The Contradictions of “The Stolen Child”

The Contradictions of “The Stolen Child”

By Kathryn LaBine

“The Stolen Child” is likely William Butler Yeats’ most famous poem from his early phase. It is a favorite of many scholars and everyday readers for many reasons including its contradictions.

The title of “The Stolen Child” plays off of traditional Irish folklore. Most Irish people would know the stories about fairies stealing children in the night. The title of the poem sets up the entire poem with the notion of a child that is not lost, but stolen. The emphasis on the word stolen immediately makes the reader imagine that the child is an innocent victim and that the fairy is a mischievous thief. . The majority of the poem is clearly spoken by fairy trying to convince a young boy to come with her and follow the fairies. As the boy makes his way on his incredible journey to the fairy world many contradictions are made. A youthful soul is being taken away to be with ageless beings, to live forever. As he becomes an immortal being he loses not only his life, but also his innocence and childhood. As soon as the fairies recognize that the boy is going to follow them, the entire tone of the poem becomes solemn. He is aging quickly and is learning how full of weeping his world was. Perhaps it was out of mercy and that the fairy stole the boy, rather than malevolence. This is very typical of Yeats. He often sets off a poem with a title and a few stanzas that predispose the audience to expect certain actions from particular characters, only to contradict later. “The Stolen Child” is an excellent example of this contradictory style of work.

Yeats often depicted peasants as being in touch with the Celtic essence. He assumed that they had not been tarnished by the rigid British rule. He uses the rural peasants and commercializes their lives and stories as a way to solidify a distinctly Irish culture. This is where one of the largest contradictions lies. The western coast may have been beautiful, but there is nothing mystical about it to the naked eye. Yeats makes sure to mention specific locations in western Ireland in his description of the fairy world. In “The Stolen Child” he talks about the forests of Sleuthwood, the beaches of Rosses Point, and the waterfall at Glencar. These places are part of western Ireland and have existed for a long time, yet Yeats brings new attention to them. Yeats depicts these places as peaceful, ageless, and places of wisdom and clarity. By reading Yeats’s early poetry, like “The Stolen Child” one could feel connected to the land, despite the artificial romanticism. “The Stolen Child” shows both the magical lives of where the fairies live and contrasts that with the sad and impoverished life that the child leaves. This shows that no matter how hard Yeats tries to romanticize the lives of the western peasants; even he cannot deny the contradictions of his assumptions.

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