Tag Archives: interpretation

Thoughts on “The Ideal” by Charles Baudelaire

Night by Michelangelo

Never those beauties in old prints vignetted,
Those shopworn products of an worthless age,
With slippered feet and fingers castanetted,
The thirst of hearts like my heart can assuage.

To Gavarni, the poet of chloroses,
I leave his troupe of beauties sick and wan;
I cannot find among those pale, pale roses
The red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.

Lady Macbeth, a soul strong in crime,
Aeschylus’ dream born in a northern clime—
Ah, you could quench my dark heart’s deep desiring;

Or you, Michelangelo’s daughter, Night,
In a strange posture dreamily admiring
Your beauty fashioned for a giant’s delight!

(translation: F.P. Sturm)

This poem is Baudelaire’s critique of the artistic ideal of beauty. He asserts that beauty expressed through art is unrealistic, and the result is a “dark heart’s deep desiring” for something that does not exist.

In the second stanza, he contrasts “pale, pale roses” with the “red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.” The roses here symbolize women, the red rose being an artistic representation of the idealized female form, and the pale rose being a real woman.

Baudelaire’s argument is still valid today. We still have an ideal of what beauty should be, and this ideal is something that no amount of plastic surgery can bestow upon a person. We all have flaws and imperfections, and I think what Baudelaire is asserting here is that it is our imperfections that convey our true beauty, those unique qualities that are specific to an individual.

As long as we lust after the ideal of beauty, we will always be disillusioned, unhappy, and burdened with the longing for something we will never attain.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 58” by Lao Tzu

Where the ruler is mum, mum,
The people are simple and happy.
Where the ruler is sharp, sharp,
The people are wily and discontented.

Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,
Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Is there no norm of right?
Yet what is normal soon becomes abnormal,
And what is auspicious soon turns ominous.
Long indeed have the people been in a quandary.

Therefore, the Sage squares without cutting, carves without disfiguring, straightens without straining, enlightens without dazzling.

This passage seems especially timely given the current state of affairs in the US. As we grapple with public outrage and social disruption, the sharp responses we have seen have failed to calm the situation. As Lao Tzu points out, people are discontented.

I can’t stop thinking about the last line of the second stanza: “Long indeed have the people been in a quandary.” It has been a painfully long time that we seem to have been dealing with the same set of social issues. I do not claim to know how to begin addressing the myriad problems facing our society, but I agree with Lao Tzu that our normal has become abnormal. All I can do is try to encourage change through personal example.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe and be a positive power in the world.

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Thoughts on “Balzac” by Aleister Crowley

Rodin’s Balzac

I’ve been slowly working my way through The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, which is quite a long book, so I’ve been interspersing it with other books and poems. So far, Crowley spends a lot of time emphasizing his brilliance as a poet, going so far as to view himself as superior to Yeats (a fine example of hubris, in my humble opinion). But he did include a sonnet which he said was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Honoré de Balzac, the French writer (see image above). I felt the poem was worth talking about. Here is the text for reference:

Giant, with iron secrecies ennighted,
Cloaked, Balzac stands and sees. Immense disdain,
Egyptian silence, mastery of pain,
Gargantuan laughter, shake or still the ignited
Statue of the Master, vivid. Far, affrighted,
The stunned air shudders on the skin. In vain
The Master of La Comédie Humaine
Shadows the deep-set eyes, genius lighted.

Epithalamia, birth songs, epitaphs,
Are written in the mystery of his lips.
Sad wisdom, scornful shame, grand agony
In the coffin folds of the cloak, scarred mountains, lie,
And pity hides i’ th’ heart. Grim knowledge grips
The essential manhood. Balzac stands, and laughs.

Crowley explains that he wrote the poem in support of Rodin, who was being harshly criticized regarding the sculpture.

The sculpture was not received well by the critics; Rodin took the negativity as a personal attack. Many disliked the grotesque stature of the figure while others criticized the work to be very similar to that of the Italian impressionist Medardo Rosso. As well, reports surfaced before the unveiling of the sculpture regarding anticipated dismay over the final outcome of the artwork. The Société des Gens de Lettres decided to disregard the commission to Rodin and not accept the sculpture.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Personally, I love when artists find inspiration from artistic works of different mediums. So here we have a poem, written about a sculpture, which was inspired by the works of a novelist. To me, this exemplifies how all artistic forms are connected, that they all seek to elevate the human consciousness to loftier planes.

As I look at Rodin’s sculpture and consider Crowley’s words, I get the sense that Crowley’s admiration of this work stems from the cloak of mystery that seems to enshroud Balzac. From what I gather about Crowley, he would likely have related to the feeling of being cloaked, particularly from the ritualistic occult perspective. And even artistically. As I read more of his writings, I get the sense that he was attempting to create this myth about himself, wrapping himself in a woven tale to give him a mystique as a prophet and occultist.

