Study Guide

The Song of Wandering Aengus Analysis

  • Sound Check

    "The Song of Wandering Aengus" is called a "song" for a reason: it sounds like one. In fact, it's so sing-songy, it could be a children's lullaby. This has a lot to do with the meter and rhyme scheme that's used in the poem. (Check out "Form and Meter" for all those details.) We get plenty of sound echoes, too, though. These effects form a more subtle pattern that catches a reader's ear. Let's look at the second stanza for some examples:

    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
    .

    There's a lot going on in terms of sound in this stanza. For starters, there's a ton of alliteration at work here. We get F words (the clean kind) in the first three lines of the stanza ("floor," "fire," and "a-flame"), repeated G words ("glimmering girl"), and B words ("blow," "blossom," "brightening"). As well, we get consonance with the repetition of the M sound in words like "someone," "me," and "my name."

    Again, as with the tightness of the form and rhyme scheme, these sound effects are a hard reminder that we're strictly in poetry-land here. Yeats is offering up his poetic take on an Irish myth, and he wants to make it his own. The use of sound effects stamps this as clearly poetic and clearly the work of ol' W.B.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title "The Song of Wandering Aengus" tells us a couple of important things about this poem. First of all, it tells us who the speaker is: it's—wait for it—Aengus. Who's Aengus? He's a god of love and beauty in Celtic mythology. The reference to Aengus in the story, in other words, tells us that we're going to be diving into the world of Celtic myth.

    The word "Wandering" in the title is also important because it points to the way that Yeats revises the original myth of Aengus. In the Celtic myth, Aengus falls in love with a beautiful girl, but then she turns into a swan and he has to go looking for her. Eventually, he manages to find her in her swan form and the two lovers are reunited. In Yeats' poem, Aengus doesn't actually find the girl (sad times). He goes "wandering" everywhere in search of her, but—no dice. So Yeats' poem puts an emphasis on this idea of searching and seeking for something (or someone) that we can't find. The title prepares us, then, for the harsh truth of this poem: if you're looking for a happy ending, you'd better look somewhere else.

  • Setting

    The main setting of this poem is the "hazel wood" in which our speaker goes fishing. This setting presents nature as a major theme in the poem. We get a sense of the beauty and the magic of this natural setting: the moths flying about, the "moth-like" stars, the stream that the speaker catches the trout in. The hazel wood is important, of course, because this is the location where the speaker meets the "glimmering girl." His life is transformed in this wood. The wood, therefore, is a setting that's full of magic; it's where magical transformations happen. What's more, the poem presents nature as the source of that magic.

    But the poem's setting isn't just limited to the hazel wood. In the last stanza, the speaker tells us that he's wandered through "hollow lands and hilly lands" (18) looking for the girl, which suggests that he's been all over the place. He also imagines walking with the girl through "dappled grass" (21). So, even though we leave the hazel wood in the last stanza, the poem doesn't leave nature. Given that this is a poem that's full of magic, and is inspired by a Celtic myth, we get the sense that the world that this poem takes place in isn't just "natural," it's supernatural. It has a magical, other-worldly quality to it. Remember: this is a world in which the sun and moon bear golden and silver apples, so yeah—this is not the same natural world you're used to.

  • Speaker

    In Celtic mythology, the speaker of this poem, Aengus, is a god. But in Yeats' poem, he comes across as very mortal. For one thing, he gets old, just like we do (17). For another, he's never able to get the girl he's after (in the poem, anyway). So this poem's speaker isn't some awesome superhero with immortal powers. He's just a regular dude who falls in love with, and then loses, a beautiful girl. In this way, we can see that the poem frames Aengus as a human being, as one of us. This is one of the important ways that Yeats revises the Celtic myth.

    As one of us, then, Aengus is one love-struck dude. He sees this "glimmering girl" (13) for a few seconds one day, and then spends the rest of his life looking for her—talk about obsessed. This is the other important characteristic we can glean about the speaker in the poem: love is really important to this dude. It sustains him on his long, but ultimately futile, quest for fulfillment—bad times.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    The "lullaby" sound of this poem may make us think that it's easy-peasy, but the references to Celtic mythology are pretty obscure for most of us readers. Don't even stress, though. We're here to help you over the hill.

  • Calling Card

    Irish Nationalism

    Yeats was a big Irish nationalist. You see, he started writing at a time when Ireland was still a British colony (it became independent in 1922), and those Brits sure weren't treating the Irish very well back in those days. For that reason, a lot of Yeats' poetry reflects Irish nationalist themes.

