You should gain a critical understanding of the symbols in the texts and their cultural significance.
- Flaubert, 509-542.
- Baudelaire, 596-607; Rimbaud, 709-719.
- Intro, 765-770; Tagore, 838-846; Yeats, 847-860.
- Answer discussion question; Take Quiz in Blackboard.
Poems are meant to be read out loud; if poems are not heard, they cannot be fully understood.
The following excerpts on Yeat’s poems are from Reading Poems: an Introduction to Critical Study, edited by Wright Thomas and Stuart Gerry Brown, published by Oxford University Press in 1941.
Sailing to Byzantium (1928):
This poem should be read together with the poem ‘Byzantium’. The imagery of both poems is almost entirely symbolist; and the central symbol is, of course, Byzantium. Byzantium (Constantinople) was the capitol of the eastern Roman Empire and its great period of art and architecture was during the fifth and sixth centuries. But the poet by no means intends to have us contrast the present time with ancient Byzantium; nor does he mean that he prefers the latter. Byzantium is used, on several levels, as a symbol for things of the mind and spirit as opposed to ordinary sensuous experience. These qualities Yeats associates primarily with the arts of Byzantium, lines 26-29. The forms which ‘Grecian goldsmiths make’ are to be contrasted with the images of sensuous and sensual experience (including fertility) in the first stanza, because they are timeless, fixed, and permanent in their shape and significance. They were created by artists who copied forms from their own imaginations rather than from external nature. Byzantine art was thus abstract, and, according to Yeats, permanent because it was of the spirit and not the flesh; while the images of the first stanza belong to ‘Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.’ The poem assumes a soul independent of the body which is subject to series of births, deaths, and rebirths in different shapes and forms. Although lines 21-24 may indeed refer to the poet’s own feeling of age and lack of animal vitality, the experience of the poem is much more general in its implications than that. The ‘dying animal,’ means any organic life, as opposed to ‘monuments of unaging intellect.’ The poet has felt that the whole world is in a state of decay, and, as ‘The Second Coming’ shows, is moving toward some kind of rebirth. In order not to be caught in the whirling chaos of this present world’s end it is better to set one’s mind toward things which are permanent and at the same time beautiful, to be valued even though in their time of creation they served only to ‘keep a drowsy Emperor awake.’
The chief reason that Yeats used the symbolism of Byzantium, ancient art, mosaic, fire, etc. is that he wished to avoid any suggestion to the reader’s mind of the descriptions of the world which modern physics gives us. Yeats had no belief in science, and when it tried to explain ‘the first and last things’ of life, he hated it. He relied upon his own somewhat mystical ‘vision,’ fortified by his reading of the great books of the past.
Line 1. That. The reference, of course, is to the here and now of our world. The poet uses the demonstrative because he represents himself as having arrived at ‘Byzantium.’
Line 8. i. e. works of art which, like those of Byzantium, are not dependent upon the world of sense.
Line 19. perne in a gyre. Yeats imagined that the whole world, at the present time, was whirling at great velocity in the manner of a gyre, i. e. like a tornado, spirally about its axis. By perne Yeats means to move in the manner of a hawk, i. e. circling and then swooping. The image thus conveys the idea of moving in such a manner as to pierce through the gyre in order to reach the poet who is caught in it by the accident of having been born into the present-day world.
Line 24. artifice of eternity. From Yeat’s point of view eternity would be abstract and artificial, that is, of the mind or spirit rather than of anything attached to sensory experience.
Line 30. golden bough. The golden bough which Aeneas, by command of the Cumaean Sybil, plucked before he entered the underworld in Greek Myth.
