Tag Archives: W. B. Yeats

“Beltane” by Ian Anderson

Image Source: YouTube

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.

Source: Wikipedia)

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!

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“Who Goes With Fergus” by William Butler Yeats

irishwoods

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I read this poem after doing morning meditation, and it really spoke to me.

To understand this poem, you first need to know what Fergus symbolized for Yeats. According to M.L. Rosenthal, Yeats called Fergus the “poet of the Red Branch cycle, as Oisin was of the Fenian cycle of mythical tales of ancient Ireland.” So essentially, Fergus represents the archetype of the mystical poet who gives up pursuit of the worldly to seek the spiritual realms.

In this poem, Yeats asks the people of Ireland, who will follow the path that Fergus took, to turn away from the hopes and fears of daily life and pursue the mystic, which is symbolized by the woods, the sea, and the wandering stars. It is worth noting that Yeats uses three metaphors to describe the mystical realm. I believe this is intentional, evoking the trinity as well as the kabbalistic crown which represents the godhead. In kabbalah, the crown of the Tree of Life is comprised of three sephirot: Keter, Binah, and Chokhmah. Combined, these three symbolize the godhead from which all existence is manifested.

I could not help but wonder if Yeats was writing about himself, seeing himself as the one who is going forth with Fergus to explore the “shadows of the wood.” I suspect that he did see himself in this role, but that he was also reaching out to others to join him on this path, essentially saying “I am going with Fergus to explore the mysteries of the divine. Who else is willing to join me on this quest?” I for one am glad that Yeats extended this offer.

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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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Occult Symbolism in “Promethea: Book 2” by Alan Moore

Promethea_2

I’ve read a lot of books in my lifetime, so being completely blown away by a book has become a somewhat rare occurrence for me. This is a book that has completely blown me away. When I finished the last page, it was like a nuclear explosion of consciousness went off within my psyche. I have never seen such complex mystical ideas expressed so clearly and beautifully, both through the text and the illustrations. There is so much occult philosophy embedded in these pages, it’s impossible to do it justice in a short blog post, but I will try. I figure I will lightly touch on some of the themes and ideas that are incorporated into this work, and then elaborate on one chapter that demonstrates the complexity of this book.

Moore draws from a wealth of mythology and occult philosophy in the creation of Promethea, who is essentially the divine feminine manifestation of the Prometheus myth. This alone is a wonderful interpretation of the myth, about the bringing of enlightenment (symbolized by fire) to humankind. But like Yeats’ widening gyres, Moore expands on the myth by incorporating a plethora of allusions to occult philosophies and then ties them all together, showing the connection between the philosophies and myths throughout the millennia. Just to provide a sense of just how much is woven in, there are references to Aleister Crowley, Eliaphas Levi, the Goetia, Faust, the Vedic texts, kundalini, tantric yoga, kabbalah, tarot, alternate planes of existence, and the list goes on. The sheer amount of literary and visual symbolism on just a single page could spawn a lengthy analytical post.

So now I will attempt to give a very high-level summary of Chapter 6, the final chapter in the book.

In this chapter, Promethea, having studied the occult texts provided to her by Faust, realizes she has learned all she can about magick from reading and must now move into experiential learning. So she consults the two snakes that form the Caduceus, or the staff of Hermes. The twin serpents explain the occult history of humanity and all existence through the symbols of the 22 tarot cards that comprise the Major Arcana. Now, the explanation of each card and its symbolic connection to the evolution of being also includes many references to science, genetics, mysticism, numerology, kabbalah, etc. But for simplicity’s sake, I will only provide a brief summary of each card and its occult significance according to this book.

0 – The Fool: Symbolizes the nothingness or quantum void from which time and space are formed.

I – The Magician: Symbolizes the masculine creative urge, embodied in the phallic wand, which generates the initial spark or big bang.

II – The High Priestess: Symbolizes the highest female energy, the foetal darkness where all existence gestates. From her, the cosmos is born.

III – The Empress: Symbolizes fecundity and the seeds of life, along with the four elements. We now have the building blocks for life and consciousness.

IV – The Emperor: Symbolizes the moment when divine energy achieves substantiality.

V – The Hierophant: Symbolizes evolution, the visionary force that guides the first single cells to evolve into the first human hominid.

VI – The Lovers: Symbolizes sacred alchemy and the first spark of divine consciousness in humans.

