Since today is Beltane, I decided to listen to Jethro Tull’s “Songs from the Wood” on my run. Since it is the extended remastered version, it includes the song “Beltane,” appropriate for today. For today’s post, I decided to analyze the lyrics as a poem. For those who are unfamiliar, here is the text:
Have you ever stood in the April wood
And called the new year in?
While the phantoms of three thousand years fly
As the dead leaves spin?
There’s a snap in the grass behind your feet
And a tap upon your shoulder.
And the thin wind crawls along your neck
It’s just the old gods getting older.
And the kestrel drops like a fall of shot and
The red cloud hanging high
Come a Beltane.
Have you ever loved a lover of the old elastic truth?
And doted on the daughter in the ministry of youth?
Thrust your head between the breasts of the fertile innocent.
And taken up the cause of love, for the sake of argument.
Or while the kisses drop like a fall of shot
From soft lips in the rain
Come a Beltane.
Happy old new year to you and yours.
The sun’s up for one more day, to be sure.
Play it out gladly, for your card’s marked again.
Have you walked around your parks and towns so knife-edged orderly?
While the fires are burned on the hills upturned
In far-off wild country.
And felt the chill on your window sill
As the green man comes around.
With his walking cane of sweet hazel brings it crashing down.
Sends your knuckles white as the thin stick bites.
Well, it’s just your groaning pains.
Come a Beltane.
Here is a little background information on Beltane.
Beltane was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May), and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were held at that time to protect them from harm, both natural and supernatural, and this mainly involved the “symbolic use of fire”. There were also rituals to protect crops, dairy products and people, and to encourage growth. The aos sí (often referred to as spirits or fairies) were thought to be especially active at Beltane (as at Samhain) and the goal of many Beltane rituals was to appease them. Most scholars see the aos sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits. Beltaine was a “spring time festival of optimism” during which “fertility ritual again was important, perhaps connecting with the waxing power of the sun”.
Wiccans use the name Beltane or Beltain for their May Day celebrations. It is one of the yearly Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, following Ostara and preceding Midsummer. Unlike Celtic Reconstructionism, Wicca is syncretic and melds practices from many different cultures. In general, the Wiccan Beltane is more akin to the Germanic/English May Day festival, both in its significance (focusing on fertility) and its rituals (such as maypole dancing). Some Wiccans enact a ritual union of the May Lord and May Lady.
OK, now we will look at the poem.
In the first stanza, Anderson evokes a pastoral setting that is on the threshold of seasonal change. But there is some interesting symbolism hidden in here which I feel is a reference to the Yeats’ great occult poem, “The Second Coming.” Anderson’s image of the dead leaves spinning calls to mind the gyres in Yeats’ poem, and the kestrel is a type of falcon, which strengthens the connection to the opening lines of “The Second Coming.”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
The old gods are described as getting older, possibly symbolizing the readiness for rebirth.
In the second stanza, Anderson incorporates the sexual and fertility symbolism associated with Beltane. He expresses the concept of sympathetic magic, where human sexuality and fertility is connected with the fertility of the earth.
The third stanza celebrates the dawn of the new year, and acknowledges the importance of the sun in the continuation of life.
The final stanza forms a unique bridge between the old and the modern, between the wild and the “civilized.” We are presented with images of manicured parks, of towns built in a sterile and uniform fashion. But in the far-off wild country, fires are burning and the green man is ready to strike with his cane, causing our fragile construct of a world to collapse. I see the fire as symbolic of the deep desire to reject the industrial world that we have built and return to a more stable and sustainable way of life in accordance with Nature. And the green man is the embodiment of Nature. Ultimately, if we do not change our ways, the green man will smite us and we will be forced to return to our primal state.
Anyway, thanks for stopping by. If you celebrate, I hope you and yours have a very merry Beltane!