While everybody has been focusing on chocolate these past few days, I confess I was still thinking about apples (that said, there were two large sachets of Easter eggs on my fridge yesterday which are significantly lighter today).
Saturday night, I was reading Yeats in bed when I came across another mention of apples – which was hardly surprising, for the figure of the apple-bearing temptress is a recurrent one in Irish Celtic mythology. My favourite instance is the tale of Prince Conle, who was out on the Hill of Usnech one day with his father and attendants when a fairy appeared to him. She spoke to him of a land where there was neither death nor want, sorrow nor sin, and promised him love and eternal youth if he would follow her there. Alarmed for his son, the king commanded his druid to sing so as to drown out the fairy’s voice. Before leaving, however, she threw Conle a magical apple, each bite of which increased his longing for the fairy and the land she had spoken of. A month later, the fairy reappeared, and this time Conle followed her onto her ship of crystal and the two sailed away, never to be seen again.
“The Song of Wandering Aengus”, from Yeats’s 1899 collection of poems The Wind Among the Reeds, features not Conle, but another hero of Irish mythology, the eponymous Aengus. One night, a maiden called Caer appears to Aengus in a dream and, sick with love for her, Aengus travels for many years in search of her. When at last he finds her on the edge of a lake, it is only to discover that she is under an enchantment, forced to live every other year as a swan. (I wonder, could this be the origin of Swan Lake?) Undeterred, Aengus jumps into the lake after her and is also transformed into a swan. Together they sing songs of such beauty that those who hear them are lulled to sleep. For a year they live thus, before regaining their human shape.
Yeats’ Aengus has not found Caer yet. Like Conle, he is consumed with desire for a woman he has glimpsed only once. Unlike Conle, however, he is condemned to wander eternally in search of the lovely vision, which flits tantalizingly before him, ever just out of reach. The magical apple Conle is given is echoed by the apple-blossom Aengus’ vision wears in her hair, as well as by the last line of the poem. While the Irish apple is far from embodying sin, the way the Christian apple does, it nevertheless does share with it a certain transgressive quality, in that it gives the eater a glimpse of something beyond mortal experience and stirs up within him a deep unrest, an unappeasable dissatisfaction with his lot in life. This longing to transcend human experience will shape his destiny: for ever after, Conle, Aengus, and I would argue, the poet himself, will strain towards that elusive vision of loveliness, whether this last stands for love, immortality, or the poetic ideal. Here too, the apple has a fatal power.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
© Florence Berlioz 2012