"The Song of Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats: An Analysis
“The Song of Wandering Aengus”, from W.B. Yeats 1899 collection, The Wind Among the Reeds, is one of the best known of the Nobel prize-winning poet’s early works. Like much of Yeats’s work from this time, it draws heavily on Irish mythology, inextricably mixed with more personal themes from the poet’s life.
The deeply symbolic nature of Yeats’s poetry was influenced by three sources: Irish mythology, classical Greek mythology, and the occult symbolism he was exposed to when he joined the magical order known as The Golden Dawn in 1890. In Yeats’s early career, he was heavily involved in collecting Irish folklore, and this informs his poetry of the 1890s.
The Aengus of the title was a god of Irish mythology, one who stayed forever young and lived in a most marvelous palace where no one ever died, and where food and drink was always plentiful. This palace was called Brug na Boinne, and was situated on the banks of the River Boyne. He was also known as Aengus Og (“Aengus the Young”), among several variants.
One of the most famous tales about Aengus, and one that is partly reproduced by Yeats in the poem, involves his love for a young girl called Caer. He became sick with love for her having only seen her in a dream, and after years of searching, finally found her. Caer spent each year alternately as a swan or as a human girl. When Aengus found her, she was a swan, and he plunged into the water beside her and he too turned into a swan. Together they sang the most beautiful songs that put all who heard to sleep. After a year, Caer and Aonghus turned from swans back to their original form.
The obsessive love (“a fire was in my head”), the wandering in search of the briefly-glimpsed maiden, and the animal metamorphosis are common to the poem and the myth. However, in Yeat’s poem the metamorphosis involves a trout, not a swan – though both are related by the association with water. The trout-girl recalls the Irish myth of the maighdean mhara (“maidens of the sea”), who often bewitched men to fall in love with them.
But unlike the Aengus of legend, Yeat’s protagonist is, at the poem’s end, not united with his beloved. Also unlike Aengus, he has grown old. Therefore his expressions of optimism in the final verse ("I will find out where she has gone, and kiss her lips and take her hands") may allude to the afterlife, as in this life he has grown old with fruitless searching. Unlike the eternally young Aengus, Yeats's protagonist is affected by the passing of time. The bittersweet ending implies that he now awaits death, but trusts that in the afterlife he will find the love he has only glimpsed briefly. In death he will be forever young like Aengus.
William B. Yeats
The reference in the final lines to “silver apples of the moon” and “golden apples of the sun” has provoked many interpretations. One source may be the legend that in Aengus’s palace there were, as well as an un-emptying vessel of the best drink and a pig nicely roasted and always available to eat, three trees that always bore fruit. Yeats’s protagonist is again imagining himself in the palace of Aengus, immortal and beloved.
The sun and moon symbolism are important in occult circles. Yeats himself wrote about the lunar influence being the source of all thoughts that are of the community, of instinct and primal coconscious; and the solar influence being responsible for individual thoughts, and rationality.
This indicates that the final end of Aengus’s quest and wandering is the eating of both types of apple, meaning the perfect harmony of the two aspects of his being: his lunar self, which is more instinctual, of the earth and belonging to the collective unconscious, and his solar self, rational, intellectual, and disciplined. In this reading, the "glimmering girl" is not an individual at all, but an aspect of Yeats' psyche, the primitive, carefree aspect, which he is not yet able to access fully, being too "disciplined", too "intellectual".
Of course, the apple, recalling Book of Genesis, is often associated with the sensual, and plucking apples may be equated to enjoying the sensual aspects of life. Ultimately, all of these clues provide several ways of reading “The Song of Wandering Aengus”, and no one interpretation can be advanced as superior to the exclusion of others. Fundamentally, this poem is about the hero's quest that is a motif in so much mythology and literature. What the hero seeks is elusive and there is no logical reason to believe he will find it, but he continues to have faith, and this faith gives his life meaning.
The popularity of this poem is attested to by the number of times it has been set to music, by artists such as Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Donovan and Christy Moore.