Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yeats from "Fergus and the Druid"

i{Fergus.} This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

i{Druid.} What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

i{Fergus.} This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

i{Druid.} What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

i{Fergus.} A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head.

i{Druid.} What would you, Fergus?

i{Fergus.} Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

i{Druid.} Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman's loved me, no man sought my help.

i{Fergus.} A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another's dream.

i{Druid.} Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

i{Fergus.} I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things --
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold --
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

This poem is expressed in a conversation between King Fergus and a druid. The druid, at first only asks him what he would like to do.

Fergus says that he has followed the druid for the whole day as he changed shapes, and that now he finally holds a human form. He recounts how young Conchubar sat at his side, and seemed so wise that he gave his crown to him, to ease his own sorrows. He tried to become one of the people, but failed, still feeling like a king. Fergus then expresses a desire to be as wise as a druid, despite the druid's warnings that such wisdom severs one from humanity.

The druid gives him a bag of dreams to open. Fergus sees what he has been in his life, but sees it all as a web of sorrow. Knowing all, he is filled with sadness.

This poem primarily treats the isolation of a king who is weary of his rule and his social role. King Fergus is an Irish historical figure who figures in the Tain. Fergus fell in love with Ness, and gave up his throne to Conchubar, who was the son of Ness by another marriage. Myths look on this variously as an usurption and as a source of great happiness for Fergus, who did not enjoy being king.

Yeats's version of the myth is somewhat consistent with both interpretations. Fergus is ambivalent about whether he did the right thing in surrendering his throne. He has not assimilated into non-royal society. He seeks the help of a druid, an ancient healing or religious figure in Celtic societies, to clarify whether he has made the right choice.

The druid's help, which comes in the form of a "slate-colored thing" which refers both to the bag of dreams and, perhaps, to the grave. With the help of this bag of dreams, Fergus "know[s] all" at the poem's end. But this knowledge does not quell his anxiety; rather, it sinks him into depression. By knowing all, he has robbed himself of the hope that comes with uncertainty. He is as sure as death, and as futureless.

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