Tag Archives: forms

“The Sandman: Overture – 3” by Neil Gaiman

SandmanOverture_03

I have to say that I am extremely impressed with this series. It is by far the most interesting and thought-provoking comic I have ever read. In this installment, Morpheus the Dream Lord is traveling to the City of the Stars to address the issue of the star that has gone insane. He travels the surreal landscape with a cat that is a manifestation of himself, almost like a part of his psyche that is manifested in another form.

As they are traveling, they encounter three women who represent the triple goddess: maid, matron, and crone. They offer him knowledge in exchange for his cat, essentially wanting him to sacrifice a part of his being for a bit of knowledge. He turns the offer down, saying he has no need to barter for knowledge, since he knows the path he travels and his destination. The crone then warns him the path will lead to his death.

Crone: Morpheus. The path you are taking leads you, directly or indirectly, to your death.

Dream: I believe that the same can be said of all paths, Lady. Of every track and way that any of us have walked since the Universe was young.

After the encounter with the triple goddess, Dream meets a young girl named Hope and agrees to allow her to accompany them on the journey. I suspect that there is some symbolism here that will be revealed later, about the importance of hope. She questions how there can be a city of stars since stars are flaming balls. Dream explains that they possess consciousness. I found this intriguing, since I believe that consciousness is not limited to humans and animals, but that consciousness is a part of all existence.

Hope: How can there be a City of Stars? My pa said that stars are flaming balls of gas in space… long, long long ways away.

Dream: Your father was wise. Physically, a star is a ball of gas, burning and rolling in a series of continuous thermonuclear events, uninhabitable to creatures of the flesh. But stars are also alive. They have minds. And sometimes, their minds wander.

As they are ready to retire for the evening, Hope asks Dream to tell her a story. Dream agrees, and his introduction floored me.

They say every story must be told at least once, before the final nightfall. And we are nearing the end of the Bridge… Make yourself comfortable, Hope. Once, long ago, there were two gods who fled their homeland…

The issue concludes with Dream telling a story about his past that is nothing short of incredible, overflowing with vivid imagery and rich symbolism. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it here, but I strongly encourage you to read and explore it on your own.

I was told that the next issue will not be available for a while. I already feel impatient. Thankfully, I have plenty of other things to read. As soon as the fourth installment is published, I will be reading it and sharing my thoughts. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading!

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“Euthyphro” by Plato

Euthyphro

This is a short dialog that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro as Socrates is awaiting trial for corruption of Athenian youth. Euthyphro is a seer and an expert on religion who is about to bring manslaughter charges against his own father. This leads to the debate over what is piety, which may also be interpreted as holiness.

Socrates seeks to grasp the ideal of piety, but all Euthyphro is able to provide are examples of pious acts. For Socrates, this fails to get at the essence of what piousness truly is.

Socrates: Well, then, do you recollect that what I urged you to do was not tell me about one or two of these many pious actions, but to describe the actual feature that makes all pious actions pious? – because you said, I believe, that impious actions are impious, and similarly pious ones pious, in virtue of a single characteristic. Or don’t you remember?

Euthyphro: Yes, I do.

Socrates: Then explain to me what this characteristic is in itself, so that by fixing my eyes upon it and using it as a pattern I may be able to describe any action, yours or anyone else’s, as pious if it corresponds to the pattern and impious if it doesn’t.

As the dialog continues, Euthyphro attempts to argue that what is pious is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates disproves this based upon the assertion that being loved by the gods is an attribute of piousness, but not the essence.

Socrates: But if what is god-beloved were identical with what is pious, my dear Euthyphro, what is god-beloved would be loved because it is god-beloved; and if what is god-beloved were god-beloved because it is loved by the gods, then what is pious would be pious because it is loved by them. As it is, you can see that the relation between them is just the opposite; which shows that they are entirely different from each other. The one is loveable because it is loved, and the other is loved because it is loveable. I rather think, Euthyphro, that when I asked you what piety is you were unwilling to disclose its essence to me, and merely stated one of its attributes, saying that piety is the attribute of being loved by all the gods; but you have not yet told me what it is that has this attribute. So, if you have no objection, please don’t conceal the truth from me, but make a fresh start and tell me what piety is that it is loved by the gods or has any other attribute – we shan’t quarrel about that –; tell me without reserve what piety and impiety are.

