“The Song of Wandering Aengus:” Politics and Aesthetics in Literary Adaptation

Yeats’s early work, including “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” is characterized by lyricism, natural imagery, and allusions to Irish mythology. These characteristics allowed Scottish singer Donovan to include the poem on his album H.M.S. Donovan (1971), which is a collection of legends, poems, and folk tales set to music. Though the text remains the same, the time and medium imposed on “The Song of Wandering Aengus” change the way it is perceived.

“The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats was first published in his collection of poems, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). Though the story that Yeats tells is not in keeping with a specific myth, many scholars have compared it to the myth of Aengus and Caer (Monaghan, 67). The legend goes that Aengus, the god of love, youth, and poetry, dreamed of Caer and fell in love with her. He went searching for her, and when he finally found her, she had been turned into a swan. He, too, transformed into a swan, and the two flew off together (Monaghan, 67). In “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” the god finds himself in a similar situation, following a beautiful woman and dreaming of their future together:

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands

I will find out where she has gone

And kiss her lips and take her hands

And walk along the dappled grass

And pluck till time and time are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun. (Yeats, 16)

Yeats is often considered an important figure in the Celtic Revival, an artistic and literary tradition, which saw a renewed interest in and ownership of Celtic themes, culture, and artistry. If we continue with the idea that the woman in “Aengus” is Ireland, it becomes clear that Yeats will honor his Irish identity “till time and time are done” (Yeats, 16). Such nationalistic sentiments prompted one scholar to write that, in Yeats’s poetry “the peasant and the Revivalist could act in concert against the discursive domination of anthropological and colonialist discourses” (Doan, 366). In this way, the poem works as both a celebration of Irish aesthetics and a political call for Irish independence.

Donovan’s version of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” was and is still received very differently. The poem was aimed at children rather than Irishmen in the midst of a political revolution. Though adapting the poem into a song is in some ways a continuation of the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, Donovan’s song changes a highly political poem into an object of pure entertainment.

The children listening to the song would not be aware of the poem’s political implications. Furthermore, they would be nearly 100 years too late to participate in its original political meaning-making. They would instead be much more interested in the plot of the myth and the way Donovan uses repetitive guitar riffs and an Irish accent to take them “through hollow lands and hilly lands” (Donovan, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”).

Though the poem changes with the medium and time, both of its meanings are valuable. Many scholars have proved that, since readers participate in meaning making, the text–even “The Song of Wandering Aengus– acts as a conjurer of truths instead of a supplier of truths.

Works Cited:

  1. Doan, James E. James Joyce Quarterly 39.2 (2002): 365-68. Web.
  2. Donovan. “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” H.M.S. Donovan, 1971. Dawn Records.
  3. Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing, 2014. 67. Google books.
  4. Yeast, William Butler. “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” The Wind Among the Reeds. New York: J. Lane, The Bodley Head, 1899. 15-16. PDF.

Here are some other adaptations of the song:

Donovan, Christy Moore, The Waterboys, Judy Collins

Pledged, IJS

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