Tag Archives: beauty

Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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“Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” by William Shakespeare

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Portrait of a Young Man: Piero di Cosimo

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

This is another romantic fair youth sonnet in which Shakespeare expresses his longing to immortalize the young man’s beauty through poetry. But I noticed something interesting about this sonnet which I feel gives some insight into the fair youth and why Shakespeare found him so attractive. The key is in the first four lines:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;

Here we have four metaphors, two symbolizing masculine strength and beauty, and two representing feminine. In lines 1 and 3, the lion and the tiger symbolize the masculine, images of strength, manly grace, and power. In lines 2 and 4, we have the earth and the phoenix, feminine symbols of beauty associated with creation and rebirth. The fact that Shakespeare vacillates between the masculine and feminine implies that the young man to whom the sonnet is composed possesses a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, allowing him to transcend the concept of gender-based beauty. And because the youth’s physical traits encompass both masculine and feminine beauty, he becomes, in Shakespeare’s eyes, the paragon of what human beauty should be.

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Analysis of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth: The transcendent power of Nature

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This is one of my favorite poems, and it’s been a while since I read it last. But today was a beautiful and warm day, so after spending a few hours working in the yard, I got my copy of English Romantic Writers, opened to the section on Wordsworth, and read “Tintern Abbey” while sitting outside, basking in sunshine.

I first read this poem in college. As part of my English Lit class, we had to read all of the Lyrical Ballads. I was so moved the first time I read this poem. It expressed in words how I felt being in Nature, the transcendent feeling, the resonance deep within my soul. And that is what I want to focus this post on—how Wordsworth addresses the transcendent power of Nature in this poem.

The poem is fairly long, so I will not include the entire text, but here is a link to an online version should you want to read it in its entirety.

Poetry Foundation

In the second stanza, Wordsworth expresses how he had spent a long time away from Nature, living in the city. He describes how he visualized scenes in Nature as a way of maintaining his spiritual connection. He then goes on to describe how, being in Nature and focusing on the harmony of the natural world, one becomes open to the transcendent experience, experiencing enlightenment through the transformative power of Nature.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

As a kid, I love being in the woods. I would go camping, hiking, and fishing. It was a place of escape and adventure. But as I got older, I developed a different sense of Nature. I would go off and sit beside a stream, gazing at the water and listening to the gentle sounds that surrounded me, and then easily slip into a deep meditative state. Wordsworth expresses this feeling beautifully at the end of the fourth stanza.

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

But it is the fifth stanza that in my opinion best conveys the reverence Wordsworth feels toward Nature. Not only is Nature a means for transcendence, it is also healing and nurturing. Like so many of us, there have been times in my life where I have gotten caught up in work, stress, and the monotonous grind of daily life. But all it takes is an hour or two in the woods, walking along a mountain trail or sitting beside a stream, and I feel restored, reconnected to my true self. This rejuvenation of spirit is what Wordsworth is describing in the following stanza.

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

I know that most people envision Thoreau when they think about transcendent writers extolling the spiritual aspects of Nature, but Wordsworth wrote about Nature’s transcendent power fifty years before Thoreau penned Walden. If you have never done so before, I encourage you to sit outside on a warm sunny day and read “Tintern Abbey,” surrounded by Nature, as it was meant to be read. I suspect that doing so will have a profound impact on you.

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“The Sorrow of Love” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

I read this poem a couple times through to try to get a sense of what Yeats was conveying. I suspected that he was making references to Maud Gonne, and a quick search online confirmed this. So then I thought about what aspect of his love for Gonne might be causing him sorrow, and I suspect it is connected with the symbolism of the fall in the Garden of Eden.

There is a definite impression of Eden, especially in the first and third stanzas. The reference to “man’s image” implies the archetypal being embodied in Adam. Also, the image of the “famous harmony of leaves” conjures a vision of the innocent state of man in the Garden, contrasted by the “lamentation of the leaves” which may refer to the use of leaves by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after the fall.

I get the sense that Yeats felt like he sacrificed something deep and meaningful to himself for Maud, or else he became separated from her and left lost and adrift like Odysseus, trying to return to her. I am not sure, but there is a tangible feeling of sadness associated with his love for Gonne.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 3” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

By not exalting the talented you will cause the people to cease from rivalry and contention.
By not prizing goods hard to get, you will cause the people to cease from robbing and stealing.
By not displaying what is desirable, you will cause the people’s hearts to remain undisturbed.

Therefore, the Sage’s way of governing begins by

Emptying the heart of desires,
Filling the belly with food,
Weakening the ambitions,
Toughening the bones.

In this way he will cause the people to remain without knowledge and without desire, and prevent the knowing ones from any ado.

Practice Non-Ado, and everything will be in order.

As I read this, I thought about just how different the paradigm or our western consumer society is from the way of governing depicted here. Our society feeds on the stirring of people’s desires. We feed our society with a constant stream of imagery about how their life should be, about the status they should attain, where they should live, what they should eat, the right clothes to wear. On and on it goes, like a carrot dangling in front of a horse, always within sight but never within reach.

It is a sad truth that a society built upon constant craving and wants cannot sustain itself. We will eventually deplete all our resources and collapse upon ourselves.

Will we be able to stop filling our hearts with desire and instead practice contentment with what we have? Will we start to feed the hungry within our society instead of hoarding for ourselves? Will we start educating people to think about the common good instead of personal and individual ambition? And will we finally find a way to strengthen our society from the inside, to toughen the bones that frame our civilization?

These are difficult if not impossible questions to answer. But by at least thinking about them and discussing them, we take the first step toward a more spiritual and sustainable culture.

