Tag Archives: air

Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone 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.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

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“To the Muses” by William Blake

NineMuses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

In this poem, Blake contemplates the state of the poetic arts in England during his time. He expresses the belief that the art was lacking, that the poetic genius manifest in the past was lost during his time.

In the opening line, he mentions “Ida’s shady brow.” This is an allusion to Homer. Mount Ida was near Troy and supposedly from there the gods watched the Trojan War. Blake appears to be setting up a contrast between the inspiration that fostered Homer’s work and the perceived lack of poetic inspiration that plagued England in the late 18th century.

Blake evokes the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (fire being symbolized by the sun). He mentions the elements before he mentions the nine muses. It gives the poem the feel of a mystical rite or incantation, where Blake is drawing energy from the elements in order to summon the muses.

I cannot help but wonder if Blake is also criticizing himself here. Since this poem was composed early in his life, he may have been struggling to find his own personal muse and feeling frustrated that he was not getting the inspiration of a Homer or a Shakespeare. If this was indeed the case, then I would say his incantation worked. The muses certainly inspired him throughout his life.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 7

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This episode corresponds with Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Aeolus gives Odysseus a bag of wind to help him sail back to Ithaca. Unfortunately, Odysseus’ men think there is riches in the bag and open it, resulting in them being blown off course. Joyce, therefore, incorporates images and references to wind, breath, and air throughout this episode.

The episode is set in the newsroom where Bloom is pitching an ad that he is trying to sell. The structure of the text in the chapter resembles a newspaper, where each section is preceded by a large-font headline. Early in the episode, Joyce criticizes the newspaper media, asserting that the papers are mainly interested in ads and fluff pieces, which is similar today.

It’s the ads and side features sell a weekly not the stale news in the official gazette. Queen Anne is dead. Published by authority in the year one thousand and.

(p. 118)

As Bloom observes the printing press, he considers the fate of newspapers. Considering Bloom wiped his butt with paper from a publication earlier in the book, I suspect that he also considers this as a use for newspapers, even though he does not overtly state it.

Mr Bloom, glancing sideways up from the cross he had made, saw the foreman’s sallow face, think he has a touch of jaundice, and beyond the obedient reels feeding in huge webs of paper. Clank it. Clank it. Miles of it unreeled. What becomes of it after? O, wrap up meat, parcels: various uses, thousand and one things.

(p. 120)

Joyce uses this episode to poke fun at those people who he sees as full of nothing but hot air. The first are the pseudo-intellectuals who act all inflated but really come off as pompous. At one point, the characters in the newsroom are reading a speech by one of these intellectuals that was published in the paper. As they read it, they cannot help mocking it.

Ned Lambert, seated on the table, read on:

Or again, note the meanderings of some purling rill as it babbles on its way, fanned by the gentlest zephyrs tho’ quarreling with the stony obstacles, to the tumbling waters of Neptune’s blue domain, mid mossy banks, played on by the glorious sunlight or ‘neath the shadows cast o’er its pensive bosom by the overarching leafage of the giants of the forest. What about that, Simon? he asked over the fringe of the newspaper. How’s that for high?

—Changing his drink, Mr Dedalus said.

Ned Lambert, laughing, struck the newspaper on his knees, repeating:

The pensive bosom and the overarsing leafage. O boys! O boys!

(p. 123)

The other group that Joyce mocks is newspaper persons, who are depicted as blown about with no direction, allowing themselves to bend in whatever direction the wind is blowing.

Funny the way those newspaper men veer about when they get wind of a new opening. Weathercocks. Hot and cold in the same breath. Wouldn’t know which to believe. One story good till you hear the next. Go for one another baldheaded in the papers and then all blows over. Hailfellow well me the next moment.

(p. 125)

The one passage that really struck me in this episode, though, has to do with how a small, seemingly insignificant act can have a profound impact on the world. Joyce is essentially evoking the butterfly effect. I had learned about this when I read a book on chaos theory years ago and always assumed this was a relatively new concept, but a quick search online uncovered that the concept was originally formulated in 1890 by Henri Poincaré in what was called sensitive dependence. Anyway, I was somewhat surprised to find this reference in Joyce’s novel.

Pause. J. J. O’Molloy took out his cigarette case.

False lull. Something quite ordinary.

Messenger took out his matchbox thoughtfully and lit his cigar.

I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives.

(p. 140)

Overall, I enjoyed this episode. I found it very funny and full of puns and wordplay. Next week I’ll cover Episode 8 which ends on page 183 with the word “Safe!”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section7.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

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