Tag Archives: Numbers

“To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time” by William Butler Yeats

WBYeats

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.

RosyCrossGDThis is a pretty cryptic poem. The title suggests that there is Rosicrucian symbolism woven into the verse, the rose and the cross being the symbol of the order. Yeats would have been familiar with this symbol, being a member of the Golden Dawn (which used the Rosy Cross as a symbol) and he was familiar with various occult symbols. He is definitely drawing on occult symbolism as well as Irish mythology. Cuchulain and Fergus were part of the Irish Red Branch cycle, or Ulster cycle. The Ulster cycle is a collection of medieval Irish legends and sagas that influenced Yeats. For a brief overview, click here.

I get the sense that Yeats considered himself to be like the Druid, conjuring a realm of magic as he sings his sacred bardic poetry. The second stanza in particular has the feel of a mystical chant. He repeats the opening phrase of the stanza “Come near” three times, like an invocation. The fact that he says this three times would have had occult symbolism also, three being a mystical number. Finally, the following lines imply that Yeats is conjuring in a sacred language, that of God which is unknown to all but a select few.

But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.

I am not sure what language Yeats is referring to. If I had to guess, I would say either ancient Irish or the sacred Enochian language of angels, possibly both. (Click here to read the Enochian Dictionary online.)

In addition to the rose and the cross being a symbol of occult mysticism and evocation, I suspect that Yeats was also using these to represent the Irish renaissance. The rose would therefore symbolize the blossoming of Irish culture. The cross would represent a sort of crossroads in time, where the past is intersecting with the present. The rose or Irish culture, a symbol or rebirth, is blossoming in the center of the crossroads.

Although I took a class on Yeats in college, I confess that I am not that knowledgeable in regards to the Irish mythology in much of his poetry. If any of you have some additional insight into Cuchulain or the Ulster Cycle, please feel free to share it here.

Thanks, and read on!

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“The Book of J” by Harold Bloom

BookOfJThis is a book that has been on my shelf waiting for me to read for quite a long time. I picked it up when I was in college. Harold Bloom had come to speak at the campus and I knew I would have the opportunity to meet him before his lecture. I was familiar with the book and the concept was very interesting, so I bought a copy and had him sign it for me. (Yes, I’m one of those book-dorks who loves autographed copies.) Anyway, I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad I did.

Essentially, the Book of J is a construct of passages extracted from the first three books of the Torah, or the Old Testament for Christian readers (Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers). Scholars seem to be in agreement that the early biblical texts were written by several different people, then combined and redacted to create a unified text. In this book, Bloom argues that one of the unknown authors, whom he refers to as J, was a woman and referred to god as Yahweh. In addition, he goes on to assert that the intention of J as a writer was not to create a religious or historical text, but that she was in fact writing a literary story of comic irony, comparable to Shakespeare or Chaucer.

The book is split into three parts. The first part contains Bloom’s introductory sections—background information, thesis, history, and so forth. The second section is the reconstructed Book of J, the text translated by David Rosenberg. The third section is Bloom’s analysis of the text.

Bloom begins by asserting that J was a woman writer who wrote for a female audience. He also stresses that “Yahweh, in the Book of J, is a literary character, just as Hamlet is.” (p. 12) He continues by placing J in the same category as Shakespeare, claiming that they are both universal authors, hence their works are prone to contradictory interpretations. Bloom then praises J’s work as being so powerful that three major religions were founded based upon her writing.

J mixes everything available to her and produces a work so comprehensive and so universal that the entire Hebrew Bible, Greek New Testament, and Arabic Koran could be founded upon it. (p. 18)

Shortly before presenting J’s text, Bloom encourages readers to let go of their preconceived notions of the text and approach it from a literary and not a religious perspective.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to our reading J as J is that we cannot cease thinking of the Book of J as the heart of the composite work the Torah, or five books of Moses, and so as the central element in those even more composite works the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, with its Old testament/New Testament structure… To read the Book of J, we need to begin by scrubbing away the varnish that keeps us from seeing that the Redactor and previous revisionists could not obliterate the original work of the J writer. That varnish is called by many names: belief, scholarship, history, literary criticism, what have you. (p. 47)

J’s book begins with the creation of Adam in the Garden and ends with the death of Moses in Moab. Throughout her text, Yahweh appears as a fickle, unstable god, who cannot help acting upon whims. In addition, the women characters always appear stronger than the male counterparts, which is something Bloom points out as support for his argument that J was a woman writing for a female audience. In fact, I would personally take it a step further and assert that J viewed women to be on the same level of divinity as Yahweh, as demonstrated by Hava’s (Eve) claim that she possesses the creative life-giving power of god.

Now the man knew Hava, his wife, in the flesh; she conceived Cain: “I have created a man as Yahweh has,” she said when he was born. (p. 63)

I want to look at one more passage from J’s book, which is a great example of both Yahweh’s fickle character and the strength of the women in the book. In this passage, Yahweh decides to kill Moses for no apparent reason (except that maybe because Moses had not yet had his son circumcised), which in and of itself is bizarre. Why kill your main prophet and the person who is leading your chosen ones? But what is most telling about the passage is that it is Moses’ wife who intervenes and saves Moses. I get the impression that J was expressing that Zipporah, being a strong woman, was on equal footing with Yahweh. She is, in any case, certainly stronger than Moses.

On the way, at a night lodging, Yahweh met him—and was ready to kill him. Zipporah took a flinty stone, cutting her son’s foreskin; touched it between Moses’ legs: “Because you are my blood bridegroom.” He withdrew from him. “A blood bridegroom,” she said, “marked by this circumcision.” (p. 144)

Bloom has a lot of great commentary following the Book of J, and it is much too in-depth to go into within the confines of this blog post. I’ll just mention as bullet points a few of the concepts that struck me as interesting and which you may want to think about:

  • There was no proverbial “fall” and hence no split. J expresses a unity between body and soul, as well as between man and nature.
  • Yahweh did a better job creating the first woman than he did creating the first man.
  • Man was banished from the Garden to prevent his ascension to god-status.
  • Sodom was destroyed not because of sin, but because the people there showed contempt for Yahweh as well as contempt for others. Sin was not a concept for J.

“By normative standards, Jewish or Christian, J’s portrayal of Yahweh is blasphemy.” (p. 280) She portrays Yahweh as a character with defects and flaws, which makes him a realistic literary character and one to whom we can relate. After reading this book, I will never read the Torah texts the same way again.

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