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“Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This poem marks the transition from the procreation sonnets to the romantic sonnets, and since this is still considered one of the “fair youth” sonnets, there is a strong belief that this poem and the rest of the fair youth sonnets that follow express homo-erotic passion. And while you could debate this topic extensively, I choose to focus this post on the main theme of the poem, which is immortality through verse.

The poem begins by comparing the youth’s beauty to the beauty of nature. But as Shakespeare points out, nature’s beauty is temporary. The beauty in nature fades, dies, is clouded over, and you get a sense that Shakespeare fears that the youth’s beauty will also fade. Which is why he is inspired to compose the “eternal lines,” the verse which will capture the youth’s beauty and preserve it for all eternity, for as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”

Art as a means of making beauty or deeds immortal is nothing new. But there is something about this sonnet that really resonates with a person’s soul. Maybe it’s the cadence, or the images with which we can all relate. It seems to tap into something universal within us all. Without a doubt, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable sonnets.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 2” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

(translation: John C. H. Wu)

I see two concepts expressed in this passage. The first half deals with the necessity of opposites in order to maintain a balance in the world. So in the first two lines, the key word is “all.” There is nothing inherently wrong about recognizing beauty or good in the world, the problem occurs when “all the world” sees beauty as beauty and good as good. This creates an imbalance. If all the world only saw and acknowledged the good, that would essentially eradicate all that is not good from the world. But the interesting twist here is that when all recognize the good and seek to not focus on the not-good, it ends up creating an evil, and thereby still maintains the balance. It’s somewhat ironic, similar to the old cliché that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The second half of the passage shifts to the contemplative state of the Sage. Here the spiritual seeker is instructed to foster a sense of detachment and to use the concept of the opposite to attain that which the seeker desires. Basically, to be a true seeker, you must stop seeking. As long as you actively search for something, you will not be able to find it. It’s like when you misplace your keys. You search the house, try to retrace your steps, but still you cannot find them. When you finally give up and sit down, the location of the keys becomes clear. This is the same as the wisdom that the Sage hopes to attain. That wisdom will only manifest at the stillest moment, when the searcher stops actively pursuing that which cannot be grasped, but can only be bestowed.

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“The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

My backyard this morning!!

My backyard this morning!!

As I awoke this morning to find everything blanketed in fresh snow, I felt inspired to read a poem about snow. I opted for this one by Emerson.

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Visually, this poem captures the beauty of the snow storm. But Emerson is expressing something more profound here, which I find spiritually moving. He is describing snow as divine architecture, as God creating beauty and art through Nature. And the structures which Nature creates from snow are works of perfection, far surpassing the works of humans.

This poses the question: If God’s magnificent and perfect architecture is temporary and will melt away, then how temporary are the creations of humanity?

I look forward to going out today, walking in the snow, and marveling at the beauty which is God’s handiwork. I hope you all get to go out and have an inspiring day also.

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“The Pity of Love” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.

For such a short poem, I find this very challenging. The difficulty in deciphering the meaning lies in the fact that it is unclear who or what love symbolizes. As is often the case with Yeats, there are several possible interpretations.

One possibility is that the love he is describing is the love for a woman. The pity is that as time passes, symbolized by the clouds, the winds, and the flowing waters, the chances are that the object of his love will also change and their love will not last. Physical love, like everything else in this world, is subject to change and as a result frequently temporary.

Another interpretation is that the object of the love in this poem is Ireland. The pity then would be that as Yeats observes the scenes about Ireland which he finds so moving and inspiring, he knows that his country is changing, that the Ireland of myth will eventually fade into the mists of obscurity and distant memory.

Finally, the love of this poem could also represent the godhead, since Yeats makes it clear at the end that it is a head that he loves. The pity then would be that although Yeats feels a deep love and connection with the divine source, he knows that he must exist within this world and cannot become one with the godhead until after he dies and leaves the beauty and inspiration of this life behind. This creates an inner conflict as Yeats longs both for unification with the divine and communion with the divine creation which is this world, but is painfully aware that he cannot have both at the same time.

Sometimes it seems that the shorter the poem is, the more difficult it is to interpret. There is less to work with. That said, Yeats was the master of evoking myriad images with his words. So while I am leaning more toward the idea of the embodiment of love being the godhead, I feel that Yeats also crafted his symbol to represent other vessels of love.

Feel free to share any other interpretations or impressions that you have. Cheers, and keep reading interesting and challenging stuff.

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“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” by William Blake

Image © Jeff Japp

Image © Jeff Japp

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

I have not written in a while because I have been traveling in Israel. I had an opportunity to visit the Holy Land so in spite of the images of danger and unrest that are prevalent in the media, I could not pass on the chance to explore the area that is central to the three major western religions. I spent about ten days there and it was an amazing experience. The image above is a picture I took from atop the Mount of Olives looking down on the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem. So, it should not surprise you that the first thing I read upon returning home was Blake’s poem which is part of the Preface to his larger work, Milton.

In this poem, I believe Blake is using Christ as a symbol for divine poetic genius. During the first two stanzas, Blake ponders whether the divine inspiration visited England, particularly London, a place he sees as dark, dismal, and a place where people are enslaved in the drudgery of factory life that was part of the Industrial Revolution.

The last two stanzas are what I find the most interesting about this poem. He invokes symbols from biblical text to represent creative inspiration, summoning the divine presence to guide him in his artistic endeavor. When he states “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:” he making a vow to struggle internally and never lay down his pen (the pen is after all mightier than the sword) until he has succeeds in bringing the divine presence to England and transforms the country into a land of beauty and spirituality.

The trip to Israel was a moving experience for me, especially since I am so interested in spirituality, art, and history. In my sojourn there, I was immersed in all of these things. It will take some time to fully process the experience, but reading and writing always help me to internalize major events in my life.

Cheers and blessings.

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