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“The Moods” by William Butler Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 39” by Lao Tzu

From of old there are not lacking things that have attained Oneness.
The sky attained Oneness and became clear;
The earth attained Oneness and became calm;
The spirits attained Oneness and became charged with mystical powers;
The fountains attained Oneness and became full;
The ten thousand creatures attained Oneness and became reproductive;
Barons and princes attained Oneness and became sovereign rulers of the world.
All of them are what they are by virtue of Oneness.

If the sky were not clear, it would be likely to fall to pieces;
If the earth were not calm, it would be likely to burst into bits;
If the spirits were not charged with mystical powers, they would be likely to cease from being;
If the fountains were not full, they would be likely to dry up;
If the ten thousand creatures were not reproductive, they would be likely to come to extinction;
If the barons and princes were not the sovereign rulers, they would be likely to stumble and fall.

Truly, humility is the root from which greatness springs,
And the high must be built upon the foundation of the low.

That is why barons and princes style themselves “The Helpless One,” “The Little One,” and “The Worthless One.”
Perhaps they too realize their dependence on the lowly.

Truly, too much honour means no honour.
It is not wise to shine like jade and resound like stone-chimes.

I found this passage to be challenging, but after reading it a couple times, I think I finally understand the essence.

Nothing can attain its fullness or true nature unless it is aligned with the One, or the divine source of all being. Essentially, this means everything must exist in balance with itself and the world around it. To be in balance is to accept your dependence upon other people and upon nature in general. Regardless of how great or powerful a person or thing may appear, it is always dependent upon other things to support it. A mountain could not reach the skies without a firm foundation on the earth. Likewise, elevated individuals could not reach their heights without the support of the people around them.

In Western culture, especially here in the United States, importance is placed on the individual, and the rights of the individual. This, in my opinion, has contributed to the social issues that we are grappling with. Eventually, we must learn to live in balance and think of ourselves as one with the people around us, or we will dry up like the fountain that is not full.

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“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

Homer and Keats: Source - BBC

Homer and Keats: Source – BBC

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This is considered to be Keats’ first great sonnet, which was composed after reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman, an Elizabethan poet (source: English Romantic Writers).

The poem is broken into two parts, and each section has a different rhyme scheme. The first eight lines comprise the first section which follows an ABBA pattern. This depicts Keats before reading Homer. He describes having visited “realms of gold” and “western islands.” These are metaphors for the poems that he had read up until that time. These were beautiful poems and worthy of Apollo, the god of poetry, but after reading Homer, his entire view on poetry changes, symbolized by the shift in rhyme pattern in the second half.

The last six lines follow an ABABAB scheme and describe how Keats became aware of realms he never knew existed. He first makes an allusion to William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781, an entire world which was previously unknown. He then compares himself to Cortez and uses the phrase “eagle eyes” to represent his new-found clarity of vision. He describes his feeling as standing upon a mountain in Darien (which is in Panama), and gazing out in awe at a new ocean, which symbolizes the vast depths of new and unexplored poetic inspiration.

I really relate to Keats’ emotions in this poem. I have felt this way in my life, as I am sure most of you have too. When you read that poem or book that changes your view of the world, or hear that song or see that film that opens up a whole new universe of possibilities. This is the true transformative power of art and it is why I read, and listen to new music, and watch films, and go to museums to see paintings.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspiring day.

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“Beyond the Wall” by Edward Abbey

BeyondWall

I picked this book up while visiting The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. I was introduced to the writings of Edward Abbey in college when I took a class on environmental literature. We covered Desert Solitaire in the class, and I also read The Monkey Wrench Gang for my independent project. Both books made a lasting impression on me.

This book is a compilation of ten essays that Abbey wrote about his experiences in the wild, the area he considers to be beyond the wall of controlled civilization. This is the area that Abbey considers to be the real world, where you can discover who you truly are.

Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire and razor wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways, beyond the cemented banksides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers, beyond the rage of lies that poisons the air, there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it. And then—

(p. xvi)

Like Abbey, I love to hike, and he points out what it is about hiking which is so amazing: it is an authentic and spiritual experience.

Why do I do this? (My feet hurt.)Why? Well, it’s the need, I guess, for some sort of authentic experience. (My hip joint hurts.) As opposed to the merely synthetic experience of books, movies, TV, regular urban living. (My neck hurts.) To meet my God, my Maker once again, face to face, beneath my feet, beyond my arms, above my head.

(p. 14)

I firmly believe that the root of our environmental problems is human overpopulation, and Abbey shares this sentiment in very strong terms.

To aid and abet in the destruction of a single species or in the extermination of a single tribe is to commit a crime against God, a mortal sin against Mother Nature. Better by far to sacrifice in some degree the interests in mechanical civilization, curtail our gluttonous appetite for things, ever more things, learn to moderate our needs, and most important, and not difficult, learn to control, limit and gradually reduce our human numbers. We humans swarm over the planet like a plague of locusts, multiplying and devouring. There is no justice, sense of decency in this mindless global breeding spree, this obscene anthropoid fecundity, this industrialized mass production of babies and bodies, ever more bodies and babies. The man-centered view of the world is anti-Christian, anti-Buddhist, antinature, antilife and—antihuman.

