The Stolen Child
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The Stolen Child W.B. Yeats Written 1886. Published in ‘Crossways’ (1889) - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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The Stolen Child W.B. Yeats Written 1886. Published in ‘Crossways’ (1889). Objectives. To thoroughly understand the poem and the significance and influence and influence of the contexts it was written in (A04)

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The Stolen Child

W.B. Yeats

Written 1886.

Published in ‘Crossways’ (1889)


  • To thoroughly understand the poem and the significance and influence and influence of the contexts it was written in (A04)

  • To develop critical understanding of how Yeats uses language, structure and form to shape meaning in the poem (A02)


  • ‘The Stolen Child’ references the belief in Ireland at the time that missing children were sometimes taken by ever-present faeries (aessídhe, people of the mounds)

  • Here, Yeats is in his early stage, influenced by the pastoral – literature which idealises the worlds of shepherds – lacking complexity, ruled by nature and the rhythm of the seasons.

  • In these early works, he uses Celtic myths and characters in a hope to use them to provide an identity for Ireland.

  • Read more: ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland’, ‘Cuchulain’s Fight With the Sea’, ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’…

  • Read ‘The Stolen Child’

Connections – Wider Contexts

Q. What other examples in Literature do we have of changelings or children stolen by faeries?

For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,

Because that she as her attendant hath

A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;

She never had so sweet a changeling;

And jealous Oberon would have the child

Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild;

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1596) Act 2

Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here,

boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things

dying, I with things newborn. Here's a sight for

thee; look thee, a bearing-cloth for a squire's

child! look thee here; take up, take up, boy;

open't. So, let's see: it was told me I should be

rich by the fairies. This is some changeling:


A Winter’s Tale (1611) Act 3

‘At the northern corner of Rosses is a little promontory of sand and rocks and grass: a mournful, haunted place. Few country men would fall asleep under its low cliff, for he who sleeps here may wake ‘silly,’ theSidhe having carried off his soul…The Rosses is a very noted faery location.’

From ‘Mythologies: Stories and Essays’ (1959)

Rosses Point, Co. Sligo

‘MANY of the tales…were told me by one Paddy Flynn, a little bright-eyed old man, who lived in a leaky and one-roomed cabin in the village of Ballisodare, (BaileEasaDara, settlement of the oak by the waterfall) which is, he was wont to say, 'the most gentle‘ - whereby he meant faery - place in the whole of County Sligo. Others hold it, however, but second to Drumcliff and Drumahair….’

From The Celtic Twilight (1893)

In Clonmel, Co. Tipperary in 1895 the dressmaker Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband Michael who believed her to be a changeling.

‘A little girl who was at service in the village of Grange, close under the seaward slopes of Ben Bulben, suddenly disappeared one night about three years ago. There was at once great excitement in the neighbourhood, because it was rumoured that the faeries had taken her...The local constable was applied to, and he at once instituted a house-to-house search, and at the same time advised the people to burn all the bucalauns (ragweed) on the field she vanished from, because bucalauns are sacred to the faeries. They spent the whole night burning them, the constable repeating spells the while. In the morning the little girl was found, the story goes, wandering in the field. She said the faeries had taken her away a great distance, riding on a faery horse. At last she saw a big river, and the man who had tried to keep her from being carried off was drifting down it - such are the topsy-turvydoms of faery glamour - in a cockleshell.’

From The Celtic Twilight (1893)

Q. What does this extract reveal about the nature of the people of rural Ireland at the turn of the century?

The Stolen Child (1886)

WHERE dips the rocky highland 1

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 berries

And of reddest stolen cherries.

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild 10

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

‘The place that has really influenced my life most is Sligo.’ WB Yeats

  • Sprawling along the south shore of Lough Gill (Loch Gilelake of brightness) in Co. Sligo, Sleuth Wood is between Sligo (Sligeach place of the shells) and Dromahair(DroimDháThiar ridge of two demons) in Co. Leitrim. Locally known as Slish Wood, the anglicized word Sleuth is derived from Irish sliu, ‘slope.’

  • In Yeats’s short story ‘The Heart of the Spring,’ Sleuth Wood appears:

  • ‘It was one of those warm, beautiful nights when everything seems carved of precious stones. Sleuth Wood away to the south looked as though cut out of green beryl, and the waters that mirrored them shone like pale opal.’ From ‘Mythologies: Stories and Essays’ (1959)

Sleuth Wood, Co. Sligo

Stanza 1
Stanza 1

  • What is the effect of the imagery used to describe the fairy’s world?

  • What is the effect of the alliteration here?

  • How does Yeats create a sense of urgency here?


