The Wanderings of Oisin

The Wanderings of Oisin
Author William Butler Yeats
Language English
Genre Epic poetry
Narrative poetry
Publication date
Followed by The Song of the Happy Shepherd

The Wanderings of Oisin (/ˈʃn/ oh-SHEEN) is an epic poem published by William Butler Yeats in 1889 in the book The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems.[1] It was his first publication outside magazines, and immediately won him a reputation as a significant poet. This narrative poem takes the form of a dialogue between the aged Irish hero Oisín and St. Patrick, the man traditionally responsible for converting Ireland to Christianity. Most of the poem is spoken by Oisin, relating his three-hundred year sojourn in the isles of Faerie. Oisin has not been a popular poem with critics influenced by modernism, who dislike its pre-Raphaelite character. However, Harold Bloom defended this poem in his book-length study of Yeats, and concludes that it deserves reconsideration.[2]


Ossian's Dream by Jean Ingres

The fairy princess Niamh fell in love with Oisin's poetry and begged him to join her in the immortal islands. For a hundred years he lived as one of the Sidhe, hunting, dancing, and feasting. At the end of this time he found a spear washed up on the shore and grew sad, remembering his times with the Fenians. Niamh took him away to another island, where the ancient and abandoned castle of the sea-god Manannan stood. Here they found another woman held captive by a demon, whom Oisin battled again and again for a hundred years, until it was finally defeated. They then went to an island where ancient giants who had grown tired of the world long ago were sleeping until its end, and Niamh and Oisin slept and dreamt with them for a hundred years. Oisin then desired to return to Ireland to see his comrades. Niamh lent him her horse warning him that he must not touch the ground, or he would never return. Back in Ireland, Oisin, still a young man, found his warrior companions dead, and the pagan faith of Ireland displaced by Patrick's Christianity. He then saw two men struggling to carry a "sack full of sand";[3] he bent down to lift it with one hand and hurl it away for them, but his saddle girth broke and he fell to the ground, becoming three hundred years old instantaneously.


The poem is told in three parts, with the verse becoming more complex with each: the lines run four (iambic tetrameter), five (iambic pentameter), and six (anapaestic hexameter) metrical feet respectively. The three "books" begin thus:

You who are bent, and bald, and blind,
With a heavy heart and a wandering mind,
Have known three centuries, poets sing,
Of dalliance with a demon thing.[4]
Now, man of the croziers, shadows called our names
And then away, away, like whirling flames;
And now fled by, mist-covered, without sound,
The youth and lady and the deer and hound[5]
Fled foam underneath us, and round us, a wandering and milky smoke,
High as the saddle-girth, covering away from our glances the tide;
And those that fled, and that followed, from the foam-pale distance broke;
The immortal desire of Immortals we saw in their faces, and sighed.[6]

See also


  1. Yeats 1889
  2. Bloom, H; Yeats, Oxford University Press, 1970,
  3. Yeats 1990: 444 (line 876)
  4. Yeats 1990: 409
  5. Yeats 1990: 423
  6. Yeats 1990: 431


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