This is the fourth book in Castaneda’s series detailing his apprenticeship with the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan Matus. The concepts presented in this volume are infinitely more complex than those addressed in the first three books. Castaneda goes deep into explanations of the nagual and the tonal, shamanic terms used to describe the levels of reality available to a sorcerer. This information is far too dense for me to cover in a short blog post, so I won’t even attempt to do so. Instead, I want to discuss a passage that resonated with me and that I think can be adequately explored in a post.
“At this precise point a teacher would usually say to his disciple that they have arrived at a final crossroad,” he continued. “To say such a thing is misleading, though. In my opinion there is no final crossroad, no final step to anything. And since there is no final step to anything, there shouldn’t be any secrecy about any part of our lot as luminous beings. Personal power decides who can or who cannot profit by a revelation; my experiences with my fellow men have proven to me that very, very few of them would be willing to listen; and of those who listen even fewer would be willing to act on what they listened to; and of those who are willing to act even fewer have enough personal power to profit by their acts. So, the matter of secrecy about the sorcerers’ explanation boils down to a routine, perhaps a routine as empty as any other routine.”
The crossroads is one of my favorite symbols. In addition to representing a choice, it is also the intersection between the material and the spiritual planes. Combining these two interpretations, the crossroads can become a symbol for a choice as to whether to take a spiritual path or a material path. Echoing what don Juan says, there is never a final crossroad; every moment of your life provides you with an opportunity to make a decision which path you will follow. I will even be so bold as to assert that after taking your last breath, you are still at a crossroad where you will have to decide a path to take. Crossroads, like the circle, are infinite.
The other thing I found interesting in the cited passage is the secrecy associated with occult and mystical teachings. In the past, when certain teachings and ideas could land someone on a rack or in a bonfire, the need for secrecy was vital. But this is not the case anymore. Yet, some groups and societies still adhere to the practice of secrecy. I suspect this is habit or routine, as don Juan says, or out of greed for holding on to power, which I personally feel is the primary motivator. And I completely agree with the explanation that most people choose not to listen to esoteric teachings, and of those who do, few choose to practice and fewer still have the ability to be successful in the mystical pursuits. There is more information available for seekers than any one person can consume, and most of this is ignored or rejected.
I have been really enjoying rereading Castaneda’s works, but I think I am going to take a little break and catch up on some other reading before I dive into the fifth book: The Second Ring of Power. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.
In “Chapter IX: The Sun, A Universal Deity,” Manly P. Hall states:
The purpose of alchemy was not to make something out of nothing but rather to fertilize and nurture the seed which was already present. Its processes did not actually create gold but rather made the ever-present seed of gold grow and flourish. Everything which exists has a spirit—the seed of Divinity within itself—and regeneration is not the process of attempting to place something where it previously had not existed. Regeneration actually means the unfolding of the omnipresent Divinity in man, that this Divinity may shine forth as a sun and illumine all with whom it comes in contact.
For me, this sums up perfectly the practice of alchemy. It is essentially a symbolic system designed to teach individuals how to accomplish inner transformation, so that the divine light within shines forth like the purest of gold. Everything that exists has the spark of Divine energy within. The goal of alchemical transformation is to allow the alchemist to see the pure aspect of God within everything. Therefore, the secret of the philosopher’s stone is not that it grants the alchemist life everlasting, instead it reveals that the alchemist’s essence is a part of the Divine, and therefore, eternal.
There is an important lesson in the last line of the aforementioned quote. Once you have tapped into the Divine within you, you begin to shine in a way that others notice. In art, this is depicted as the aura or halo surrounding saints and sages. Additionally, with this enlightenment comes responsibility. The successful alchemist must, after inner transformation, work toward the transformation of all humanity, helping lift the collective consciousness closer to God consciousness.
Thanks for stopping by and reading. Have a transformative day.
This has always been my favorite of Castaneda’s books, primarily because the focus is on perception, and how once our perception is shifted, we are able to access other layers of reality that are beyond our “normal” levels of consciousness. This book goes into detail about how Carlos was instructed, under the guidance of the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, in the methods of shifting perception, which don Juan refers to as “stopping the world.” In the introduction to the text, Castaneda provides a nice summary of the technique.
