Yeats and the Land of Heart’s Desire

Yeats’ writing, for me, is haunting, mystical, and indescribably lovely.  It’s that lovliness that leaves you with a sweet tender heart-ache of longing for something intangible.

Tonight on the way home from church I read The Land of Heart’s Desire, a one act play he wrote. It might have been his first, I’m not sure.  I finished it and thought, “Well.  That was strange, pretty, and kind of disappointing.”  And then I thought of a couple of the lines a few more times and went over them in my head.  I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and thought again that it really wasn’t one of Yeats’ best efforts.  Then I thought again of  dances
deep in the dewy shadow of a wood, starlight on mountain tops, lovely but sly fairy children, milk, new-married brides and bitter tongues.

Rounds of deeds and days.

Wrecked Angels setting snares…

It isn’t Yeats’ best work.  I prefer his poetry and his strange stories about growing up in Ireland.  But what on earth did he mean by it all?  I kept wondering what he meant his audience to make of this freakish tale?

There is or was, if Yeats be true, an old story that on May Eve the fairy folk would come tempting and calling to new brides, begging for milk and fire, and if the bride succumbed to their invitation, she died, or left and never returned,

It is just such a May Eve in this play and there is a new married bride, living in an thatched cottage with her stout young husband who loves her dear but doesn’t quite understand her, her father-in-law who admires her, but doesn’t really sympathize much with her daydreams and yearnings, and her mother-in-law who harps and carps at her to stop her day-dreaming and do her work, and never speaks a word that isn’t sharp and critical.   There are other characters, a few, but these are at the center, and of course, the faeries come, in the guise of an old woman who is thirsty, of a child with face as pale as water before dawn, of an old man seeking a bit of fire for his pipe, and finally, another strange faerie child, who in the end, of course, steals away the new married bride.

The bride is not loathe to go.  After another sharp scolding from her mother -in-law for putting the whole household at risk of a curse because she’s given both milk and fire to strangers on May eve, she lashes out, and says she doesn’t care, and cries:

“Come, faeries, take me out of this dull house!
Let me have all the freedom I have lost;
Work when I will and idle when I will!
Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”

Her husband loves her and speaks kind words and brings her back the hearth for a moment, but he loves her beauty and her youth, not her dreams.  Still, she tells him,

“O, you are the great door-post of this house,
And I the branch of blessed quicken wood,
And if I could I’d hang upon the post,
Till I had brought good luck into the house.”

The fairie child comes, singing, and strangely, it is the father-in-law who welcomes her and brings her in, and the bitter-tongued mother-in-law who brings her honey and speaks kindly to the fae child, and the priest who never thinks it odd that the strange child is horrified by the cross hanging upon the wall, so he hids it in another room for her, and once all the charms against her have been rendered useless by her doubled edged flattery of those whose responsibility it was to guard and protect, the fairie child dances and sings,

“The wind blows out of the gates of the day,
The wind blows over the lonely of heart,
And the lonely of heart is withered away.””

And the new married bride hears fingers at the door and feet upon the lawn, and a calling that nobody else hears, and the fairy continues to dance and sing, and she tells the bride she heard her call for her once, so she sent her messengers and when they were given fire and milk, she heard the call again, so she has come for the bride, and she tells the human girl to come with her to the woods and waters and pale lights, but in the going, she will have to shed her mortal hopes.  The young husband calls her and tells her how he loves her, and almost she stays, but the fairy calls again, calling her a white bird, and the sound of dancing is closer, and the new married bride….

Dies.  The husband springs forward to hold her corpse while outside there are shadowy figures, and perhaps a white bird, dancing off and away back into the woods, singing:

“The wind blows out of the gates of the day,

The wind blows over the lonely of heart,
And the lonely of heart is withered away.
While the faeries dance in a place apart,
Shaking their milk-white feet in a ring,
Tossing their milk-white arms in the air
For they hear the wind laugh and murmur and sing
Of a land where even the old are fair,
And even the wise are merry of tongue
But I heard a reed of Coolaney say,
When the wind has laughed and murmured and sung
The lonely of heart is withered away.”

I don’t know whether the bride is happy or sad wherever she is.  I don’t know if the fairies told her the truth or lied and the afterlife in fairy land as a white bird is pleasant or a thing for her to regret for eternity. I don’t know if he meant to be a proto-feminist (for space I left out the bits about how her elders counsel that having children will settle her down, and she be better off if she’ll church the butter and tend the cows instead of reading old books and daydreaming).  I don’t know what Yeats meant for us to make of it all.

But he touched on a deep, deep truth.  It wasn’t the chores or the children that might come later or the domesticity that plucked and scratched and dragged on the strings of her soul But he touched on a deep, deep truth.  and made her leave.  It wasn’t even only the bitter haranguings and naggings of her mother-in-law.  Nobody understood her heart’s desire or even cherished it for her. There was nobody there to say, “I know just how you feel.  Sometimes I feel that, too.”

It was the lonely heart that withered away and made her vulnerable to the fairies.


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