Tag Archives: rose

“The Rose of the World” by William Butler Yeats

Rose

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

We and the laboring world are passing by:—
Amid men’s souls that day by day gives place,
More fleeting than the sea’s foam-fickle face,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one stood beside His seat;
He made the world, to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

According to the literary analysis I read, this poem was written by Yeats to Maud Gonne, with whom he was in love. He expresses that she is the embodiment of beauty that is eternal and does not pass and fade “like a dream.” He compares her beauty with Helen of Troy’s, as well as with Usna from ancient Irish mythology. While I do not question that Gonne was the inspiration for this poem, I think that Yeats is also expressing something else here.

The first two stanzas address the temporality and impermanence of our lives, contrasted with the eternal, spiritual quality of Beauty, symbolized by the rose. For me, the key to understanding the hidden meaning in this poem lies in the third stanza, where Yeats asserts that Beauty is archetypal and existed before the existence of the archangels.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,

As the stanza continues, we are presented with the image of God just prior to his creation of the world. Beside him is an unnamed feminine presence. This would be the goddess aspect of the dyad, or the feminine half of the godhead. Yeats is claiming that Beauty is a characteristic of the goddess and existed before creation. Since Maud Gonne possesses Beauty in Yeats’ eyes, he can only assume that the goddess is manifest within her.

Yeats was very interested in mythology and the occult. Whenever I read a poem by Yeats, I always approach it from the perspective that he has hidden occult symbolism somewhere in the verse. In this poem, I believe that the rose is the symbol for the goddess, whose eternal beauty is expressed in human form through Maud Gonne.

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“The Sick Rose” by William Blake

SickRose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

These eight short lines are some of the most disturbing that I have found in literature. Essentially, we have the rape of a virgin child while she is sleeping. The image of the howling storm implies that it was a violent rape and that the blood usually accompanied with the loss of virginity is not something joyful, but part of an attack that will destroy any chance that the child has at happiness.

There is also the impression that the perpetrator has infected the young girl with a venereal disease. Since the rose is a vaginal symbol, and the fact that the rose is now sick implies an infection. I do not feel that Blake is claiming she is impregnated, since I don’t think he would use a metaphor that strongly suggests a vaginal disease.

I would add one more interpretation here, which I feel adds to the tragedy and the horror of this poem. I believe that the rapist is the girl’s own father. The last two lines of the poem suggest that the “love” is a dark and secret love which will ultimately destroy the girl’s life. How often do we hear stories of sexually abusive fathers telling their abused children that they really love them and that this is their little secret? This dark secret will ultimately poison and sicken the child’s mind, just as it has physically sickened her body.

I remember being disturbed reading this poem for the first time in college, but as a parent, the horror of it is much more visceral. Blake manages to create a very powerful poem using just a few words. Without a doubt, this is a literary masterpiece.

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“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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Symbolism in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

OceanEndOfLaneI purchased this book almost as soon as it came out, but since I was deep into other books, it sat atop the pile on my dresser. Last week I had to travel for work, so I packed the book, and since I spent a lot of time sitting around airports, I managed to finish it. It’s a short book, right around 175 pages, so I’m going to go on the assumption that you will read it and hence I will not summarize the story. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the symbolism that struck me in the book and my interpretations.

Early in the book, the protagonist states: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” (p. 53) I completely agree. The power the myths is that they transcend normal narrative storytelling and express truths that cannot be expressed in ordinary language. There used to be a television version of Witchblade some years back and one of the characters said: “Gods come and go, but the myth is eternal.”

One of the prevalent symbols in creation mythology is that of using words to create. I have read books that assert that there are divine languages or words which have an effect on reality and can even be used to create existence from the void. This use of language is referred to in the book:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building block of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be Whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping. (p. 43)

Another common symbol in mythology is the quest. In all hero myths that I can think of, the hero must undertake a quest and face incredible challenges, but the hero takes on the quest because of a longing, a void within that cannot be fulfilled within the realm of the ordinary. Gaiman incorporates the quest symbol into the story, including the deep longing that drives the hero forward on his or her quest.

How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time… (p. 139)

The symbol of the ocean is the one that appears the most throughout the book. For me, the ocean symbolizes the divine source and cosmic consciousness. There is a great passage where the protagonist is submerged into the ocean, or the divine consciousness, and the symbols of the egg and the rose are incorporated, the egg symbolizing the birth of all existence and the rose the continual unfolding of reality.

The second thing I thought was that I knew everything, Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe, from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was–where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void–and I knew where Rose was–the particular crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind. (p. 143)

There are many more myths and symbols woven into this short book, such as the Triple Goddess (maiden, matron, crone), but I will leave the rest of those for you to discover on your own. Half the fun of reading a book such as this is discovering which symbols and myths resonate most with you. There is a lot here. Feel free to share any symbolism that struck you. Enjoy!!

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