Tag Archives: muse

Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman

This volume is shorter than the previous two, but the quality makes up for the quantity. It contains four tales:

  • Calliope—A fable about a muse enslaved by a writer needing inspiration.
  • Dream of a Thousand Cats—A story about the power of collective dreaming told from a feline perspective.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream—An exploration of Shakespeare’s classic work that blends the boundaries of imagination and reality, and how that affects the creative process.
  • Facade—A sad tale about the masks that we wear to hide our true selves from others.

The last section of this book includes something that, as a writer, I found very interesting. Gaiman pulls back the curtain to give us a glimpse at the magic of his creative process. The last section is a script of “Calliope,” complete with marginalia that provides wonderful insight into the process of creative a graphic story, essentially the nuts and bolts and schema of how the piece is constructed. It is a treat for all you writers and artists out there.

One of the themes explored in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is the power of dreams to create and shape our reality. In the beginning was the word, or more appropriately put, the thought, the idea, the dream. We cannot manifest anything unless we can first see it within our mind’s eye.

Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night.
. . .
I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world.

In “Facade,” there is a very moving section where Urania has a conversation with Death about the masks that we wear, and how we stubbornly cling to these old images of ourselves, even when we know they are no longer true or healthy.

Urania: But it’s also my face. You see. Sometimes I have to look normal, and then I grow faces. But they dry up, and fall off, but I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me. So I hang on to them. I . . . I’m probably not making much sense.

Death: No. You’re making sense. You people always hold onto your old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose. But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.

I know so many people like this, who desperately hold on to some image of who they once were. But I suspect it may even run deeper than just nostalgia for the glory days. I suspect that some people don a mask or a face, and after a while, that face that they put on, becomes who they are. Our faces and masks can change us, for better or for worse. If we keep putting on the cheerful face in spite of adversity, we eventually become a positive person. Conversely, if we wear the mask of gloom in spite of the positive things around us, eventually we become that dark, sad person which was initially just our mask.

Over the year, I’ve shed many faces and grown new ones. As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what my mask will be in my later years: the wise old man, the nurturing grandparent, or the curmudgeon throwing shoes at neighborhood dogs. I suppose we cannot predict the masks we will grow. The faces we develop stem from the situations we have to “face.” Anyway, time to bring myself back out of this rabbit hole.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.

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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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“The Wicked Monk” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire2

Old cloisters, on their mighty walls, displayed
In tableau, scenes of holy Verity
Which warmed the pious entrails and allayed
The chill of cenobite austerity.

When the seed of Christ flourished long ago,
Many a monk, of small renown today,
Using the churchyard for his studio,
Glorified Death in all simplicity.

My soul’s a tomb which, wicked cenobite,
I wander in for all eternity;
Nothing embellishes these odious walls.

O slothful monk! When shall they learn to make
Of the live pageant of my misery
My hands their labor, my eyes their delight?

(translation by Barbara Gibbs)

This is an extremely dark sonnet where Baudelaire contemplates the darkness within his own consciousness. In the first two stanzas, it sounds as if he is criticizing the Church and the monastic order; but by the time we reach the third stanza, it becomes clear that the monk is a symbol for his introspective thoughts, silently analyzing the darker aspects of his soul, or psyche. With this in mind, the first two stanzas take on a different meaning.

A tableau is “a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene from a story or from history.” Considering that this is a self-reflexive poem, the cloister then represents the poet’s memory. The scenes depicted on the walls are memories that he cannot escape, since the truth of these memories is clear to him. And these memories cause anguish, because Baudelaire cannot deny the dark aspects of his being. One must admire his level of acceptance to embrace that part of himself that he finds repulsive, “odious.”

Although the past is dead, Baudelaire is still trapped within the tomb of his memories. He continues to relive the misery of his past, forever contemplating the hidden parts of himself, silently, as a monk, pondering how his soul became so corrupt and diseased.

I cannot help but wonder if Baudelaire was going for the cathartic experience when he wrote this. I get the sense that he wants to be free of his inner monk, to step out of the dark cloister of his past and bask in the beauty of the sunlit world.

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“Work Without Hope” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.
Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

I read this sonnet a few times, because I was having difficulty deciphering its meaning.

In the first half, Coleridge is comparing himself to the natural world around him, observing how everything seems to be busy doing what is their natural wont while he sits, dejected, unable to find motivation to create.

In the second half of the poem, he seems to reflect on his past work, when he was in touch with his muse, but now the streams of inspiration are not flowing his way.

It is the last couplet that caused me the most trouble. While he appears to envy the creatures who work without hope, he acknowledges that everything they do is temporary, “nectar in a sieve,” leaving nothing for future generations. Is he implying that man’s creations are also temporary, and that his poetry will disappear just as the unused nectar? Or is he suggesting that what makes human artistic creations lasting is that we instill our work with Hope, with the desire that it transcend our existence, that we can convey some eternal truth that will help future generations?

I suspect I will be ruminating on this poem for a while. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them. Please feel free to share your interpretations in the comments section below.

Thanks, and do creative work!

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“The Venal Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

Muse of my heart, lover of grand chateau,
When January unleashes storm and sleet,
Through the black dreary evenings when it snows,
Will you have coals to warm your violet feet?

With gleaming starlight that has pierced the blinds
Will you reanimate your shoulders’ cold
Marble? Your palate dry, your purse unlined,
From vaults of azure will you harvest gold?

To earn your evening bread you’ll have to swing
the censer like a choirboy, and sing
Te Deums of which you don’t believe a word,

Or, starving clown, show off your charms, your smile
Wet with tears that none see, to beguile
and cheer the sick spleen of the vulgar herd.

(Translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I struggled with this poem, because I essentially see two interpretations, which I will explain below. But first, I want to provide the official definition of venal from Merriam-Webster: “capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.”

So the first impression I had of this poem was that Baudelaire was writing about a prostitute and his desire to find artistic inspiration through procured sex. The imagery of the muse being cold and poor certainly lends itself to this interpretation. But as I read it again, I became less confident about this was the only meaning of the poem.

I think it was the image of the incense censer and the singing of “Te Deum” which caused me to consider another possibility. I looked up the words to “Te Deum,” and thought the opening was relevant:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :

As I read this, I began to envision Baudelaire supplicating to a fickle muse, making prayers and offerings in the hopes of gaining artistic inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to achieve artistic insight, and Baudelaire was willing to make those sacrifices to his muse as payment for the reward of inspiration.

In the end, I suspect both interpretations are valid. That’s the thing with symbols and metaphors; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

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“To the Muses” by William Blake

NineMuses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

In this poem, Blake contemplates the state of the poetic arts in England during his time. He expresses the belief that the art was lacking, that the poetic genius manifest in the past was lost during his time.

In the opening line, he mentions “Ida’s shady brow.” This is an allusion to Homer. Mount Ida was near Troy and supposedly from there the gods watched the Trojan War. Blake appears to be setting up a contrast between the inspiration that fostered Homer’s work and the perceived lack of poetic inspiration that plagued England in the late 18th century.

Blake evokes the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire (fire being symbolized by the sun). He mentions the elements before he mentions the nine muses. It gives the poem the feel of a mystical rite or incantation, where Blake is drawing energy from the elements in order to summon the muses.

I cannot help but wonder if Blake is also criticizing himself here. Since this poem was composed early in his life, he may have been struggling to find his own personal muse and feeling frustrated that he was not getting the inspiration of a Homer or a Shakespeare. If this was indeed the case, then I would say his incantation worked. The muses certainly inspired him throughout his life.

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“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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