William Butler Yeats’ “Who Goes with Fergus?” and the Power of Pugnacious Myths

Bear with me a minute.

American children are exposed to a bouillabaisse of stories. There are animated American monsters like Barbies and Minions. There are stories inherited from older cultures…the terrifying Krampus, the clever Anansi, the auspicious Chinese dragon. There are family mythologies about great uncles lost at war and great-great aunts who starved so their children could survive famines. Our religious texts swim like slippery leviathans between this world and the next.

Stories we tell children communicate our cultural values. I grew up in the South, where perhaps the most valued trait was pugnaciousness. I enjoyed family stories about ancestors who could win knife fights while smoking cigarettes and wring the necks of two breakfast chickens at once. My grandmother on my mother’s side once proudly informed me that genealogical research had turned up our possible relation to the fiery John Brown.

My dad likes to play folk songs on the guitar, and one of his favorites is “Railroad Bill,” a song about a highly talented outlaw. When I heard my dad sing the song when I was a kid, I didn’t think the guy was real. I thought it was a tall tale like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. In fact, Railroad Bill was real, an African-American outlaw who lived for some time in my home state of Alabama. Versions of the song have travelled around, and many folk singers have recorded theirs. Like any folk song, the verses can vary, but here are two common verses:

Railroad Bill, rolling down the hill 
Lightin’ cigars with a ten-dollar bill

Buy me a pistol just as long as my arm
Shoot everybody ever done me harm

In the right hands, rather than warning of a dangerous man, “Railroad Bill” becomes a celebration of defiance. The point of the song is not to inspire people to shoot each other. I hate guns, and I won’t touch them. But something about this song makes me feel kind of powerful. And thus, the power of poetry. If we dare to feel inspired by the song, it isn’t (necessarily) by taking the words literally. Rather, the song reminds us that we may be small in the eyes of society, the government, the world…but we can pack a powerful punch. We can give people a sizable piece of our minds.

And this brings us back to Yeats, back to Fergus. Pugnaciousness is a well-known Irish virtue, too, and it permeates Irish mythology. Here is Yeats’ “Who goes with Fergus?” from 1893:

Who goes with Fergus?

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

Yeats knew a thing or two about “love’s bitter mystery,” having an unrequited crush on Maud Gonne, a fellow activist and artist who fought with him for Irish political causes. Having this small piece of biographical information has always helped me appreciate the poem more. We all tend to brood on our own “bitter mysteries” of rejection, loneliness, and unluckiness. This poem gives us some hope.

I’m not Irish, and if there is a Fergus, he’s not coming for me. I never remember quite who Fergus is unless I look him up really quickly, and even then, the story doesn’t stick. It’s not a story I grew up with. Fortunately, you don’t need to know who exactly who Fergus is for this poem to make you feel invincible. Fergus can be a stand-in for more than just Irish nationalism and political redemption. Rather, when life gets you down, you look can up. You can turn your inner eye to wild, ecstatic nature, or to Beauty personified, or to the crackling potentiality of the supernatural. This poem sees the pettiness of everyday life and spits in its face.

Of course, the poem also makes me think of Christ, a story that’s significant to me. I imagine Yeats would roll his eyes at that, but I don’t know for sure. Even more consistently, though, Fergus for me is poetry itself. Sure, life can get you down, but there is beauty in spite of the ugliness and indignity. We live a life where at any moment, we could be knocking around with a guitar or on a laptop or in the garden, and we could be bowled over by something beautiful. Maybe even something we made.

This reminds me of Beyoncé, too—that life gave her lemons, and she made Lemonade. Similarly, when Yeats was lost in love, he wrote “Who goes with Fergus?” and many other pugnacious poems. He celebrated his status as a disheveled wandering star, and through him, so can we.

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