The Stolen Rhyme

I have always loved the haunting ethereal beauty of Loreena McKennitt’s setting of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, to music. I tried to practice singing the song before doing this recording for my YouTube channel, but even after 4-5 days I just couldn’t get the verses to flow.

This fired my curiosity, and so I looked a little deeper into the structure of the poem. For reference, here is the complete poem:

The Stolen Child – W.B. Yeats, 1886

    Where dips the rocky highland
    Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
    There lies a leafy island
    Where flapping herons wake
    The drowsy water rats;
    There we’ve hid our faery vats,
    Full of berry
    And of reddest stolen cherries.
    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.

   Where the wave of moonlight glosses
    The dim grey sands with light,
    Far off by furthest Rosses
    We foot it all the night,
    Weaving olden dances
    Mingling hands and mingling glances
    Till the moon has taken flight;
    To and fro we leap
    And chase the frothy bubbles,
    While the world is full of troubles
    And is anxious in its sleep.
    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.

   Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    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.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I realised that what was causing me the problem is that the length of verse and rhyming pattern within the last lines of each verse is not consistent. Note the rhyming structure in the first verse:

Where dips the rocky highland, Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island, Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berry, And of reddest stolen cherries.
 

Yet in the next stanza we have:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses, The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses, We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

There are an extra three half-lines, and their rhyming doesn’t fit the model. Verse three is similarly muddled, yet verse four goes back to the structure of the first verse.

As a ballad singer, I am acutely conscious of the way that repetition in metre and rhyme makes it much easier to memorise and perform songs. I imagine that William B. Yeats would have been very familiar with the work of the Irish Bards and the use of this style of verse.

It could just be that this poem is intended to be read, not sung, and the discontinuity was intended as part of the work. However, the confusion goes beyond just the rhyme structure. The third verse is about gushing water, which seems to align with the ‘frothy bubbles’ in verse two. This phrase appears to be out of place in verse two, which is about pagan dances in the moonlight.

Yeats purists will probably chide me, but in my ballad version I have restructured the verses so that they are all four line stanzas with a repeated rhyming structure. So verses two and three become:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
By far off furthest rosses we foot it all the night
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight To and fro we leap

Where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-Car         
In pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star            
We seek for slumbering trout, leaning softly out 
Hoping to find Fintan, knowledge for to gain

From ferns that drop their tears, over the young streams
And whisper in their ears, giving them unquiet dreams
And stir the frothy bubbles, whilst the world is full of troubles
Eyes blind but open, and anxious in their sleep.

The bold lines are my own additions. As students of Irish mythology will know, Fintan is the Salmon of Knowledge. I immediately thought of this on first reading of the verse about tickling trout. I have moved the ‘frothy bubbles’ to the line about streams. Interestingly, there was a note with the published version of this poem, indicating that there is a place in The Rosses where those who lay down to sleep may have their souls stolen by the fairies.

This site has a beautiful photo of the waterfall at Glen-Car. It is definitely the type of place in which one could imagine the fairy folk coming to visit. Yeats would have visited this site in his childhood.

On this lovely site there is a story about using the starlight reflected in forests pools to create powerful wands.

A review of the huge tome of work that Yeats has left us here, will show that he was both very well read and from his work A Vision, he was no stranger to the mystic arts. I wonder what other messages he hid in this and other works.

About Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly is a singer/songwriter from Yass in Australia.
This entry was posted in Ballad Analysis, Blog Post, Folk Music, Lyrics and Chords, Poetry, Spirituality and Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Stolen Rhyme

  1. Daniel Kelly says:

    I found a link to Yeats reading his own poems here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

  2. Shae Uisna says:

    Hello Mr. Kelly – Just a note to say “Thanks!” I greatly appreciate the efforts you’ve taken to smooth the rhyme and the meter of this lovely poem/song. Thanks for leaving the link and the note in the YouTube comments. Cheers!

  3. Daniel Kelly says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read Shae. Were they your poems in the ‘Poems for Ample Ladies’ video? Very enjoyable!

    • Shae Uisna says:

      Thank you, Mr. Kelly. The poems are not mine, I was just the videographer… they’re from a book called “Poems for Ample Ladies” illustrated by my friend Wesley Anne Cook, who’s doing the reading.

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