The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems by W. B. Yeats.

How it is I got to my age without having read William Butler Yeats I do not know, but there it is: I have only just read some of his work, other than the immortal poem The Cloths of Heaven, which I knew already it being in the Top Ten Nation's Favourite Poems. Happily thoguh, a few days ago, I remedied some of my ignorance and read The Wanderings of Oisin.

The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (also known as Crossways) was Yeats' first published poetry collection, published in 1889. There are seventeen poems:
  1. The Wanderings of Oisin
  2. The Song of the Happy Shepherd
  3. The Sad Shepherd
  4. The Cloak, the Boat, and the Shoes
  5. Anashuya and Vijaya
  6. The Indian upon God
  7. The Indian to His Love
  8. The Falling of the Leaves
  9. Ephemera
  10. The Madness of King Goll
  11. The Stolen Child
  12. To an Isle in the Water
  13. Down by the Salley Gardens
  14. The Meditation of the Old Fisherman
  15. The Ballad of Father O'Hart
  16. The Ballad of Moll Magee
  17. The Ballad of the Foxhunter
The one that dominates the collection is the title poem, The Wanderings of Oisin. It's an epic poem reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey taking the form of a dialogue between Oisin and St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He tells of how a fairy princess, Niamh, falls in love with him and lured him away to the immortal island where he lived happily for one hundred years until he was reminded of home. She took him away to another island, and another, and Yeats recounts their various adventures until Oisin finally returned home, hundreds of years later. There he finds a different Ireland, one that worships God; the pagan Ireland is no more. When he left Niamh on her horse she warned him that the moment he dismounted he would die: he falls from his horse and hundreds of years "fell upon him". He refuses to pray for his sins, saying,
Ah me! to be Shaken with coughing
and broken with old age and pain,
Without laughter, a show unto children,
alone with remembrance and fear;
All emptied of purple hours
as a beggar’s cloak in the rain,
As a hay-cock out on the flood,
or a wolf sucked under a weir.
It were sad to gaze on the blessed
and no man I loved of old there;
I throw down the chain of small stones!
when life in my body has ceased,
I will go to Caoilte, and Conan,
and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,
And dwell in the house of the Fenians,
be they in flames or at feast.
The themes of fairies and Irish pagan legend run strongly throughout the rest of the poems. A favourite of mine from this collection was The Stolen Child, which reminded me of The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. In this Yeats tells the story of a child who is tempted away by the fairies:
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 berries
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 grey 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 is anxious in its sleep.
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 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 in 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 in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he
can understand.
It is a beautiful collection of poems taking inspiration not only from Irish lore but also the Middle East (albeit the Victorian romanticised Middle East). It's rich, dazzling, and nostalgic, and though I loved reading them I do know I haven't read the best of Yeats. The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems certainly makes me want to read more: the next collection I'll be reading somewhere in the not-to-distant future will be The Rose.

Comments

  1. i'm ignorant re Yeats, but i like your selections... although i don't think mice "bob" very much; ours dart... and are fools for peanut butter...

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    Replies
    1. I think they bob a bit when they're not running, though I agree dart might have been more accurate! :)

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  2. I have not read Yeats yet either, but those excerpts are intriguing. Some of the Victorians seem to have been fascinated with children living among fairies... that second poem would fit well into an prelude to Peter-Pan!

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    Replies
    1. Yes, they loved their fairies, especially (I think) towards the end of the Victorian Era. It makes me want to read some Andre Lang, actually :)

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    2. * Andrew Lang. Still getting used to a new keyboard, I'm making so many typos!

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