“The Unappeasable Host” by William Butler Yeats

The Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold,
And clap their hands together, and half close their eyes,
For they will ride the North when the ger-eagle flies,
With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold:
I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast,
And hear the narrow graves calling my child and me.
Desolate winds that cry over the wandering sea;
Desolate winds that hover in the flaming West;
Desolate winds that beat the doors of Heaven, and beat
The doors of Hell and blow there many a whimpering ghost;
O heart the winds have shaken, the unappeasable host
Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet.

In this poem, Yeats expresses his inner struggle between his interest in the occult and his interest in Christianity. The Danaan children are the “children of the magical world of Faerie,” and as M. L. Rosenthal points out are considered “irresistible yet a threat to human love and security.” So the children symbolize mysticism and the occult, while Mother Mary represents Christianity.

In the poem, three of the twelve lines begin with the phrase “Desolate winds,” emphasizing the importance. Symbolically, the number three is likely meant to evoke the Christian trinity. Yeats sees Christian theology as opposed to the exploration of the psyche (symbolized by the wandering sea); as a hindrance to the human spirit returning to the Edenic state (symbolized by the flaming West – think cherubim with flaming sword at east of Eden, which would be west for those wanting to reenter); and finally as a doctrine of reward and punishment intended to keep people meek and subservient (Heaven and Hell).

Yeats knows that the host of Faerie cannot be appeased. Once a person steps onto the path of the occult, that person is on a journey that will never end. It is an all-consuming quest that will take precedence over all other aspects of a person’s life. But Yeats concedes that this is more attractive to him than following the Christian path, represented by the “candles at Mother Mary’s feet.”

One last thing I want to mention regarding this poem. I struggled a bit trying to figure out what the ger-eagle was. I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect that Yeats meant for this to be phonetic, where ger means gyre. This would then become a precursor to the imagery he would later use in “The Second Coming.” If ger does mean gyre, then Yeats is saying that the unappeasable host of Faerie will escape to the North following the apocalypse, or the great revealing of that which is hidden from our collective consciousness.

This is just my interpretation of this very difficult poem. If you have other insights into the hidden symbolism, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. Cheers!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““The Unappeasable Host” by William Butler Yeats

  1. This poem is indeed difficult and equally gorgeous. I’m researching faerie lore around the world and I greatly appreciate this and other posts like it. Cheers, Jeff!

  2. In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Guy Claxton suggests responding to poetry intuitively rather than analytically. There’s a level of understanding, deeper than verbal thinking and logic, where a poem is experienced and where its meaning is alive, though the other level of consciousness, the one that does the explaining, can’t explain the meaning. I love this poem. The fear and the fascination are so intense. Ger-eagle felt like a were-eagle or a spirit eagle, an eagle elder of some kind. A guide.

    • Hi Amber. Great comment! Truly, poetry expresses that which words often fail to express. But as a person who is pretty balanced between right and left brain, I still enjoy digging deep into the text in search of meaning. Bottom line, there is no right or wrong way to read poetry . One should just read it. Cheers!

  3. Wow, Jeff. This is a difficult poem. I’m such a literal reader, I have trouble with symbolism. I’m not sure I’ve read “The Unappeasable Host” before, but it reminds me of the many poems I read in college. I still think you’d make a great English professor!

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