Tag Archives: W. B. Yeats

Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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“The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” by William Butler Yeats

This is a poem about the tension between the worldly and the spiritual and how that tension manifests during the various stages of a person’s life. Since it is a fairly long poem, I decided to include the text at the end of the post for those who need to reference it.

The poem is divided into four stanzas. Each stanza is associated with a stage of human life. The stanzas are also associated with specific places within County Sligo, Ireland. I suspect that Yeats intended some connection between the places and the stages of a person’s life, but the references are not clear to me since I am not familiar with those sites. Anyway, the four stages represented in the poem are youth, middle age, old age, and death.

In the first stanza, Yeats describes the youth whose earthly attachment is to physical love, or sexual attraction. When he states that “His heart hung all upon a silken dress,” he is asserting that the young man’s desires are focused solely upon a woman. When the fish sing to him, it symbolizes the divine spirit letting him know that there is a deeper love that exists within the spiritual realm. The young man is shaken “out of his new ease,” but we are left with the sense that even though he is aware of this deeper spiritual love, he cannot relinquish his desire for earthly love.

The singing fish appear to have a dual symbolism. On one hand, they represent the teachings of Christ, but they are also an ancient Celtic symbol for wisdom, inspiration, and prophecy.

As an ancient Celtic symbol, the symbolic meaning of fish (salmon, specifically) dealt with knowledge, wisdom, inspiration and prophecy. Ancient Celts believed the salmon derived its wisdom from consuming the sacred hazel nuts from the well of knowledge (Segais). Further, they believed to eat the salmon would mean gaining the wisdom of the well too.

(Source: http://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbolic-meanings-of-fish.html)

In the second stanza, we are presented with a man in his middle age, whose focus is work and the accumulation of money. At this phase, a lugworm sings to the man, reminding him of the greater wealth within the spiritual realm. The lugworm is an interesting symbol. It burrows in the sand along the beach and is often used for bait in fishing. So in essence, it symbolizes something used to capture the knowledge and inspiration represented by the fish. Also, since they burrow at the shoreline, they symbolize the search for deeper meaning at the threshold between the worldly (the shore) and the spiritual (the sea).

In the third stanza, we see a man in his old age whose current worldly attachment is his obsession over the past, particularly the wrongs that others have perpetrated against him. The knot-grass sings to him, encouraging the man to forgive and let go of his anger and resentment. The man knows that he should do this to prepare himself for the inevitable crossing to the next realm, as evident in the phrase “unnecessary cruel voice.” But one still gets the sense that the old man remains unable to completely forgive and embrace the spiritual.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, Yeats presents us with the man after death, “Now that the earth had taken man and all.” I see an urgent message in this final stanza: if you fail to live a spiritual life while on earth, then you will not enjoy spiritual bliss in the next life. “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” Essentially, if we attach ourselves to worldly obsessions, then we carry those with us to the next realm. It is much more desirable to cross that threshold without the baggage of earthly attachments, and instead cross over with a heart and spirit that is light and ready for union with the divine.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and here is the full text for those who need.

He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That time can never mar a lover’s vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where — unnecessary cruel voice —
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

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“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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