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Pedantic Babylon

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About this blog

Human experience, Ancient Egypt, and Yeats

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The Wistman

Babylon and the Ark Before Noah

In 1985, a man named Douglas Simmons brought a bag of antiquities to the British Museum for evaluation.  Among the varied objects was one cuneiform tablet.  The duty officer at that moment was Irving Finkel, one of the museum’s Assyriologists and now Curator in charge of Cuneiform Inscriptions in the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department. 

Finkel picked up the cuneiform tablet and began to translate it.  It quickly became clear that it was a 3700 year old Babylonian artifact which exhorted emergency construction of a huge, round reed boat that was meant to hold, and save, many animals.

Here is an entertaining and illuminating lecture from 2016 at the UofC Oriental Institute given by the affable Dr. Finkel, telling the story of the tablet and the building of a (somewhat smaller) replica of the designated vessel.  @ 1 hr. and well worth the listening/viewing.

Here’s the 2014 Guardian article coinciding with the release of Finkel’s book “The Ark Before Noah”  -- 

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jan/24/babylonian-tablet-noah-ark-constructed-british-museum

Incidentally, after my dad was forced to retire, he grew a long beard and looked very much like Dr. Finkel, though dad was somewhat older.  We used to joke about it.

 

And….

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Cheers for the Winter Season everybody!

 

The Wistman

The Crimson and the White

The master poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, crafted this astonishing love poem with its hypnotic imagery in 1847, and it's been set to music multiple times since then by the likes of Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem, and other luminaries.  But is it just a love poem?  Or is it also an esoteric pointing, as was suggested to me long ago.  Note the alchemical character of the specific images, the colors, the flowers, the white bird, the astronomy references, the stages of development.  It is curious.  It is beautiful.  It lingers in the mind.  What does it say to you, ultimately?

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font;
The firefly wakens, waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts, in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

           
                                Alfred Lord Tennyson
The Wistman

Aliens or Mystic Lightning

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I saw a great light come down over London,
And buildings and cars and people were still
They were held wherever they were under the sky's
Clear humming radiance as it descended --
Everywhere, in shops, behind desks and on trains
Everything stopped as the stillness came down
And touched the crown of our heads
As our eyes closed, and the sky filled us
And our minds became the sky --
And everyone, regardless of crime class or creed
Was touched; as slowly we began to stir
Out of this penetrated light-filled sleep
Dizzily as the hand completed its dialing,
And the train lurched forward
And I saw faces looking at one another questioning,
I saw people meeting eye to eye and standing
Half amazed by each other's presence
I saw their mouths silently shaping the word why
Why didn't we know this? and yet knowing
They already knew, and without words
We all stood searching for the gesture
That would say it --

As the lights went green, and we drove on.

                                                

                                                        - Jay Ramsay

 

The Wistman

And the Mystery Sang Alive

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Here where I live in upstate NY the autumn colors were delayed in October, but are now fully awash at the opening of November.  The breath halts in the morning at sunrise on seeing the incandescent foliage as it readies for death.  Cabbage white butterflies flitter through stands of red sumac and remind of Robert Frost’s confrontation with nature’s design.  This symbol—the grandeur of autumn trees and grasses—like the finale song of the dying mute swan, is a perennial one so often used in the past that the power of the symbol now seems all but drained away.  Still, there are a few writers who can bring life to it, and to nature poems in general, so that they communicate deeply.  This one today is an October poem, a birthday poem, written in the mid-20th century.  The language used is fulsome, so best prepare to focus but also to relax.  These lines should roll over you.  You may even choose to read it aloud to yourself, so as to hear the music of the wordplay.

POEM IN OCTOBER

     It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
     And the mussel pooled and the heron
               Priested shore
          The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
     In the still sleeping town and set forth.

     My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
     Above the farms and the white horses
               And I rose
          In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
          Over the border
               And the gates
     Of the town closed as the town awoke.

     A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
     Blackbirds and the sun of October
               Summery
          On the hill's shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
          To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
     In the wood faraway under me.

     Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
    With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
          But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
          There could I marvel
               My birthday
     Away but the weather turned around.

     It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
     Streamed again a wonder of summer
               With apples
          Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
          Through the parables
               Of sun light
     And the legends of the green chapels

     And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
     These were the woods the river and sea
               Where a boy
          In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
          And the mystery
               Sang alive
     Still in the water and singingbirds.

     And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
     Joy of the long dead child sang burning
               In the sun.
          It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
          O may my heart's truth
               Still be sung
     On this high hill in a year's turning.

                                                    - Dylan Thomas

 

 

The Wistman

Breath of the Planet, Fortress of Mind

Our glorious biosphere is being attacked.  By us.  We are the culprits.  We have, over the years, allowed it to happen.  We consented.  We could have stopped it.  We still could, possibly.  But we don’t do that.  We shop.  We focus on our phones.  We luxuriate in our egos, our credit ratings, our illusions and self-indulgence.  We are delusionary.  We are scientific.  We are religious.  We are secular.  We are religiously or secularly moral.  We are neither.  We are charitable.  We are apathetic.  We are altruistic.  We are greedy.  We are confused.  We are simplistic.  We are brilliant.  We are sociopaths.  We are dullards.  We are brutes.

But we see ourselves as good.  As caring…but busy.  Too busy to notice the vanishing species.  Maybe we notice the extreme weather, once in a while.  But we are so busy.  And it’s wholly convenient that we don’t have to clean the bug splat off our windshields and headlights any more.  We don’t even think about why that is so.  We don’t see and so don’t concern ourselves with all the dying ocean life, choking on toxins and plastic products made for our cheap convenience.  Nor do we think about the pregnant female pigs squeezed into containers on their way to the corporate slaughterhouses.  We simply enjoy our convenient plastic wrapped pork roasts and cutlets.  Or, better yet, served to us, simmering and savory, on a warmed plate in a chic restaurant.  Mmmmm.  We love convenience.  It has become our god.  We don’t even have to go to the store anymore.  Stuff we buy comes shipped to our doorstep.  So convenient.  We can pay for it with our phones.

It’s getting worse folks.  Fast.

Despair is not an answer….and yet, at this point, it seems to be the only appropriate emotion in the face of the massive, pitiless, destructive and deaf machine that mankind has now become.  I certainly have no pretty thoughts to lighten things up.  I see myself as panting into a doomed landscape.  My daily meditation is the only thing I can honestly say brings some balance.  Because through meditation I am intimately aware of the seamless immensity of the universe, in all its minutiae and vast complexity.  In the scheme of all, our world is a speck of practically zero importance.  And in that light, the evil and ennui of humanity is also of practically zero importance, though we must then include the generosity and creativity of humanity in that zero sum calculation.  If life is extinguished on blue, blue earth, it won’t matter one bit…really.

But the suffering…there’s the rub.  And it won’t be confined to the voiceless and the downtrodden. 

Once, a while ago now, when I was studying Zen, I asked the abbot what we can do about the evil of the world (it was obvious to me even then what was coming).  He said: “First and foremost, you must protect your mind.”  At the time I thought his answer was insufficient.  I know now I was wrong.

Stay sane everybody.  Don’t identify with technological illusions.  Make common cause with the trees and the gnats.  They are your brothers and sisters.  Resist the force of consumerism.  Even if it’s only for yourself alone, resist the programming. 

The stars are shining bright above me as I write this, and from the open window musty scents of autumn fill the night air.  Pico, my ginger tabby, purrs softly beside me and lifts his yellow eyes.  Sometimes, I swear, he smells like cinnamon.  And, in my dreams, we fly.

 

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The Wistman

The Point That Dissolves the World

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Return Within   

Return within,
to the place where there is nothing,
and take care that nothing comes in.
Penetrate to the depths of yourself,
to the place where thought no longer exists,
and take care that no thought arises there!
There where nothing exists,
Fullness!
There where nothing is seen,
the Vision of Being!
There where nothing appears any longer,
the sudden appearing of the Self!
Dhyana is this!

