Irish Legend in the Stolen Child by William Butler Yeats

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The Stolen Child

In 1886, William Butler Yeats constructed the timeless piece called The Stolen Child. This piece is based on an Irish legend about faeries taking children. Yeats wrote this poem during a time when the Celtic Revival was a very important movement for Ireland. In this essay, I will explore the mechanisms the faery uses to coax the child from his home. The faery begins with telling the child of the delicious fruits he could be eating. The faery then tells the child of the simple life he could be leading and adventures he could be having. The child finally takes the faery's hand and away they go. I argue that, in the luring and taking of the child, Yeats develops the idea that to accept the English is to conform to the comforts of its cultural modernization—to be Irish is to be wild and free.

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The faerie starts with describing an island, in the midst of a lake, to the boy. The faery goes on to tell the child what is on the island. One would be a fool to not see it is the Emerald Isle itself. In 1884 the Ireland began forging its national identity. It started with the Gaelic Athletic Association promoting Irish sports. Children are drawn in by sweets and that's just what the faery uses is fruit. In 1886 the anti-Home-Rule Conservatives came into power. Their policy introduced new and fair laws to Ireland. These laws gave more rights to tenant farmers and helped them become better off financially. If I had been the child I could not have refused the hypothetical fruits either. On three occasions throughout the poem Yeats uses the same four-lined anaphora to have the faery repeatedly ask the child to come away with him:

“Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”

(Lines 9-12; 22-25, and 36-39).

Aside from the usage of the anaphora, the following twenty-nine lines produce copious amounts of imagery for the boy. The faery goes on to tell him of the simplicity and freedom that could be had by going away with the faery. The English Liberals regained power despite the threats from the Irish Unionists in 1892. In 1893, a man by the name of William Gladstone introduced the Second House Rule Bill; however this bill never passed due to its defeat by the House of Lords. Yeats goes on to use personification to describe an adventure the faery and child would have together:

“..We seek for slumbering trout

And whispering in their ears

Give them unquiet dreams;

Leaning softly out

From ferns that drop their tears...”

(Lines 30-34).

In the above quotation, anthropomorphism is also used. Trout do not have ears or dreams and ferns do not drop tears.

Yeats intelligently uses an extended metaphor to capture the reader with his allegory (lines 40-47) as the child decides to go away with the faery. The allegory goes on the describe Ireland and the cultural melding of its neighbor, England. The Gaelic League was founded by two Nationalist Protestants to promote the Gaelic language. The child wishes to return to Celtic Ireland, the faery is in essence Celtic Ireland. With the use of the last, cleverly placed anaphora (lines 48-51) the poem comes to a beautiful close. Yeats also uses the rhyme scheme called end rhyme throughout the poem. He left only a few lines that did not rhyme, these lines do not interrupt the flow of the poem.

Although Yeats never learned to speak Gaelic, from what I read about him he was a nonconformist to English tradition during the time of the Celtic Revival. The mentioned organizations helped institute the revival and inspired many (Yeats included). His poetry during the Victorian Era drew extensively from Irish mythology and folklore. From what I've gathered, he states the following opinion in this poem: Return to the wild Ireland and be free!

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