The Stolen Child

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.’

28 thoughts on “The Stolen Child

    • I like this poem very much. W.B. Yeats’s poetry always makes me dream, even though I am 75. Being so aged, of course, I am nothing but “a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick”, but my soul is still clapping its hands and singing “for every tatter in its mortal dress”.
      At any age it is possible and desirable escaping from the real world, a horrible place where the worst mistake of God, the man, is living and where the worst mistake of Man, God, is thought as a real being: the stolen child can escape into the fairyland; as to me and Yeats, we can be gathered into the artifice of eternity”, like in “Sailing to Byzantium”.
      Love to anybody from that holy, ideal city.
      Alberto from Gravedona – lake Como – Italy.

  1. Terrible notes. Statements with no explanations half of the time.

    Nice you’ve set the site up but it’s not the best.

  2. This was before he’d even met Maud so be careful not to mention things without looking at the actual timeline but the rest of the notes are good..

    • With its supernatural quality this poem can be linked with “cat and the moon” but interestingly you could also link this with ‘September 1913’ because of his disatisfaction for modern Ireland.

      • You can also contrast it with the use of water in Easter 1916 as here, it is used to represent the freedom of the child’s mind etc. whereas in Easter it represents everyday Irish life that people can’t escape from

  3. I got a very different idea from the poem. What struck me was that the fairies are a force beyond the child’s understanding, and the “human child” will be unable to survive in their world. The sense of a dream world where things awakening, often violently, made me feel that the fairies where malevolent; for example – the herons flap, the water gushes and the moon takes flight. I think they are water spirits and the island is an illusion. It seems to me you have not looked at the language in the poem but rather analysed the poem from what you know of Yeats. This is Just my opinion.

  4. In my class we were taught that the poem was connected to the death of Yeats’ younger brother Bobby. We were also told that the poem argues that the supernatural are enchanting and yet dangerous. Lines such as “Give them unquiet dreams”, demonstrates the sinister side to the faeries however the idea that the faeries are taking the child away from a world “more full of weeping than you can understand” shows that they are compassionate. Also, for structure the four lines at the end of each stanza are like a chant which is associated with evil and black magic. Shakespeare also demonstrated this with use of chant in Macbeth to portray the witches as evil beings.

  5. Oliver,
    I love this poem. It makes me cry.
    I can see the metaphor for loss of innocence and the child leaving a world of weeping/strife to go and live a free life with fairies in the wild.
    I also feel in this poem a great sense of loss. The child is leaving his/her human world never to return to those very human things (kettle, cows, family etc) . From a fantasy perspective one could be happy for the child leaving to go to a better world with no strife/ tears etc. On the other hand, one can feel very sad for the child and those he leaves behind as he/she will never again know about humanity, be it good or bad. The title: The Stolen Child indicates that maybe there was some coersion/luring by the fairies in the child leaving his human world. Anyhow, a very beautiful poem.

  6. The poem is a metaphor for rich homie quan’s rise in the industry & consequently the loss of innocence within his lyrics

  7. Could this poem also represent Ireland and England and how Yeats feels that slowly England is enchanting the old mystical Ireland away. Therefore the child is the old Ireland full of myths and history and the fairies are England and the new generation of Irish people who do not treasure Ireland’s history and culture?

  8. Element of escape is the vivid picture in the poem. Escape from the world of miseries to the world of happiness, escape from violence to innocence etc

    • Element of escape is the vivid picture in the poem. Escape from the world of miseries to the world of happiness, escape from violence to innocence etc

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