The Wanderings of Oisin


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.

I mused on the chase with the Fenians, and Bran, Sceolan,
And never a song sang Niamh, and over my finger-tips
Came now the sliding of tears and sweeping of mist-cold
And now the warmth of sighs, and after the quiver of lips.

Were we days long or hours long in riding, when, rolled in a
       grisly peace,
An isle lay level before us, with dripping hazel and oak?
And we stood on a sea's edge we saw not; for whiter than
       new-washed fleece
Fled foam underneath us, and round us, a wandering and
       milky smoke.

And we rode on the plains of the sea's edge; the sea's edge
       barren and grey,
Grey sand on the green of the grasses and over the dripping
Dripping and doubling landward, as though they would
       hasten away,
Like an army of old men longing for rest from the moan of
       the seas.

But the trees grew taller and closer, immense in their
       wrinkling bark;
Dropping; a murmurous dropping; old silence and that one
For no live creatures lived there, no weasels moved in the
Long sighs arose in our spirits, beneath us bubbled the

And the ears of the horse went sinking away in the hollow
For, as drift from a sailor slow drowning the gleams of the
       world and the sun,
Ceased on our hands and our faces, on hazel and oak leaf,
       the light,
And the stars were blotted above us, and the whole of the
       world was one.

Till the horse gave a whinny; for, cumbrous with stems of
       the hazel and oak,
A valley flowed down from his hoofs, and there in the long
       grass lay,
Under the starlight and shadow, a monstrous slumbering
Their naked and gleaming bodies poured out and heaped in
       the way.

And by them were arrow and war-axe, arrow and shield and
And dew-blanched horns, in whose hollow a child of three
       years old
Could sleep on a couch of rushes, and all inwrought and
And more comely than man can make them with bronze and
       silver and gold.

And each of the huge white creatures was huger than
      fourscore men;
The tops of their ears were feathered, their hands were the
      claws of birds,
And, shaking the plumes of the grasses and the leaves of the
      mural glen,
The breathing came from those bodies, long warless, grown
      whiter than curds.

The wood was so spacious above them, that He who has stars
      for His flocks
Could fondle the leaves with His fingers, nor go from His
      dew-cumbered skies;
So long were they sleeping, the owls had builded their nests
      in their locks,
Filling the fibrous dimness with long generations of eyes.

And over the limbs and the valley the slow owls wandered
       and came,
Now in a place of star-fire, and now in a shadow-place wide;
And the chief of the huge white creatures, his knees in the
       soft star-flame,
Lay loose in a place of shadow: we drew the reins by his

Golden the nails of his bird-claws, flung loosely along the
       dim ground;
In one was a branch soft-shining with bells more many than
In midst of an old man's bosom; owls ruffling and pacing
Sidled their bodies against him, filling the shade with their

And my gaze was thronged with the sleepers; no, not since
       the world began,
In realms where the handsome were many, nor in glamours
       by demons flung,
Have faces alive with such beauty been known to the salt
       eye of man,
Yet weary with passions that faded when the sevenfold seas
       were young.

And I gazed on the bell-branch, sleep's forebear, far sung
       by the Sennachies.
I saw how those slumberers, grown weary, there camping in
       grasses deep,
Of wars with the wide world and pacing the shores of the
       wandering seas,
Laid hands on the bell-branch and swayed it, and fed of
       unhuman sleep.

Snatching the horn of Niamh, I blew a long lingering note.
Came sound from those monstrous sleepers, a sound like the
       stirring of flies.
He, shaking the fold of his lips, and heaving the pillar of his
Watched me with mournful wonder out of the wells of his

I cried, 'Come out of the shadow, king of the nails of gold!
And tell of your goodly household and the goodly works of
       your hands,
That we may muse in the starlight and talk of the battles of
Your questioner, Oisin, is worthy, he comes from the Fenian

Half open his eyes were, and held me, dull with the smoke of
       their dreams;
His lips moved slowly in answer, no answer out of them came;
Then he swayed in his fingers the bell-branch, slow dropping
       a sound in faint streams
Softer than snow-flakes in April and piercing the marrow
       like flame.

Wrapt in the wave of that music, with weariness more than
       of earth,
The moil of my centuries filled me; and gone like a
       sea-covered stone
Were the memories of the whole of my sorrow and the
       memories of the whole of my mirth,
And a softness came from the starlight and filled me full to
       the bone.

In the roots of the grasses, the sorrels, I laid my body as
And the pearl-pale Niamh lay by me, her brow on the midst
       of my breast;
And the horse was gone in the distance, and years after
       years 'gan flow;
Square leaves of the ivy moved over us, binding us down to
       our rest.

And, man of the many white croziers, a century there I
How the fetlocks drip blood in the battle, when the fallen
       on fallen lie rolled;
How the falconer follows the falcon in the weeds of the
       heron's plot,
And the name of the demon whose hammer made
       Conchubar's sword-blade of old.

