contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: W. B. Yeats

AFTER MANY A SUMMER

I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.

Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.

I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).

But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,

To dwell in presence of immortal youth,

Immortal age beside immortal youth,

And all I was, in ashes.” (3)

Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.

Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.

(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994

(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968

(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)

(5) Aldous Huxley Island Vintage Classics e-book edition (Original publication 1962)

POEM: SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

I’ve had a request for the full text of W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and so this post is devoted to it.

1

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

-Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel crowded seas,

Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there any singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

III

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre*,

And be the singing masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

IV

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

  • “Perne in a gyre” – ‘pern’ is another name for spool, and ‘to pern’ or ‘perne’ is to move with a circular, spinning motion; a gyre is Yeats’ symbol for circular movements in history – In A Vision Yeats said that “each age unwinds the threads another age had wound”.

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)

SAILING TO BYZANTIUM

This post is inspired by The Byzantine Tarot, a collaboration between two notable talents – John Matthews as writer and Cilla Conway as artist. It’s an excellent piece of work, but this post is not a review. It’s about two of the major trumps and their effect on me.

I impulse-bought the pack about a month ago. I didn’t get it for divination. I wanted it for the iconography of the major trumps, though in fact all the cards are carefully chosen and beautifully rendered. Part of the integrity of this tarot is that the images are drawn from the culture they reference – a culture itself very busy with sacred images, though at times its ruling circles reacted against them. Cilla Conway’s work is a wonderful evocation of this culture and its imagery, an imagery consciously crafted in the service of Christian Orthodoxy*.  It’s an interesting subject for a tarot pack, since the tarot form itself introduces an element of gnostic subversion into the work.

In the Byzantine Tarot, Sophia appears as the Papesse/High Priestess. She mediates “between the higher and lower realms of creation, watching over the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessings to find their own path through the world”. In the apparent world, Byzantine Orthodoxy had no vacancy for a Papesse/High Priestess, and was not in business to encourage people to find their own way unless it was also the Churches’ way. The Fool of this tarot is a Holy Fool and draws on the history of the Desert Fathers, though the specific image is from Moscow, for the Slav world inherited the Orthodox tradition and the role of the Holy Fool. There is a happy reframing of these formidable world-renouncing ascetics in the text. A naked, haloed man steps outside his cell raising his hands towards the dove of the Holy Spirit and “prepares to step off into the air above the sea, asking without words to be allowed to access the joy and wonder of the world”. He is said to represent ‘crazy wisdom’, also known to Sufi and Buddhist tradition.

I feel engaged with these images, but not close to the Orthodox Church. Fortunately good images transcend doctrine. They have a larger suggestive power. I see a Goddess, depicted in one card as an angelic intercessor and in the other as a dove. I see a devotee who is a completely opened up. I’m learning how development works in spirals. A few years ago I was taken up with the image of Sophia and this modified my experience of Druidry. It was initially her influence that got me to explore meditative disciplines and see through the eye of contemplation more systematically. When my exploration took me further East, my specific sense of Sophia began to diminish.

Two tarot images have brought her back into my life. Now that she’s in my life, I have to move on from the specific images, for all their potent catalyst role. In relation to my life and practice, the Sophia depicted is too hierophantic and static. I like the Holy Fool icon, but the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ references in the text open up unwelcome possibilities of dogmatic intuitionism and licensed abuse-by-Guru that we find in Crazy Wisdom Masters from many traditions.

If I want to orient myself to the ‘Holy Fool’ archetype, there are lines within W. B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium, which act as a better guide. He starts with the complaint “That is no country for old men” – Ireland, but more essentially the world of “whatever is begotten, born and dies, caught in … sensual music”. Then he says:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

On my reading the world of begetting, birthing and dying – with all its sensual music – is absolutely fine and to be celebrated. It’s the being “caught” in it that’s the problem. For there is another dimension. The seven directions operate vertically as well as horizontally, with eternity at the centre, within, around and throughout.  Sophia reminds me of this, and it changes everything.