“Stopping the world” was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow. In my case the set of circumstances alien to my normal flow of interpretations was the sorcery description of the world. Don Juan’s precondition for “stopping the world” was that one had to be convinced; in other words, one had to learn the new description in a total sense, for the purpose of pitting it against the old one, and in that way break the dogmatic certainty, which we all share, that the validity of our perceptions, or our reality of the world, is not to be questioned.
(pp. xiii – xiv)
According to don Juan’s teachings, there are myriad worlds layered upon our perceived reality, and these can be accessed by radical shifts in awareness. After one experience where Carlos experienced an alternate world, he questions don Juan about the “reality” of what he had experienced.
“And what is real?” don Juan asked me very calmly.
“This, what we’re looking at is real,” I said, pointing to the surroundings.
“But so was the bridge you saw last night, and so was the forest and everything else.”
“But if they were real where are they now?”
“They are here. If you had enough power you could call them back. Right now you cannot do that because you think it is very helpful to keep on doubting and nagging. It isn’t, my friend. It isn’t. There are worlds upon worlds, right here in front of us. And they are nothing to laugh at. Last night if I hadn’t grabbed your arm you would have walked on that bridge whether you wanted to or not. And earlier I had to protect you from the wind that was seeking you out.”
Toward the end of the book, don Genaro, a sorcerer friend of don Juan’s, shares a story with Carlos about a point in his life when he reached a certain stage on his path. In the story, he tells Carlos that after the experience, he tried to return to his home in Ixtlan, but was unable to return to his village.
“Genaro was telling his story for you,” don Juan said, “because yesterday you stopped the world, and he thinks that you also saw, but you are such a fool that you don’t know it yourself. I keep telling him that you are weird, and that sooner or later you will see. At any rate, in your next meeting with the ally, if there is a next time for you, you will have to wrestle with it and tame it. If you survive the shock, which I’m sure you will, since you’re strong and have been living like a warrior, you will find yourself alive in an unknown land. Then, as is natural to all of us, the first thing you will want to do is to start on your way back to Los Angeles. But there is no way to go back to Los Angeles. What you left there is lost forever. By then, of course, you will be a sorcerer, but that’s no help; at a time like that what’s important to all of us is the fact that everything we love or hate or wish for has been left behind. Yet the feelings in a man do not die or change, and the sorcerer starts on his way back home knowing that he will never reach it, knowing that no power on earth, not even his death, will deliver him to the place, the things, the people he loved. That’s what Genaro told you.”
This is a painful truth for all those who are on a mystical path. At some point, our lives will change in such a way that we can never return to our old life. How can someone who touched the Divine go home and watch Netflix? How can a person who has glimpsed the infinite look at a table the same way again? How can anyone who has visited another realm of reality trust our perceptions of our “normal” world? It is impossible, yet nostalgia drives us to attempt a return to our old reality, but that reality will never exist for us again.
Thanks for taking the time to share in my musings. I hope you found them interesting. Comments are open for two weeks following post date, so feel free to share any thoughts you may have.
Since my first post on this book, I read four chapters in this text (Chapters V through VIII), and these were dense chapters overflowing with information. So rather than attempting to summarize everything, I thought it would be best to pick a single passage and talk about it.
In “Chapter VIII: Isis, The Virgin of the World,” Hall discusses the symbolism of the Egyptian deity Typhon.
Typhon, the Egyptian Demon or Spirit of the Adversary, was born upon the third day. Typhon is often symbolized by a crocodile; sometimes his body is a combination of crocodile and hog. Isis stands for knowledge and wisdom, and according to Plutarch the word Typhon means insolence and pride. Egotism, self-centeredness, and pride are the deadly enemies of understanding and truth. This part of the allegory is revealed.