And, man of the many white croziers, a century there I
That the spear-shaft is made out of ashwood, the shield out
       of osier and hide;
How the hammers spring on the anvil, on the spear-head's
       burning spot;
How the slow, blue-eyed oxen of Finn low sadly at evening

But in dreams, mild man of the croziers, driving the dust
       with their throngs,
Moved round me, of seamen or landsmen, all who are winter
Came by me the kings of the Red Branch, with roaring of
       laughter and songs,
Or moved as they moved once, love-making or piercing the
       tempest with sails.

Came Blanid, Mac Nessa, tall Fergus who feastward of old
       time slunk,
Cook Barach, the traitor; and warward, the spittle on his
       beard never dry,
Dark Balor, as old as a forest, car-borne, his mighty head
Helpless, men lifting the lids of his weary and death making

And by me, in soft red raiment, the Fenians moved in loud
And Grania, walking and smiling, sewed with her needle of
So lived I and lived not, so wrought I and wrought not, with
       creatures of dreams,
In a long iron sleep, as a fish in the water goes dumb as a

At times our slumber was lightened. When the sun was on
      silver or gold;
When brushed with the wings of the owls, in the dimness
      they love going by;
When a glow-worm was green on a grass-leaf, lured from his
      lair in the mould;
Half wakening, we lifted our eyelids, and gazed on the grass
      with a sigh.

So watched I when, man of the croziers, at the heel of a
      century fell,
Weak, in the midst of the meadow, from his miles in the
      midst of the air,
A starling like them that forgathered 'neath a moon waking
      white as a shell
When the Fenians made foray at morning with Bran, Sceolan,

I awoke: the strange horse without summons out of the
      distance ran,
Thrusting his nose to my shoulder; he knew in his bosom deep
That once more moved in my bosom the ancient sadness of
And that I would leave the Immortals, their dimness, their
       dews dropping sleep.

O, had you seen beautiful Niamh grow white as the waters
       are white,
Lord of the croziers, you even had lifted your hands and
But, the bird in my fingers, I mounted, remembering alone
       that delight
Of twilight and slumber were gone, and that hoofs
       impatiently stept.

I cried, 'O Niamh! O white one! if only a twelve-houred day,
I must gaze on the beard of Finn, and move where the old
       men and young
In the Fenians' dwellings of wattle lean on the chessboards
       and play,
Ah, sweet to me now were even bald Conan's slanderous

'Like me were some galley forsaken far off in Meridian isle,
Remembering its long-oared companions, sails turning to
       threadbare rags;
No more to crawl on the seas with long oars mile after mile,
But to be amid shooting of flies and flowering of rushes
       and flags.'

Their motionless eyeballs of spirits grown mild with
       mysterious thought,
Watched her those seamless faces from the valley's
       glimmering girth;
As she murmured, 'O wandering Oisin, the strength of the
       bell-branch is naught,
For there moves alive in your fingers the fluttering sadness
       of earth.

'Then go through the lands in the saddle and see what the
       mortals do,
And softly come to your Niamh over the tops of the tide;
But weep for your Niamh, O Oisin, weep; for if only your
Brush lightly as haymouse earth's pebbles, you will come no
       more to my side.

'O flaming lion of the world, O when will you turn to your
I saw from a distant saddle; from the earth she made her
'I would die like a small withered leaf in the autumn, for
       breast unto breast
We shall mingle no more, nor our gazes empty their
       sweetness lone

'In the isles of the farthest seas where only the spirits
Were the winds less soft than the breath of a pigeon who
       sleeps on her nest,
Nor lost in the star-fires and odours the sound of the sea's
       vague drum?
O flaming lion of the world, O when will you turn to your

The wailing grew distant; I rode by the woods of the
       wrinkling bark,
Where ever is murmurous dropping, old silence and that one
For no live creatures live there, no weasels move in the
In a reverie forgetful of all things, over the bubbling

And I rode by the plains of the sea's edge, where all is
       barren and grey,
Grey sand on the green of the grasses and over the dripping
Dripping and doubling landward, as though they would
       hasten away,
Like an army of old men longing for rest from the moan of
       the seas.

And the winds made the sands on the sea's edge turning and
       turning go,
As my mind made the names of the Fenians. Far from the
       hazel and oak,
I rode away on the surges, where, high as the saddle-bow,
Fled foam underneath me, and round me, a wandering and
       milky smoke.

Long fled the foam-flakes around me, the winds fled out of
       the vast,
Snatching the bird in secret; nor knew I, embosomed apart,
When they froze the cloth on my body like armour riveted
For Remembrance, lifting her leanness, keened in the gates
       of my heart.

