Tag Archives: illumination

“The Moods” by William Butler Yeats

Time drops in decay,
Like a candle burnt out,
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day;
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?

Moods by nature are ephemeral. They tend to last only a short time and are generally caused by some event or thought. But Yeats compares moods to things more lasting, specifically mountains and woods, which are also temporary but endure for a long time. So what are the moods that Yeats is writing about?

Since the word “moods” is plural, it is clear he is experiencing more than one mood at the same time. Also, we are told that these moods are born from fire. An obvious mood would be love or passion, a mood clearly associated with fire. But I would also venture to say that one of the moods is associated with creative inspiration, the spark of the creative flame which, if not nurtured, quickly burns out like the candle. And I suspect there is a third mood, relating to divine inspiration or illumination. Again, this “mood” is fleeting, and usually once you realize that you are having a moment of divine connection, it immediately dissipates.

My final thought on this poem may be a bit of a stretch, but as I read it a few times, I could not help but wonder if there is also an allusion to “modes.” When read aloud with an accent, it is possible. If this is the case, then Yeats may also have been asserting that there are various modes of artistic and spiritual expression, and that each mode is also ephemeral and dependent upon the artist and the audience. At some points poetry and literature may be the dominant mode, other times painting, other times music, or film. As such, moods and modes are always changing.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. Yeats is always challenging, and it seems the more pared down his poems are, the more you have to work to understand them. Feel free to share your thoughts on this one. Cheers!

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“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard: A Hero’s Journey into the Subconscious

I picked this book up on a whim, basically because it was on sale and I had heard of it, and also because I liked the character of Allan Quatermain (the protagonist in this book) from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notes on the back cover also state that this book influenced the Indiana Jones movies. All in all, it seemed like something I should read.

It’s basically a story about a small group of adventurers in Africa who go on a quest to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. The writing is great, the story is exciting, and the imagery is dazzling; but what I found most fascinating about this book is the symbolism concerning the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld.

For me, the hero’s journey into the underworld is symbolic of a person’s exploration of the hidden realms of the subconscious mind and is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth. This book is brimming with these types of symbols.

Before the intrepid crew sets out, Sir Henry Curtis lets everyone know that this journey they are about to undertake is the strangest on which a human can embark.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Henry, presently, in his low, deep voice, “we are going on about as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtful if we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for good or for evil to the last. And now before we start let us for a moment pray to the Power who shapes the destinies of men, and who for ages since has marked out our paths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with His will.”

(p. 53)

As they set out on the journey, Quatermain attempts to describe the mountain landscape, symbolic of the border realm between the two states of consciousness. But because this lies on the border of the subconscious, it is ineffable and beyond the ability to describe in words.

To describe the grandeur of the whole view is beyond my powers. There was something so inexpressibly solemn and overpowering about those huge volcanoes—for doubtless they are extinct volcanoes—that it fairly took our breath away. For a while the morning lights played upon the snow and the brown and swelling masses beneath, and then, as though to veil the majestic sight from our curious eyes, strange mists and clouds gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope. Indeed, as we afterwards discovered, they were normally wrapped in this curious gauzy mist, which doubtless accounted for one not having made them out before.

(p. 61)

Consciousness is eternal, and a symbol that frequently is used to represent the continuity of consciousness is the ourosboros, or the snake devouring its tail. This symbol is tattooed upon the body of Umbopa.

“Look,” he said: “what is this?” and he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.

(p. 103)

Later, Quatermain contemplates the eternal nature of the soul, or the subconscious.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

(p. 132)

When the adventurers finally enter the cave, they marvel at the forms, the strange creations of the subconscious, reminiscent of the forms in Plato’s cave. These forms are described as strange, since they exist beyond the realm of our ordinary waking consciousness.

Sometimes the stalactites took strange forms, presumably where the dropping of the water had not always been in the same spot.

(p. 173)

It is also worth noting that water is another symbol of the subconscious. Essentially, the hidden divine aspect of our consciousness is what creates the forms which eventually manifest in the material realm.

