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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 7: The Stream of the Subconscious

Image Source - USF

Image Source – USF

In my previous post on Don Quixote, I explored the cave as a symbol for the subconscious mind. In this post, we will look at the river as a symbol for the stream of the subconscious.

After recovering from the experience of the cave, Sancho and Don Quixote arrive at the bank of the river Ebro. As they gaze into the water, there is an immediate but gentle shift in consciousness.

By stages as already described or left undescribed, two days after quitting the grove Don Quixote and Sancho reached the river Ebro, and the sight of it was a great delight to Don Quixote as he contemplated and gazed upon the charms of it banks, the clearness of its stream, the gentleness of its current and the abundance of its crystal waters; and the pleasant view revived a thousand tender thoughts in his mind.

(p. 769)

They discover a bark, which is a type of boat, and use it to set forth upon the river. As they embark, they feel a sense of trepidation, which signals that they are about to enter into an uncharted region of the psyche.

“Now they are tied,” said Sancho; “what are we to do next?”

“What?” said Don Quixote, “cross ourselves and weigh anchor; I mean, embark and cut the moorings by which the bark is held;” and the bark began to drift away slowly from the bank. But when Sancho saw himself somewhere about two yards out in the river, he began to tremble and give himself up for lost;

(p. 770)

The stream represents individual consciousness, which flows into the ocean, which is a symbol for the divine consciousness.

Art thou, perchance, tramping barefoot over the Riphaean mountains, instead of being seated on a bench like an archduke on the tranquil stream of this pleasant river, from which in a short space we shall come out upon the broad sea?

(p. 771)

The next passage I want to share is my favorite from this section. It is often believed that one must use mysticism or the occult in order to connect with the subconscious and ultimately the divine consciousness, but that is not the case. This is something that occurs naturally and effortlessly, once you calm the mind and open yourself to the flow of consciousness.

… and shaking his fingers he washed his whole hand in the river along which the boat was quietly gliding in midstream, not moved by any occult intelligence or invisible enchantment, but simply by the current, just there smooth and gentle.

(p. 773)

The genius of this book so far for me is how Cervantes is able to weave in rich mystical and spiritual ideas in a tale that is farcical and at times downright funny. Stay tuned for my next installment.

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“Lines to a Beautiful Spring in a Village” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Apollo and the Muses by Jan van Balen

Once more, sweet stream! with slow foot wand’ring near,
I bless thy milky waters cold and clear.
Escaped the flashing of the noontide hours,
With one fresh garland of Pierian flowers
(Ere from thy zephyr-haunted brink I turn)
My languid hand shall wreath thy mossy urn.
For not thro’ pathless grove with murmur rude
Then soothest the sad wood-nymph, solitude:
Nor thine unseen in cavern depths to well,
The hermit-fountain of some dripping cell!

Pride of the vale! thy useful streams supply
The scattered cots and peaceful hamlet nigh.
The elfin tribe around thy friendly banks
With infant uproar and soul-soothing pranks,
Released from school, their little hearts at rest,
Launch paper navies on thy waveless breast.
The rustic here at eve with pensive look
Whistling lorn ditties leans upon his crook,
Or starting pauses with hope-mingled dread
To list the much-loved maid’s accustom’d tread:
She, vainly mindful of her dame’s command,
Loiters, the long-filled pitcher in her hand.

Unboastful stream! thy fount with pebbled falls
The faded form of past delight recalls,
What time the morning sun of hope arose,
And all was joy; save when another’s woes
A transient gloom upon my soul imprest,
Like passing clouds impictured on thy breast.
Life’s current then ran sparkling to the noon,
Or silvery stole beneath the pensive moon:
Ah! now it works rude brakes and thorns among,
Or o’er the rough rock bursts and foams along!

Upon first reading of this poem, it appears to be a pastoral work extolling the beauty of a stream as it flows through a small village. Having visited the Lake District of England several times, I can envision the scene that Coleridge is describing. But there are several metaphors in here that lead me to believe that the stream in this poem is really a symbol for poetic inspiration, a flowing stream of consciousness that feeds his psyche with images and emotion from which his poetry springs.

The first clue appears in the second line, where he describes the stream’s water as both milky and clear. We have an oxymoron here. I suspect that he uses the image of milkiness to symbolize the nurturing effect that the stream is having upon him. As a young child being fed milk from his mother’s breast, Coleridge is being fed by his muse and nurturing milk is what causes him to develop as a poet. It also brings clarity of vision, especially his inner vision, hence the stream is also described as clear. Just like in “Kubla Khan,” the poet has drunk the milk of Paradise and received divine inspiration.

The next clue to the poem’s symbolism is the reference to Pierian flowers. This is a mythological reference to the Pierian spring which was in Macedonia and was considered sacred to the Muses. The waters from the Pierian spring were believed to provide poetic inspiration (source: English Romantic Writers – David Perkins). Here, Coleridge is establishing a connection between the stream he sees running through the village and the mythological spring which was associated with the Muses.

The rest of the poem is easy enough to interpret. The stream evokes memories of his past, both joyful and painful. He experiences an array of emotions, all of which are inspiration for his poems.

Personally, I really enjoyed this poem, enough to read it twice before drafting this post. Coleridge was truly an inspired individual and a master of crafting words. Cheers!

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