    We can see it in "The Song of Wandering Aengus," in fact, because it's a poem that draws on Celtic mythology. Celtic mythology, of course, is an important part of Irish culture. We can also see this Irish nationalist theme in some of his other poems, like "Sixteen Dead Men," which commemorates the sixteen Irish rebels executed by the British for their part in organizing the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. We can also see it in his famous poem "September 1913," which celebrates the Irish nationalist John O'Leary.

  • Form and Meter

    Lyric, Iambic Tetrameter

    "The Song of Wandering Aengus" is a lyric poem. It's told in the first person (through the perspective of Aengus). Lyrics, as our wonderful lit glossary tells us, are usually written in the first person, and they give us an insight into the speaker's thoughts and emotions. Here, Aengus' first-person perspective gives us a glimpse into his experiences and his love for the "glimmering girl."

    The meter that the poem is written in is something called iambic tetrameter. Now, before you make for the exits, let us explain what this means, exactly. Anything that's designated as a "tetrameter" is a line of poetry that's made up of four feet ("tetra-" means four). A foot, then, is the base unit of a line's rhythm. In this, case, our unit is the iamb. An iamb is a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed. It makes a daDUM sound (say "allow" out loud and you'll hear a real, live iamb).

    So, iambic tetrameter just means that we've got four of these iambs hanging out in each line. Let's break down the first four lines of the second stanza as an example:

    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:

    You should hear the same pattern throughout each line: daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. That's iambic tetrameter for you. What's more, this pattern holds pretty much for the entire poem. So this is a very tightly structured poem.

    Something else that holds in the poem is each stanza's rhyme scheme. The same pattern of end rhyme remains consistent throughout, to create a scheme of ABCBDEFE. Let's look again at stanza 2:

    When I had laid it on the floor A
    I went to blow the fire a-flame, B
    But something rustled on the floor,
    C
    And someone called me by my name: B
    It had become a glimmering girl D
    With apple blossom in her hair E
    Who called me by my name and ran
    F
    And faded through the brightening air.
    E

    Now, we know that the repetition of "floor" in lines 9 and 11 technically counts as a rhyme, but we're still going to say that this is in line with the other stanzas because those lines use the same word—and it's cheating if we repeat the same word (we think so, at least). Even if you did count that as a rhyme, the rest of this stanza matches up exactly with the rhymes going on stanzas 1 and 3.

    So… why is this form so rigid? Well, we know from his body of work that Yeats was a form nut. He loved to write in strict, regular meter. More than that, though, this is a poetic re-imagining of a popular cultural myth, so Yeats probably wanted to emphasize that. He's offering his own poetic take on the myth of Aengus, and the strict iambic tetrameter on display here is a regular, constant reminder that we're encountering a poem.

  • The Glimmering Girl

    Imagine if a fish we were cooking suddenly turned into a beautiful, glimmering girl. We'd be pretty stunned, right? Well this is exactly what happens in Yeats' "The Song of Wandering Aengus." The poem doesn't explain to us, in a clear way, what the "glimmering girl" represents. But we can read her as a symbol for many things: as an object of love, an ideal, an emblem of the supernatural. Part of the power of the poem comes from the fact that we can read all sorts of things into this "glimmering girl."

    • Lines 13-14: The fish turns into a glimmering girl. How do we read this transformation? Well, the girl is obviously very beautiful, and Aengus, the speaker of the poem, immediately becomes obsessed with her. So, on this level, the glimmering girl is an object of love. After all, when we're in love with someone, they do seem to "glimmer," don't they? On another level, the fact that we have a magical transformation depicted here suggests that the girl could also be a symbol of the supernatural. She represents the existence of the magical, or supernatural, in everyday life.
    • Lines 15-16: The glimmering girl calls Aengus by his name and then runs away, fading through the air. The girl's disappearance here could be indicative of a number of things. On one level, we can read her disappearance as a representation of unrequited love. As soon as Aengus sets his eyes on her and falls in love with her, she disappears. In this sense, she represents the impossibility of his ever being able to fulfill his love for her. On another level, we can also read the girl as a symbol for an impossible ideal—something we might get near, but never attain. Her disappearance can be read as indicating the impossibility of attaining our highest goals, be they artistic or otherwise.
    • Lines 19-20: The speaker tells us that he will "find out" where the glimmering girl has gone. But he's spent his life looking for her and he hasn't found her yet. Again, we can read Aengus' fruitless quest for the girl on a couple of different levels. First, it can be seen as a depiction of the disappointment of unrequited love (since Aengus hasn't been able to fulfill his love for the girl). Secondly, it can also be a depiction of the futility of attaining our ideals. Either way, we're off to bummerville.
  • Fishing

