Irish poetry speaks to the soul. There is a fundamental connection to Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats. One could say each of these men was the embodiment of an element. Heaney of the earth, Wilde of the air, Joyce of Irish fire and Yeats as the figure of water. And like water, his words shape themselves to many different meanings, like the vessels of the mind forming reflective pools.
“The Stolen Child”
Perhaps most famous of Yeats and his “waters wild” is the poem “The Stolen Child”. Echoing refrain compels the reader to “come away, O human child, to the waters and the wild” and the interpretation has been the subject of debate for quite some time.
While over in Ireland, I heard two separate readings of this work. One interpretation came from our anthropologist colleague, Dr. Michael Roberts, who spoke of stolen childhoods and evil adults who would seek to do children harm. Another take came from Wild West Irish Tours’ guide & Spanish Armada expert Eddie O’Gorman. He suggested that the children; changelings, were actually youngsters who presented with autism – an old-world examination of behavioral changes through the lens of Irish myths and legends.
Others believe this poem is actually Yeats’ desire to “return to innocence” in nature – to depart society, as he himself did, and return to one’s roots. Perhaps out by Lough Gill or up to Medbh’s mountain; Knocknarea. Our own Wild Westie alumni Jack Healy agrees with a bit of wisdom: “We invest far too much time & attention to the hardships in life and far too little on the majesty of creation, the tranquility of nature and the peace that comes from basking in the simple things around us.”
Dancing with Faeries
Taking a more historical approach is someone you might recognize from our most recent blog: historical tour guide Adrian O’Neill. He offers some local insight:
“I think a story Yeats heard when he was a young man in Collooney was the inspiration for this poem. An old lady he heard who vanished in her youth only to appear some time later with no toes,” says Adrian. “She told him her tale…saying that the Faeries had taken her to their great halls where there was dancing, singing and much merriment. She danced and danced and lost all track of time.
And when she left, time had passed differently in our world. Where she had spent hours with the Faeries, in our world, weeks and months passed. When Yeats enquired about her missing toes, she replied with a smile “‘I danced until they fell off, of course’.”
The poem has resonated with audiences for decades following its release – a romantic’s view of a concept steeped in troubled waters with darkened roots, perhaps? Or a naturist’s desire to return to the wilderness?
What about you, dear readers? How do you choose to interpret this piece? Let us know!
Until next time, be well!
– Sam Fishkind.