Monday, June 02, 2008

Reading Boland's "The Winning of Etain"

New Territory ends with a re-working of this Irish myth from the Mythological Cycle. Written in 38 ottava rima stanzas—one of Yeats’s favorite stanzas—the narrative tells of the love between Aengus and Etain. The famed beauty of Queen Etaine is wonderfully evoked:

And gold so intricate in Etain’s hair
No one could guess if the light scattering
Were a woman’s beauty or a queen’s treasure.

When Etain is changed into a dragonfly by a jealous Druid, Aengus builds “a bower of four seasons” for her, essentially ensuring, for her, time stands still. Then, swept away by a druidic storm, she arrives at a royal palace, and a bit of marvelous description:

And there she flew above a royal palace
Whose roof, involved and circled like a rose,
Bore mosaics like a clutch of crocuses
And marble whiter than the lily grows.

Etain the dragonfly is swallowed by a queen along with her wine, and is reborn as a human. The rebirth is described as a prison for the true Etain, who does not remember her former self. She pities the world, not realizing her pity springs from her own captivity. Aengus finds her but she is not the Etain he knows. His anguish is poignant:

Girl give back a woman? Can green pips
Sweeten the tongue like fruit, or seedy
Grain be wholesome wheat overnight?

He decides to woo and win her in the form of her lover, Conor, and they sleep together, both different persons from whom they were. When Etain marries Conor, she discovers she does not love him. Her realization is partly an allegory for how love can change over time. She sickens and, when Aengus re-appears, riding his horse, she leaves with him. And this is what she leaves earth for:

And he was armoured in a suit of seasons:
Flowers of spring adorned his iron greaves;
The icy evergreen, the berry’s poisons
Enamelled his wintry visor; flushed leaves
of autumn inflamed his breast like suns,
And summer was imprinted on his sleeves,
And what with berry, leaf, tree and flower,
He seemed no horseman but a human bower.

In leaving for this “human bower,” Etain answers her earlier rhetorical question, “is any love not every love?” The answer is no. Love draws its value from the object loved. Love involves a choice between Conor and Aengus. And love commits one to a wait that feels like dying, hoping that the immortal horseman would come for us.


Reading “The Winning of Etain”

I know nothing about horses
or about ultimate causes,
but last night a summer flank
flashed past, and something stank.

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