So my initial reaction upon reading this was to relate the image of Typhon with certain political figures whom, to me, seem to embody egotism, self-centeredness, and pride while attacking truth and wisdom. But I had to stop myself, because it dawned upon me that I too am guilty of allowing the energy of Typhon to influence my thoughts. The fact that I can quickly pass judgement and point out the defects in others is really nothing more than my own personal pride and egotism. And then I examined myself more closely, seeking out the ways in which I act from a place of self-centeredness and hubris. If I am honest with myself, I still have work to do, and this is the key. If you are blinded by pride and ego, it is impossible to be truthful with yourself, and when you are not truthful with yourself, it becomes impossible to progress along the spiritual path. Our inner Typhon is indeed the most deadly enemy of ourselves and our journey toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. I am reminded of the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.”
Self-honesty is really hard. It is easy to either ignore the aspects of ourselves that cause us discomfort, or to exaggerate our flaws and become our own harshest critic. Neither of these approaches are healthy. The difficult path of honest self-appraisal is crucial for all of us, but must be tempered with self-compassion.
Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Wishing you joy and light on your path, and a blessed 2022.
This is the second book in Castaneda’s account of his apprenticeship with the sorcerer don Juan. Chronologically, the events recounted in this text occur some years after the events recorded in The Teachings of Don Juan. Castaneda needed to take time away from the lessons because it seems he was having difficulty coming to terms with a new way of perceiving reality.
This book essentially deals with what don Juan terms “seeing,” which, in simplified terms, is a way of perceiving levels of reality that are beyond the comprehension of our ordinary states of consciousness.
Don Juan’s particular interest in his second cycle of apprenticeship was to teach me to “see.” Apparently in his system of knowledge there was the possibility of making a semantic difference between “seeing” and “looking” as two distinct manners of perceiving. “Looking” referred to the ordinary way in which we are accustomed to perceive the world, while “seeing” entailed a very complex process by virtue of which a man of knowledge allegedly perceives the “essence” of the things of the world.
Don Juan asserts that humans know very little about reality, and unlike certain animals, we are fooled by what our limited consciousness perceives.
“We men know very little about the world. A coyote knows much more than we do. A coyote is hardly ever fooled by the world’s appearance.”
Later, don Juan states that we maintain our limited view of reality through our internal dialog. Essentially, our minds are constantly talking to us, and this internal chatter defines our view of reality. Thus, by silencing our internal dialog, we are able to catch glimpses of how the world truly is.
“I’ll tell you what we talk to ourselves about. We talk about our world. In fact we maintain our world with our internal talk.”
“How do we do that?”
“Whenever we finish talking to ourselves the world is always as it should be. We renew it, we kindle it with life, we uphold it with our internal talk. Not only that, but we also choose our paths as we talk to ourselves. Thus we repeat the same choices over and over until the day we die, because we keep repeating the same internal talk over and over until the day we die.”
Don Juan continues by asserting that once we stop telling ourselves how the world is, our minds shift and we see the world differently.
“The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is. If we stop telling ourselves that the world is so-and-so, the world will stop being so-and-so. At this moment I don’t think you’re ready for such a momentous blow, therefore you must start slowly to undo the world.”
Although I have read this book twice before, I got a lot out of it on this reading. This is one of those books that takes on other levels of meaning as we progress along our individual paths.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have a great day!
I should begin this post by confessing that I think I have read this book more times than any other book. Not that it is Castaneda’s best book (that would be Journey to Ixtlan, in my humble opinion), but because I credit this book for putting me on the spiritual path. For that reason, I have gone back to it several times over the years. And now, since I have a desire to re-read all of Castaneda’s works, I figured I should start again at the beginning.
Before I share my thoughts on this book, I want to share a little personal history regarding how I was introduced to Carlos Castaneda. Back in my younger and crazier days, there was a biker bar a few blocks from where I lived called JR’s Tavern. Now this was the type of biker bar that you see depicted as a stereotype in films: small, grungy, smelly, couple pool tables, and frequent brawls. I at the time was under age, but there was a barmaid there named Troubles, and she liked me, so she would let me come in and drink, provided I sat near the back door so I could abscond quickly should there be a raid. One evening, after closing, Troubles invited me to stay and drink with her. We talked for a while, and the details are fuzzy, but at one point she started telling me about Carlos Castaneda. She said she was a “warrior” and followed the teachings of Castaneda, and based upon how well she knew me, she thought I should read his books. Wanting to impress the cool barmaid, I soon went to the bookstore and found a boxed set containing Castaneda’s first four books:
The Teachings of Don Juan
A Separate Reality
Journey to Ixtlan
Tales of Power
I started reading, and blew right through all four texts, and the impact they had on my life cannot be understated.