The chief task is to grasp the structure of the poem, for once this is achieved the details fall readily into place. The poet represents himself, now, as having arrived in Byzantium, i. e. having, for the moment, got loose from the ‘dying animal’ of his body and reached the ‘artifice of eternity.’ The experience of the poem is thus a blending together of his observation of the stream of sensuous life from which he is now detached, of the actual feelings of severance from the sensuous world in which others are struggling for freedom, and his observation of the images which belong in eternity. In other words, the poem is an attempt to say what it is like to be in Yeat’s symbolic Byzantium. The first stanza is a statement of the contrast between the violent and meaningless complexity of experience in the world of sense, and the permanent perfection of the ‘monuments of unaging intellect,’ such as a ‘moonlit dome.’ The images of day (‘unpurged’ because he has not permanently got rid of them), that is ordinary experience, recede as does the sound of a gong rung from a great cathedral; and the poet, in the second stanza, sees an image which belongs not to time but to eternity. (The word image is used deliberately and ambivalently. In line 1 it indicates that the experiences of this world are illusions and unreal, while in line 9 it suggests that the poet does not really see this spirit from the other-world, but imagines that he does.) He calls is ‘death-in-life’ because it has no sensuous life but belongs to the higher, abstract life; he calls it ‘life-in-death’ because he sees it only for a moment, remembering that he still belongs in the world of here and now. The third stanza describes the image in terms of the ‘forms’ which ‘Grecian goldsmiths make,’ recalling that those forms depend upon the intellect and not upon natural objects. In stanza four the quality of the abstract and perfect ‘life’ of Yeat’s Byzantium is contrasted with the life of the historical Byzantium of Roman imperial history. ‘Midnight’ is the time imagined for the appearance of Yeat’s images because the city of living beings would be still; and the meaning is that the people of historical Byzantium had no more appreciation of the otherworld which their artists were making than do we of this time. In the final stanza the poet is speaking of the plight of those spirits which are trying, with desperate but futile intensity, to escape from the ‘mire’ of ordinary life by means which are themselves sensuous. But only ‘The smithies of the Emperor’ can break the flood, the smithies in which the ‘forms’ of the ‘Grecian goldsmiths’ are forged.
Lines 1-4. The poet is in Byzantium in two senses: (1) the historical Byzantium of the Emperor filled with the ‘unpurged images of the day,’ and (2) the symbolic Byzantium of the intellect into which in lines 5-8 he moves as the images recede. The experience is like the dying away of the sound of a great gong.
Line 11. Hades’ bobbin. Hades is taken here in its ancient sense of the afterworld where spirits exist as ‘shades,’ not at all in the more common sense of Hell. The spirit, which is likened to a ‘bobbin bound in mummy cloth,’ is placed in Hades simply to show that it has passed beyond the world of sense.
Line 20. cocks of Hades. Just as the crowing of a rooster, according to the old myths, would drive away ghosts, so the crowing of the cocks in Hades would drive away the figures of the physical world.
Line 33. The reference here is to the myth of Arion who was forced by robbers to leap into the sea but was rescued by a dolphin. However, from Yeat’s point of view, the dolphin belongs to the world of sense, and escape from that world is therefore impossible by its agency. The experience here is of the futility of trying to escape by any means other than the pure intellect symbolized by the ‘smithies of the Emperor.’
Line 40. dolphin-torn. The sea of life, the world about us, is torn by our mistaken belief that we can escape from it by any sensory experience. gong-tormented. The sound of the gong, which receded in stanza 1 and thus allowed the poet to enter the Byzantium of the imagination, is ever present in the world of sense.
The Second Coming (1921):
The structure of the poem is strictly logical, even though the experience is prophetic. The first stanza describes the poet’s impression of the present, and the second explains the terrible inference which his vision has forced him to make. There is a terrible irony in the manner with which the poet treats the Christian myth and faith, irony amounting to denial of that myth and faith. For spiritus mundi, by which Yeats understood a great racial memory into which the human mind could pierce at moments of mystical intuition, is a thoroughly pagan conception. Yeats is imagining a world and a history where Christianity is only one of many phases or cycles, where two thousand years can be described as ‘stony sleep.’
Line 1-2. The image here is primarily that of a trained falcon in characteristic flight which is unable to hear the commands of its master on the ground; but secondarily, and more significantly, the image is of the motion of the whole world of living beings. The poet’s vision has told him that the gyre of the present cannot continue much longer; its center will not hold and it will fly in all directions (and with it the psychology of each individual). It follows, from Yeat’s point of view, that some tremendous event, such as the second coming, must be near at hand.
Line 12. Spiritus mundi. Literally spirit of the world. Yeats believed that all experience and history, past, present, and future, were preserved in a great racial spirit memory or which exists everywhere but is not subject to sensory perception. However, an intuitive perception was possible, and at moment of mystical experience, such as this, the future might be revealed.
Baudelaire speaks from an anguished subjectivity, even while describing broad human concerns: the fear of death and decay, the need for love, a painful alienation from others and from society. In response he desires to create beauty, to understand the relationships between things (“correspondences”), and to find answers. Such themes are reinforced by a precise and disciplined style that coordinates classical meter and rhyme schemes with extraordinarily subtle interrelationships of images, associations, and logically developed argument.
