Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

9 responses to “Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

  1. It’s awesome you can decipher and characterize in a paragraph what the hell I just read.
    Lol
    Thanks Jeff..
    Have and great and stay safe day Brother!

  2. You’re really great at this, Jeff. Were you an English major? Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As I’ve said before, you could teach a class!

    • Hi Barb. Indeed, I was an English major and was offered a full ride to do graduate studies to become a Professor of English Romanticism, but I opted to work as an editor which led me to become a technical writer, which has worked out well for me. Hey, I’m a writer who is still working full time amid this mess (I work in healthcare). But my love for literature has never waned, which is why I am still maintaining this blog – LOL. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you and your family are all healthy and safe.

      Jeff

      • I’m not at all surprised – your knowledge shines through. I was an English major, but I was the one in the class who said almost nothing and was shocked at how much I didn’t know! Yes, too – you are lucky to be still working. Believe it or not, I am too because our library has gone online and now I’m doing social media and writing blog posts and articles. Uncertain times, but we’re making the best of it.

      • Glad that you are working. Once things go back to “normal” I look forward to going to libraries and bookstores again. Stay safe!

  3. Fascinating take on the poem. Your insights into the symbols add depth to my understanding. I had a slightly different response to some parts. I read the fire in his head as an intuitive urge, but not a plan. He feels driven to hazel wood, the way we all sometimes feel a voice guiding us for an unknown reason, and he follows his inner fire’s call. When he catches the fish, he does what any fisherman would do–sets out to cook it. Surprise and change of direction are implied: “I went to blow the fire a-flame,
    But something rustled on the floor …”
    When the fish becomes a girl, only then does he realize what he was seeking. She runs and he pursues her, longing to reach the mystical state implied by kissing her and plucking the golden and silver apples. An old man reaching the end of his wanderings, he still has not arrived.

    • Hi Amber. I hope you and your loved ones are all well. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I can definitely see what you are saying, and you may be spot on. I tend to read into the poem based upon my own ideas and experiences. But I suppose that is the beauty of poetry, that it evokes differently based upon the reader. Anyway, thank you for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts. Stay safe!

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