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Mr. Yeat's Wanderings of Oisin

(Pall Mall Gazette, July 12, 1889.)


Books of poetry by young writers are usually promissory notes that are never met. Now and then, however, one comes across a volume that is so far above the average that one can hardly resist the fascinating temptation of recklessly prophesying a fine future for its author. Such a book Mr. Yeats's Wanderings of Oisin certainly is. Here we find nobility of treatment and nobility of subject-matter, delicacy of poetic instinct and richness of imaginative resource. Unequal and uneven much of the work must be admitted to be. Mr. Yeats does not try to 'out-baby' Wordsworth, we are glad to say; but he occasionally succeeds in 'out-glittering' Keats, and, here and there, in his book we come across strange crudities and irritating conceits. But when he is at his best he is very good. If he has not the grand simplicity of epic treatment, he has at least something of the largeness of vision that belongs to the epical temper. He does not rob of their stature the great heroes of Celtic mythology. He is very naive and very primitive and speaks of his giants with the air of a child. Here is a characteristic passage from the account of Oisin's return from the Island of Forgetfulness:

And I rode by the plains of the sea's edge, where all is barren and grey, Grey sands on the green of the grasses and over the dripping trees, Dripping and doubling landward, as though they would hasten away Like an army of old men longing for rest from the moan of the seas.

Long fled the foam-flakes around me, the winds fled out of the vast, Snatching the bird in secret, nor knew I, embosomed apart, When they froze the cloth on my body like armour riveted fast, For Remembrance, lifting her leanness, keened in the gates of my heart.

Till fattening the winds of the morning, an odour of new-mown hay Came, and my forehead fell low, and my tears like berries fell down; Later a sound came, half lost in the sound of a shore far away, From the great grass-barnacle calling, and later the shore-winds brown.

If I were as I once was, the gold hooves crushing the sand and the shells, Coming forth from the sea like the morning with red lips murmuring a song, Not coughing, my head on my knees, and praying, and wroth with the bells, I would leave no Saint's head on his body, though spacious his lands were and strong.

Making way from the kindling surges, I rode on a bridle-path, Much wondering to see upon all hands, of wattle and woodwork made, Thy bell-mounted churches, and guardless the sacred cairn and the earth, And a small and feeble populace stooping with mattock and spade.

In one or two places the music is faulty, the construction is sometimes too involved, and the word 'populace' in the last line is rather infelicitous; but, when all is said, it is impossible not to feel in these stanzas the presence of the true poetic spirit.

The Wanderings of Oisin and other Poems. By W. B. Yeats. (Kegan Paul.)


Oscar Wilde