Tag Archives: forest

“Haunted” by Siegfried Sassoon

Gustave Doré

Gustave Doré

Evening was in the wood, louring with storm.
A time of drought had sucked the weedy pool
And baked the channels; birds had done with song.
Thirst was a dream of fountains in the moon,
Or willow-music blown across the water
Leisurely sliding on by weir and mill.

Uneasy was the man who wandered, brooding,
His face a little whiter than the dusk.
A drone of sultry wings flicker’d in his head.
The end of sunset burning thro’ the boughs
Died in a smear of red; exhausted hours
Cumber’d, and ugly sorrows hemmed him in.

He thought: ‘Somewhere there’s thunder,’ as he strove
To shake off dread; he dared not look behind him,
But stood, the sweat of horror on his face.

He blunder’d down a path, trampling on thistles,
In sudden race to leave the ghostly trees.
And: ‘Soon I’ll be in open fields,’ he thought,
And half remembered starlight on the meadows,
Scent of mown grass and voices of tired men,
Fading along the field-paths; home and sleep
And cool-swept upland spaces, whispering leaves,
And far off the long churring night-jar’s note.

But something in the wood, trying to daunt him,
Led him confused in circles through the thicket.
He was forgetting his old wretched folly,
And freedom was his need; his throat was choking.
Barbed brambles gripped and clawed him round his legs,
And he floundered over snags and hidden stumps.
Mumbling: ‘I will get out! I must get out!’
Butting and thrusting up the baffling gloom,
Pausing to listen in a space ’twixt thorns,
He peers around with peering, frantic eyes.

An evil creature in the twilight looping,
Flapped blindly in his face. Beating it off,
He screeched in terror, and straightway something clambered
Heavily from an oak, and dropped, bent double,
To shamble at him zigzag, squat and bestial.

Headlong he charges down the wood, and falls
With roaring brain—agony—the snap’t spark—
And blots of green and purple in his eyes.
Then the slow fingers groping on his neck,
And at his heart the strangling clasp of death.

I wanted to find a good “horror” poem that was not written by Edgar Allan Poe, so I did a web search and found this one. I was totally unfamiliar with Sassoon, so I did not have any expectations. I have to say, I really found this poem powerful, haunting, and well-written.

I see this as symbolic of someone who is haunted by memories of his past, most likely something deeply traumatic. He has kept his pain locked inside, and this pain is represented by the forest in which he wanders. He keeps thinking that he will eventually find a clearing, a place of reprieve from his inner torment, which is symbolized by the “open fields” and “meadows.” But it never happens. The vines and brambles of his memory snag him and hold him in the past. Demons that haunt his psyche swoop down on him. Eventually, he dies, carrying with him the burden of his suffering.

While this is certainly a grim poem, it should be looked at as a warning. We all carry guilt, pain, and suffering. But what is important is that we do not keep that pain hidden inside us. When we do, it grows and morphs into nightmares which haunt us psychologically, and the longer we keep those secrets hidden inside us, the sicker we become, until they ultimately consume us.

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“Into My Own” by Robert Frost

BanyanTree

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

I read this sonnet three times this morning, and each time I read it I liked it more. This poem works for me on so many levels, and the fact that it was the first poem in Frost’s first book (A Boy’s Will) makes it all the more impressive.

On the surface, we have a young man who longs to set out on his own and travel his own path in the world. The trees symbolize his present life, rooted as it were in the place where he lives. But he longs to venture into the woods, to get lost in the world beyond his present life. I could not help thinking about Chris McCandless in “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. This is the archetypal American feeling of freedom to lose oneself in the wilderness, to seek one’s true self in nature. It’s why we relate to Huckleberry Finn.

But I see another level of symbolism in this poem, something deeper, more spiritual and psychological. This poem serves as a metaphor for the inner search for one’s true spiritual self. On this level, the trees become symbols for our established beliefs, rooted deep in our consciousness, obscuring the deeper forests of the subconscious mind that lay beyond the threshold of the woods. The speaker now wants to delve deep into his soul and search for his essence. He knows innately that this inner self is his true nature, and that discovering that part of himself will not change him into something different, but will only unveil who he really is.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

The more I read Robert Frost, the more I appreciate his genius. This poem is a great example of how great a poet he was.

