Friday, 14 December 2012

Wandering Aengus and the Search for Creative Inspiration

The following evocative and magical poem by William Butler Yeats was brought to my attention (most appropriately) by the magical writer Cecilia Dart-Thornton, herself a creator of worlds most wondrous and strange.

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.

by W. B. Yeats.
I love the poem, for to me it perfectly conjures up a vision of creative searching and striving, dealing with an artist's chasing after an elusive muse, the search for wisdom and the fire of inspiration. Since Yeats was a supreme word-painter, the poem also summons up in my synaesthesic mind a glorious vision of rich jewel-like colours, through which wanders a magic wind, singing in tones both sonorous and eerie.

In “The Song of Wandering Aengus” Yeats uses Irish mythology and Celtic symbolism to compose an allegorical exploration of creativity. Aengus, in Irish legend is god of love and “poetic inspiration”.

I went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head

To the Celts, hazel trees had magical properties, containing wisdom and inspiration. The “fire” in Aengus’ head refers to the Irish concept of imbas or “state of creative inspiration”. As I read the poem, in my mind’s eye I see Aengus striding into the green secrecy of the hazel wood – driven by the passion and frustration of his fiery spirit, seeing cool ease among the leaves of wisdom.

And cut and peeled a hazel wand/And hooked a berry to a thread 
With these lines I see Aengus take a branch from the tree of wisdom, trim and peel it to create a fishing rod that shines whitely in the forest with the pale inner hazel-core. In casting his eyes around for suitable bait, Aengus’ eyes light upon a berry on a bramble (symbolic of blood to the Celts) which he uses to bait his hook.

And when white moths were on the wing/And moth-like stars were flickering out/I dropped the berry in the stream/And caught a little silver trout

In casting his hazel rod and dropping berry-bait into the stream to catch a trout (a fish connected with the Druidic Salmon of Wisdom) – Aengus symbolically offers blood-sacrifice in exchange for wisdom. This section of the poem also contains some extraordinarily beautiful imagery – in the fading of the night; the pre-dawn grey of earliest morning, I see white moths flitting from the forest, their wings flickering the pale stars. I see shadowy silhouette of Aengus casting his pale hazel wand with its ghostly thread and dark waters closing over the blood-berry. Then – the wriggling and flashing of the “silver trout” as it is dragged out of the enclosing stream, its sporadic flicks of tail – the struggles of an idea – as Aengus carries it home.

When I had laid it on the floor/I bent 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-blossoms in her hair 
Quick with life and movement in the stream, when “laid on the floor” before Aengus’ home-fire the trout cannot lie still, but “rustles” its silver scales on the ground behind the fisherman. While he goes to “blow the fire a-flame” (the imbas in his head reigniting on the hearth) the trout transforms into the creative muse – a “glimmering girl” crowned with a wreath of apple blossoms (Celtic symbols of art and poetry).

Who called me by my name and ran/And faded through the brightening air 
In calling his name, according to folkloric traditions, the “glimmering girl” binds Aengus to do her will – and he is bound to follow when she flees into the growing sunlight.

Though I am old with wandering/Through hollow lands and hilly lands/I will find out where she has gone 
Aengus’ quest to rejoin his muse thus consumes and directs his life – the terrain symbolic of the often bleak and difficult struggles that an artist encounters on their eternal creative journey.

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

In the last lines of the poem, Aengus sketches the felicity he imagines when he finds the “glimmering girl” – the joys of making his journey alongside wisdom and inspiration. Finally he reveals the ultimate purpose of his creative journey – union with his muse. The gold and silver apples again draw on Celtic symbolism – this time fortelling a fertile fruiting of art and poetry given further significance by the male/female associations of moon and sun. Thus the precious fruits Aengus hopes to pluck with the “glimmering girl” represent the creative issue of the poet and the muse; immortal as the golden apples of Idun or the Hesperides.

Of course – while it is fascinating to try and discern the deep allegorical weft in this tapestry of a poem – its true magic lies in its own immortal vision of wonder. As a modern mythologist and word-painter, Yeats is unparalleled.

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