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“Who Goes With Fergus” by William Butler Yeats

irishwoods

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I read this poem after doing morning meditation, and it really spoke to me.

To understand this poem, you first need to know what Fergus symbolized for Yeats. According to M.L. Rosenthal, Yeats called Fergus the “poet of the Red Branch cycle, as Oisin was of the Fenian cycle of mythical tales of ancient Ireland.” So essentially, Fergus represents the archetype of the mystical poet who gives up pursuit of the worldly to seek the spiritual realms.

In this poem, Yeats asks the people of Ireland, who will follow the path that Fergus took, to turn away from the hopes and fears of daily life and pursue the mystic, which is symbolized by the woods, the sea, and the wandering stars. It is worth noting that Yeats uses three metaphors to describe the mystical realm. I believe this is intentional, evoking the trinity as well as the kabbalistic crown which represents the godhead. In kabbalah, the crown of the Tree of Life is comprised of three sephirot: Keter, Binah, and Chokhmah. Combined, these three symbolize the godhead from which all existence is manifested.

I could not help but wonder if Yeats was writing about himself, seeing himself as the one who is going forth with Fergus to explore the “shadows of the wood.” I suspect that he did see himself in this role, but that he was also reaching out to others to join him on this path, essentially saying “I am going with Fergus to explore the mysteries of the divine. Who else is willing to join me on this quest?” I for one am glad that Yeats extended this offer.

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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats

OldWomanByFire2

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This is such a sad and poignant poem. Yeats appears to be writing to Maud Gonne, entreating her to read his words when she is old and nearing death in order to remember the love he felt for her. There is some beautiful symbolism included, particularly the fire, which represents both her life and the passion that Yeats felt for her. The fire is dying and turning to embers, or “glowing bars.” The shadows are the fading memories of the past.

While this is a beautiful and touching poem about his feelings for Gonne, there is more to it. As with most of Yeats’ poems, there is something mystical hidden within the lines. Yeats was well versed in kabbalah, so I suspect he was making a reference to the Shekhinah, which is essentially the divine feminine aspect of the godhead.

“In the imagery of the Kabbalah the shekhinah is the most overtly female sefirah, the last of the ten sefirot, referred to imaginatively as ‘the daughter of God’. … The harmonious relationship between the female shekhinah and the six sefirot which precede her causes the world itself to be sustained by the flow of divine energy. She is like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The unnamed woman to whom Yeats is speaking in the poem is described as having a “changing face,” which establishes the connection to the moon and reinforces the symbolic relationship between Maud Gonne and the Shekhinah.

Finally, I think there is a third interpretation to this poem. I believe that the woman to whom Yeats is speaking is also a symbolic representation of Ireland. Yeats was writing in the peak of the Irish Renaissance, and he felt it was paramount to restore Irish mythology to the national identity. Therefore, Yeats was implying that when the flames of the Irish Renaissance are not burning as brightly as before, then Ireland should refer back to his poems, to rekindle the passion and interest in the rich mythology that is part of Ireland’s heritage.

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Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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“The Sorrow of Love” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

I read this poem a couple times through to try to get a sense of what Yeats was conveying. I suspected that he was making references to Maud Gonne, and a quick search online confirmed this. So then I thought about what aspect of his love for Gonne might be causing him sorrow, and I suspect it is connected with the symbolism of the fall in the Garden of Eden.

There is a definite impression of Eden, especially in the first and third stanzas. The reference to “man’s image” implies the archetypal being embodied in Adam. Also, the image of the “famous harmony of leaves” conjures a vision of the innocent state of man in the Garden, contrasted by the “lamentation of the leaves” which may refer to the use of leaves by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after the fall.

I get the sense that Yeats felt like he sacrificed something deep and meaningful to himself for Maud, or else he became separated from her and left lost and adrift like Odysseus, trying to return to her. I am not sure, but there is a tangible feeling of sadness associated with his love for Gonne.

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“The Pity of Love” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

A pity beyond all telling
Is hid in the heart of love:
The folk who are buying and selling,
The clouds on their journey above,
The cold wet winds ever blowing,
And the shadowy hazel grove
Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,
Threaten the head that I love.

For such a short poem, I find this very challenging. The difficulty in deciphering the meaning lies in the fact that it is unclear who or what love symbolizes. As is often the case with Yeats, there are several possible interpretations.

One possibility is that the love he is describing is the love for a woman. The pity is that as time passes, symbolized by the clouds, the winds, and the flowing waters, the chances are that the object of his love will also change and their love will not last. Physical love, like everything else in this world, is subject to change and as a result frequently temporary.

Another interpretation is that the object of the love in this poem is Ireland. The pity then would be that as Yeats observes the scenes about Ireland which he finds so moving and inspiring, he knows that his country is changing, that the Ireland of myth will eventually fade into the mists of obscurity and distant memory.

Finally, the love of this poem could also represent the godhead, since Yeats makes it clear at the end that it is a head that he loves. The pity then would be that although Yeats feels a deep love and connection with the divine source, he knows that he must exist within this world and cannot become one with the godhead until after he dies and leaves the beauty and inspiration of this life behind. This creates an inner conflict as Yeats longs both for unification with the divine and communion with the divine creation which is this world, but is painfully aware that he cannot have both at the same time.

Sometimes it seems that the shorter the poem is, the more difficult it is to interpret. There is less to work with. That said, Yeats was the master of evoking myriad images with his words. So while I am leaning more toward the idea of the embodiment of love being the godhead, I feel that Yeats also crafted his symbol to represent other vessels of love.

Feel free to share any other interpretations or impressions that you have. Cheers, and keep reading interesting and challenging stuff.

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