After the discussion goes around several times, Euthyphro gives up and takes his leave. There is no resolution and the essence of piety is never uncovered. I suspect that the reason is that it is ineffable, as are other ideals. The true essence of an ideal, just like a form or an archetype, exists beyond the grasp of our comprehension. We can only see manifestations of the ideal or the form, but not the thing itself. I personally would venture to assert that these ideals are also subjective, just as beauty and ugliness are subjective. We can claim that something has the attribute of being beautiful, but that does not tell us what beauty is.

OK, that’s enough mental gymnastics for one day.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 9

Raphael's "School of Athens" (detail)

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (detail)

This episode corresponds with Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. It symbolizes being stuck between two powerful forces, both of which are destructive. The episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus is presenting his theory on Hamlet, asserting that Hamlet’s father in the play is representative of Shakespeare the individual. He tries to navigate between the two extreme views, one that posits that knowing the history of an artist’s life is important in understanding that artist’s works, and the other that art should be appreciated for art’s sake, without focus on the artist’s life. The argument incorporates the conflicting views of Aristotle and Plato on the value of art, whether it is an imitation of life or whether art is an ideal to which humans should strive.

Reading this episode, I felt like I was personally navigating between the two extremes. At times it felt very difficult to stay centered in the flow of the text and not get sucked into the whirlpool or chewed up by the multi-headed beast. I suspect that this was intentional on Joyce’s part and that he made this section difficult in order to instill the feeling of being torn and trying desperately to remain on course.

For this episode, rather than attempting to summarize everything that is addressed in this very dense text, I decided to pick a single paragraph and analyze it closely.

—All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracle out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions on the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

(p. 185)

In this passage, George Russell (A.E.) expresses the Platonic ideal that art should be an expression of the ineffable ideal which is formless and cannot be fully grasped by the conscious mind. He criticizes Stephen, who leans toward the Aristotelian. Stephen bases his theory on analysis and criticism and tries to avoid getting pulled into the formless whirlpool of ideals that is the basis of Plato’s philosophy. But I can’t help feeling that Stephen has a little bit of the Platonic in him. He is, after all, a poet, and though he strives to be an academic, he still has an artistic side.

When Joyce writes that A.E. speaks from “his shadow,” he is alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. Art, according to A.E., is what allows people to view the flame of divine consciousness as opposed to the mere shadows cast upon the cave wall.

The last sentence of A.E.’s quote appears to be a direct jab at Stephen. Stephen is young, essentially a student in Russell’s eyes, just as Aristotle was a student of Plato’s and therefore not as qualified, in A.E.’s opinion. Stephen is also teaching schoolboys. Essentially, he is saying that Stephen is just not experienced enough to fully comprehend the true nature of art, the purpose of which is to communicate directly with the psyche and provide a glimpse of the part of us which cannot be grasped by our normal state of awareness.

While I concede the value of analytical thought, I am a romantic at heart and tend to lean toward the Platonic ideal. Still, I relate to Stephen, trying to navigate between these two opposing ideologies. I suppose that personally, I run the risk of being drawn into the whirlpool and losing myself in the mystic, which is why it’s important to try to stay grounded.

Next week, I’ll cover Episode 10 which ends on page 255 with the phrase “…sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section9.rhtml

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/530331/Scylla-and-Charybdis

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 3

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This episode is a little more challenging than the first two. Stephen Dedalus is walking along the beach and everything that happens is stream of consciousness thoughts in his mind stirred by recent events and by the things he observes. There is only one single line of spoken dialog which occurs outside Stephen’s mind, and that is when a person on the beach calls to his dog.

This episode corresponds to Proteus in the Homeric epic.

