An Analysis of the Temptation to Flee Reality in Yeats' "The Stolen Child"
Yeats' "The Stolen Child" depicts a world in which fantasy and reality are in contention with one another. The conflict is between the sense of reality (barely perceptible and inundated by a flood of dreamlike perceptions) and the flight of fantasy. A parallel might be drawn between the poem and the social problem of addiction. If the poem on one level is about a child's escape/flight from reality into fantasy, it might also be said that the poem on a deeper level is about those who suffer from addiction are unable to face reality and must fly from it. Indeed, the imagery used by the fairy narrator evokes scenes comparable to states of inebriation or drunkenness. While fear and the ominous sense of death both appear to be underlying factors in the poem, this paper will show how Yeats' "The Stolen Child" may be read as a poem about the conflict of duty (in the world) and desire (represented by fantasy).
The fairies represent the world of fantasy, flight, fearlessness and freedom from suffering in the grown up world, which is described as having no answer for why it suffers. Society, which is only hinted at by the words "world" and "suffering," represents reality. Because the poem is narrated or sung by the representatives of the fantastic world, the perspective is one-sided and slanted or biased in favor of developing an appreciation for the fantastic realm of the fairies. Indeed, one locale after another is described in exciting detail, intimating that there is no end to the amount of fun to be had in fairy land -- as if, in fact, it is a place of eternal delight. By the end of the poem (and with the last haunting lines that signify the song has worked and that the child has accepted the invitation), it is clear that the addressee is being lured or tempted away from its home in the real world, where (so it is suggested) nothing waits but unanswerable grief. The conflict in the poem is buried beneath the repetition of verses (the refrain) and the constant barrage of vivid imagery and extraordinary depictions of an unending, magical life in a preternatural world.
That the poem's conflict suggests the much deeper societal conflict of man against world, responsibility, place -- or better, man against self -- can be observed in the very first word of the poem, "Where," typically used as an interrogative but here used as a relative pronoun. The effect is somewhat disorienting, as though the addressee were already under the spell of some intoxicating force (whether drug or drink) and was now perfectly susceptible to the temptation of permanent separation from life. Ironically, the fairies appeal to a kind of pastoral, traditional sentiment to lure the addressee (assumed to be a child if one goes the indication of the title -- but the child can also represent the immature longing in the adult addicted to escaping reality). The modern world offers no stimulant as capable of freeing the "child" as the fairies offer. Yet, the imagery invoked by the fairies is so full of contradiction that any sober mind should realize that what is sung of is a dream.
For example, the first line of the poem contrasts "dips" with "rocky highland" associating an image of lowness with highness and implying that the highland were actually stooping low. The next line continues the blurring of distinctions and identities with "Sleuth Wood in the lake": Here, the wood becomes water. The repetition of the "l" sound in "there lies a leafy island" allows the song-like poem to resonate with fantasy and simultaneously lull the hearer to sleep. The reference to "faery vats" could be used as evidence that the poem is really the fantastic dream of a drunkard who flees reality through vats of wine or alcohol. The refrain follows the reference to vats, and it evokes a new sound -- a kind of wailing, indicative of a kind of drunkness: "Come away, O -- " surely has the sound of wailing and bemoaning in it, as does the phrase "the waters and the wild." The "o" sounds,…