                                    -Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux)  

 

                    zen-meditation.jpg.e57254c5dfc5390f001630dbd0268f7d.jpg                                                                                                                                         

The Wistman

Snakes and Ladders, heights and depths

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                                                                                                                                                            Raqqa after U.S. coalition bombing to "save" the city from Isis

These Are The Clouds

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
the majesty that shuts his burning eye:
the weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
till that be tumbled that was lifted high
and discord follow upon unison,
and all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
and these things came, so much the more thereby
have you made greatness your companion,
although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
the majesty that shuts his burning eye.

W. B. Yeats, 1916

 

The Wistman

Gary Snyder Describes the View

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...from the American zen poet Gary Snyder:

At Tower Peak

Every tan rolling meadow will turn into housing
Freeways are clogged all day
Academies packed with scholars writing papers
City people lean and dark
This land most real
As its western-tending golden slopes
And bird-entangled central valley swamps
Sea-lion, urchin coasts
Southerly salmon-probes
Into the aromatic almost-Mexican hills
Along a range of granite peaks
The names forgotten,
An eastward running river that ends out in desert
The chipping ground-squirrels in the tumbled blocks
The gloss of glacier ghost on slab
Where we wake refreshed from ten hours sleep
After a long day's walking
Packing burdens to the snow
Wake to the same old world of no names,
No things, new as ever, rock and water,
Cool dawn birdcalls, high jet contrails.
A day or two or million, breathing
A few steps back from what goes down
In the current realm.
A kind of ice age, spreading, filling valleys
Shaving soils, paving fields, you can walk in it
Live in it, drive through it then
It melts away
For whatever sprouts
After the age of
Frozen hearts. Flesh-carved rock
And gusts on the summit,
Smoke from forest fires is white,
The haze above the distant valley like a dusk.
It's just one world, this spine of rock and streams
And snow, and the wash of gravels, silts
Sands, bunchgrasses, saltbrush, bee-fields,
Twenty million human people, downstream, here below.

 

The Wistman

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Ithaca

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber, and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

                                                             -Constantine Cavafy

The Wistman

Disillusionment

One reason why Yeats is so highly regarded is that his themes are timeless.  This next poem is long (I'll only show part 1--the most famous section) and grounded in its own era, but razor sharp and relevant to our current zeitgeist. Enjoy.

  • ref: Phidias was the classical Athenian sculptor responsible for the Parthenon friezes and the huge olive wood/ivory and gold clad statue of Athena that was inside, and is long lost.

Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen    (1)

    Many ingenious lovely things are gone
    that seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
    protected from the circle of the moon
    that pitches common things about. There stood
    amid the ornamental bronze and stone
    an ancient image made of olive wood --
    and gone are Phidias' famous ivories
    and all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

    We too had many pretty toys when young:
    a law indifferent to blame or praise,
    to bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
    melt down, as it were wax in the sun's rays;
    public opinion ripening for so long
    we thought it would outlive all future days.
    O what fine thought we had because we thought
    that the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

    All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
    and a great army but a showy thing;
    what matter that no cannon had been turned
    into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
    thought that unless a little powder burned
    the trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
    and yet it lack all glory; and perchance
    the guardsmen's drowsy chargers would not prance.

    Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
    rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
    can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
    to crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
    the night can sweat with terror as before
    we pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
    and planned to bring the world under a rule,
    who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

    He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
    into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
    from shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
    whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
    on master-work of intellect or hand,
    no honour leave its mighty monument,
    has but one comfort left: all triumph would
    but break upon his ghostly solitude.

