‘The Stolen Child’ by William Butler Yeats

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 berrys
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 gray 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 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 dropp 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,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.      

This was one of my favourite Yeats poems as a child. It is the refrain – the voice of those faeries – that is, I think, so entrancing about the piece. I remember reading that refrain to myself over and over, and knowing that the music of those words was just the most powerful thing in the world; it was like a spell — a magic spell. I think that this is what really drew me to poetry as a child, and what rekindles and rekindles my excitement about it even now; it is the way in which words (those ordinary things that are stamped all over the back of ready-meals) placed one in front of the other in a certain way, can create magic and music, and transport us.

The Stolen Child is essentially the call of the faeries — their voices call the child (and the reader) to go with them to their beautiful “leafy island”, away from the world that is so “full of weeping” and so “full of troubles”. On an initial surface reading, perhaps, we are simply charmed by the sounds and romance of the poem. We long to follow the faeries to the “waters and the wild”; we are perhaps too enthralled by the charm of that alliteration (“the word’s more full of weeping than you can understand“) to consider its meaning, or question why we should be incapable of understanding the world’s difficulties. Hypnotised by the spelling music, we long to dance the “olden dances” and forget everything else. However, on a second reading, you might detect some slightly unsettling things…

I think The Stolen Child is about the many temptations that surround the poet. Yeats wrote in another poem, “All things can tempt me from this craft of verse”. Perhaps the faery voices represent the call of a life of indolence – or even the call of oblivion through alcohol. I say alcohol because this poem reminds me greatly of part of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,/ And with thee fade away into the forest dim:// Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the trees hast never known/ The weariness, the fever and the fret…” In Yeats’ poem we are at least being called to a world without thought – to a disconnection from the world. The faeries are coaxing the “child” (the poet), trying to lure him away from the world of “weeping” to a world of magic. They tempt us with their “reddest stolen cherries”; these are apparently rather impish faeries, for they have stolen these cherries, and wish to steal the child too… They dance with “Mingling hands and mingling glances”. The use of “glances” to me immediately raises suspicion; a glance is something furtive, and breeds an aura of mischief here.

Indeed, we must distrust these faeries who seek out “slumbering trout” only to whisper in their ears, and give them “unquiet dreams”. What are they whispering to the trout? Why do they wish to trouble their sleep? There is something sinister here that sounds like dark, mischievous spells. Moreover, the repetition of the word “human” (“Come away, O human child!“) draws attention to the fact that the faeries are not human, and makes us distrust them even more.

Finally, when we reach the last stanza, it seems the faeries have managed to persuade, or hypnotise the child into coming away with them: “Away with us he’s going,/ The solemn-eyed”. The child is not rejoicing to be joining the faeries, he is “solemn”. And now (that the child has been successfully “stolen”) they are more up front about where he is going, or at least what he is leaving; “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”. The child is leaving the comforts of home — not the world’s weeping. He has been tricked by the faeries.

All in all, this poem is beautiful, mysterious, and quietly but naggingly sinister. For me, it has the quality of an olden fairy-tale, such as of the brothers Grimm.  I hope it is enjoyed by all!

fairies

 

 

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lady Fancifull
    Aug 19, 2015 @ 10:20:09

    Oh, fabulous analysis, as ever Emily. I think also of another Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci – that stolen child could almost, at a later stage be the alone and palely loitering knight at arms!

    Reply

  2. Catherine Hamrick
    Aug 20, 2015 @ 01:37:56

    Thank you for taking the time to post quality reading and commentary. One does not see it every day.

    Reply

  3. Tom Schultz
    Aug 20, 2015 @ 02:53:33

    Thanks for introducing me to this poem and interpreting it in such an interesting way. I’ve always liked Yeats. Lake Isle of Innisfree has provided a few captions for my photographs. I hear it in the deep heart’s core. 🙂

    Reply

  4. Ellis
    Aug 20, 2015 @ 09:34:07

    And yet, Emily, is this not really a poem about awakening from the cosy illusion that all is well in this world?
    Wonderful blog. Thank you.

    Reply

  5. solsdottir
    Aug 26, 2015 @ 23:35:36

    I love this poem, and thoroughly enjoyed your analysis.

    Reply

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