When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
Pray that the road is long.
Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
About this blog
Human experience, Ancient Egypt, and Yeats
Entries in this blog
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.
Surviving megaliths portraying Amenhotep III, from the ruin of his Valley Temple on the West bank at Thebes:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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:
Yeats in 1908, by J.S. Sargent
For my first blog post here I’d like to open with an emblematic 1919 poem by W.B. Yeats:
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
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
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.