  • What might the ‘waters’ and the ‘wild’ represent? Try to consider symbolically.

  • What is suggested about the human world here?

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 20

And chase the frothy bubbles,

While the world is full of troubles

And 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.

Stanza 2
Stanza 2

  • How does Yeats present the fairies to you here?

  • How is the sense of a supernatural/ other world exaggerated here?

Where the wandering water gushes

From the hills above Glen-Car,

In pools among the rushes 30

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, 40

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Stanza 3
Stanza 3

  • How does Yeats make the fairies seem more predatory and siren-like?

  • What might be the significance of the water imagery?

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, 50

To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.

Stanza 4
Stanza 4

  • How does Yeats create a shift in tone and atmosphere here?

  • What do you notice about the sounds in this stanza?

  • How does Yeats create a contrast between the fairy world and the human world?

    Final refrain

  • Note the changes in the refrain here: what is the effect?

  • Is the theft of the child supposed to be a good thing? Does this mean he/she is dead now? What might the loss of the child symbolically represent?

    Whole poem

  • What might the fairies and their world represent?

Glen-car Waterfall, Co. Leitrim.

Glen-car (Gleannan Chairtheglen of the standing stones) is also the setting for Yeats’ poem

‘The Song of the Wandering Aengus’ (1899).

  • ‘I thought: ‘There is a waterfall

  • Upon Ben Bulben side

  • That all my childhood counted dear;

  • Were I to travel far and wide

  • I could not find a thing so dear.’

  • ‘Towards Break of Day’ (1920)

Q. What is the significance of place in this poem?

  • ‘Paddy Flynn is dead; a friend of mine gave him a large bottle of whiskey, and though a sober man at most times, the sight of so much liquor filled him with a great enthusiasm, and he lived upon it for some days and then died. His body, worn out with old age and hard times, could not bear the drink as in his young days. He was a great teller of tales, and unlike our common romancers, knew how to empty heaven, hell, and purgatory, faeryland and earth, to people his stories. He did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstance than did Homer himself. Perhaps the Gaelic people shall by his like bring back again the ancient simplicity and amplitude of imagination. What is literature but the expression of moods by the vehicle of symbol and incident? And are there not moods which need heaven, hell, purgatory, and faeryland for their expression, no less than this dilapidated earth? Nay, are there not moods which shall find no expression unless there be men who dare to mix heaven, hell, purgatory, and faeryland together, or even to set the heads of beasts to the bodies of men, or to thrust the souls of men into the heart of rocks? Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.’

  • From The Celtic Twilight (1893)

Q. What sense do we get of Yeats and his intentions in writing ‘The Celtic Twilight’ from this extract?

Connections - Biography

In a letter written two years after the poem was completed Yeats observed:

‘I have noticed some things about my poetry, I did not know before, in this process of correction, for instance that it is almost all a flight into faeryland, from the real world, and a summons to that flight. The chorus to the ‘stollen [sic] child’ sums it up --- That it is not the poetry of insight and knowledge but of longing and complaint --- the cry of the heart against necessity. I hope some day to alter that and write poetry of insight and knowledge.’

(March 14, 1888, ‘Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats Volume I: 1865-1895’)

Q. To what extent is this a poem of ‘longing and complaint’? ‘The cry of the heart against necessity’?

  • ‘I HAVE desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them. I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined. I have, however, been at no pains to separate my own beliefs from those of the peasantry, but have rather let my men and women, dhouls and faeries, go their way unoffended or defended by any argument of mine. The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best. I too have woven my garment like another, but I shall try to keep warm in it, and shall be well content if it do not unbecome me.’

  • From The Celtic Twilight (1893)

Q. What kind of ‘garment of belief’ is Yeats trying on in his early poetry?

Connections – Yeats’s Poetry

A Coat (1912)

I made my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it, 5

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Song, let them take it

For there’s more enterprise

In walking naked. 10

Q. Compared to the extract from ‘The Celtic Twilight’ to what extent can ‘A Coat’ be read as a statement of intent by Yeats?

‘Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.’

Joseph Campbell ‘The Power of Myth’ (1949)

Yeats’s early poems are ‘utterly unIrish [coming from] a vast murmurous gloom of dreams.’

Charles Johnson

‘An alluring but also threatening poem.’

(Hunt 2006)

The poems in ‘Crossways’ were written when Yeats was trying ‘many pathways.’ (Jeffares 2000)

Q. Consider how each of these quotes relates (or doesn’t relate) to your understanding of the poem ‘The Stolen Child’.


  • Listen and make notes on Melvyn Bragg ‘In Our Time’ podcast on Yeats and mysticism (approx27 mins)