Monday, November 16, 2009

Talk About It

Tonight, I wielded Sato’s ancient blade in the name of William Butler Yeats. No, I haven’t lost my mind and taken to some dramatically deranged Celtic retribution. I led a discussion of the poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” as part of five-week long program at my local library exploring the great Irish writer’s poetry.

I’m one of 18 Yeats and/or poetry enthusiasts spending a couple of hours each Monday night during November selecting, sharing and discussing the poet’s works. This is the first time I’ve done one of these programs and it has proven to be a stimulating opportunity to exercise the intellect in ways that have been few and far between since the heady days of college (with fond memories of Drs. Gunter, Rodenheiser, Treadway, Ryle et al) many years ago.

Yeats’ poetry provides many rich veins of pursuit for thoughtful exploration and mining. Nearly every poem is ready fuel for lengthy and involved discussion. Last week, we spent nearly 45 minutes discussing one 11-line poem and had to force ourselves to move on. The biographical and complex philosophical allusions in so much of Yeats’ work make his canon perfect fodder for such a forum.

The gathered group of participants is an interesting mix of would-be Yeats scholars (like me) who are fascinated by his writing, his history and his thought; others who are interested in the mechanics of poetry and drawn to what they might learn from this master’s techniques; and, finally, a handful of folks who are simply intrigued by what they have heard about the famed poet and want to learn more.

The group’s facilitator, a published poet and scholar (but admittedly not a Yeats specialist per se), prompts us to examine each poem and think about how we relate to it (or not) – i.e., strive to articulate where we see ourselves in the poem. This helps keep the discussions from becoming too academic.

So far, at the suggestion of various group members, we’ve enjoyed dissecting “The Second Coming,” “Lines Written in Dejection,” “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” “Into the Twilight, ” “When You Are Old,” “The Fisherman,” “The Stolen Child” and yours-truly’s selection.

I chose “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” because it has long been one of my favorite Yeats’ poems, and while it is not one of his most famous poems, it is not completely unheard of either. It is very representative of several of the poet’s stylistic hallmarks. And, like much of his mature work (he was 68 when it was published in 1933), the poem is accessible on one level, yet densely laden with symbolism and the author’s personal philosophy. It is constructed upon a common theme in Yeats’ writings, that of conflict between opposing forces: in this case, the spiritual world of permanence on the one hand and the earthly world of action, mutability and thought on the other.

It conjures contemplation with its provocative imagery of the Self’s material, historical world, represented by Sato’s ancient blade, expertly fashioned and enduring, adorned with an elegant, worn, but still protecting scabbard, standing counter – in defiance, in fact – to the Soul’s hidden pole, starlit quarter and tower “emblematical of the night,” a spiritual world beyond time and intellect.

“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” depicts the individual’s internal/external conflict in a stark and somewhat novel way. While the opposing voices of Self and Soul do, in fact, argue separate points of view, their discussion is really more opposing monologues than dueling dialogue. Each voice pays little heed to the other.

“All creation is from conflict, whether with our mind or with that of others,” Yeats once said. “We make out of quarrel with others rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” He was a champion wrestler with his own daemon.

It is interesting to note that, given Yeats’ strong association with mystical thought and metaphysical philosophies, in this poem he grants the earthly, life-bound Self the last word in the lengthy conclusion. The poet’s Self declares that as debased as life in the physical world may be, he would bear it all again, striving to live life to the fullest, taking measure and forgiving all (himself included); for, in casting aside remorse, he will find joy and be blessed. The Eden-like innocence of the final lines recalls Blake at his most optimistic.

Here’s the text of the poem in full. Read, contemplate and enjoy!

A Dialogue of Self and Soul


My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,

Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,

Upon the breathless starlit air,

Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;

Fix every wandering thought upon

That quarter where all thought is done:

Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?

My Self. The consecrated blade upon my knees

Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,

Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass

Unspotted by the centuries;

That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn

From some court-lady’s dress and round

The wooden scabbard bound and wound,

Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.

My Soul. Why should the imagination of a man

Long past his prime remember things that are

Emblematical of love and war?

Think of ancestral night that can,

If but imagination scorn the earth

And intellect is wandering

To this and that and t’other thing,

Deliver from the crime of death and birth.

My Self. Montashigi, third of his family, fashioned it

Five hundred years ago, about it lie

Flowers from I know not what embroidery –

Heart’s purple – and all these I set

For emblems of the day against the tower

Emblematical of the night,

And claim as by a soldier’s right

A charter to commit the crime once more.

My Soul. Such fullness in that quarter overflows

And falls into the basin of the mind

That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,

For intellect no longer knows

Is from the Ought, or Knower from the Known

That is to say, ascends to Heaven;

Only the dead can be forgiven;

But when I think of that my tongue’s a stone.


My Self. A living man is blind and drinks his drop.

What matter if the ditches are impure?

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

The finished man among his enemies? –

How in the name of Heaven can he escape

That defiling and disfigured shape

The mirror of malicious eyes

Casts upon his eyes until at last

He thinks that shape must be his shape?

And what’s the good of an escape

If honour find him in the wintry blast?

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,

A blind man battering blind men;

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.

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

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