OK, now to discuss The Teachings.
In the early 1960’s, Carlos Castaneda was an anthropology student at the University of California. He was introduced to a native Mexican sorcerer named don Juan Matus, who was supposed to be knowledgeable in regard to psychotropic plants, particularly peyote. Castaneda wanted to do research on the use of these hallucinogenic plants in native religious practices, but ended up becoming don Juan’s apprentice. Castaneda’s books are his accounts of his apprenticeship.
Carlos Castaneda, under the tutelage of don Juan, takes us through that moment of twilight, through that crack in the universe between daylight and dark into a world not merely other than our own, but of an entirely different order of reality. To reach it he had the aid of mescalito, yerba del diablo, and humito—peyote, datura, and mushrooms. But this is no mere recounting of hallucinatory experiences, for don Juan’s subtle manipulations have guided the traveler while his interpretations give meaning to the events that we, through the sorcerer’s apprentice, have the opportunity to experience.
Early in Castaneda’s apprenticeship, don Juan tells him that to follow the path of knowledge is no trivial matter and must be approached as such.
“A man goes to knowledge as he goes to war, wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it will live to regret his steps.”
Throughout my life, I have explored numerous spiritual paths. Don Juan explains that there are many paths to follow on your quest, and the only correct path is the one that feels right to you. And, it is OK to change paths if one no longer serves you well.
“… Anything is one of a million paths [un camino entre cantidades de caminos]. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself, and yourself alone, one question. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young, and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does the path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. My benefactor’s question has meaning now. Does the path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, and the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.”
I suppose any discussion of Castaneda’s early work should include a quote where he details his experience using an hallucinogenic substance. In the following, quote, Castaneda describes his experience having smoked a mixture made with psylocibin mushrooms.
Don Juan sat next to me, to my right, and without moving held the pipe sheath against the floor as though keeping it down by force. My hands were heavy. My arms sagged, pulling my shoulders down. My nose was running. I wiped it with the back of my hand, and my upper lip was rubbed off! I wiped my face, and all the flesh was wiped off! I was melting! I felt as if my flesh was actually melting. I jumped to my feet and tried to grab hold of something—anything—with which to support myself. I was experiencing terror I had never felt before. I held onto a pole that don Juan keeps stuck on the floor in the center of his room. I stood there for a moment, then I turned to look at him. He was sitting motionless, holding his pipe, staring at me.
(p. 106 – 107)
My interpretation of this is that when an individual shifts to a non-ordinary state of awareness, reality as we have been trained to perceive it melts away, and we are confronted with a new reality that does not conform to our established mental construct. It is a frightening experience when it happens, but can have profound spiritual effects afterwards.
I will conclude this post with a few words about the second section of the book: “A Structural Analysis.” This was Castaneda’s attempt to analyze his experiences through the lens of academic logic. The result only serves to demonstrate that what he experienced cannot be classified or understood though our ordinary thought processes. I probably should have skipped it on this reading, but I did re-read it just to reinforce my thoughts on it.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, I plan on re-reading all of Castaneda’s books, although I will likely intersperse other books in there. Stay tuned for my thoughts on his second book: A Separate Reality.
Learning consists in daily accumulating;
The practice of Tao consists in daily diminishing.
Keep on diminishing and diminishing,
Until you reach the state of Non-Ado.
No-Ado, and yet nothing is left undone.
To win the world, one must renounce all.
If one still has private ends to serve,
One will never be able to win the world.