    But is there any comfort to be found?
    man is in love and loves what vanishes,
    what more is there to say? That country round
    none dared admit, if such a thought were his,
    incendiary or bigot could be found
    to burn that stump on the Acropolis,
    or break in bits the famous ivories
    or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

 

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The Wistman

The Funeral of Amenhotep III

Surviving megaliths portraying Amenhotep III, from the ruin of his Valley Temple on the West bank at Thebes:

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Amenhotep III was the most glittering of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs; his long reign came at the material and political peak of that dynasty.  The prosperity and affluence of the kingdom was reflected exponentially in his personal grandeur and lavish display of wealth and power.  His funeral ceremonies would likely have eclipsed every other public or private ritual of the epoch.  The eldest surviving son would replace Amenhotep III on the throne of Egypt; initially he’d be called Amenhotep IV, but he would change his name to Akhnaten and turn the culture and religion of dynastic Egypt sideways.

In my last post I noted how that short poem had been interpreted in myriad powerful ways.  This to me indicates a significant work of art.  The American composer Philip Glass wrote his opera Akhnaten in 1983.  The first scene depicts Amenhotep III’s funeral ceremony, marking the shift from the glamorous setting sun of the old king and the god Amun toward the rising sun of Akhnaten and his solitary god, the Aten.  Glass's stunning music captures the particular quality of this heightened, grandiose moment in history.

Here are two videos that give different interpretations of this opening scene from Akhnaten.  The first is taken from an excellent live performance of the opera from 2013 by the University of Indiana; the second video is a free adaptation of the music to a video montage that harks back to ancient Egypt, but takes it in a different, modern direction.  Both of them are thrilling in their own ways.  Each is not long:  @ 10 minutes.

 

 

 

 

The Wistman

Enzymes from the Gods

In my family, freckles were called ‘angel kisses.’  A fairy took your discharged baby tooth and left a prize in its place (we got a coin.)  Uncle’s hair turns gray overnight: he’d seen a ghost.  Birth marks were signs of deity contagion.  At the same time, we were practicing Catholics, so we were touched by God during communion…actually, we ate that God, a god who denied the legitimacy of the other, folksy pagan gods (of course), but we included them in our milieu anyway.  It was fun.  It made us feel important, connected to the unseen, and to traditions. 

And, the more powerful the god, the more potent were the consequences of contact.  Finding a tooth underneath your pillowcase while you slept, the tooth fairy only bestowed a small reward; connecting with the devil brought you earthly power and material benefit, but would cost you your soul.  The eating of Jesus’s body cleansed you of all sin, in time leading to your eternal salvation.  An angel’s visit brought consolation and guidance; a succubus or incubus’s visit (sex while you dreamed) brought madness or consumption.  On and on goes the duality, good being and bad, each with their corresponding consequence.

When a metaphysical force comes into direct contact with a physical being, things happen.  What happens may perhaps be a discrete mystical encounter—such as an epiphany—that changes one’s outlook pointedly.  It could be suggested that that encounter doesn’t end really, and isn’t isolated, because the remaining alteration of the recipient’s perspective on all phenomena doesn’t return to its previous state.  The rapture subsides, the perspective lingers.  The consequence, then, can be, more or less, enduring.  Then too it might not be positive.  In certain mental modalities, such an encounter could cause a schizophrenic split, and trigger a series of negative turns in that person’s life.

What changes when a mortal human comes into direct contact with a deity?  It’s a commonly recurring theme in myth and religion.  In fact, mythology traced as far back as ancient Mesopotamia contains numerous episodes of such human/divine contact.  Generally speaking, both parties benefit from it.  However, sometimes there are negative effects, and when there are, they attend to the human being.  The quality of the effects of the encounter is generally determined by the quality of the encounter itself; ie: good intentions = good outcome, selfish/devious intentions = bad outcome (for the human).  However, in Ancient Greece the gods are human-like and enjoy playing with mortals, so innocents are not infrequently victimized by them.  Sometimes, similar to a blood curse, the doom may sustain for a long time, capturing descendants and even generations in its net.

In Esoteric circles there is a potent method for humans to come crashing into contact with the divine; it is reached during the approach and climax of sexual union.  Yeats himself practiced this with his spiritualist wife, and used it in developing their other mystical theories.  In this manner a prepared adept may experience an enveloping rapture and, using the power of sensual/mystical synthesis, expand and ‘know’ the mind of the universe.  This is important when studying Yeats because he hints at it often in the later poems.

