Tag Archives: cemetery

Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost

Hemlock Tree: Source - Wikipedia

Hemlock Tree: Source – Wikipedia

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Although this is a short, it is very powerful.

The crow as a symbol represents death. This is heightened by the fact that the crow is in a hemlock tree, which also represents death. The reference to snow means the poem is set in winter, which is also symbolic of death. So in the first stanza, we have a triple death image that sets a dark and somber mood. But this changes in the second stanza.

Frost clearly states that his heart has “A change of mood.” I think that he is describing a scene at a cemetery where a hemlock is growing. It is likely he is actually attending a funeral, but there is no definitive evidence of that. What is clear, though, is that the crow knocking the snow from the hemlock branches has given him hope. My guess is that it is because hemlock is an evergreen tree and stays green throughout the winter. This would symbolize that life continues after death. So the hemlock tree becomes a symbol of death as well as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. This alleviates the sadness he feels at the loss of his loved one.

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“Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe

Source:Wikipedia

Source:Wikipedia

This is a poem that Poe wrote in his youth. Although he was young when he wrote it (the poem was composed in 1827, which means he would have been 18 at the time), it still demonstrates his maturity as a poet.

Thy soul shall find itself alone
‘Mid dark thoughts of the grey tombstone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.

Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness- for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.

The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Immediately, in the first stanza, we find ourselves alone in a cemetery. I see two interpretations for the soul mentioned here. Obviously, it could be taken literally as the spirit of one recently deceased, in that transitional period between worlds, awaiting the moment when the soul will pierce the veil and enter the next realm. But the phrase “dark thoughts” also implies that the soul is symbolic of a person’s psyche, one who is obsessed with his own mortality or the death of someone close.

In the second stanza, we see the spirits of the dead joining the lonely soul. This also has two interpretations, each associated with how you choose to interpret the soul. When taken literally, the soul of the newly departed is greeted by the spirits of those who have previously died. It appears that the spirits will serve as guides, ushering the soul to the next dimension. The second possibility, of the soul as psyche, implies that in his quiet hour, his mind is filled with memories of friends and family who have died and that those memories will overshadow his sanity.

The third stanza I find very interesting. Hope is described as something terrible, the cause of an eternal “burning and a fever.” Hope is one of those double-edged swords. While a life filled with hopelessness is certainly not desirable, we must concede that hope is also the reason people cling to their sorrows, in the hope that they may see their loved ones again in the afterlife. Hope also makes people sacrifice their happiness in this life, all because of the hope that there may be some reward in the next life. But of course, none of this is guaranteed.

In the fourth stanza, we see thoughts and visions that will never leave. For the literal soul of the departed, it has become pure consciousness. Nothing remains but thoughts and visions of the past life. For the soul as psyche, it is the mind giving way to madness and despair, unable to free itself from painful memories.

In the final stanza, the mist is presented as a symbol for the veil between life and death, that which separates us from the ultimate mystery. But the mist is also a symbol for the veil between the two realms of consciousness: waking consciousness and the subconscious. In the shadowy realm of the subconscious lie our hidden memories, which bubble to the surface as symbols in our dreams and fantasies. As hard as we try to explore our subconscious minds, we can never know all that exists in that part of the psyche.

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“Fergus and the Druid” by William Butler Yeats

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head

Druid. What would you, Fergus?

Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.

Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.

Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

I really like this poem . First off, I like how it is written as a dialog, almost like a slice out of a play. It reads nicely and the cadence and flow of the verse is beautiful.

The poem begins with Fergus following the Druid amid the rocks as the Druid goes through a series of metamorphoses. I see two interpretations for the rocks: first, they could represent stone circles, similar to Stonehenge where the Druids would have worshiped; but the stones could also refer to Fergus being in a cemetery, contemplating his mortality and seeking answers to his life.

When the Druid assumes his human form, Fergus expresses his desire to relinquish his rule and bestow it upon Conchubar. I had to do a little research to determine the relationship between Fergus and Conchubar. Basically, according to the mythology, Fergus fell in love with Ness and Conchubar was Ness’ son from another marriage. So this seems to tie in to the archetype of the connection between the death of the king and the assumption by the son to continue the earthly cycles, such as explored by Frazier in The Golden Bough.

In addition to relinquishing rule as king, Fergus seeks knowledge from the Druid. The Druid seems reluctant to grant Fergus his request and points out how he is burdened by his knowledge. There is a parallel here. Fergus is burdened by the weight of the crown while the Druid is burdened by the weight of his knowledge. In the end, the Druid grants Fergus his wish and gives him a “little bag of dreams,” which ultimately opens the doors to Fergus’ mind and allows him to see into his own future, seeing all that will be.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In the end, Fergus is overwhelmed with sorrow as a result of his knowledge. He no longer has any hope and life is now void of all mystery. He sees only the inevitable future which is the “small slate-coloured thing,” his own gravestone.

It seems as if Yeats is giving us a little warning here. The pursuit of knowledge is something that should not be taken lightly, especially occult knowledge which allows one to peer through the veils of mystery. One must be fully prepared to face the hidden knowledge, which is often hidden for a reason.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 6

Source: symbolreader.net

Source: symbolreader.net

This episode corresponds to Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus travels to the underworld of Hades and speaks with the dead. If you are unfamiliar with Odysseus’ journey to the underworld, I suggest reading “The Secrets of the Odyssey (7): Circe and the Underworld” by Symbol Reader, who is one of my favorite bloggers.

