The Great God Pan

The Great God Pan, Frederic Leighton, 1860

 

The Great God Pan is a novella written by Arthur Machen. A version of the story was published in the magazine The Whirlwind in 1890, and Machen revised and extended it for its book publication (together with another story, The Inmost Light) in 1894. On publication it was widely denounced by the press as degenerate and horrific because of its decadent style and sexual content, although it has since garnered a reputation as a classic of horror. Machen’s story was only one of many at the time to focus on the Greek God Pan as a useful symbol for the power of nature and paganism. The title was possibly inspired by the poem A Musical Instrument published in 1862 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in which the first line of every stanza ends “… the great god Pan.”

 

 

Literary critics such as Wesley D. Sweetser and S. T. Joshi see Machen’s works as a significant part of the late Victorian revival of the gothic novel and the decadent movement of the 1890s, bearing direct comparison to the themes found in contemporary works like Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, and Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the time authors like Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle were all admirers of Machen’s works.

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News for The Delphic Oracle

Pan Pipes, Fred Holland Day, 1897

 

“There all the golden codgers lay,
There the silver dew,
And the great water sighed for love,
And the wind sighed too.
Man-picker Niamh leant and sighed
By Oisin on the grass;
There sighed amid his choir of love
Tall pythagoras.
plotinus came and looked about,
The salt-flakes on his breast,
And having stretched and yawned awhile
Lay sighing like the rest.
Straddling each a dolphin’s back
And steadied by a fin,
Those Innocents re-live their death,
Their wounds open again.
The ecstatic waters laugh because
Their cries are sweet and strange,
Through their ancestral patterns dance,
And the brute dolphins plunge
Until, in some cliff-sheltered bay
Where wades the choir of love
Proffering its sacred laurel crowns,
They pitch their burdens off.”

William Butler Yeats

Byzantium

Watercolor and gouache on paper by John Singer Sargent, ca. 1898

 

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miraclc than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

William Butler Yeats

 

Yeats certainly shares many traits with William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and other, nineteenth century precursors. Nevertheless, despite all the intensity of its emotion and the rich intricacies of its imagery, Byzantium is hardly the sort of effusive outburst one has come to associate with the ode; the speaker seems to be more engulfed in his vision than in any attempt to share its emotional quadrants with the reader.

Yeats never abandoned the Symbolist tradition that shaped him as a poet in his youth. Though Byzantium is a product of his later years, written well after he had transformed himself into a modernist poet, surely the chief device that gives the poem its other-worldly ambiance is the symbol.

Yeats’s studies had taught him that the ancient Romans used dolphins to depict the spirit’s voyage from this world to the next; that the starry dome was symbolic of the soul’s astral destiny in the ancient mystery cults associated with Mithra and Orpheus; that a crowing cock carved on a tombstone was intended to ward off evil spirits and influences; that the Byzantine emperors had mechanical birds that sang to the delight of visitors; that the golden bough signifies that point at which the temporal and eternal mingle their mysteries.

For The Spreading Laurel Tree

pd2758288William Butler Yeats with his son , Michael , and Daughter , Anne , in the grounds of Thoor Ballylee, Ireland.

 

A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER

“Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.”

William Butler Yeats

From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Cuala Press, 1921)

 

This poem it is written to Anne, his daughter with Georgie Hyde Lees, whom Yeats married after his last marriage proposal to Maud Gonne was rejected in 1916. Yeats wrote the poem while staying in a tower at Thoor Ballylee during the Anglo-Irish War, two days after Anne’s birth on February 26, 1919. The poem reflects Yeats’s complicated views on Irish Nationalism, sexuality, and is considered an important work of Modernist poetry.

As the poem reflects Yeats’s expectations for his young daughter, feminist critiques of the poem have questioned the poet’s general approach to women through the text’s portrayal of women in society. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that Yeats used the poem to deprive his daughter of sensuality as he envisions a “crushingly conventional” view of womanhood, wishing her to become a “flourishing hidden tree” instead of allowing her the freedoms given to male children. In Oates’ opinion, Yeats wishes his daughter to become like a “vegetable:immobile, unthinking, and placid.”

The tree is an important symbol for Yeats. He gives it qualities of goodness, good health and prosperity. It is also a symbol of growth and since it shelters birds and can give fruit; it also stands for kindness. Yeats adds a further dimension to this by specifying the tree in line 47 (verse 6), The laurel tree is of special significance to the ancient Greeks. Its leaves were used to crown poets and heroes. In Greek mythology the laurel is associated with Daphne, the daughter of a river god with whom Apollo fell in love. When Apollo chased her, she cried for help and was changed into a laurel tree, which became the favorite tree of Orpheus’s father.

