Tag Archives: Apollo

“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

Homer and Keats: Source - BBC

Homer and Keats: Source – BBC

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This is considered to be Keats’ first great sonnet, which was composed after reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet (source: English Romantic Writers).

The poem is broken into two parts, and each section has a different rhyme scheme. The first eight lines comprise the first section which follows an ABBA pattern. This depicts Keats before reading Homer. He describes having visited “realms of gold” and “western islands.” These are metaphors for the poems that he had read up until that time. These were beautiful poems and worthy of Apollo, the god of poetry, but after reading Homer, his entire view on poetry changes, symbolized by the shift in rhyme pattern in the second half.

The last six lines follow an ABABAB scheme and describe how Keats became aware of realms he never knew existed. He first makes an allusion to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781, an entire world which was previously unknown. He then compares himself to Cortez and uses the phrase “eagle eyes” to represent his new-found clarity of vision. He describes his feeling as standing upon a mountain in Darien (which is in Panama), and gazing out in awe at a new ocean, which symbolizes the vast depths of new and unexplored poetic inspiration.

I really relate to Keats’ emotions in this poem. I have felt this way in my life, as I am sure most of you have too. When you read that poem or book that changes your view of the world, or hear that song or see that film that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities. This is the true transformative power of art and it is why I read, and listen to new music, and watch films, and go to museums to see paintings.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspiring day.

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“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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