So the question arises: what if the moment of physical/metaphysical climax comes not during intimate voluntary coupling, but rather, amidst a negative encounter: say, during violent force and sexual abandon.  And further, for the sake of intensity: what if one of the parties was, himself, a deity?  Such an example is provided, of course, by the ancient Greeks.  And Yeats uses that very myth to express many things, including the mystery of erotic epiphany.

There are numerous approaches to analyzing Yeats’s Leda and the Swan.  It is one of the poet’s most famous and critically admired works.  I won’t be going through all of the myriad interpretations it provokes; a google search will bring pages and pages of wonderful scholarly analysis.  Instead, I urge you to read the poem with my introductory paragraphs in mind; note especially the concluding two lines.  First though, a brief synopsis for those who are unfamiliar with the myth:

The principal God of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, assuming the form of a swan, sexually assaults the beautiful Queen, Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta.  The children produced from that rape are four: the boys Castor and Pollux, and the girls Helen and Clytemnestra.  Clytemnestra marries King Agamemnon of Mycenae, whom she then murders upon his return from the Trojan War.  Helen marries Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, and through the marriage he later becomes King of Sparta after the death of Tyndareus.  Helen soon abandons her husband to accompany Paris back to his home of Troy, and so lights the fuse of the Trojan War.  Thus the two sisters would play major roles impacting the history and culture of Ancient Greece and the West, but their roles would encompass the deaths of warriors and innocents alike, the rape of a great city, and the murder of kings.

Here then is the 1923 Petrarchan sonnet by W.B. Yeats:

                   Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
he holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
and Agamemnon dead.
                                             Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

 

          

 

The Wistman

The Spindle of War

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Days pass by, and if we’re keyed in to public and world affairs we can daily feel the squeeze, like a wet rag twisted, twisted until all the moisture is bled out.  We’re getting used to it again, though I know I’ve seen this all before, rolled out in much the same way.

Again we observe the profit of a few supported by the suffering of many.  The aggressive and violent impoverishment of others.  International affairs conducted like a football game, with the respective populations cheering from remote bleachers, while contentedly ignoring the death, theft, lies, and hypocrisy writ large across the faraway bombed out cities but cunningly, cynically deleted from the media’s headlines.  And human society seems to love it, loves its chance at ‘winning’, decade after decade, century after century.  John Daido Loori, founding abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, once commented simply:  “Yes.  It is hopeless.”  However, in spite of his judgment, he never gave up hope.

Sadly I have not his well of compassionate objectivity.  In spite of the beautiful creations humanity has bestowed on this planet, in spite of humanity’s amazing intelligence and profound consciousness, its vicious destructiveness and heartless cruelty bewilders my sense of equanimity; I feel we have betrayed the planet and all its living forms.  We are, collectively, a menace and unworthy of any place at Gaia’s table. 

bodies-pile-dresden.jpg.d1ab7a71720d2f53115193a7a04cfa0d.jpg  Dresden, Germany

  Yeats’s perspective was far more subtle and complex than mine.  He’d lived through numerous international conflicts, including two world wars, as well as lingering, fluctuating struggles for Irish independence from Britain, which became a terrible civil war early in the twentieth century; and he was superbly informed about mankind’s hunger for the folly of war throughout history.  It has been said that poetry is an artform of language that conveys meaning which prose cannot.  C. Day-Lewis as Poet Laureate of England described the art of poetry as “the saying of the unsayable.”  So I will comment no further (since my words are weak) and allow Yeats’s lines to reach you, in all their uniquely human depth of meaning.  There are many war poems, these are just a few.  If you are inclined, please feel free to add other examples in the comment section.   Namaste.

                                  The Valley of the Black Pig

                                            The dews drop slowly and dreams gather: unknown spears
                                            suddenly hurtle before my dream-awakened eyes,
                                            and then the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
                                            of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears.
                                            We who still labour by the cromlech on the shore,
                                            the grey cairn on the hill, when day sinks drowned in dew,
                                            being weary of the world's empires, bow down to you,
                                            master of the still stars and of the flaming door.

