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“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” by William Butler Yeats

This is a poem about the tension between the worldly and the spiritual and how that tension manifests during the various stages of a person’s life. Since it is a fairly long poem, I decided to include the text at the end of the post for those who need to reference it.

The poem is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is associated with a stage of human life. The stanzas are also associated with specific places within County Sligo, Ireland. I suspect that Yeats intended some connection between the places and the stages of a person’s life, but the references are not clear to me since I am not familiar with those sites. Anyway, the four stages represented in the poem are youth, middle age, old age, and death.

In the first stanza, Yeats describes the youth whose earthly attachment is to physical love, or sexual attraction. When he states that “His heart hung all upon a silken dress,” he is asserting that the young man’s desires are focused solely upon a woman. When the fish sing to him, it symbolizes the divine spirit letting him know that there is a deeper love that exists within the spiritual realm. The young man is shaken “out of his new ease,” but we are left with the sense that even though he is aware of this deeper spiritual love, he cannot relinquish his desire for earthly love.

The singing fish appear to have a dual symbolism. On one hand, they represent the teachings of Christ, but they are also an ancient Celtic symbol for wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy.

As an ancient Celtic symbol, the symbolic meaning of fish (salmon, specifically) dealt with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration and prophecy. Ancient Celts believed the salmon derived its wisdom from consuming the sacred hazel nuts from the well of knowledge (Segais). Further, they believed to eat the salmon would mean gaining the wisdom of the well too.

(Source: http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-meanings-of-fish.html)

In the second stanza, we are presented with a man in his middle age, whose focus is work and the accumulation of money. At this phase, a lugworm sings to the man, reminding him of the greater wealth within the spiritual realm. The lugworm is an interesting symbol. It burrows in the sand along the beach and is often used for bait in fishing. So in essence, it symbolizes something used to capture the knowledge and inspiration represented by the fish. Also, since they burrow at the shoreline, they symbolize the search for deeper meaning at the threshold between the worldly (the shore) and the spiritual (the sea).

In the third stanza, we see a man in his old age whose current worldly attachment is his obsession over the past, particularly the wrongs that others have perpetrated against him. The knot-grass sings to him, encouraging the man to forgive and let go of his anger and resentment. The man knows that he should do this to prepare himself for the inevitable crossing to the next realm, as evident in the phrase “unnecessary cruel voice.” But one still gets the sense that the old man remains unable to completely forgive and embrace the spiritual.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, Yeats presents us with the man after death, “Now that the earth had taken man and all.” I see an urgent message in this final stanza: if you fail to live a spiritual life while on earth, then you will not enjoy spiritual bliss in the next life. “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” Essentially, if we attach ourselves to worldly obsessions, then we carry those with us to the next realm. It is much more desirable to cross that threshold without the baggage of earthly attachments, and instead cross over with a heart and spirit that is light and ready for union with the divine.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and here is the full text for those who need.

He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where — unnecessary cruel voice —
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

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“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

OldManAndSeaI read this book a long time ago, so I decided to read it again. Since I had originally read it as a kid, I suspected it would take on a different meaning reading it as an adult.

To start with, I really related to the old man. That’s not surprising, especially since I am not young anymore. Like the old man, I find myself waking early every day, usually around 4:30 or 5:00 am. I enjoy the quiet time, which I use to read, to write in my journal, or to meditate. But maybe, on some deeper level, it is my subconscious attempt at prolonging my days.

“Age is my alarm clock,” the old man said. “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”

After 84 days without catching a fish, the old man sets out alone in search of the “big fish,” which for me is a symbol of one’s elusive life-long dream. We all have our big fish, that one thing we long to achieve before we die, and as we get older and closer to death, catching that fish becomes more urgent.

That school had gotten away from me, he thought. They are moving too fast and too far. But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. My big fish must be somewhere.

In addition to the fish symbolizing the old man’s dream, the fish also symbolizes Christ. There is a strange paragraph where the old man is praying to the Virgin Mary for the death of the fish, which I found to be very ironic.

“Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Then he added, “Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.”

Later on in the book, there is another interesting passage where the old man contemplates how many people the fish will feed and whether those people are worthy to eat of his flesh. It made me think of the eating of the great fish as communion, but that those who are stained with sin are not worthy to eat the body of Christ.

How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

As the old man tries to bring the great fish back to shore, the sharks begin their attack, tearing away at the old man’s dream as he tries desperately to fight them off, but to no avail. His dream is torn from him and all that remains are the bones of what was his greatest achievement. He then lies down, alone in his shack, and one gets the impression that he is ready to let go and die, that he had his opportunity to attain his dream but it was ripped from him at the very end. And now he must face the inevitable, alone.

No one should be alone in their old age. But it is unavoidable.

I have to say that reading this book at this stage in my life made me feel a little sad, but not overly so. I feel that most of my dreams have been fulfilled, and for that I am grateful. And while there are still things I would like to do before I die, they are things that would be nice and not things which would cause me regret at not having done them. I guess I am pretty fortunate. I can’t help but wonder about Hemingway, though. This was the last book he published before taking his own life. I suspect there was a big fish in his life that was torn from him by sharks.

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Symbolism in “The Cat in the Hat”

CatInTheHatRecently my daughter pulled together a pile of books to give to Goodwill. Among them was The Cat in the Hat. It is such a classic book and I have read it countless times to my children over the years, I just couldn’t part with it. I surreptitiously removed it from the pile and slipped it onto my bookshelf.

Back when I was in college, I had taken an honors-level seminar and one of the books we studied was The Cat in the Hat. That section of the course was fascinating and made me look at this book from a completely different perspective. Even now, reading it again, I discovered more symbolism that I had never seen before. I decided to point out some of them so that the next time you read this book (and you will read it again) you will be aware of the symbolism in this story.

Let’s start with an easy one first: the mom. Have you ever noticed that there is no father anywhere in this book? It is very clearly a single mom raising two children. If you look on pages 42 and 43, you will see the mother’s bedroom, with a twin bed and one pillow. So the first thing to think about when reading this tale is whether the mom is divorced or has chosen to have children out of wedlock. Now, this may not seem like a big deal in today’s society, but consider the fact that this book was published in 1957 and society was much different back then.

Now let’s talk about the Fish. After the Cat, the Fish is the next most prominent character in the book. For me, the Fish is an obvious Christ symbol, not only from an icon perspective but also based upon what the Fish says. The Fish is the voice of morality in the story, cautioning the children about letting the Cat in and about the dangers of participating in the antics. The Fish is constantly warning about the repercussions.

Still not convinced about the Fish? Let’s look a little closer. On page 14, the Cat performs his first trick, balancing the Fish, a cup, and a book. We have a sort of trinity here: the Fish being Christ, the cup representing the Grail, and the book as the Bible. I sincerely doubt that these were random choices on the part of the author.

OK, now let’s look at the Cat. The Cat is a manifestation of the trickster archetype. The trickster has been found in literature throughout the ages, whether Anansi, Puck, or Satan. The Cat is just another interpretation of this archetype, and like most tricksters, the Cat also experiences the proverbial fall. This is shown on pages 18 through 21. The Cat is boastful and full of pride, showing off his tricks and what he can do. Pride and hubris almost always precede a fall, and the Cat immediately falls and everything crashes around him.

Then there is the question of the box. When the Cat opens the box, Thing 1 and Thing 2 emerge and proceed to wreak havoc in the home. I cannot help but connect the box with the myth of Pandora. There is a message here that certain boxes are best left closed.

Maybe you are thinking that I have read too much into this book. I don’t think so. Myths and archetypes are eternal and that is why they continue to recur in art and literature. Just because a book is a “children’s book” does not exclude it from being an expression of these symbols. In fact, one might say that young minds are better able to grasp this type of symbolism.

So that is that, regarding the Cat in the Hat.

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