Till, fattening the winds of the morning, an odour of
       new-mown hay
Came, and my forehead fell low, and my tears like berries
       fell down;
Later a sound came, half lost in the sound of a shore far
From the great grass-barnacle calling, and later the
       shore-weeds brown.

If I were as I once was, the strong hoofs crushing the sand
       and the shells,
Coming out of the sea as the dawn comes, a chaunt of love on
       my lips,
Not coughing, my head on my knees, and praying, and wroth
       with the bells,
I would leave no saint's head on his body from Rachlin to
       Bera of ships.

Making way from the kindling surges, I rode on a
Much wondering to see upon all hands, of wattles and
       woodwork made,
Your bell-mounted churches, and guardless the sacred cairn
       and the rath,
And a small and a feeble populace stooping with mattock and

Or weeding or ploughing with faces a-shining with much-toil
While in this place and that place, with bodies unglorious,
       their chieftains stood,
Awaiting in patience the straw-death, croziered one, caught
       in your net:
Went the laughter of scorn from my mouth like the roaring
       of wind in a wood.

And because I went by them so huge and so speedy with
       eyes so bright,
Came after the hard gaze of youth, or an old man lifted his
And I rode and I rode, and I cried out, 'The Fenians hunt
       wolves in the night,
So sleep thee by daytime.' A voice cried, 'The Fenians a
       long time are dead.'

A whitebeard stood hushed on the pathway, the flesh of his
       face as dried grass,
And in folds round his eyes and his mouth, he sad as a child
       without milk;
And the dreams of the islands were gone, and I knew how
       men sorrow and pass,
And their hound, and their horse, and their love, and their
       eyes that glimmer like silk.

And wrapping my face in my hair, I murmured, 'In old age
       they ceased';
And my tears were larger than berries, and I murmured,
      'Where white clouds lie spread
On Crevroe or broad Knockfefin, with many of old they
On the floors of the gods.' He cried, "No, the gods a long
      time are dead.'

And lonely and longing for Niamh, I shivered and turned me
The heart in me longing to leap like a grasshopper into her
I turned and rode to the westward, and followed the sea's
       old shout
Till I saw where Maeve lies sleeping till starlight and
       midnight part.

And there at the foot of the mountain, two carried a sack
       full of sand,
They bore it with staggering and sweating, but fell with
       their burden at length.
Leaning down from the gem-studded saddle, I flung it five
       yards with my hand,
With a sob for men waxing so weakly, a sob for the Fenians'
       old strength.

The rest you have heard of, O croziered man; how, when
       divided the girth,
I fell on the path, and the horse went away like a summer
And my years three hundred fell on me, and I rose, and
       walked on the earth,
A creeping old man, full of sleep, with the spittle on his
       beard never dry.

How the men of the sand-sack showed me a church with its
       belfry in air;
Sorry place, where for swing of the war-axe in my dim eyes
       the crozier gleams;
What place have Caoilte and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan,
Speak, you too are old with your memories, an old man
       surrounded with dreams.

S. Patrick. Where the flesh of the footsole clingeth on the
           burning stones is their place;
   Where the demons whip them with wires on the burning
           stones of wide Hell,
   Watching the blessed ones move far off, and the smile on
           God's face,
   Between them a gateway of brass, and the howl of the
           angels who fell.

Oisin. Put the staff in my hands; for I go to the Fenians, O
           cleric, to chaunt
   The war-songs that roused them of old; they will rise,
           making clouds with their breath,
   Innumerable, singing, exultant; the clay underneath them
           shall pant,
   And demons be broken in pieces, and trampled beneath
           them in death.

   And demons afraid in their darkness; deep horror of eyes
           and of wings,
   Afraid, their ears on the earth laid, shall listen and rise
           up and weep;
   Hearing the shaking of shields and the quiver of stretched
   Hearing Hell loud with a murmur, as shouting and mocking
           we sweep.

   We will tear out the flaming stones, and batter the
           gateway of brass
   And enter, and none sayeth 'No' when there enters the
           strongly armed guest;
   Make clean as a broom cleans, and march on as oxen move
           over young grass;
   Then feast, making converse of wars, and of old wounds,
           and turn to our rest.

S. Patrick. On the flaming stones, without refuge, the limbs
           of the Fenians are lost;
   None war on the masters of Hell, who could break up the
           world in their rage;
   But kneel and wear out the flags and pray for your soul
           that is lost
   Through the demon love of its youth and its godless and
           passionate age.

Oisin. Ah me! to be Shaken with coughing and broken with
           old age and pain,
   Without laughter, a show unto children, alone with
           remembrance and fear;
   All emptied of purple hours as a beggar's cloak in the
   As a hay-cock out on the flood, or a wolf sucked under a

   It were sad to gaze on the blessed and no man I loved of
           old there;
   I throw down the chain of small stones! when life in my
           body has ceased,
   I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,
   And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or
           at feast.