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If the augur could see the birds flying in his heart …

June 22, 2014

from D.H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places

“Birds fly portentously on the walls of the Etruscan tombs. The artist must have often seen those priests, the augurs, with their crooked, bird-headed staffs in their hand, out on a high place watching the flight of larks or pigeons across the quarters of the sky. They were reading the signs and the portents, looking for an indication, how they should direct the course of some serious affair. To us it may seem foolish. To them, hot-blooded birds flew through the living universe as feelings and premonitions fly through the breast of man, or as thoughts fly through the mind. In their flight the suddenly roused birds, or the steady, far-coming birds, moved wrapped in a deeper consciousness, in the complex destiny of all things. And since all things corresponded in the ancient world, and man’s bosom mirrored itself in the bosom of the sky, or vice versa, the birds were flying to a portentous goal, in the man’s breast who watched, as well as flying their own way in the bosom of the sky. If the augur could see the birds flying in his heart, then he would know which way destiny too was flying for him.
“The science of augury certainly was no exact science. But it was as exact as our sciences of psychology or political economy. And the augurs were as clever as our politicians, who also must practise divination, if they are ever to do anything worth the name. There is no other way of dealing with life. And if you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought, or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. Columbus discovered America by a sort of divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.
“The science of the augur and the haruspex was not so foolish as our modern science of political economy. If the hot liver of the victim cleared the soul of the haruspex, and made him capable of that ultimate inward attention which alone tells us the last thing we need to know, then why quarrel with the haruspex? To him, the universe was alive, and in quivering rapport. To him, the blood was conscious; he thought with his heart. To him, the blood was the red and shining stream of consciousness itself. Hence, to him, the liver, that great organ where the blood struggles and ‘overcomes death,’ was an object of profound mystery and significance. It stirred his soul and purified his consciousness; for it was also his victim. So he gazed into the hot liver, that was mapped out in fields and regions like the sky of stars, but these fields and regions were those of the red, shining consciousness that runs through the whole animal creation. And therefore it must contain the answer to his own blood’s question.
“It is the same with the study of the stars, or the sky of stars. Whatever object will bring the consciousness into a state of pure attention, in a time of perplexity, will also give back an answer to the perplexity. But it is truly a question of divination. As soon as there is any pretence of infallibility, and pure scientific calculation, the whole thing becomes a fraud and a jugglery. But the same is true not only of augury and astrology, but also of prayer and of pure reason, and even of the great discoveries or the great laws and principles of science. Men juggle with prayer today as once they juggled with augury; and in the same way they are juggling with science. Every great discovery or decision comes by an act of divination. Facts are fitted round afterwards. But all attempt at divination, even prayer and reason and research itself, lapses into jugglery when the heart loses its purity. In the impurity of his heart, Socrates often juggled with logic unpleasantly. And no doubt when skepticism came over the ancient world, the haruspex and augur became jugglers and pretenders. But for centuries they held real sway. It is amazing to see, in Livy, what a big share they must have had in the building up of the great Rome of the Republic.”

From Igor Stravinsky’s Lectures on “The Poetics of Music”