According to Homer (Odyssey iv:412), the sandy island of Pharos situated off the coast of the Nile Delta was the home of Proteus, the oracular Old Man of the Sea and herdsman of the sea-beasts. In the Odyssey, Menelaus relates to Telemachus that he had been becalmed here on his journey home from the Trojan War. He learned from Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea (“the very image of the Goddess”), that if he could capture her father he could force him to reveal which of the gods he had offended, and how he could propitiate them and return home. Proteus emerged from the sea to sleep among his colony of seals, but Menelaus was successful in holding him, though Proteus took the forms of a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a pig, even of water or a tree. Proteus then answered truthfully, further informing Menelaus that his brother Agamemnon had been murdered on his return home, that Ajax the Lesser had been shipwrecked and killed, and that Odysseus was stranded on Calypso’s Isle Ogygia.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Proteus is the perfect symbol for Stephen’s subconscious mind, which is the source of his fluid, streaming thoughts. The unconscious mind, like the sea, is fluid and constantly moving and changing, with thoughts rising, falling, and swirling like waves and ripples upon the surface.

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing, has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Early in the episode, Stephen closes his eyes as he walks along the shoreline. The shore symbolizes the threshold between his waking conscious state represented by the land and the fluid unconscious represented by the sea. Once his eyes are closed, the sounds and rhythms of the sea begin to affect his mind as he starts to shift into a state dominated by his unconscious. Joyce employs onomatopoeia to mimic the crackling sounds which Stephen hears as he slips deeper into his unconscious.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush cracking wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o’er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.

Won’t you come to Sandymount,
Madeline the mare?

(p. 37)

At one point deep in Stephen’s reverie, his thoughts drift to the Martello tower and he vows not to sleep there that evening. As this happens, he experiences a moment of connection with his soul. I interpreted this in several ways. First, it is an expression of the conscious mind becoming aware of the unconscious mind, as he teeters on the shore between states of consciousness. Next, it is a reference to the Platonic concept of the form, which is the archetype from which all subsequent incarnations are emanated. It’s worth noting here that on page 38, Joyce incorporates a reference to Adam Kadmon, which in Jewish kabbalistic thought is the form from which man is created. Finally, the mention of Elsinore in this passage implies a connection between Stephen and Hamlet, Hamlet being the literary expression of Stephen’s inner-self. Since the soul is ineffable, it is only through art that one can come close to expressing the hidden part of ourselves, hence the connection to Hamlet.

Turning, he scanned the shore south, his feet sinking again slowly in new sockets. The cold domed room of the tower waits. Through the barbicans the shafts of light are moving ever, slowly ever as my feet are sinking, creeping duskward over the dial floor. Blue dusk, nightfall, deep blue night. In the darkness of the dome they wait, their pushedback chairs, my obelisk valise, around a board of abandoned platters. Who to clear it? He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes. A shut door of a silent tower entombing their blind bodies, the pathersahib and his pointer. Call: no answer. He lifted his feet up from the suck and turned back by the mole of boulders. Take all, keep all. My sould walks with me, form of forms. So in the moon’s midwatches I pace the path above the rocks, in sable silvered, hearing Elsinore’s tempting flood.

(p.44)

During his walk on the beach, Stephen encounters the carcass of a dead dog: “A bloated carcass of a dog lay lolled on bladderwrack” (p. 44). I had to look up bladderwrack and learned it is a type of seaweed that was originally used to make iodine. Anyway, although Joyce makes a connection in the text to “Gautier’s prose,” I personally could not help envisioning Baudelaire’s “A Carcass.” The rotting carcass as a symbol of decay, both physically and spiritually, seems to tie in with Stephen’s current state of mind.

Near the end of the episode, the imagery of water as a symbol for the unconscious becomes prominent. In addition, seaweed is used as a symbol for fragments of thought, which are swirled about in the currents of the subconscious, strands which move about making what seem to be random connections, almost like the synapses from the brain’s neurons.

Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing weeds lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hising up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds.

(p. 49)

Next week I’ll cover Episode 4, which ends on page 70 in my book with the phrase “Poor Dignam!” See you then.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:


 

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proteus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section3.rhtml

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“Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

I had not read this poem since college and reading it this time I confess that I was completely blown away. Not only is the imagery and symbolism so powerful, but the language and musical cadence is nothing short of exhilarating. I feel like I have just come off an emotional rollercoaster after finishing this.

It is a fairly long poem, so I am not going to include all of the text in this post, but for those who need, here is a link to an online version.

