raised for discussion and/or used as a basis for writing activities. (See the teacher version with suggested answers).
Note: Question 5 references the late 20th-century aisling by Seamus Heaney, "A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann,” in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 214.