(p. 40)

In Desert Solitaire, Abbey criticizes the development of access roads in wilderness areas so that anyone can visit these remote “natural” settings. He reiterates these thoughts in Beyond the Wall, asserting that once an area is made accessible, it is no longer the same and loses its magical essence.

Today the old North Wash trail road is partly submerged by the reservoir, the rest obliterated. The state has ripped and blasted and laid asphalt highway through and around the area to link the new tin bridges with the outside world. The river is gone, the ferry is gone, Dandy Crossing is gone. Most of the formerly primitive road from Blanding west has been improved beyond recognition. All of this, the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the region easily accessible for everybody, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid. That is a lie.

It is a lie. For those who go there now, smooth, comfortable, quick and easy, sliding through as slick as grease, will never see what we saw. They will never feel what we felt. They will never know what we knew, or understand what we cannot forget.

(p. 67)

I feel that as a global society, we are getting more and more distracted by the trappings of modern technology, and we are losing our connection to the wonders, beauty, and mystery which is our world. There is so much still out there, waiting to inspire us. With that, I want to close this post with one more quote about the ability of our amazing planet to stretch the boundaries of our consciousness and our imagination.

What can I say except confess that I have seen but little of the real North, and of that little understood less. The planet is bigger than we ever imagined. The world is colder, more ancient, more strange and more mysterious than we had dreamed. And we puny human creatures with our many tools and toys and fears and hopes make only one small leaf on the great efflorescing tree of life.

Too much. No equation however organic, no prose however royally purple, can bracket our world within the boundaries of mind.

(p. 203)

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Analysis of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth: The transcendent power of Nature

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This is one of my favorite poems, and it’s been a while since I read it last. But today was a beautiful and warm day, so after spending a few hours working in the yard, I got my copy of English Romantic Writers, opened to the section on Wordsworth, and read “Tintern Abbey” while sitting outside, basking in sunshine.

I first read this poem in college. As part of my English Lit class, we had to read all of the Lyrical Ballads. I was so moved the first time I read this poem. It expressed in words how I felt being in Nature, the transcendent feeling, the resonance deep within my soul. And that is what I want to focus this post on—how Wordsworth addresses the transcendent power of Nature in this poem.

The poem is fairly long, so I will not include the entire text, but here is a link to an online version should you want to read it in its entirety.

Poetry Foundation

In the second stanza, Wordsworth expresses how he had spent a long time away from Nature, living in the city. He describes how he visualized scenes in Nature as a way of maintaining his spiritual connection. He then goes on to describe how, being in Nature and focusing on the harmony of the natural world, one becomes open to the transcendent experience, experiencing enlightenment through the transformative power of Nature.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

As a kid, I love being in the woods. I would go camping, hiking, and fishing. It was a place of escape and adventure. But as I got older, I developed a different sense of Nature. I would go off and sit beside a stream, gazing at the water and listening to the gentle sounds that surrounded me, and then easily slip into a deep meditative state. Wordsworth expresses this feeling beautifully at the end of the fourth stanza.

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

But it is the fifth stanza that in my opinion best conveys the reverence Wordsworth feels toward Nature. Not only is Nature a means for transcendence, it is also healing and nurturing. Like so many of us, there have been times in my life where I have gotten caught up in work, stress, and the monotonous grind of daily life. But all it takes is an hour or two in the woods, walking along a mountain trail or sitting beside a stream, and I feel restored, reconnected to my true self. This rejuvenation of spirit is what Wordsworth is describing in the following stanza.

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

I know that most people envision Thoreau when they think about transcendent writers extolling the spiritual aspects of Nature, but Wordsworth wrote about Nature’s transcendent power fifty years before Thoreau penned Walden. If you have never done so before, I encourage you to sit outside on a warm sunny day and read “Tintern Abbey,” surrounded by Nature, as it was meant to be read. I suspect that doing so will have a profound impact on you.

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“Lines Written in Early Spring” by William Wordsworth

Lake District - Source: Wikipedia

Lake District – Source: Wikipedia

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

It has been many years since I last read this poem, and reading it again reminds me why I love the Romantic writers so much. This poem captures emotions I have felt too often.

In this poem, Wordsworth expresses contrasting emotions stirred by sitting quietly in a meditative state in Nature. On one hand, he experiences a serene spiritual connection to the beauty and harmony of Nature which surrounds him. But he is unable to sustain that feeling because as he revels in the joy of Nature, his thoughts involuntarily drift and he thinks about the tendency of humans to extract themselves from their connection with Nature, to see themselves as distinct from the natural world.

I live in a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and Nature. When I go and hike in the woods, or sit beside a stream and let the sounds and scents of Nature transport me, I feel the connection which Wordsworth describes. But then I think of the things we have done to Nature, the exploitation and destruction for short-term gain. It saddens me deeply. But there is also the spiritual component. I was recently in Atlanta and observed people trapped within their cars, sitting in ten lanes of traffic, and I felt sad for these people. They have sacrificed their spiritual connection to what is important. I know this because I lived in a big city for many years and during that time there, I know my spiritual connection with the earth was diminished. What connection I had took a conscious effort to maintain. And as Wordsworth points out, we have done this to ourselves.

“Have I not reason to lament what man has made of man?” It’s a haunting line and it is as relevant today as it was when Wordsworth penned it over 200 years ago. I only hope that one day a poet will be able to rejoice in what man has made of man.

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