                                                                                                                (1896)

 

                                    Meditations in Time of Civil War  (VI)

                                             The bees build in the crevices
                                             of loosening masonry, and there
                                             the mother birds bring grubs and flies.
                                             My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
                                             come build in the empty house of the stare.

                                             We are closed in, and the key is turned
                                             on our uncertainty; somewhere
                                             a man is killed, or a house burned,
                                             yet no clear fact to be discerned:
                                             come build in the empty house of the stare.

                                             A barricade of stone or of wood;
                                             some fourteen days of civil war;
                                             last night they trundled down the road
                                             that dead young soldier in his blood:
                                             come build in the empty house of the stare.

                                             We had fed the heart on fantasies,
                                             the heart's grown brutal from the fare;
                                             more substance in our enmities
                                             than in our love; O honey-bees,
                                             come build in the empty house of the stare.

                                                                                                 (1923)

 

                                   The Second Coming

                                              Turning and turning in the widening gyre
                                              the falcon cannot hear the falconer;
                                              things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
                                              mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
                                              the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
                                              the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
                                              the best lack all conviction, while the worst
                                              are full of passionate intensity.

                                              Surely some revelation is at hand;
                                              surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                                              The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
                                              when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
                                              troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
                                              a shape with lion body and the head of a man,
                                              a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
                                              is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
                                              reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

                                              The darkness drops again; but now I know
                                              that twenty centuries of stony sleep
                                              were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
                                              and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
                                              slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

                                                                                                      (1920) 

raqqa.JPG.4d0ba143dff955a4df093283c20dab3f.JPG         Raqqa, Syria                                          

The Wistman

The Mystic's Quest

Here’s the famous 1897 poem by Yeats that, I say, frames the mystic’s quest in symbolism and metaphor:

“The Song of Wandering Aengus”

I went out to the hazel wood,
because a fire was in my head,
and cut and peeled a hazel wand,
and hooked a berry to a thread;
and when white moths were on the wing,
and moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
and caught a little silver trout.

 

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
but something rustled on the floor,
and someone called me by my name:
it had become a glimmering girl
with apple blossom in her hair
who called me by my name and ran
and faded through the brightening air.

 

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
and kiss her lips and take her hands;
and walk among long dappled grass,
and pluck till time and times are done,
the silver apples of the moon,
the golden apples of the sun.

Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 (he’d previously been nominated in 1902, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1921, 1922); time has proved him to be one of the most enduring of all its awardees.  His Irish nationalism along with his political and anthropological astuteness made him uniquely potent as a poet of the modern age.  This early poem, rightly loved by Irish readers and many others worldwide, has been analyzed often for its excellence of form, hypnotic imagery, Celtic mythological references (ie:  Aengus, the fisherman, the silver trout, the hazel bough, the apple), and sense of longing that characterizes much of the human journey.  It is also shaped as an aisling, an old Irish poetic type consisting of a dream vision which usually involves an otherworldly female figure.  At the time of its composition Yeats was enveloped in his mystical inquiries and membership in spiritual/occult societies such as the Theosophists and the Golden Dawn -- an aspect of the poet’s background that is mostly glossed over by his critics and admirers, as if it were only a quirk that was incidental to his genius, and seemingly they are embarrassed for him.  He would have disagreed and so do I.  I think it was the foundation and driver to many of his literary endeavors, although it was mostly masked within the verses and images; it is what bestows a strange loftiness to these poems’ impact and what pricks our curiosity, and is a necessity to understand when unpacking the seed point in many of his works.