Jean PrÃ©vost, in the essay “Baudelairean Themes: Death, Evil, and Love’, claims that in Baudelaire ‘the Socratic “know thyself” becomes awareness of and consent to evil.’ It may be argued that guilt for simply being alive penetrates all of Baudelaire’s lines. There is a disgust, a saying No to life, a turning away in such poems as ‘To the Reader’ where the themes of Les Fleurs du mal are spelled out in the first line: ‘Infatuations, sadism, lust, avarice.’ The poem’s speaker is appalled at the squalor of life itself, sunk back into his inner-world unable to act or understand.
As our book notes, Baudelaire’s poetry was put on trial for ‘offenses against public and religious morals’ (2420). Do you agree with the claims of the court? If not, then how can we find pleasure, or even wisdom and understanding, in lines like the following from the poem ‘A Carcass’?
Remember, my love, the item you saw
That beautiful morning in June:
By a bend in the path a carcass reclined
On a bed sown with pebbles and stones;
Her legs were spread out like a lecherous whore,
Sweating out poisonous fumes,
Who opened in slick invitational style
Her stinking and festering womb.
If you disagree with the court, consider how you might argue against their claims by quoting from Baudelaire’s poetry and explaining how they benefit humanity. Or, could a counterclaim be as such:
The court is correct. Baudelaire’s poetry is offensive to morals. But that is a good thing for certain reasons, such as
Such as what?
As for “A Simple Heart,” FÃ©licitÃ© is a fascinating character to me. She is a humble servant. She doesn’t seem all that intelligent, even naive, but she is resourceful and, at times, brave.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said FÃ©licitÃ©… But when they crossed the next pasture there was a formidable bellow. It was a bull, hidden by mist. Mme. Aubain was about to run. “No! no! don’t go so fast!” They mended their pace, however, and heard a loud breathing behind them which came nearer. His hoofs thudded on the meadow grass like hammers…FÃ©licitÃ© turned round, and tore up clods of earth with both hands and threw them in his eyes. He lowered his muzzle, waved his horns, and quivered with fury, bellowing terribly. Mme. Aubain, now at the end of the pasture with her two little ones, was looking wildly for a place to get over the high bank. FÃ©licitÃ© was retreating, still with her face to the bull, keeping up a shower of clods which blinded him, and crying all the time, “Be quick! be quick!”(2344-2345)
Her actions here are heroic: she sacrifices her own safety for Mme. Aubain and her children by distracting the angry bull as they escape. What else does she sacrifice in this story? At what point is she willing to sacrifice any of Maslow’s five values
3. Personal Relationships
Dante had Beatrice, a ‘personal gnosis’, a unique symbol based on his own experience, through which he was able to connect with God. FÃ©licitÃ©, on the other hand, has a parrot. Before Loulou came along, she thought only of other people, and her duties to them. She had yet to open and release the energies within herself; her vitality was locked in and unexplored; nothing had driven her spiritually mad, not the death of her loved ones, nothing. Perhaps this begins when Loulou does something no one else has done for her: returns after leaving.
FÃ©licitÃ© had put him on the grass to refresh him, and gone away for a minute, and when she came back–no sign of the parrot! She began by looking for him in the shrubs, by the waterside, and over the roofs, without listening to her mistress’s cries…At last she came home exhausted, with her slippers in shreds and despair in her soul, and as she was sitting in the middle of the garden-seat at Madame’s side, telling the whole story of her efforts, a light weight dropped on her shoulder–it was Loulou! (2357)
Imagine her joy in something that returns her love. In Frost’s ‘The Most of It’ the narrator says:
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter—love, original response.
Counter-love is what Loulou gives FÃ©licitÃ©. And in order to enshrine her parrot after his death, she sacrifices Maslow’s five values, not for anyone else, but for herself, to bring his body to the taxidermist. She walks right down the middle of the road and cannot be whipped from her path by the mail-coach. She has gone spiritually mad for her little bird.
In her room, FÃ©licitÃ© decorates with the belongings of others, with the things ‘Mme. Aubain did not want any longer’ (2359). Loulou is the only thing that is actually her’s in her room, and she places him in the highest spot, ‘over the chimney’, above Mme. Aubain’s discarded items. So how come the parrot has such an impact on FÃ©licitÃ©? What does it symbolize to her?