    "The Song of Wandering Aengus" begins with a pretty straightforward action. The speaker, Aengus, decides that he wants to go fishing. But then all kinds of magical things happen as a result of his fishing expedition. Fishing itself is a familiar action (chances are most of us, at some point in our lives, have tried it). But in this poem it's also a symbol for other things. The speaker catches a fish, sure, but then he spends the rest of his life "fishing" for a girl he can't find. In this sense, the fishing can be understood as a symbol for searching or seeking.

    • Lines 3-4: We see Aengus making his fishing rod here, peeling a hazel wand and hooking a berry to a thread (who knew that fish ate berries?). Aengus' action of making the fishing rod introduces fishing as a motif in the poem. This motif will be expanded on in a later stanza.
    • Lines 7-8: Aengus catches a "little silver trout" with his homemade fishing rod. He doesn't have trouble catching this fish. But, as we'll see in the following lines, it will get away from him. The description of Aengus catching the fish here, therefore, works to foreshadow his quest to "catch" the glimmering girl later in the poem.
    • Lines 13-16: The fish turns into a glimmering girl, and she gets away from Aengus. Uh-oh, what's Aengus gonna do? He'll go after her, of course. The glimmering girl's disappearance in these lines casts Aengus' fishing in a new light. He catches the fish, and then it turns into a girl, and the girl escapes him. His fishing expedition isn't a success, after all.
    • Lines 19-20: Aengus spends the rest of his life searching, or "fishing," for the glimmering girl. So the innocent fishing expedition with which the poem begins has turned into a life-long quest. In this sense, we can understand the fishing motif as an extended metaphor for Aengus' search, or hunt, for the glimmering girl.
  • Wandering

    "Wandering" is in the title of this poem, so we're just gonna bet that it's an important theme. The fact of the matter is that Aengus meets the glimmering girl because he goes wandering into the hazel wood. And then, after he meets her, he spends years and years wandering even more in search of her. Clearly, this guy can't stay put for long. Wandering is a symbol of Aengus' endless desire for the girl and, in a broader sense, it's also a symbol for our own desires and strivings. We know that feeling of wanting something so bad and not being able to rest until we have it. Maybe it's a girl or a guy. Maybe it's a job. Maybe it's a diamond-encrusted cupcake. (What? We have dreams too, you know.) We'll "wander" in search of that thing because we just have to have it.

    • Lines 1-2: The speaker tells us that he goes out to the hazel wood because "a fire" is in his head. The speaker doesn't explain what this "fire" is exactly, but we can guess that it's some sort of desire or drive to wander, or to go elsewhere. This is why the speaker ends up in the hazel wood. The speaker's desire to wander here foreshadows the wandering that he'll end up doing in search of the "glimmering girl."
    • Line 17: The speaker says that he's "old with wandering." This guy has spent his entire life looking for the glimmering girl. Wandering comes to define the speaker's life. In this way, it's also an important theme in the poem. The speaker's wandering represents his pursuit of a beautiful woman on one level, but on another it can also be read as a pursuit of the ideal (ideal beauty, ideal artistic perfection, and so on).
    • Line 18: Here the speaker describes the landscapes he's wandered through: "hollow lands and hilly lands." These contrasting landscapes give us a sense of just how wide and far the speaker has wandered. This dude is seriously love-struck. He's been searching everywhere for the glimmering girl. The time and energy he's spent searching for her suggest the speaker's determination on the one hand, but the futility of his quest on the other. He's old and he still hasn't found her. Yeah… it's not looking good for our speaker.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      Aengus may want to have some sexy times with the "glimmering girl" he meets in the hazel wood, but considering that she disappears into thin air right after he meets her, he doesn't get any. That means that we all miss out on any sexy times, too.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Aengus (title): Aengus is a god of love and beauty in Celtic mythology. In one myth, the inspiration for Yeats' poem, Aengus falls in love with a girl he sees in a dream. He goes looking for her and realizes that she's been turned into a swan. In order to be reunited with her, he has to identify her in her swan form. That's pretty hard, considering that he has to pick her out from 150 other swans she's hanging out with. But Aengus manages to pick the right girl. He himself then turns into a swan, and the two lovebirds (he and the girl) fly off together.