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“A Faery Song” by William Butler Yeats

Cromlech

Sung by the people of Faery over Diarmuid and Grania,
in their bridal sleep under a Cromlech.

We who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told:

Give to these children, new from the world,
Silence and love;
And the long dew-dropping hours of the night,
And the stars above:

Give to these children, new from the world,
Rest far from men.
Is anything better, anything better?
Tell us it then:

Us who are old, old and gay,
O so old!
Thousands of years, thousands of years,
If all were told.

I had to look up some words while reading this poem, and it is a good thing that I did, because understanding the references is key to understanding this poem. Yeats is the master of drawing on mythology when crafting his poetry, and figuring out the mythological references is necessary when attempting to uncover the hidden meaning in a Yeats’ poem.

First I looked up Diarmuid and Grania, and I learned that Diarmuid was a hero who eloped with Grania, who was betrothed to a chief named Finn. Diarmuid was then killed by a magical boar which was summoned by Finn. The other term I looked up was cromlech, which in the British Isles is a circle of standing stones, often used as a tomb (see image above). Once I understood all this, the hidden meaning of the poem became clear to me.

Basically, I interpret this as a poem about how myths are created. The Faery folk inhabit the realm of the mythical, and as such, have attained immortality, having existed “thousands of years, thousands of years.” The cromlech symbolizes two things. First, it is a portal to the realm of the Faery; second, it is a circular monument immortalizing the lives of Diarmuid and Grania. Essentially, the cromlech marks the transition from just a human story to something transcendent—an eternal myth that will live on in human consciousness.

There is one other phrase that supports this interpretation. The Faery folk state that Diarmuid and Grania are “new from the world.” This is very different from saying they are new to the world. They have just come from the world of our existence and entered the dimension of the Faery. Symbolically, this means that the story of their love and of Diarmuid’s tragic death has now become a part of the collective mythology. As a result, they too can expect to live for “thousands of years” as mythological beings within the collective human consciousness.

For a poem that lyrically seems very simple, this is very rich and complex. Whenever I read Yeats, I always approach the poem expecting there to be more that what appears on the surface. It is rare that I do not find a deeper, mystical meaning hidden within the lines and words.

Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and please feel free to share any thoughts or impressions.

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“Fergus and the Druid” by William Butler Yeats

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head

Druid. What would you, Fergus?

Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.

Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.

Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

I really like this poem . First off, I like how it is written as a dialog, almost like a slice out of a play. It reads nicely and the cadence and flow of the verse is beautiful.

The poem begins with Fergus following the Druid amid the rocks as the Druid goes through a series of metamorphoses. I see two interpretations for the rocks: first, they could represent stone circles, similar to Stonehenge where the Druids would have worshiped; but the stones could also refer to Fergus being in a cemetery, contemplating his mortality and seeking answers to his life.

When the Druid assumes his human form, Fergus expresses his desire to relinquish his rule and bestow it upon Conchubar. I had to do a little research to determine the relationship between Fergus and Conchubar. Basically, according to the mythology, Fergus fell in love with Ness and Conchubar was Ness’ son from another marriage. So this seems to tie in to the archetype of the connection between the death of the king and the assumption by the son to continue the earthly cycles, such as explored by Frazier in The Golden Bough.

In addition to relinquishing rule as king, Fergus seeks knowledge from the Druid. The Druid seems reluctant to grant Fergus his request and points out how he is burdened by his knowledge. There is a parallel here. Fergus is burdened by the weight of the crown while the Druid is burdened by the weight of his knowledge. In the end, the Druid grants Fergus his wish and gives him a “little bag of dreams,” which ultimately opens the doors to Fergus’ mind and allows him to see into his own future, seeing all that will be.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In the end, Fergus is overwhelmed with sorrow as a result of his knowledge. He no longer has any hope and life is now void of all mystery. He sees only the inevitable future which is the “small slate-coloured thing,” his own gravestone.

It seems as if Yeats is giving us a little warning here. The pursuit of knowledge is something that should not be taken lightly, especially occult knowledge which allows one to peer through the veils of mystery. One must be fully prepared to face the hidden knowledge, which is often hidden for a reason.

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