The main theme of this section is death, which makes for some morbid reading at times. The episode begins with Bloom getting into a carriage with Martin Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus (Stephen Dedalus’ father). The carriage is part of the funeral procession for Paddy Dignam who is to be buried. During the ride, there is much discussion and contemplation regarding death.

The carriage ride is symbolic for the journey to the land of the dead, which is represented by the cemetery. At one point in the journey, the carriage passes a waterway, which I assume is the River Liffey. This conjures images of the crossing of the River Styx as one enters the realm of the dead.

Their eyes watched him. On the slow weedy waterway he had floated on his raft coastward over Ireland drawn by a haulage rope past beds of reeds, over slime, mud-choked bottles, carrion dogs. Athlone, Mullingar, Moyvalley, I could make a walking tour to see Milly by the canal. Or cycle drawn. Hire some old crock, safety. Wren had one the other day at the auction but a lady’s. Developing waterways. James M’Cann’s hobby to row me o’er the ferry. Cheaper transit. By easy stages. Houseboats. Camping out. Also hearses. To heaven by water. Perhaps I will without writing. Come as a surprise, Leixlip, Clonsilla. Dropping down, lock by lock to Dublin. With turf from the midland bogs. Salute. He lifted his brown strawhat, saluting Paddy Dignam.

(p. 99)

When they reach the cemetery, Bloom observes the coffin being removed from the hearse. He begins to contemplate mortality, the sheer number of people who die every day. He notes that Dignam got there before they did, implying both that the hearse arrived before the carriage and also that Dignam died before him and the others.

Coffin now. Got here before us, dead as he is. Horse looking round at it with his plume skeowways. Dull eye: collar tight on his neck, pressing on a bloodvessel or something. Do they know what they cart out here every day? Must be twenty or thirty funerals every day. Then Mount Jerome for the protestants. Funerals all over the world everywhere every minute. Shovelling them under by the cartload doublequick. Thousands every hour. Too many for the world.

(p. 101)

As the burial proceeds, Bloom’s thoughts turn very morbid as he envisions the rotting and decay of the bodies within the earth, of the rats and maggots eating the rancid flesh of the deceased. The images reminded me of Poe and Baudelaire. I also couldn’t help wondering whether this was symbolic of the general decay of humanity, whether Joyce viewed the world around him as rotting just as the flesh of the dead was rotting beneath the soil.

One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean no matter who it was. Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad. Well, and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk. I read in that Voyages of China that the Chinese say a white man smells like a corpse. Cremation better. Priests dead against it. Devilling for the other firm. Wholesale burners and Dutch oven dealers. Time of the plague. Quicklime fever pits to eat them. Lethal chamber. Ashes to ashes. Or bury at sea. Where is that Parsee tower of silence? Eaten by birds. Earth, fire, water. Drowning they say is the pleasantest. See your whole life in a flash. But being brought back to life no. Can’t bury in the air however. Out of a flying machine. Wonder does the news go about whenever a fresh one is let down. Underground communication. We learned that from them. Wouldn’t be surprised. Regular square feed for them. Flies come before he’s well dead. Got wind of Dignam. They wouldn’t care about the smell of it. Saltwhite crumbling mush of corpse: smell, taste like raw white turnips.

(p. 114)

Finally, Bloom’s communication with the dead slips into the realm of necrophilia. Although he seems repulsed by these thoughts, you get the sense that there is a morbid fascination with the idea of sex with the dead.

The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time. Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral. Poor papa too. The love that kills. And even scraping up the earth at night with a lantern like the case I read of to get at fresh buried females or even putrefied with running gravesores. Give you the creeps after a bit.

(pp. 114 – 115)

For those who are reading along, I will be looking at Episode 7 next, which concludes on page 150 with the phrase “if the God Almighty’s truth was known.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

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Traveling in England and France

So, I know what you’ve been thinking: “It’s been a long time since Jeff posted.” Well, that’s because I was traveling in England and France with my family. I have to say, I had an amazing time. Now, I could write about my travels, but this is Stuff Jeff Reads, not Places Jeff Visits. That said, I did poke around in some interesting bookstores and picked up a couple books.

The first bookstore I visited was The Tiny Book Store in Rye, which is in southern England. Rye is a beautiful old city and was home to Henry James. Going there is like stepping into a different century. Here is a picture I snapped in the cemetery.

RyeCemetery

Anyway, while perusing the Tiny Book Store, I came across an old, hardcover copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Since I had never read this before and I was in James’ hometown, I figured I would buy it. It has now taken its place in my stack of books waiting eagerly to be read.

My other book purchase was at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This was one of the most amazing bookstores I have ever visited. This bookstore has a rich history and served as a central gathering point for writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. In addition, James Joyce used the bookstore as an office. While I was weaving my way through the crooked aisles of books, I chanced upon Turning Back the Clock, a book by Umberto Eco which I had never heard of before. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s now keeping Turn of the Screw company atop my dresser.

TurningBackTheClock

So, while I have your attention, I thought it would be a good time to give you a heads-up on what I am planning for the near future. I mentioned the connection between James Joyce and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Well, I’ve decided to reread Ulysses, beginning in a couple weeks. I plan on going slowly and posting my thoughts after each chapter. If you are interested in reading (or rereading) what is arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written, you are welcome to do so along with me. I’ll be posting when I begin the book, for those who wish to follow along.

Until then, happy reading!!

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