“The Song of Wandering Aengus” as a Critique of Cultural Nationalism

As discussed today in class, the basic interpretation of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” is straightforward. The narrator, Aengus, represents nationalists seeking to return to an idealized Ireland, as symbolized by the “glimmering girl,” (13). Like traditional Ireland, the girl may or may not exist and, because of this, the narrator will never reach her. However, the embedded mythology complicates this simple cultural nationalist reading. The poem immediately alludes to Celtic folklore when the narrator declares he “went out to the hazel wood” (1) as the hazel tree traditionally represents wisdom. In Irish myth, the concentration of the wisdom and knowledge was believed to reside in the hazelnut. The wisdom could be transferred into a salmon if it ate the hazelnut and a human could then imbibe the wisdom by cooking and eating the salmon. Yeats’ poem alludes to hazel trees, not only by setting the poem in the hazel wood, but also when Aengus fishes with a “hazel wand” (3) and uses what is presumably a hazel berry as bait. Despite these similarities to Celtic myth, Aengus uses a berry, not a hazelnut, when fishing, and ultimately catches “a little silver trout” (8), not a salmon. The poem suggests that Aengus is attempting to emulate the myth, yet his misinformation in regards to Irish tradition prevents him from doing so. In fact, instead of manifesting itself as wisdom, the trout becomes a beautiful girl, or an object of desire. In this way, the discrepancies from the myth result in a sort of antithesis of wisdom in that Aengus becomes consumed with the unknown rather than becoming more knowledgeable. Just as Aengus becomes consumed with the mystical and desirable “glimmering girl,” cultural nationalists became enamored with a romanticized version of traditional Ireland. Aengus’ misinformation concerning Celtic mythology becomes his undoing, just as an image of traditional Ireland, romanticized beyond reality, becomes a symbol that cannot be reached.

One Reply to ““The Song of Wandering Aengus” as a Critique of Cultural Nationalism”

  1. The hazel tree, in Celtic lore, is associated with poets. Aengus, furthermore, is the god of love, youth and poetic inspiration.
    Like many of Yeats’ poems, this seems to be vaguely autobiographical. The protagonist of his poems can often be seen to represent the poet himself. In this poem, the Celtic god of love and poetic inspiration fishes with a wand that represents poetry; and yet, the poem ends by presenting a beautiful woman who is an unattainable object of desire.
    I would not view this poem as a misrepresentation of Irish mythology, but as an expression of Yeats’ own frustrations. He might see himself as the revered poet, a great artist, but his life is consumed by the pursuit of something unknowable and unattainable. This unattainable object of desire may be the unknowable “essence” of Ireland – on a more personal level, it can symbolize Yeats and his feelings for Maude Gonne, whom he constantly pursues yet seems not to want to actually obtain.

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