Yeats’ Dialogue of Self and Soul

I’m a little hesitant to try to interpret a poem as difficult and as important as “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” because I am no Yeats’ scholar nor have I done any scholarly research on the poem, quite possibly because I don’t like scholarly research. I just like reading and thinking about poetry.

However, I believe Yeats is quite possibly the greatest poet of the 20th Century, and I know he has been one of my favorite poets since I was in college. I have read his Autobiography, his Collected Plays, and his Collected Poems several times. After reading in Visible Darkness that Yeats wrote a book called A Vision, I knew that was another book I’m going to have to run down, though I doubt I’m going to pay $1,200 dollars for it.

Simply put, Yeats has helped me to discover what I believe in life, and avoiding him because of personal inadequacies would thus defeat the purpose of my blogging. That said, one of my very favorite Yeats poems is:

A DIALOGUE OF SELF AND SOUL

I

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 its 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 to 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.


Personally, I think Part II is the heart of this poem and is by far my favorite part, but I’m not going to presume to separate them. Part I does serve as a prelude to Part II, though to my thinking Part II would stand as an outstanding poem by itself.

In the first stanza the Soul calls the reader to the tower of learning where “the star,” the most distant part of our universe, “marks the hidden pole.” The soul seems to be talking about the contemplation of eternity. On the other hand, the poem itself seems to imply that the soul’s goal is so vague as to be virtually unknowable. “Thought,” as represented by the tower, cannot distinguish “darkness from the soul.” In a later poem Yeats says the tower is “half dead at the top.” If we see the tower as an individual, as a source of knowledge, this would seem to imply that there is no more original thought there. If, on the other hand, we see the tower as a phallic symbol, it has become impotent.

In the second stanza, Self says it holds an ancient Japanese blade wrapped in a piece of embroidered silk. As pointed out in the next stanza, these seem to be symbols of war and love. The sword can stand for the blood that has been spilled, while the dress seems to have been given to the samurai out of love. The sword also seems to represent self-discovery, “a looking glass,” where man discovers his penchant for violence. The silken embroidery represents art, one thing many romanticists felt transcended time.

Soul argues that these are foolish symbols, and that if imagination would just “scorn the earth” (perhaps, instead, contemplate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or meditate on its navel) and intellect would quit wandering from topic to topic, then together they could deliver us from the “crime of death and birth,” suggesting a Buddhist-like escape from the cycle of eternal rebirth.

In the fourth stanza, Self sets purple flowers the color of the heart and the sword, with its implied blood, against the darkness that the tower represents. Passion, in and of itself, Yeats seems to suggest can make life meaningful. We shouldn’t try to avoid life and death; we should live it passionately.

Soul finally argues that when intellect and imagination are focused on philosophy that intellect no longer knows Is from Ought or Knower from Known and that is like ascending to Heaven. It’s obvious that Yeats is a Romantic and believes in the power of intuition, not rational arguments.

Part II of the poem is spoken entirely by the Self. Luckily, it needs little explanation. It is a celebration of life itself, though a rather strange celebration, no doubt, by some people’s standards. No matter how miserable our life has been, the narrator argues, if we follow it to its source, measure the lot, and forgive ourselves for our mistakes, we will transcend those mistakes and become “blest.”

Part of the power of the poem comes from our realization that, we, too, have suffered most of these indignities. Who hasn’t felt the awkwardness of childhood, or the fears of becoming a man or woman, and fear of enemies who would have our job? How can we escape the hurtful image that malicious acquaintances project onto us at different times of life?

The power of the poem, of course, also comes from the power of the description, not the mere intellectual argument. Lines like ... if it be life to pitch/ Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch, / A blind man battering blind men” are the kinds of lines that can stay with you for years. Equally amazing is how these lines can be transformed into the optimistic lines that the poem ends with: “We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything, / Everything we look upon is blest.” Yeats must have been blessed by the blarney stone to compose lines this magnificent.