* Early in the 4th century C.E. the Roman Emperor Constantine began the Christianisation of the Empire and moved the capital eastwards from Rome to the old Greek city of Byzantium which he rebuilt and modestly renamed Constantinople. Two hundred years later when Orthodox Christianity was dominant and enforceable, a new Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) became the greatest building of the city. It still is in some ways, having survived two conversions since the fall of the city in 1453, first into a mosque and later into a museum in today’s Istanbul.

Matthews, John & Conway, Cilla The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom from an Ancient Empire London: Connections Book Publications, 2015

Yeats, W. B. Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan & Co, 1964 (Selected with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)

BOOK REVIEW: NATURE MYSTICS

jhp54f743a60d1fbHighly recommended. Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism is a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. It introduces readers to some of the literature that many modern Pagans perceive to have influenced the culture of their spiritual family. It will be published at the end of this month (31 July 2015) and author Rebecca Beattie dedicates it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”.

Selection has clearly been an issue and the author has both used her own judgement and consulted with associates in a ‘Nature Mystic’ blog. Her centre of gravity is England in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and, more particularly, the opening decades of the twentieth. She has chosen five women and five men to represent a place, a time, and a suggested sensibility. There are outliers – John Keats from an earlier time and W. B. Yeats from Ireland – but Beattie shows in her introduction how they fit within the selection. The full list is: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W. B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. Each author has a dedicated chapter describing their life, work and cultural setting; exploring specific works in some depth; and discussing both their declared or implied spirituality and ways in which it may inspire modern Pagans. Each is given a remarkably thorough treatment for an introductory book that addresses a larger theme.

I grew up with some of these writers and went on to study English literature for my first degree in the final years of the 1960s. It’s been interesting for me to check back on the writers I knew and those I didn’t, at that time, as a way of checking out how the world has moved on. Four of the men – Keats, Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats – were an important part of my life; Tolkien not so much, though I had read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. E. Nesbit I knew as author of The Railway Children and connected with the Fabian Society, the intellectual voice of respectable British Socialism at the time. Thanks to Nature Mystics, I’ve enjoyed being introduced to her The Accidental Magic: or Don’t Tell All You know and The Story of the Amulet, works for children penned by the Nesbit who was involved, as I knew that Yeats was, with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I discovered Mary Webb later, when I went to live in Shropshire where she was remembered. By then I was able to read Precious Bane and Gone to Earth in Virago editions and I later found Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lolly Willows in the same way. I still see these powerful and highly relevant books through a sort of feminist ally lens, as primarily about free-spirited women in outsider positions navigating gender and sexuality in a largely hostile and uncomprehending world, and looking for oases of safety and possible flourishing. Beattie’s book adds to the picture by spelling out Pagan tinged nature mysticism as a spirituality that is congruent with this quest, and also informed by it. I have still not read anything by Elizabeth von Arnim or Mary Butts, and before getting my review copy of this book, knew of them only through their links with other people. Now I’m encouraged to look at their work.

I’ve been delighted to read a work that offers new information and a new lens. The writers concerned are a diverse and free-spirited group. I’m not entirely convinced that they either could or should be enrolled in a league of “properly proto-Pagan” Nature Mystics. It is my belief that most of them would resist the identification. Beattie herself says that Tolkien was dismayed by some of the responses to his work in his own life-time. At the same time I do see a common tendency, in this group, to find the numinous in natural settings and the spirit of place, “that sense of bliss and divine communion that is gained from time spent absorbed in the natural world” as Beattie puts it. I’m sure, too, that there will be a ready assent among many readers to the suggestion that “where Woolf said every woman needed a room of her own, von Arnim would have said every woman needed a garden”.

I will leave the last word to Thomas Hardy, in a brief passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, quoted in Nature Mystics. It is about Tess herself, and evokes a moment when a sensitive human consciousness is more fully awakened by a moment in the cycle of the day: “She knew how to hit to a hair’s breadth that moment of evening when the light and darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other, leaving absolute mental liberty”.

MABON

Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012 http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/Maponus/.

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/merlin) and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at http://www.last.fm/music/Silver+on+the+Tree

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press

4: http://www.everything2.com/title/Saint+Kentigern+and+Lailoken

5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser

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