This passage really hits home for me. I have always considered learning to be of utmost importance in my life, the gathering and accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. But over the years, I have had to accept the fact that thoughts and knowledge are also just things to which we become attached. So for me, I have had to practice the subtle art of letting go of things I have learned, of not clinging to old ideas. In doing so, I am opening myself up to the inflow of new concepts, new knowledge and wisdom. As I look around at the social insanity that plays out in the world around me, I can see how so much of the discord is a direct result of the tenacious clinging to the antiquated ideas which we have learned. And this is not limited to one side of the socio-political spectrum. It’s rampant everywhere.
There is a line in the song “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors which encourages the listener to “Learn to forget.” I believe that Jim Morrison was echoing the ideas expressed by Lao Tzu in this passage. We must let go of the things we learned that no longer serve us or society, and make room for new ideas.
Reading metaphysical texts from the Renaissance period is challenging, and the challenge is often compounded when the text is alchemical and symbolic in nature. For this reason, I approached this text with a little trepidation. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it much more accessible than I had expected.
In order to better understand the text, some basic biographical information may be helpful.
Paracelsus (1493/4 – 24 September 1541), born Theophrastus von Hohenheim (full name Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim), was a Swiss physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the German Renaissance.
He was a pioneer in several aspects of the “medical revolution” of the Renaissance, emphasizing the value of observation in combination with received wisdom. He is credited as the “father of toxicology”.
He also had a substantial impact as a prophet or diviner, his “Prognostications” being studied by Rosicrucians in the 1700s. Paracelsianism is the early modern medical movement inspired by the study of his works.
I won’t spend a whole lot of time discussing Paracelsus’ medical writings from this book. But I will mention that he seemed to practice a form of holistic healing, treating the body and the spirit at the same time to promote optimal results. This is an idea which I personally embrace. I think spiritual and emotional unease manifests in physical ailment, and vice versa. Anyway, that is all I want to say regarding the medical aspects of this text.
The alchemical selections in this book I found fascinating. Paracelsus explains alchemy as the symbolic purification of the human soul.
Man must bring everything to perfection. This work of bringing things to their perfection is called “alchemy.” And he is an alchemist who carries what nature grows for the use of man to its destined end.
(pp. 92 – 3)
For the Great Physician created the ore but did not carry it to its perfect state; He has charged the miners with the task of refining it. In the same way He enjoined the physician to purify man’s body . . . from which purification man emerges as indestructible as gold.
Paracelsus believed that the next phase of human evolution would include an embrace of the mystical arts. He saw the next generation of humanity as one that would embrace spirituality and turn away from worldly trappings.
Know that man makes great discoveries concerning future and hidden things, which are despised and scoffed at by the ignorant who do not realize what nature can accomplish by virtue of her spirit . . . Thus, the uncertain arts are in such a state that a new generation must come, full of prophetic and sibylline spirit, which will awaken and direct the skills and arts.
(p. 132 – 3)
He then goes on to assert that God’s power is hidden within nature, and that it is in nature where humans must search for divine power.
For God has given His power to the herbs, put it in stones, concealed it in seeds; we should take it from them, we should seek it in them. The angels possess wisdom in themselves, but man does not. For him wisdom lies in nature, in nature he must seek it. His harvest is stored up in nature. Through nature God’s power is revealed to man, through nature he enters into his Father’s heritage, in wisdom and in the arts.
Finally, in the era of Twitter and social media, where people are wont to write whatever they want with little or no thought, Paracelsus reminds us of the divine power of the written word.
The Scripture says: the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life . . . That is to say, the spirit which bears nothing but the truth in itself. If a man adheres solely to the truth in his writings, it is not mere letters that he writes; it is the spirit that he sets down in its truth, the spirit that is invisible in itself and that must come to us through the written or spoken word . . . But if a man does not write the truth, he writes lies; and the letter that is a lie kills. Therefore let any desirous of writing be careful to keep always to the truth, that he may kill no one. For to kill is forbidden under the penalty of forfeiting eternal life.
(pp. 165 – 6)
I realize that this book is not for everyone. But if you are interested in the metaphysical, it is worth reading. You can certainly see the influence Paracelsus had on later thinkers in the area of mysticism.
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!
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.
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.