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“The Witch’s Boy” by Kelly Barnhill: The Mystical Power of Words

WitchsBoy

This book was suggested by a close friend of mine who is a science fiction writer and someone whose taste in books I respect. I have to say that this is one of the best young-adult novels I have ever read. The writing and storyline are fairly basic and accessible to readers of all levels, and the tale itself is engaging, but the really amazing aspect of this book is the wealth of mystical, spiritual, and psychological symbolism that is woven into this rich tale. For the sake of brevity, I will focus this post on how words are presented as objects of mystical power.

Early in the book, Barnhill clearly states that words are objects of power that are the essence of creation.

A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed.

(p. 29)

One of the main characters in the book is Ned, who is the witch’s boy. Ned’s mother is tasked with protecting the last bit of magic that remains in the world. While attempting to protect the magic in his mother’s absence, the magic enters into Ned and becomes a part of him. At this point, the magic appears as words which flow across his skin, almost as if the boy has become a living book.

His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And his shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched on his knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.

(p. 94)

As I read this, I thought a lot about how the things we read and the stories we hear become a part of who we are. I have always believed that I am the culmination of my life’s experiences, and reading has been an integral part of my life and my personal development. So as I pictured the words swirling over Ned’s skin, I thought of all the stories and poems I have read, swirling through my own being and affecting who I am.

Something that has always fascinated me is the mystical power of words in the act of creation. That is why I have felt a connection to writers like Coleridge. I found definite allusions to this idea in this book, particularly regarding the importance of words for harnessing and directing the creative energy that surrounds us all.

Without words, the magic was uncontained. Without words, it was deadly.

(p. 149)

Finally, in one of my favorite passages in this book, Barnhill expresses what I consider a universal truth in a brilliantly clear and simple manner: the idea that words are mystical symbols that express the archetypal essence of everything that exists.

Ned stood and stepped away from the wolf. He removed his remaining glove and looked at the magic on his skin. Its strange letters. Its otherness. Each symbol was a word—though no more familiar to him than the words of his own language.

And yet.

A word is a magic thing. It holds the essence of an object or an idea and pins it to the world. A word can set a universe in motion. And Ned had.

(pp. 254 – 255)

There are many other symbols and ideas incorporated into this impressive book: the triple goddess; the sea as a symbol for the soul and consciousness; the forest representing the primal and dangerous aspect of the human psyche; the corrupting influence of power (in a Faustian manner); and myriad others. As I said, the sheer amount of allusion woven into the easy-to-read story is nothing short of amazing.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts here after reading it. Cheers!

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Symbols in “Hansel & Gretel” by Neil Gaiman: The Forest, Hunger, and the Trickster

GaimanHanselGretel

I first heard about this book in an article published by Brain Pickings and knew I would have to read it soon. I am a big fan of Gaiman’s work and I was very interested in discovering how he would rewrite the classic fairy tale. My expectations were high, but I was certainly not disappointed. I was hooked at the opening paragraph.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

(p. 8)

The forest or wilderness is a symbol that has always fascinated me, probably because as a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. It was a place of mystery, adventure, and danger. As I got older, I began to understand the forest as a symbol for the darker, uncivilized regions of the human consciousness.

When Hansel and Gretel’s parents decide to abandon them because they can no longer feed them, it is very symbolic that the children are abandoned in the forest. They are thrust deep into the woods and left alone. Essentially, this signifies a sort of rite of passage to adulthood, where they are forced to face the shadowy aspects of themselves and human nature, which can be dark and terrifying.

Gretel woke Hansel the next morning. “It is going to be a good day,” she said. “Our father is going to take us into the forest with him, and he will teach us to cut wood.” Their father would not ordinarily take them with him deep into the forest. He said it was too dangerous for children.

(pp. 16 – 17)

After they are abandoned in the woods, they succumb to the darkness which lies hidden in the subconscious. This is represented by shadows which grow and overwhelm the senses.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddle and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

(p. 20)

Another symbol that figures prominently in the tale is hunger. Hunger is the most basic of instincts and drives the actions of all living things, even more so than sexual desire. Hansel and Gretel’s parents forsake their children because of hunger. It is a primordial need that can overpower all sense of reason and humanity. When the children discover that the breadcrumb trail is gone because the animals of the forest have eaten the crumbs, Gretel comments that “The creatures of the forest are hungry too.” (p. 28) And of course, it is hunger that drives the children to the old woman’s house in the woods.

