Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Yeats and the dusky path of a dream

I like to start the day by opening a book at random and seeing what thought or message this sets before me. The book I use may be one of my own notebooks, or something that has recently landed on my desk through the machinations of the shelf elf, or an old favorite.

An edition of Yeats' collected poems is rarely far from me when I am down in my writing Cave. I read Yeats with passion as a young boy - and ever since - and hunted up a scratchy old vinyl recoding of him reading some of his own works. My first copy of his collected poems was my choice as my prize for writing poetry (the Ellis Prize for Verse) at my high school graduation.

This morning I have a recent edition of Yeats' poetry, edited by Richard Finneran. It is volume I of what is now the standard edition of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, published by Scribner, a mammoth and impressive enterprise in which many of the world's leading Yeats scholars have been engaged over many years.

I turned to this for my thought for the day.

The book opened to a poem I don't remember reading before, titled "Solomon and the Witch". A wild scene of passion and memory, older than the Fall, is playing out under a wild moon. In sacred union, it is suggested, we can annihilate time and bring back Eden. The lovers of the poem have not quite accomplished this, but

the moon is wilder every minute.
O Solomon! let us try again.

I am thrilled by the mystery of these verses. They elude translation; I must allow the images to work inside me.

I turn the page and find another poem titled "An Image from a Past Life".

He: Why have you laid your hands upon my eyes?
She: A sweetheart from another life floats there.

Now this gives me a clearer directive for the day's work.

I remember now a poem by Tagore that Yeats selected for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Common Verse: "In the dusky path of a dream I went to seek the love who was mine in a former life." Not always a fun path for Yeats, who felt that he found his love of many lives in Maud Gonne, but was unable to be with her for long.

Yes, we shall go on seeking, along the dusky path of dreams.

Yeats by John Singer Sargent (1908)


nina said...
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Wanda Burch said...

I always find for myself a deep sense of nostalgia when Yeats writes of the love of a former life. Nostalgia for what in my own life? That is hard for me to grasp, but I feel it in the shadows and feel that I almost have my mind wrapped around it but then it vanishes. In some of his words I also sense a tension - in my search for their meaning in my life - that is both mysterious and beautiful.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda - Yes, I feel something similar. It's the kind of nostalgia the Portuguese call saudade. Perhaps there is a word in Irish Gaelic for that.

Robert Moss said...

Nina - you remind me that the Beloved of the soul may assume the mask of an earthly lover, as Dante found when he encountered Beatrice.

Nancy said...

I've felt that longing too and struggled to pin it down and name it. My working theory now is that it's not a longing for a particular person (in this life or a former one) but maybe for our own best Selves, or God, or Life itself. In your Gore journey years ago based on Dante's sliver and black and red giant steps we had to struggle to ascend, at the end I found my true Love to be ..... my deceased father! Maybe the Love takes the guise we can best connect with at the time, so we can get the learning most clearly, as you say about Dante and Beatrice.

Robert Moss said...

Nancy - the discussion here is becoming a beautiful exploration of the heart's deepest longing and the nature of the immortal Beloved, who can of course put on many faces and guises.

And yet, I think that Yeats and Tagore are singing quite specifically about the very human longing for one who is known and loved in another mortal lifetime, which may be not only in the "past" but going on NOW.

Savannah said...

This is a lovely thread, and one that seems perfect for the wistful days of autumn (when my heart will readily leap to the Other longing also...). Thank you!

Robert Moss said...

Savannah - "wistful" is a good, old English term for some of the emotions being expressed and discussed here. It means to be full of longing in a quiet and attentive way. It may be derived from "wist", a noun that has slipped out of the language, but meant "intent" in medieval times. Some link it to "wisht", meaning silent. Sounds like wishful...and full of intent...

Diana said...

And in a multi dimensional world within our own family of selves connected by golden cords to certain other families of selves, is there not a likelihood of encountering within the time and space we believe we are now in, profound loves that are being enacted in other dimensions? And then is the experience less wistful and perhaps more like a fire bursting in the heart, or the deep certainty of homecoming, leaving the heart aglow and opening gateways heretofore unknown?

Angelo said...

Here are two poems of AE (George William Russell), a contemporary of Yeats.

68. Babylon

THE BLUE dusk ran between the streets: my love was winged within my mind,
It left to-day and yesterday and thrice a thousand years behind.
To-day was past and dead for me, for from to-day my feet had run
Through thrice a thousand years to walk the ways of ancient Babylon.
On temple top and palace roof the burnished gold flung back the rays 5
Of a red sunset that was dead and lost beyond a million days.
The tower of heaven turns darker blue, a starry sparkle now begins;
The mystery and magnificence, the myriad beauty and the sins
Come back to me. I walk beneath the shadowy multitude of towers;
Within the gloom the fountain jets its pallid mist in lily flowers. 10
The waters lull me and the scent of many gardens, and I hear
Familiar voices, and the voice I love is whispering in my ear.
Oh real as in dream all this; and then a hand on mine is laid:
The wave of phantom time withdraws; and that young Babylonian maid,
One drop of beauty left behind from all the flowing of that tide, 15
Is looking with the self-same eyes, and here in Ireland by my side.
Oh light our life in Babylon, but Babylon has taken wings,
While we are in the calm and proud procession of eternal things.

Angelo said...

69. The Faces of Memory

DREAM faces bloom around your face
Like flowers upon one stem;
The heart of many a vanished race
Sighs as I look on them.

The sun rich face of Egypt glows, 5
The eyes of Eire brood,
With whom the golden Cyprian shows
In lovely sisterhood.

Your tree of life put forth these flowers
In ages past away: 10
They had the love in other hours
I give to you to-day.

One light their eyes have, as may shine
One star on many a sea,
They look that tender love on mine 15
That lights your glance on me.

They fade in you; their lips are fain
To meet the old caress:
And all their love is mine again
As lip to lip we press. 20

nina said...
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