June 21, 2014

“The idea of work to be done is for me so closely bound up with the idea of arranging the materials and of the pleasure that the actual doing of the work affords is that, should the impossible happen and my work suddenly be given to me in a perfectly completed form, I should be embarrassed and nonplussed by it, as by a hoax.
“We have a duty toward music, namely, to invent it. … Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from its actually being worked out.
“Thus what concerns us here is not imagination in itself, but rather creative imagination: the faculty that helps us to pass from the level of conception to the level of realization.
“In the course of my labors I suddenly stumble upon something unexpected. This unexpected element strikes me. I make note of it. At the proper time I put it to profitable use. This gift of chance must not be confused with that capriciousness of imagination that is commonly called fancy. Fancy implies a predetermined will to abandon oneself to caprice. The aforementioned assistance of the unexpected is something quite different. It is a collaboration which is immanently bound up with the inertia of the creative process and is heavy with possibilities which are unsolicited and come most appositely to temper the inevitable over-rigorousness of the naked will. And it is good that this so.
” ‘In everything that yields gracefully,’ G.K. Chesterton says somewhere, ‘there must be resistance. Bows are beautiful when they bend only because they seek to remain rigid. Rigidity that slightly yields, like Justice swayed by Pity, is all the beauty of the earth. Everything seeks to grow straight, and happily, nothing succeeds in so growing. Try to grow straight and life will bend you.’
“The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself. It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation. And the true creator may be recognized in his ability always to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note. He does not have to concern himself with a beautiful landscape, he does not need to surround himself with rare and precious objects. He does not have to put forth in search of discoveries: they are always within his reach. He will have only to cast a glance about him. Familiar things, things that are everywhere, attract his attention. The least accident holds his interest and guides his operations. If his finger slips, he will notice it; on occasion, he may draw profit from something unforeseen that a momentary lapse reveals to him.
“One does not contrive an accident: one observes it to draw inspiration therefrom. An accident is perhaps the only thing that really inspires us. A composer improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about. Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out. What urge of the composer is satisfied by this investigation? The rules with which, like a penitent, he is burdened? No: he is quest of his pleasure. He seeks a satisfaction that he fully knows he will not find without first striving for it. One cannot force one’s self to love; but love presupposes understanding, and in order to understand, one must exert one’s self.
“It is the same problem that was posed in the Middle Ages by the theologians of pure love. To understand in order to love; to love in order to understand: we are here not going around in a vicious circle; we are rising spirally, providing we have made an initial effort, have even just gone through a routine exercise. …
“As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile.
“Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom? To what shall I cling in order to escape the dizziness that seizes me before the virtuality of this infinitude? However, I shall not succumb. I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal, that strong and weak accents are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me. It is into this field that I shall sink my roots, fully convinced that combinations which have at their disposal twelve sounds in each octave and all possible rhythmic varieties promise me riches that all the activity of human genius will never exhaust.
“What delivers me from the anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunges me is the fact that I am always able to turn immediately to the concrete things that are here in question. I have no use for a theoretic freedom. Let me have something finite, definite–matter than can lend itself to my operation only insofar as it is commensurate with my possibilities. And such matter presents itself to me together with its limitations. I must in turn impose mine upon it. So here we are, whether we like it or not, in the realm of necessity. And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformly widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.”