26 thoughts on “Yeats’ Dialogue of Self and Soul

  1. I am a magpie; I stole the first verse and sent it to a woman to spark something… then I read the rest of the poem and sent that too.

  2. Bruce, I don’t know if you realized it, but your comment is nicely poetic. At least, it seems that way to me.

    “I am a magpie;
    I stole the first verse
    and sent it to a woman to spark something.
    Then I read the rest of the poem
    and sent that, too.”

    A nice commentary complement to the posting and the poem contained therein. This was a rewarding experience.

  3. All the work I did to allow comments on my blog would be worthwhile if more of the people who visited these pages left comments.

    Only comments like this can give poems the kind of depth needed to be fully appreciated.

    Thanks.

  4. I find it strange the type of retorts that “Self” makes towards “Soul’s” arguments. Does “Self” have the last word, or is it simply making a fool of itself after “Soul” speaks its mind in stanza five?

  5. I think that “Self” does have the last word. I certainly don’t think that it is making a “fool” of itself.

    This would be consistent with the Crazy Jane poems where Yeats praises the body and Yeats argues that “nothing can be sole or whole that has not be rent.”

  6. I have just composed an analysis of A Dialogue Between Self and Soul and would like to talk to you about Yeats. Please contact me if interested.
    Michael del Castillo, Phoenix, Arizona

  7. This poem is the best exposition of some of Nietzsche’s ideas that I have seen. I find the second part very strange and moving.

  8. What a wonderful affirmation of life this is!!! Self first gives a fatuous argument about the relic that has stood the test of time, which soul in purporting the idea of the afterlife rightly disregards. Self then quite correctly states that life for all that it throws at you is wonderful, even if the afterlife is better, that is irrelavent. I am reminded of the remark made by Albert Camus (loosely quoted) If there is a sin against life, it is not so much to live life, for a life hereafter, but in living for that life hereafter to lose the implacable grandure of this one.

  9. Last stanza of “The Wild Old Wicked Man”

    “That some stream of lightning
    ‘From the old man in the skies
    Can burn out that suffering
    No right-taught man denies.
    But a coarse old man am I,
    I choose the second best,
    I forget it all awhile
    Upon a woman’s breast.’
    Daybreak and a candle-end.

    Yeats always has answers to his own questions, doesn’t he? And as much of a looney tune as he was, man, oh man, how that man could sing!

    I have taught poetry, I have written poetry, I have had the profound experience of climbing up the ancient winding stair of Thoor Ballyleee, of wandering through all the Seven Woods, and my lifelong project is to memorize all of Yeats’ poetry. (Life, I must say, is gaining on me, and I’m not likely to finish the project!)
    After all the analyses, after all the discussions and dissertations, still he sings directly to the heart.
    Thank you for this site. You have brightened this old man’s day immeasurably.

  10. I heard the last stanza of this poem read by Jon Kabat-Zinn and I have now memorized it. Starting small but very moved by the entire poem. Thanks for posting it

  11. Such a great poem from a great master! I being a musician love the music of his words as much as the profound quality of his thought.

  12. “We must laugh and we must sing,
    We are blest by everything,
    Everything we look upon is blest.”

    This entire poem is just the one I needed to read today, loren. I heard echoes of Julian of Norwich. I wish I had known of your blog in 2003. It would have been good to read this then, too.

  13. Good interpretation, I would just like to point out an important theme… Soul = the Eastern view regarding enlightenment and achieving nirvana; Self = the Western view of appreciating rebirth and life itself. The sword is the action in life, for example.
    Part II is dedicated to Self because Yeats would prefer to continually be reborn and live life over and over again, rather than becoming “enlightened,” which in his view, especially as a poet, restricts the language that is based on mortal life. He doesn’t see enlightenment as “light,” but rather darkness.
    I have more, if anyone is interested… justinebyrrd@hotmail.com đŸ™‚

  14. I went out to the hazelwood
    Because a fire was in my head . . .

    way back in 1963 and I’m still going there, that same fire is in my head . . .