In the context of Yeat’s poem the laurel tree carries with it overtones of feminine shyness (hidden tree̱ ‒ line 41) and purity. It also links it with the “chase” in line 45.

A Poem Full of Spiritual Symbolism

Adoração dos Magos (Adoration of the Magi), Domingos Sequeira, 1828

 
 

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

William Butler Yeats

 
 

The Magi is a poem about people who, upon reaching old age, or perhaps just older age, turn to God and the spiritual world for fulfillment and happiness. This poem is quite aptly named The Magi, as the term “magi” refers to the three wise men of biblical times. The three wise men were rich and powerful in their own right, yet they chose to honor the Baby Jesus. Likewise, these people are wealthy, learned and successful and are turning to God for solace. They are choosing to honor and revere him in the hopes of finding everlasting peace and happiness. After writing The Dolls, Yeats looked up into the blue sky and imagined that he could see “stiff figures in procession”. Perhaps after imagining these figures, Yeats debated within himself whom these pictures could represent. Yeats then went on to write The Magi, a poem which is full of symbolism, a literary technique that he greatly valued.

Perhaps Yeats wrote this poem out of frustration with his own life. Maybe he felt that he also was one of the “pale, unsatisfied ones”. He may have been struggling with the strains brought upon him by success. He may also have been going through a time of indecision in regards to his own spiritual life. Whatever the reason for his writing The Magi, Yeats wrote a poem rich in symbolism and imagery that many people could then, and can now, relate to on a very personal level.

Where The Body is Not Bruised

The Dance Class, Edgar Degas c. 1873

 
 

“…Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

William Butler Yeats

Excerpt from Among School Children

To The Winding Ancient Stair

Jean Cocteau by George Platt Lynes

 
 

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 consecretes 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.

II

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.

William Butler Yeats

 
 

The Winding Stair is a volume of poems by Irish poet W. B. Yeats, published in 1933. It was the next new volume after 1928’s The Tower. (The title poem was originally published in 1929 by Fountain Press in a signed limited edition, which is exceedingly rare.)

The title refers to the staircase in the Thoor Ballylee castle which Yeats had purchased and lived in with his family for some time. Yeats saw the castle as a vital connection to the aristocratic Irish past which he admired. The phrase “winding stair” is used in the book’s third poem, A Dialogue of Self and Soul.

Life Is a Journey Up a Spiral Staircase

“Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground covered we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.”

William Butler Yeats

 
 

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

His Ghost Will Be Gay

Man with Peacock Tattoo, Photo by George Platt Lynes, c.1934

 
 

THE PEACOCK

“What’s riches to him
That has made a great peacock
With the pride of his eye?
The wind-beaten, stone-grey,
And desolate Three-rock
Would nourish his whim;
Live he or die
Between rock and wet heather,
His ghost will be gay
Adding feather to feather
For the pride of his eye.”

William Butler Yeats

Strange Heart Beating Where It Lies

Photo: Tim Walker

 
 

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Leda and the Swan

William Butler Yeats

 
 

W.B. Yeats seems to be ridden by the desire to smooth away every difference between the swan and Leda. The metamorphosis of the loving couple into a couple of birds is an old dream of W.B. Yeats’. Does he not sing in ‘The white birds’:

‘For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!’

With W.B. Yeats, the smoothing away of the difference between man and animal seems to encompass the smoothing away of the difference between man and woman. An obvious solution is their metamorphosis into a swan. It is rather impossible to tell a male swan from a female: both share a virginal front. And that sheds a new light on the fact that it is Zeus that presses Leda’s breast against his: ‘he holds her helpless breast upon his breast’. On the Hellenistic relief Zeus does not press Leda’s breast against his breast but Leda’s face.

A Particular Group of Writers

Homer

 
 

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

 
 

Jonathan Swift

 
 

Herman Melville

 
 

Franz Kafka

 
 

Kurt Vonnegut

 
 

Joseph Conrad

 
 

Charles Dickens

 
 

William Faulkner

 
 

Leo Tolstoy

 
 

Alice Walker

 
 

William Butler Yeats

 
 

Jules Verne

 
 

Louisa May Alcott

 
 

Ann Rice

 
 

Marcel Proust

 
 

Edgar Allan Poe

 
 

summersfrost591a8f029af251061ea181ae372a2c90Robert Frost

 
 

Walt Whitman

 
 

Virginia Woolf

 
 

Illustrations by Mark Summers