While I don’t think that Crowley is as great of a poet as he claims he was, it is interesting to read his poems nonetheless, because if nothing else, poems provide a window into the writer’s psyche.

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“Sonnet 38: How can my Muse want subject to invent” by William Shakespeare

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

This is another of the Fair Youth sonnets, expressing love toward a young man. It is pretty straight-forward. The speaker in the poem is identifying the fair youth as the source of his poetic inspiration, assigning him status among the traditional nine Greek muses to whom poets and artists have offered supplication.

There is really not much else to be said about this poem. Its beauty lies in its simplicity.

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Thoughts on “Initiation” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Whoever you are, go out into the evening,
leaving your room, of which you know each bit;
your house is the last before the infinite,
whoever you are.
Then with your eyes that wearily
scarce lift themselves from the worn-out door-stone
slowly you raise a shadowy black tree
and fix it on the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world (and it shall grow
and ripen as a word, unspoken, still).
When you have grasped its meaning with your will,
then tenderly your eyes will let it go…

(translation: C.F. MacIntyre)

It dawned on me that up to this point I have not shared my thoughts on any of Rilke’s poetry here, so I am amending that issue right now.

As I read and thought about this poem, two interpretations came to me. The first of these is that the reader is being beckoned to be initiated into the transcendent wonder of Nature. Rilke encourages the reader to leave the sterile and safe domicile and venture out into the wild, creative, and divine realm of the natural world.

The other interpretation I see is that Rilke is describing death as an initiation of sorts, marking the transition when the soul becomes one with the divine source. The house that he mentions is a symbol for the body, which houses the spirit and is the last residence of the soul “before the infinite.” The “worn-out door-stone” represents the tombstone, marking the transition from material to spiritual. Finally, the raising of the “shadowy black tree” that is being fixed in the sky implies that the soul is no longer rooted in this world, but is now being firmly planted in the divine realm.

I really enjoyed this poem a lot, and I will definitely be looking at more of Rilke’s work in upcoming posts. I hope you found this inspiring, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section.

Cheers!

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“To Jealousy” by Mary Robinson

A thousand torments wait on love;
The sigh, the tear, the anguish’d groan!
But he who never learnt to prove
A jealous pang, has nothing known.

For jealousy, supreme of wo,
Nursed by distorted fancy’s power,
Can round the heart bid misery grow,
Which darkens with the lingering hour;

While shadows, blanks to reason’s orb,
In dread succession haunt the brain;
And pangs, that every pang absorb,
In wild convulsive tumults reign.

At morn, at eve, the fever burns,
While phantoms tear the aching breast;
Day brings no calm, and night returns,
But marks no soothing hour of rest.

Not when the bosom’s wasted fires
Are all extinct, is anguish o’er;
For jealousy, which ne’er expires,
Can wound—when passion is no more.

Mary Robinson was an 18th century actress, poet, dramatist, and novelist whose work is associated with English Romanticism.

This poem works really well because it conveys powerful emotion and uses metaphor appropriately so that the poem is both evocative and accessible. And the topic is something so universal that any reader can relate to it.

Anyone who has ever been truly in love knows the pain of jealousy. Even when we know that our relationships are solid and there is no cause for jealousy, somehow, the phantom seems to creep into an unsuspecting brain. And this is why Ms. Robinson’s poem works so well. She incorporates the imagery of phantoms haunting the consciousness in silence and darkness, which is the perfect breeding ground for jealousy. When your fears are exposed to the light, jealousy often rapidly fades, but it thrives in the loneliness of the obsessive mind, feeding upon itself and gaining strength as the individual suffers in silence.

There is not a lot that I feel needs to be explained here. The symbolism and metaphors are clear, and the emotion expressed is obvious. I hope you enjoyed the poem, and if you are currently harboring feelings of jealousy, get them out in the open, otherwise they will consume you.

Thanks for stopping by.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 57” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

You govern a kingdom by normal rules;
You fight a war by exceptional moves;
But you win the world by letting alone.
How do I know that this is so?
By what is within me!

The more taboos and inhibitions there are in the world,
The poorer the people become.
The sharper the weapons the people possess,
The greater confusion reigns in the realm.
The more clever and crafty the men,
The oftener strange things happen.
The more articulate the laws and ordinances,
The more robbers and thieves arise.

Therefore, the Sage says:
I do not make any fuss, and the people transform themselves.
I love quietude, and the people settle down in their regular grooves.
I do not engage myself in anything, and the people grow rich.
I have no desires, and the people return to Simplicity.

