Tag Archives: interpretation

Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 34” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

The Great Tao is universal like a flood.
How can it be turned to the right or to the left?

All creatures depend on it,
And it denies nothing to anyone.

It does its work,
But it makes no claims for itself.

It clothes and feeds all,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Little.”

All things return to it as to their home,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Great.”

It is just because it does not wish to be great
That its greatness is fully realised.

As I read this passage and contemplated it, I got the sense of the Tao as both the source and the destination. Consider the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses of the flood. All water has the ocean as its source, and all water eventually flows back to the ocean. It is the same with the spirit. All spirits have the Divine as their source, and all spirits return to the Divine. And just as a flood can be both destructive and nourishing, so can the human soul be destructive and nourishing. But ultimately, it is all part of the same flow.

I frequently need to remind myself that there is always a balance between the positive and the negative. So much attention is focused on the negative that it is easy to overlook the fact that there is exactly the same amount of positive in the universe. One can never exceed the other. It then just becomes a question of where do we want to focus our attention. For me, I try to just acknowledge the negative while focusing on the positive. That seems to work best in managing the broad swings of the pendulum.

Thanks for taking the time to read my musings, and I hope you have a blessed day.

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“Sonnet 30: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

This poem is one of the “fair youth” sonnets. It essentially contrasts the emotional states associated with focusing on the past as opposed to the present.

The beginning of the sonnet is filled with the alliterative “s” sound, emulating the sound of a sigh, which is actually mentioned in the third line. The speaker is lost in thought about the past, obsessed with wasted time, failed endeavors, and lost loves. There is also a sense of mortality, as the person remembers the deaths of his friends and presumably contemplates his own. The focus on the past becomes so intense, that he is actually renewing and reliving his pain and loss. This is something I feel we have all experienced, at least I know for sure that I have. In my quiet times, it is easy for me to replay old tapes of the past and imagine what might have been, to mourn missed opportunities and lost friendships. This is exactly the feeling that Shakespeare is conveying in this poem.

But the last couplet provides a stark contrast to the prevailing mood of the sonnet. Here his focus shifts from the past to his current relationship with the fair youth, and you get the sense that the speaker is immediately able to let go of the past and appreciate what is truly important: the connection with people here and now.

We have a very limited time in our lives, and to waste that precious time obsessing about the past is a tragedy. To quote Ram Dass, we need to “Be Here Now.” We cannot change the past, and the future is uncertain. All we have is this moment. Take advantage of it and enjoy your connection with your friends and loved ones.

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This has been on my list of mystical books to read for quite a long time. A couple years ago, I found a copy at a garage sale and bought it. Of course, I felt guilty every time I saw it unread upon the shelf. But I finally got around to reading it, and probably right when I needed to.

This particular copy includes a large amount of introductory text. Usually, I skip introductions, but the commentaries here were very enlightening and I’m glad I read them, particularly Carl Jung’s introduction to the text.

Before embarking upon the psychological commentary, I should like to say a few words about the text itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thödol, is a book of instructions for the dead and dying. Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence, symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty-nine days’ duration between death and rebirth. The text falls into three parts. The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events.

 (p. xxxv – xxxvi)

Because the book deals primarily with what happens to one’s consciousness after death, the text is understandably highly symbolic. As Lama Govinda points out in his introductory section, whenever the subconscious is being explored, it must be approached through the use of symbols.

If, through some trick of nature, the gates of an individual’s subconsciousness were suddenly to spring open, the unprepared mind would be overwhelmed and crushed. Therefore, the gates of the subconscious are guarded, by all initiates, and hidden behind the veil of mysteries and symbols.

(p. liii)

Lama Govinda then points out a common misconception regarding the Bardo Thödol. Many people may assume that the text is a set of instructions solely intended for the dead or dying. But this is not the only purpose. For people pursuing a spiritual path, there comes a time when they must symbolically die, essentially killing their former selves so that they can be reborn as an enlightened being.

Such misunderstanding could only have arisen among those who do not know that it is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.

(p. lix – lx)

During the 49-day period in which a person’s consciousness is in the Bardo, the individual experiences numerous visions. The text is very clear that these visions are nothing but illusion. The goal, then, is to recognize that what we perceive, in this reality as well as in the Bardo, is illusory by nature. Once we recognize that what we sense is illusion, our consciousness becomes free.

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsāric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvānic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.

(p. 35)

The text offers a great prayer which should be used when facing the terrifying visions associated with the Bardo state.

Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity]of achieving a great end,
I may not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

(p. 103)

Fear is a manifestation of our thoughts. While some fears may be justified, the fact remains that fear is pure thought, which then triggers a physical response to the mental visions. This is something that is carried on with us to the next stage of existence. When our consciousness moves to the next plane, it brings with it the capacity to generate fearful images which can then paralyze the progress of the spirit.

O nobly-born, whatever fearful and terrifying visions thou mayst see, recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.

(p. 147)

I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of this symbolically rich and complex text. But hopefully I encouraged you to read it yourself and explore the wisdom woven into the book. I suspect that this is something I will read again in the future.

Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 33” by Lao Tzu

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.

This is one of those passages where every word resonates with truth. I read this short section three times and found it so perfect in its brevity and wisdom.

The second line really made me think about the word “insight” in a way I never really did before. To have insight is to see beneath the surface, to peer deep within yourself, and grasp the true nature of your being. To have real insight is a tremendous accomplishment. I feel like this word has become trivialized through overuse. If you stop and think about it, very few individuals gain a deep understanding of themselves, hence very few of us ever gains true insight.

The first line of the second stanza also struck me as profoundly true: “He who knows when he has got enough is rich.” We westerners, ensconced in our consumer society, never seem to feel we have enough. There is always something else to strive for, something better which we desire. But how much material stuff do we need, and is real wealth measured by how much stuff or money you have? I suspect that to be rich in the way Lao Tzu is describing is to be content with having your necessities met, and being fulfilled spiritually.

Finally, I thought about the last line a lot. What does it mean to die, but not perish? At first I considered that it may mean becoming one with the divine source after leaving this mortal world. And this is still a valid interpretation. But then I wondered if death here symbolizes something else, something that is connected with the rest of the passage. I began to suspect that maybe to die, as Lao Tzu suggests in this passage, means to end the constant materialistic striving which defines the lives of so many of us. Maybe dying is letting go of our grip on the material world and embracing the spiritual. Doing so will fill us with wisdom, a treasure which remains with us after we free ourselves from the body.

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“Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” by William Shakespeare

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

As I read this sonnet this morning, I was reminded of a saying which I frequently tell myself: “Don’t compare your insides with another person’s outsides.” We all have a tendency to look at others and see those things that we feel we are lacking in our lives, and then amplify them to the point that we end up inflicting suffering on ourselves. It’s kind of an amazing human quality that we can look at almost any person and see something which we wish we had. But if we were to “switch lives” with that other person, we could not just cherry-pick the few wonderful things we desire—we would have to take the entire package. At this point, becoming that other person almost always loses its appeal.

Shakespeare realizes this and expresses it toward the end of the sonnet. Once he turns his focus away from others and looks within, he sees that he is blessed with a deep love. He is able to see that the king’s riches and the other writers’ successes come at a price, and that he would have to sacrifice the closeness and the connection he feels with his beloved. He is not willing to do that, and I can totally relate. While I would like to be financially comfortable, spend my time travelling the world, be successful playing music, the truth is, if it meant sacrificing the great things in my life, I could not do it. My relationships with my family and friends are way more important to me than all that external stuff.

Hopefully, this sonnet will help you appreciate the wonderful things in your life. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day!

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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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