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W.B. Yeats

Song of Wandering Aengus

Some questions to cut your teeth on!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poem features Aengus, a hero from Irish mythology. One night, a maiden appears to him in a dream or apparition, and Aengus thereafter travels for many years in search of her.

In the real myth, Aengus eventually finds her at the edge of a lake but she is under a spell and is being forced to live a life as a swan. Aengus jumps into the lake after her and is also transformed into a swan.

Together they sing songs that are so beautiful that those who hear them are lulled to sleep. They live for a year as swans before regaining their human shape.

"The Song of Wandering Aengus" takes the story at its very beginning, when Aengus meets the maiden in his dream and then searches for her.


William Butler Yeats was born in County Dublin (Ireland) in 1865, although the family soon relocated to Sligo which the young poet came to think of as his spiritual home.

The family moved to England in 1876 so that their father could further his own career as an artist. At first the young William was home-schooled and entered formal schooling only at the age of 12, where his performance was described as mediocre.

When the poet was 15, however, the family returned to Dublin and it was here that he began writing poetry, with his first works being published when he was about 17.

Yeats had a deep interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology, something that is reflected in many of his poems. Indeed, his "Second Coming" cannot be understood unless this astrological background is realised.

He was also involved in Irish nationalism, something too that is reflected in much of his writing.

In 1883 - when the poet was but 18 - he met Maud Gonne, then a 23 year old heiress. Their friendship would last some 33 years.

By 1916, when Yeats was already 51 years old, he probably realised that chance of marriage with children was passing him by. He suddenly became intent on having both and decided to propose to Maud Gonne but she turned him down.

Two rumours arose out of this: first, that his poem "Wild Swans at Coole" was written after the "shock" of his being turned down and, second, that Maud Gonne suggested he rather marry her daughter, Iseult.

Probably neither story is true although marriage to the daughter had a greater chance of bearing offspring than did the poet's marrying the mother.

It seems also likely that the proposal to Gonne herself was more a point of etiquette and that the poet couched it with such conditions that refusal was the intention.

Yeats did then propose to the daughter but she likewise turned him down. Within months, however, the poet married the 24 year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees with whom he had two children.

Yeats won several awards for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He died in France in January 1939 at the age of 74.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"The song of the wandering Aengus" is an example of a fantasy poem.
  • What is meant by fantasy? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Give your reasons for describing "Wandering Aengus" as a fantasy story. (4)

[Need help?]

"I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread."
  • What is a hazel wood? Why has the poet used this particular type of forest for his story? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What was the fire in his head? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use the words "hazel wand"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the purpose of the berry hooked to a thread? (2)

[Need help?]

"When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name."
  • Why is the poet blowing the fire a-flame? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What two words tell you that the poet doesn't know who or what is calling his name? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why is the poet so deliberately vague? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is the origin of the voice? (2)

[Need help?]

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