    I share your passion for Willy Yeats, though I am not so widely read.

    Here’s the expression of that love for the sounds and rhythms of his language, written as a young man. I thought you’d get a bit of a kick out of it.

    W. B. Yeats

    I

    A hawk soars–
    Below, a nightingale
    in woven shadows of a wood
    sings of love lost,
    of Ireland’s moors,
    of Druid tales,
    and how a ‘Rose Upon the Rood
    Of Time’ was lost.

    II

    A hawk soars–
    Below, a nightingale takes flight,
    frightened away by Minnaloushe;
    and Minnaloushe sits day and night
    to wait for the fifteenth Mask of the moon,
    beside a golden bird who on a golden bough
    sings the song of Byzantium.
    And now–
    it sings of Leda and the Swan,
    of the dim starlight of Babylon,
    and a bestial birth in the Holy Land,
    while over all a crumbling tower stands.

    III

    A hawk soars–
    And comes to rest in a winter tree
    beside a topless tower,
    as a swan spirals skyward
    and leaves an ancient sparrow
    to sing his lecherous song.
    He sings of Crazy Jane
    and old Jack the Journeyman;
    and loud he sings and long–
    with truth in every word–
    till death cut short his breath.

    BD 1963

  15. Hi Loren,
    I too love Yeats’ wonderful A DIALOGUE OF SELF AND SOUL.
    Another Irish poet whose work you might enjoy is Patrick Kavanagh.
    By the way, I like the name of your website, “In A Dare Time…The Eye Begins To See”. I aslo like
    Roethke’s poetry.
    Peter

  16. It’s interesting to see a post that is a decade old now. Its accretions of comments on a classic poem stands out for its magnetism. In my experience, very few blog posts continue to attract quality readers. This one has. Congratulations.

    • I’ve been told that I should close old entries to prevent much of the spam I receive but I feel if was going to do that I might just as well eliminate the entry itself.

  17. The physical vision is of an aging man seated in a chair in a sparse stone walled room with a Samurai sword across his knees. He is fully aware that the incapacity of age, or even Death, approaches. At this time a man contemplates his past and the possibilities of his future.

    If the old man was a mild-mannered intellectual the symbolism of the sword and the words:

    “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.”

    would have no relevance but in this context they clearly provide dramatic evidence of the man’s psyche.

    What we see here is a last attempt by the “Soul” to, as it imagines, rescue the old man from his years of earthiness and set him on the course of contemplation. The “punch line” of the poem is that this attempt fails with the old man accepting the pangs of rebirth and re-living as preferable to an eternity of contemplation and inaction. In fact, the “Soul” hardly gets a chance to make its point before the “Self” crushes the idea.

  18. Hello there! This is a truly great poem and your analyses is great as well.

    I’ll just add a couple of points to help put the poem into context.

    It was written during Yeats’ illness in 1928, and is a part of the collection that celebrates the return to life, since Yeats successfully recovered.

    The winding stair in the first line is the Soul’s symbol of the ascent to an afterlife with no return, the nirvana that Yeats envisaged earlier as the end of all fleshy incarnations.

    “That quarter where all thought is done” is a reference to the darkness of the afterlife, which is also the end of all thought (coinciding with the dark phase of the moon).

  19. When you say the narrator talks about how one can transcend one’s mistakes by following one’s life ‘to its source’, I wonder what the ‘source’ is that’s being referred to here.

    • I’ve always read it is a generic “the source of life” rather than a specific thing or idea, but Yeats definitely held a number of esoteric ideas. So, it’s hard to say specifically what he meant by it.

      • But that begs the question of how one understands ‘the source of life’. One rarely finds a convincing answer except in perhaps religious terms that offer too concrete an explanation that still leaves a lot of things vague. Can tracing to the source be read as crawling back to that point of divine inspiration that gives one the understanding of one’s life? It needn’t be a literal birth, more like the birth of consciousness perhaps? Tracing our past?

What do you think?