Poetry Foundation

The poem is comprised of eight stanzas and I will look at each stanza separately. In addition to the eight stanzas, the poem is prefaced with a quote from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.”

Stanza I

In Stanza I, the emphasis is on dreams and inspiration. Coleridge is awake at night and his mind is wandering, thoughts drifting through and playing upon his mind like the wind upon the Aeolian lute. But he has a sense of foreboding; that a storm is coming.

 For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

There is some very interesting imagery here, particularly the New-moon shining brightly. The New Moon does not shine; it is dark. So we get a sense that he is slipping into the realm of the unseen, a place of “phantom light.” I see this as symbolic of his inner self, the part of him that is not visible to the world.

Stanza II

In the second stanza, Coleridge expresses emotional grief. His pain runs deep and is preventing him from being able to express himself artistically.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—

He gives himself over to silent contemplation, observing the space around him. There is a strong emphasis on vision in this stanza. His attention is focused on the sensory as opposed to the emotional.

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Stanza III

Here Coleridge has a realization that the symbols and forms that populate the world around him are inadequate metaphors for what is inside him. It seems that he has been relying upon images from Nature to express his spiritual being.

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

Stanza IV

As the realization sets in, Coleridge expounds upon the idea of inspiration and enlightenment coming from within, and not from without.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed

Artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment, which would have been similar in Coleridge’s view, is not bestowed upon us from Nature, but exist within us as the spark of divinity. Nature is but a reflection of the divine essence within us. It is the outward manifestation of the godlike soul that resides in our mortal shell.

Stanza V

In this stanza, Coleridge experiences a moment of spiritual rapture. He realizes that art and poetry is within him, and that poetry is the pure expression of his soul. This triggers a feeling of ecstasy. He realizes that by becoming pure of heart, he is able to connect with the muse that resides within himself, thereby becoming one with his creative side in a moment of sheer bliss.

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,

Stanza VI

Here Coleridge reflects back upon how he used to draw his inspiration from suffering.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

He then elaborates how his physical illness has demonstrated that suffering is the wrong path to take in the pursuit of artistic inspiration. Coleridge commits to explore the pathway of joy instead. He affirms that one must seek to connect with one’s inner joy in order to truly become artistically inspired.

Stanza VII

This was my favorite stanza. Here we see the darker phantoms of the mind resurge. Coleridge experiences an inner struggle between the light and the darkness. As the conflicting emotions clash within, it seems like he is grappling with his sanity.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

Stanza VIII

In the final stanza, we have an expression of resignation.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

It is now midnight, a transitional time. Coleridge comes to a point of acceptance that although his muse sleeps, he will be kept awake by the storm of thoughts within his mind. But during this period, his muse will rest, and when she awakens, she will be refreshed and will bestow upon him new inspiration. And this inspiration will flow from within himself into the world around him, not the opposite way. Henceforth, his poetry will be an expression of the divine soul within.

I have always loved Coleridge’s poetry, but I guess I never gave this poem the consideration it deserves. I now feel that it is one of his finest works and I am certain that I will be reading it again. I never tire of great poetry and this is without a doubt great poetry.

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“Correspondences” by Charles Baudelaire

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

It was at least 15 years ago that I first read this poem and back then it did not have the impact that it did when I read it today. This proves that as you mature and grow as a reader, literature takes on different meanings. Since the poem is a sonnet and therefore short, I will include the translation by Richard Wilbur so that we are all on the same page.

Nature is a temple whose living colonnades
Breathe forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;
Man wanders among the symbols in those glades
Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.

Like dwindling echoes gathered far away
Into a deep and thronging unison
Huge as the night or as the light of day,
All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.

Perfumes there are as sweet as the oboe’s sound,
Green as the prairies, fresh as a child’s caress,
—And there are others, rich, corrupt, profound

And an infinite pervasiveness,
Like myrrh, or musk, or amber, that excite
The ecstasies of sense, the soul’s delight.

This poem establishes correspondences between objects in Nature and the symbols and archetypes that populate our psyches. Take a look at the first stanza. The “living colonnades” are trees. The imagery evokes a Druid ceremony taking place within a sacred grove. The sound of the wind through the trees helps shift the person’s consciousness so as to be able to perceive the mystical forms around. All types of symbolism are beautifully evoked in this passage. No matter what a tree symbolizes for you individually—strength, spiritual growth, kabbalistic sefiroth—they are all summoned by the words here.

