Notes by Manoj Sadwahani
‘The Stolen Child’ written in 1886, is one of Yeats’ early poems. Yeats was twenty-one at the time, at the beginning of his career; it celebrates the Irish stories which his mother loved. In his early work, Yeats used soft, romantic words, and often based poems on Irish legends. In this poem, a human child is enticed away into a fairyland. The child forgets his friends and family at home because the fairies are so poetic and enchanting, thus he follows them; they convince him that their world is joyful and playful, while the human world is full of tears. The poem progresses as a journey through the country, around the town of Sligo, in Ireland. This is where Yeats spent his youth, as it is his mother’s hometown.
The plot of the poem is a metaphor for the return to innocence, which is characterised by childhood. The ‘fantasy’ world Yeats creates sharply contrasts with the real world, representing his dissatisfaction with the real world. Yeats describes the supernatural world he has created, by providing us with information of its qualities and dimensions. In this world, the fairies are said to have hidden their ‘faery vats, full of berries/ and of the reddest stolen cherries.’ The idea of fruit being stolen is portrayed here, thus supporting the view that the child has lost his innocence. Line 10 includes a reference to nature, ‘the waters and the wild.’ This suggests he is making a complaint, possibly due to his dissatisfaction with society. He has clearly attempted to obtain freedom and retain innocence; however, if this is not possible then an urban lifestyle will substitute.
Yeats describes the dancing of the faeries in the moonlight; in line 21, he employs the concept of chasing of ‘the frothy bubbles’ suggests a certain degree of freedom. Although, the reality ‘full of troubles’ contrasts this freedom; the island Yeats has created is isolated by water. This frees is from societies’ limits and enables nature on the island to remain wild. Symbolically, the island acts as a guardian angel of the child, protecting his development and preserving his innocence. Yeats continues to portray the image of freedom though ‘wandering water gushes’. This identifies the power of these spirits and their ability to influence everyone’s destiny. Yeats equates these spirits to his theory of gyres; he believes that life progresses in a vortex, and its events take the course of this shape, one cannot control them. This theory of gyres is mentioned in several other poems of his, such as, ‘The Second Coming’; he says that we are all ‘turning and turning in the widening gyre’, suggesting uncontrollable events occurring at the time.
Yeats illustrates his message in the final stanza, by drawing another contrast. He associates imagery of ‘calves’, ‘kettles’ and mice’ with a country home. This is therefore being asserted to denote how modern society has enslaved nature. Yet, ‘herons’ are wild and free animals, which are found near water (the symbol of freedom) in the poem. Yeats portrays his disappointment with modern society, particularly due to the increased nature of violence in society; as well as its negative effects on both Maud Gonne and Constance Markowitz. He does so in, ‘A Bronze Head’, referring to her frequent political appearances, transformed into ‘a dark tomb haunter’ from the gentle woman of his memory. In ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats describes as annoying, he says she spent ‘her nights in argument/ Until her voice grew shrill.’