They walked towards the smell: honey cake, and ginger and spices, a glorious sweetness that stole over them. Now the children ran toward the source of the smell, impelled by hunger, going in a direction they had never been before, unitl, in a clearing, they saw a tiny house, even smaller than their own.

(p. 29)

They are then captured and are faced with the terrible realization that humans, like animals, are meat and can be eaten. Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of the dark, primordial state. It represents the animal instinct taking complete control of one’s psyche, where hunger overpowers all human reason.

The old woman was stronger than she looked—a sinewy, gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars. She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.

“Meat,” she said, happily.

(p. 36)

The last symbol I would like to look at in this tale is the trickster. Hansel and Gretel embody the archetype of the trickster as symbolized by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus, who also plans on eating all of them. Odysseus uses trickery to outwit the Cyclops and escape. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel do the same. First, Hansel uses a bone to trick the old woman into thinking he has not gotten fat enough to cook yet.

In truth, Hansel grew fat, but the old woman was too blind to see it. Each day, she reached for his finger, but instead he would hold out a bone he had found in the straw. She felt the bone and, thinking it was the boy’s finger, left him for another day.

(p. 40)

Finally, Gretel also uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not to understand the woman’s instructions. This leads the old woman to open the oven door and lean inside in an attempt to show Gretel how it is done, providing the opportunity for Gretel to shove her captor inside.

“See if it is hot enough to roast your brother yet,” said the old woman. “Climb inside and tell me.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel, and she stood where she was, making no move to open the oven door.

“It is easy. Simply open the door, and lean in, and feel if it is hot enough yet to roast flesh.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel again.

“You are a slattern and a dolt!” exclaimed the old woman. “Idiot child. I will show you.” The old woman hobbled over to the oven, leaning on her stick. “Learn from me.” The old woman opened the oven door.

(p. 41)

There is a bit of irony here. Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house.

I’d like to close with a little bit about the artwork in this book. All the illustrations are done by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and seem like they have been carved out of the darkest reaches of the mind. The black and white prints are so dark and shadowy, just looking at them gives you anxiety. It is the perfect visual representation of exploring the darker regions of the subconscious, of getting lost in the forest of shadows that symbolizes our hidden animalistic urges.

GaimanHanselGretel2

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“Beacons” by Charles Baudelaire

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya

This is a great poem that pays homage to the painters who inspired Baudelaire. It’s fairly long, so I am going to include a link to the poem rather than include it in this post.

http://fleursdumal.org/poem/105

Each of the first eight stanzas is dedicated to an artist and describes their artistic styles and works. The eight artists are Rubens, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix. All of these artists are described as drawing inspiration from darker sources, or “Deducing beauty from crime, vice and terror.” Just as Baudelaire was able to use the sick, evil, and decayed as fertilizer to grow his Flowers of Evil, so these artists managed to take the grotesque and perverse and create stunning works of beauty.

After acknowledging these artists, Baudelaire addresses the divine, and in a way, offers thanks for the pain, suffering, insanity, and decadence that sparked the artistic flame, igniting the beacons to shine through the darkness which is the human condition.

These curses, blasphemies, and lamentations,
These ecstasies, tears, cries and soaring psalms —
Through endless mazes, their reverberations
Bring, to our mortal hearts, divinest balms.

A thousand sentinels repeat the cry.
A thousand trumpets echo. Beacon-tossed
A thousand summits flare it through the sky,
A call of hunters in the jungle lost.

And certainly this is the most sublime
Proof of our worth and value, Oh Divinity,
That this great sob rolls on through ageless time
To die upon the shores of your infinity.

In these final stanzas, the hunter is a symbol for the artist, who is pursuing the muse. The jumgle is like the wilderness. It represents the darker and primal aspect of the artist’s subconscious mind. It is here where one must venture in order to find the most powerful sources of creative inspiration. The artist must then share the vision, acting as a beacon and a source of inspiration to other artists and humanity as a whole.

Baudelaire’s work never ceases to amaze and inspire me. He is truly one of the most original and stirring poets that I have encountered. I hope you enjoyed the post. Have an inspired day!

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