|Blacksmith forges a sword with the help of a fox spirit. |
Woodcut by Ogata Gekko (1873)
What is this voice that calls him away from life, to climb "the winding ancient stair", into "the breathless starlit air" and
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done
He calls it his Soul. Is it calling him to Death? Certainly, it is calling him to die to the natural world, the world of blood and sinew and nerve-endings.
I am re-reading "A Dialogue of Self and Soul", a poem of W.B.Yeats' later years, written when he was over 60. As writer and thinker, he was approaching the peak of his powers, but he was very conscious that his body was failing and he sensed the nearness of Death in recurring bouts of illness. In the chill Dublin fall of 1927, hardly able to breathe, he feared he would not survive the congestion of his lungs. A year later, on vacation in Rapallo, he was stricken by what was diagnosed as "Malta fever" and confined to bed for four months, often too weak to turn his mind to anything more demanding than detective stories, fed an evening diet of serum and very dry champagne.
Sensing Death at his side, in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul", the poet chooses life, even if his choice will carry the price of recurrence of heartache and humiliations of the flesh. In the poem, as so often in Yeats' writing, he gives a personal spin to familiar terms so that we no longer quite recognize them. "Soul", here, is an austere, world-rejecting inner voice. "Self" is the man of flesh and bone, of memory and desire, not ready to cast off from the world.
Yeats' Self has a weapon on his knees: "Sato's ancient blade", "still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass", wrapped in embroidered silk "torn from some court-lady's dress." The image of the long sword sheathed in a lady's silk dress in the poet's lap is raw and sexual; it opens like a wound, bringing a shudder of unease and excitement.
Soul argues with him. He is "long past his prime". He should forget things "emblematical of love and war". If he will only teach his imagination to "scorn the earth", he may win the prize of deliverance from the wheel of reincarnation, from what Soul denounces as "the crime of death and birth."
Self insists on what he can touch and stroke with his hands and his symbol-weaving mind. He evokes the master who made the sword, and the "heart's purple" of the silk streaming under his touch; he sets these against the austerity of the tower he has been called to ascend.
The life-denier soon quits the debate, leaving the poet to speak uninterrupted in Part II of the poem. His memories of his present life are full of hurt and shame, from the "ignominy of boyhood" to the "clumsiness" of the "unfinished man". He broods on how malicious eyes can give a false shape to a man - this man - and so distort his own vision that "he thinks that shape must be his shape."
Yet he cries out, "I am content to live it all again," even if "it be life to pitch/ Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch"
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
It seems the wound of his unrequited love for Maud Gonne will never heal. Yet he affirms that he will find the way to forgive himself, cast out remorse, and move on.
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
That final affirmation rings less certain, for me, than the glint of the sword, through the folds of silk, in the first part of the poem. The last lines, to my ear, are whistling in the dark. I'm for that, but what recruits my conviction is the unexpected marriage of silk and tempered steel.
Curious about the origin of that image, I tracked down Yeats' account of how he came into possession of an antique samurai sword:
A rather wonderful thing happened the day before yesterday. A very distinguished looking Japanese came to see us. He had read my poetry when in Japan and had now just heard me lecture. He had something in his hand wrapped up in embroidered silk. He said it was a present for me. He untied the silk cord that bound it and brought out a sword which had been for 500 years in his family. It had been made 550 years ago and he showed me the maker’s name upon the hilt. I was greatly embarrassed at the thought of such a gift and went to fetch George, thinking that we might find some way of refusing it. When she came I said “But surely this ought always to remain in your family?” He answered “My family have many swords.” But later he brought back my embarrassment by speaking of having given me “his sword.” I had to accept it but I have written him a letter saying that I “put him under a vow” to write and tell me when his first child is born—he is not yet married—that I may leave the sword back to his family in my will. (WBY Letter to Edmund Dulac, 22 March 1920)
The name of the Japanese donor, Sato, is in the poem, where Yeats also refers to the sword as "Montashigi". This is his rendering of Motoshigé, the name used for very special swords created with the craft and ritual of Ko Motoshigé ("Old Motoshige") a master swordmaker of the early fourteenth century.
Inspiration, from a physical object, for the double thrust of passion and of pain that defies Death and abstraction.
The making of a master blade in the illustration above dates back to the eleventh century; here we see a sword being brought alive by a fox spirit. The swordsmith is the renowned Kokaji Munechika, and this is also a dream story; the emperor Ichijô ordered him to forge this blade because of a dream. The story is the theme of a Noh play, and Yeats was strongly influenced by Noh in creating his own one-act plays.