VII – The Chariot: Symbolizes the advent of early shamanism and mysticism. Through the use of nectar, ambrosia, and soma, consciousness is expanded.

VIII – Justice: Symbolizes period of adjustment, where humans implement laws and build the foundations of civilization.

IX – The Hermit: Symbolizes a phase of entering a cave, from which will emerge a more developed and complex civilization.

X – The Wheel of Fortune: Symbolizes the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations: Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc.

XI – Strength: Symbolizes lust, particularly for power, which is the impetus for conquering empires.

XII – The Hanged Man: Symbolizes man’s dark age, a necessary ordeal which marks the transition from the state of empire. The world is upside down.

XIII – Death: Symbolizes a period of transition, marking the end of dark ages before the rebirth of light.

XIV – Temperance: Symbolizes the Renaissance. Science, art, and beauty are combined alchemically.

XV – The Devil: Symbolizes the decline of the spiritual (Age of Reason). The inverted pentacle has four points (the four elements representing the earthly) while a single point (the spirit) is subjugated and trampled.

XVI – The Tower: Symbolizes Industrial Revolution, culminating in the first World War.

XVII – The Star: Symbolizes the renewed interest in mysticism and the occult following WWI. Here we have the birth of Theosophy, Golden Dawn, etc.

XVII – The Moon: Symbolizes mankind’s darkest hour before the dawn. Insanity. “Auschwitz, Hiroshima, each blight, each tyranny obscures the light.”

XIX – The Sun: Symbolizes the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Here we have new interest in Buddhism, astrology, I-Ching, and so forth.

XX – Judgment Day: Symbolizes the moment of apocalypse which will be brought about by the information age, once we reach the point where speed of technology and information causes a new form of consciousness to be born. (Note: Moore writes that this will occur in the year 2017.)

XXI – The Universe: Symbolizes the moment in which humans transcend the earthly plane of existence.

As I said earlier, there is no way I could do justice to this book in a short blog post. I strongly encourage you to read Promethea. Start with the first book and work through. There are I believe five books total. I have the third already waiting to be read. Expect to hear my thoughts on it soon.

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“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats

OldWomanByFire2

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

This is such a sad and poignant poem. Yeats appears to be writing to Maud Gonne, entreating her to read his words when she is old and nearing death in order to remember the love he felt for her. There is some beautiful symbolism included, particularly the fire, which represents both her life and the passion that Yeats felt for her. The fire is dying and turning to embers, or “glowing bars.” The shadows are the fading memories of the past.

While this is a beautiful and touching poem about his feelings for Gonne, there is more to it. As with most of Yeats’ poems, there is something mystical hidden within the lines. Yeats was well versed in kabbalah, so I suspect he was making a reference to the Shekhinah, which is essentially the divine feminine aspect of the godhead.

“In the imagery of the Kabbalah the shekhinah is the most overtly female sefirah, the last of the ten sefirot, referred to imaginatively as ‘the daughter of God’. … The harmonious relationship between the female shekhinah and the six sefirot which precede her causes the world itself to be sustained by the flow of divine energy. She is like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The unnamed woman to whom Yeats is speaking in the poem is described as having a “changing face,” which establishes the connection to the moon and reinforces the symbolic relationship between Maud Gonne and the Shekhinah.

Finally, I think there is a third interpretation to this poem. I believe that the woman to whom Yeats is speaking is also a symbolic representation of Ireland. Yeats was writing in the peak of the Irish Renaissance, and he felt it was paramount to restore Irish mythology to the national identity. Therefore, Yeats was implying that when the flames of the Irish Renaissance are not burning as brightly as before, then Ireland should refer back to his poems, to rekindle the passion and interest in the rich mythology that is part of Ireland’s heritage.

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #03

ScarletWitch_03

Hmm. Now the creative team is tying in James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, and drawing on Irish mythology. I really like the direction this story is going.

Dublin… is not what I imagined. Based on my first impression, anyway. This Airport. All very modern. I suppose it’s the tourism industry wanting everyone to think it’s still like that old John Wayne film, The Quiet Man. All green fields, drunken poets, and old ladies in shawls. But if these surroundings are anything to go by, the Ireland of Yeats and Joyce are long ago and far away.

Even here—this modern airport, I feel the old ways—the country’s always been rife with magic… at least in terms of story and legend. I wonder what they’d say—people here—if they knew so many of their myths had a good amount of reality to them.

That’s all I’m going to share for now. No spoilers!

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Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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