In this poem a story is told and an old man is telling it: a magical, mystical event takes place in a dreamlike state wherein, while he’s fishing, a caught silver trout turns into a glimmering maiden, who calls his name runs away.  The teller describes spending the rest of his life searching for her to repeat the experience and hold it.  Those people, like Yeats, who have known the flash of a mystical experience, pursue it as in a quest, often for the rest of their lives.  Here is a later poem from 1932:
 

                Vacillation  (IV)

               My fiftieth year had come and gone,
               I sat, a solitary man,
               in a crowded London shop,
               an open book and empty cup
               on the marble table-top.
               While on the shop and street I gazed
               my body of a sudden blazed;
               and twenty minutes more or less
               it seemed, so great my happiness,
               that I was blessed and could bless.

Here Yeats abandons the clothing of Irish folklore and sumptuous verbiage and gives us a straight, modern rendering of the experience.  Both poems are steeped in mystical underpinnings, the first is relayed to us through metaphor and dream quest and the second poem is an account of the very singular happening. 

I hope to further address this angle in upcoming blog entries.  Here is a link that elaborates on the  folklore and Celtic references in the Aengus poem: 

https://edsitement.neh.gov/sites/edsitement.neh.gov/files/worksheets/traditional_irish_sources_for_the_song_of_wandering_aengus.pdf

5af616aedd0a7_yeats1908.jpg.b5a1110172bd34a51420eaff4026a317.jpg  Yeats in 1908, by J.S. Sargent

The Wistman

Ignorant and wanton

For my first blog post here I’d like to open with an emblematic 1919 poem by W.B. Yeats:               

                                                                                            The Dawn

I would be ignorant as the dawn

 

that has looked down

 

on that old queen measuring a town

 

with the pin of a brooch,

 

or on the withered men that saw

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from their pedantic Babylon

 

the careless planets in their courses,

 

the stars fade out where the moon comes,

 

and took their tablets and did sums;

 

I would be ignorant as the dawn

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that merely stood, rocking the glittering coach

 

above the cloudy shoulders of the horses;

 

I would be—for no knowledge is worth a straw—

 

ignorant and wanton as the dawn.

 

 

Yeats was no champion of human ignorance (far from it), but he makes a point about our byzantine minds: measuring and calculating, referencing every phenomena to an inner encyclopedia of words, abstractions, qualifications, comparisons and judgments, until our simple experience as a conscious living being gets lost in the matrix of our mental gymnastics; and this becomes a self-reinforcing, unconscious pattern, a seeming necessity to our self-created ego-self that needs constant reassurance of its ‘existence’ and ‘place’ in the qualified, examined world around us.  Yeats longs to be free of it, for without all things being reassigned to names, abstract forms, and categorical references, a person can just be in the flow of experience without intellectualizing it or equating it with attached memories and their associated emotions.  True: we cannot navigate our social world without a process of pattern recognition and internalization, but being unable to free ourselves from it, even for a little while, enslaves us to the categorical unreal and robs us of the subtle taste of living.  He invites us to take from time to stop and smell the roses, to see what the dawn reveals—and not to endlessly acquiesce to references.

 

These notions occupied my mind yesterday; my family has just now sold our parents’ house…a wrenching experience as many readers surely know all too well.  Our mom passed away eight years ago, and her studio (she was a paintings conservator) was left untouched until now.  My dad passed away late last year; some of you may remember that he posted hereabouts as Khaemwaset.  He’d been a field Egyptologist early in his career, but due to his other capacities ended up spending the bulk of his later career as a museum administrator.  I’d moved back into the family house three years ago to help take care of him while he succumbed to a cancer diagnosis.  It was difficult, especially at the end, but without doubt the most enriching years of my life.  I learned through my dad (among many other things) to take the moment fully and joyously, no matter how grim the future looked or even amidst the pain being endured.  Between us there came a point where we talked very little; words just seemed to get in the way.

 

I put the contents of dad’s office into my garage when I moved back into my own house; no room for a car in there now.  Some of mom’s studio paraphernalia came to me, my siblings took their heirlooms as well.  After we closed on the family house….none of us said very much.  We went to a favorite watering hole, drank beer, played pool, and enjoyed our own company and our commonality.  Words were scarce.  It would have seemed reductive to say anything.  We were, for a few moments, a bit like Yeats’s dawn.