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W.B. Yeats

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.