In the second stanza, the senses begin to shift. The echoes and the unison of sound make me think of the collective unconscious. All is connected and there is a shared sense of existence. We are all part of the Divine consciousness.

I really love the third stanza. Here Baudelaire uses synesthesia to describe his mystical experience. I have always found this to be an apt way to describe the ineffable. Scents are likened to sound, color, and touch. I think it works perfectly here.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire expresses a sense of ecstasy as his soul enters a state of bliss as a result of becoming in tune with the infinite, or the Divine. I suspect he realized that, in addition to the correspondence between nature and the realm of symbols, that there is also a correspondence between his soul and the Divine spirit.

I confess that the more I read Baudelaire, the more I appreciate his genius. I think this poem is fantastic and I wish I could read it in French. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to read the translated version again.

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“Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

YeatsOlder

Generally, I avoid including the full text from longer poems in my posts and will instead provide a link to the online version, but “Sailing to Byzantium” deserves to be included in full. I decided to include each of the four stanzas and offer my interpretation of each stanza before moving on to the next one.

I
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

In the opening stanza, there are two things happening here. On one level, Yeats is expressing his disillusionment with the people of Ireland. The younger generations do not appear to appreciate Ireland’s ancient heritage, nor are they interested in the noble pursuit of poetry. But in addition to that, Yeats is hinting at something deeper and infinitely more mystical, which will be unveiled later in the poem. It has to do with resurrection mythology. For now, just keep the images of old men, young people, dying generations, and trees in the back of your mind.

II
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Here Yeats asserts that an old man is worthless, unless that aged individual possesses the ability to create poetry. And it must be poetry infused with mystical power, poetry that comes from a source that is divine of nature. In order to tap into that source, Yeats plunges himself into his subconscious mind, symbolized by the “seas,” and navigates those seas of consciousness until he reaches the mystical realm represented by the city of Byzantium.

There is a reason why Yeats chose Byzantium as the symbol for the mystical source of his poetry. In addition to being the center of classical thought in the late Hellenistic period, Byzantium had adopted the occult symbol of the star and crescent moon as their emblem. This was a result of their devotion to Hecate, whom the Byzantines believed was protecting them. (source: Wikipedia) As a practicing member of the Golden Dawn, Yeats would have viewed this connection as important, since Hecate is the goddess who is believed to endow magicians with power and knowledge.

III
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

There is a lot happening in the third stanza. The holy fire is mentioned twice, so the importance is being stressed. There are layers of symbolism here. First, the holy fire represents the spark of life, creation itself. It is also illumination and enlightenment. Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, is the association with rebirth and regeneration, like that of the phoenix. The dying god spins within the gyre of flame, preparing to reemerge as a reborn god. As the god is dying and being consumed by the holy flames, the mystic bards sing the verses of the sacred poetry which will help bring about the rebirth of the dying god.

At this point, you may be thinking that my interpretation is a bit of a stretch, but reserve judgment until you read the final stanza.

IV
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

GoldenBoughHere we have the key to the poem, which is the golden bough. Yeats would certainly have been very familiar with Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s book is the quintessential work exploring the mythology of resurrection and the dying god. So the god does not take his “bodily form from any natural thing,” but instead comes from the realm of forms as expressed by the Platonic school of thought. All the golden imagery in this stanza evokes the image of the sacred king, which is the term that Frazer uses regarding the archetypal image of the dying/reborn god. The cycle is eternal; it encompasses “what is past, or passing, or to come.” The imagery from the first stanza of the old men (dying god), young people (reborn god), and trees  (symbols of rebirth) are all brought together.

The last thing I would like to point out about the poem is the overall structure. The poem is divided into four stanzas. I feel that this was an intentional representation of the four seasons, which is also symbolic of the overall theme of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

The first time I read this poem in college I didn’t get it, but I remember my professor saying that the more you read poetry, the more you will learn to appreciate Yeats. I’ve come to the point in my life where I feel like I can finally start to fully appreciate the scope of what Yeats accomplished as a poet.

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