This beautiful passage can be succinctly summed up by saying that the more we try to control things, the more things go awry. I learned a valuable lesson a long time ago, that I am powerless over people, places, and things. The only thing I have control over is how I choose to react to situations that occur in life. And it’s my experience that if I pause and reflect before I act, I usually make better choices, or I come to the realization that what seemed like an overwhelming  problem was not quite as big as my obsessive mind made it appear at first.

These days, I try not to spend too much time indulging in news or social media hysteria. But I do glance and wonder at the strangeness of these times, and I’m inclined to believe that if people would step back and stop freaking out, things would improve.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you have a wonderful day.

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Thoughts on “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

I originally read this book as a teenager and figured it was high time I read it again. It made an impression on me all those years ago, but I knew that reading it at this stage in my life would be a completely different experience.

So now I face the problem of writing a post about this book. This text is so rich, and there is such a wealth of wisdom contained in its 149 pages, how could I possibly do this book justice? But as I begin writing, I realize that it doesn’t really matter what I write. This book transcends anything I could possibly say about it. It will resonate differently for each person who reads it, based upon where they are on their individual paths. So I will just share what resonated with me during this reading.

He saw people going through their lives in the manner of a child or an animal, and he both loved and disdained this at the same time. He saw them striving—and suffering and getting gray—over things that seemed to him completely unworthy of this price: over money, over small pleasures, over a little respect.

(p. 71)

How many of us have wasted much of our lives chasing after these types of things, distractions that only offer us a brief respite from our unhappiness? And then, once the novelty has worn off, the void returns and we continue the dismal cycle of striving after things that we think will bring us happiness, but only cause more suffering. It seems that we are all destined to go through this to some extent. I certainly did for a while, and if I am honest, I still do, although thankfully to a lesser extent. I still seek and enjoy my “small pleasures”: books, music, good food, etc. But I try to keep this in perspective and not let it become the focus of my life. There is so much more to experience, and what feels like precious little time left. I refuse to waste any more time chasing phantoms, trying to acquire things that in the end will mean nothing to me.

But what a journey that was! I had to pass through so much ignorance, so much vice, such great misunderstanding, so much revulsion and disappointment and misery—just to become a child again and start over. But it was right. My heart affirms it. My eyes laugh upon it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the level of the stupidest of all thoughts, the thought of suicide, in order to be able to experience grace, to hear OM again, to sleep properly and be able to awaken properly.

(pp. 95 – 96)

Spiritual growth and enlightenment is not a result of denying and rejecting the material world. One is graced with spiritual enlightenment as a result of going through the challenges and difficulties that life presents. When I look back on my life, I went through a lot of hard times, a lot of pain, and a lot of deep despair. But had I not gone through it all, I would not be the person I am today. We do not grow as individuals through ease and comfort. It is adversity and difficulty that forces us to search deep within ourselves for the strength to take another step. It is through learning to deal with life’s challenges that we gain wisdom. After all, we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience.

No, a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could not accept any doctrine. But he who had found realization could look with favor on any teaching, any path, any goal. Nothing any longer separated him from a thousand others who lived the eternal, who breathed the divine.

(p. 109)

Everyone must follow their own path, and all true spiritual paths lead to the same destination. We seek the same thing. We all need to encourage others to follow their paths, and not come from a place of fear where we need to argue the validity of our own paths. Judging others because of the spiritual paths they choose does not strengthen our individual faith; it only diminishes someone else’s and makes their journey more difficult than it need be.

I’m really glad I read this again. This is one of those universal books which every human being should read, at least once. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my words. May you find happiness on your journey.

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Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

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“Sonnet 37: As a decrepit father takes delight” by William Shakespeare

Painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

In this sonnet, Shakespeare is comparing the adoration he feels toward the fair youth to the love an aging father feels toward his children. As a father who has passed middle age, it is this feeling to which I relate.

When I look at my kids, or talk with them on the phone, I catch aspects of myself reflected in them. As a parent, I have tried to impart only the better parts of myself, but I also see my shortcomings. I guess it’s a package deal. We try to share our experiences, strengths, and hopes, but inadvertently, we also share our fears, flaws, and sufferings. Essentially, we share our lives.

When I see my children happy, the feeling of joy that wells within me is something that is beyond my normal happiness. It is like a geyser of euphoria erupting from my soul. Conversely, when I see my children sad or in pain, the anguish I feel knows no depth. I suspect any parent reading this can relate.

These uncertain times are making me appreciate what is truly important in my life, the relationships to people I love. I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope you and your family are all safe and healthy.

Many blessings.

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