Quatermain then contemplates how the inside of the cave is illuminated.

… I was particularly anxious to discover, if possible, by what system the light was admitted into the place, and whether it was by the hand of man or of nature that this was done, also if it had been used in any way in ancient times, as seemed probable.

(p. 174)

This symbolizes one of the most important questions for humankind: From where did consciousness arise? Light is the symbol of consciousness, or the divine intellect. It casts light into the darker regions of the subconscious and enlightens us with the divine knowledge. But is this the result of our own doing, a construct of our own minds? Did we evolve this way? Or was some divine “nature” responsible for the gift of enlightenment?

When the group emerges from the cave, they are greeted by a friend who acknowledges the importance of their return to the world of normal consciousness, which is the symbolic end of the hero’s journey, the return from the land of the dead, or the deep reaches of the subconscious.

“Oh, my lords, my lords, it is indeed you come back from the dead!—come back from the dead!”

(p. 196)

I have to say, I really loved this book. It spoke to my sense of adventure, but also inspired me with its rich symbolism. And the quality of the writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it. It’s short and quick, and definitely worth it.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 1” by Lao Tzu

YinYang

Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name.

As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless:
As “the Mother” of all things, it is nameable.

These two flow from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.

The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.

(translation: John C. H. Wu)

As I read this passage, I thought about the yin/yang symbol. I have always interpreted this symbol as an expression of duality: light and dark, male and female, positive and negative, and so forth. But this passage made me consider the symbol as a representation of the Divine, the dark being the ineffable aspect of the Divine while the light is the illuminated aspect which is manifest in our realm and which we can perceive. There is also a small amount of the hidden within the manifest, as well as a small amount of the manifest within the hidden.

This brings us to the last line. For me, I see this as the purpose of meditation and contemplation. We will never be able to penetrate the “Mystery of mysteries” in our earthly existence, but through contemplating that which is unknowable, we can open the doors within ourselves and gain a sense of the divine essence which is within us and within everything that exists.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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“Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Since there are various translations of this poem, I am including the one by Roy Campbell, which is the version in my book.

Above the valleys and the lakes: beyond
The woods, seas, clouds and mountain-ranges: far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares or boredom hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

This is a great poem and has some amazing symbolism woven in. It basically attempts to describe the ecstatic feeling associated with shifting consciousness and then drawing artistic inspiration from that experience.

In the first stanza, the spirit (consciousness) of the poet rises above the earthly confines and floats upward into the cosmos. This represents the psyche transcending its worldly bonds and being freed to explore the vast mystery of the deep subconscious.

In the second stanza, Baudelaire associates the transcendent experience with sexual ecstasy. The spirit moves like sperm toward an egg, the union being the moment of creation. Essentially, when the spirit becomes one with the ineffable form, the result is the spark of creation, just as the sperm reaching the egg is the spark of new life.

The third stanza marks the transition from spark to flame, symbolic of the illumination that one experiences during the state of heightened awareness. It is akin to feeling intoxicated, which is why Baudelaire uses fire and liqueur as metaphors.

In the fourth stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges ennui as his motivation for striving to transcend. It is his boredom and sickness that forces him to seek beyond himself and the mundane. It is his desire to escape what he sees around him that inspires him to elevate his consciousness and explore the realms beyond our everyday experience.

The last stanza is my favorite. As the poet basks in the elevated state, he understands things that are outside the comprehension of ordinary consciousness. It is effortless and it fills him with bliss. “The speech of flowers and other voiceless things” refer to symbols, archetypes, and forms, those things that exist within our subconscious. These symbols have their own language and only one who is elevated above the mundane can comprehend them. The fact that these are described as voiceless implies that Baudelaire will never be able to express them adequately, even through his most inspired verse. At best, he can offer a glimpse of the beauty that exists just past the veil of our world.

The more I think about this poem, the more inspired I feel. I hope you feel the same way. Have a blessed and inspired day!

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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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