June 21, 2014
Humility, a chapter from “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Josef Pieper
One of the Goods in which man naturally seeks fulfillment of his being is excellentia: superiority, pre-eminence, consideration. The virtue of temperance, insofar as it unites this natural urge to the order of reason, is called humility. The ground of humility is man’s estimation of himself according to truth. And that is almost all there is to it.
Starting from this definition, it is difficult to understand how “humility” could have become, as it were, a bone of contention. To disregard the demonic resistance against good which makes this feature of the Christian image of man its particular target, is possible only because the notion of humility has become blurred even in the Christian consciousness. In the whole tractate of St. Thomas concerning humility and pride, there is not a single sentence to suggest an attitude, on principle, of constant self-accusation, of disparagement of one’s being and doing, of cringing inferiority feelings, as belonging to humility or any other Christian virtue.
Nothing lights the way to a proper understanding of humility more tellingly than this: humility and high-mindedness not only are not mutually exclusive, but are actually neighbors and akin; and both are equally opposed to either pride or pusillanimity.
What is meant by high-mindedness or magnanimity? It is the striving of the mind toward great things. High-minded is the man who feels the potentiality of greatness and prepares for it. The high-minded or magnanimous man is, in a certain sense, “selective.” He will not be accessible to every approach, but will keep himself for the greatness to which he feels akin. Above all, high-mindedness is demanding as to honor: “The high-minded man strives toward that which deserves the highest honor.” In the Summa Theologica we read: “If a man should despise honor to the extent that he would not take care to do what is deserving of honor, this would be blameworthy.” On the other hand, the high-minded man i snot crushed by dishonor; he disregards it as something beneath him. The high-minded man despises everything small-minded. He would never prize another man so highly as to do anything improper for his sake. The words of the Psalmist (Psalm 14, 4), “The evil-doer is nothing in his sight,” refer to the high-minded contempt of the just, says St. Thomas. Fearless frankness is the hallmark of high-mindedness; nothing is further from it than to suppress the truth from fear. Flattery and dissimulation are equally removed from the high-minded. The high-minded man does not complain; for his heart is impervious to external evil. High-mindedness implies an unshakable firmness of hope, an actually challenging assurance, and the perfect peace of a fearless heart. The high-minded man bows neither to confusion of the soul, nor to any man, nor to fate–but to God alone.
One marvels to learn that this description of high-mindedness is drawn, trait by trait, in the Summa Theologica of Aquinas. This needed to be made clear. For in the treatise on humility it is said repeatedly that humility is not opposed to high-mindedness. Now we can fathom the true significance of this statement, spoken as if it were a warning and a caution. This is its meaning: a “humility” too weak and too narrow to be able to bear the inner tension of cohabitation with high-mindedness is not true humility.
The customary judgment of men is always prone to call a high-minded man a haughty man, and so equally to miss the true nature of humility. “A haughty man”–this is easily and quickly said. But only rarely is the quality here implied that of pride (superbia). Pride is not, in the first place, a quality of everyday behavior in human relationships. Pride refers to man’s relationship to God. Pride is the anti-realistic denial of the relationship between creature and Creator; pride denies the creaturely nature of man. Every sin contains two elements: a turning away from God and a turning toward the transitory good; the decisive and defining element is the first one: the turning away from God. And this is more pronounced in pride than in any other sin. “All sins flee before God; pride alone; pride alone stands up before God.” Holy Scripture says of the proud alone that “God flouts the scornful” (James 4, 6).
Humility, too, is not primarily an attitude in human relationships. Humility, too, looks first to God. That which pride denies and destroys, humility affirms and preserves: the creaturely quality of man. If to be a creature–to be created–is the innermost nature of man, then humility, as “subjection of man to God,” is the affirmation of this essential and primordial fact. Second: Humility, consequently, is not outward behavior but an inner attitude, born of decision of the will. Regarding God and its own creaturely quality, it is an attitude of perfect recognition of that which, by reason of God’s will, really is; above all, it is a candid acceptance of this one thing: that man and humanity are neither God nor [in the serpent’s sense] “like God.” At this point we get a glimpse of the hidden connection that links the Christian virtue of humility with the–perhaps equally Christian–gift of humor.
Third, and finally: Can we avoid stating outright that beyond everything said so far, humility is also an attitude of man to man, namely, the attitude of self-abasement of one before the other? Let us examine this more closely.
In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas specifically raises the question of the humble attitude of man to man, and answers it as follows: “In man, two things have to be considered: that which is of God, and that which is of man. … But humility in the strict sense means the awe in virtue of which man subjects himself to God. Consequently man, with regard to that which is of himself, must subject himself to his neighbor with regard to that which is of God in him. But humility does not require that one subject what is of God in himself to that which seems to be of God in the other. …. Humility likewise does not require that one subject that which is of himself to that which is of man in the other.”
In the broad and many-graded area of this reply there is room for the “contempt of men” on the part of the high-minded just as there is for the self-abasement of St. Francis of Assisi, who took off his cowl and had himself brought before the people with a rope around his neck. Here it becomes evident that Christian teaching is wary of the tightness and confinement of one-track rules. This caution or, better, aversion is voiced by St. Augustine in another related reference: “If one man says you should not receive the Eucharist every day, and another says the opposite, let each one do what he thinks he should, in piety, according to his belief. For neither did Zacchaeus and the Roman Officer dispute with one another, although on received the Lord with joy into his house and the other said: ‘I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof’, (Luke 19, 6; 7, 6). Both honored the Redeemer, though not in the same manner.”

Costs and Benefits

May 26, 2014

For what wage will the best men will rule in their cities?

They can’t be persuaded by money, obviously, or the allure of power. But they have sometimes yielded to the compulsion of a certain counter-wage–the penalty decreed for them by some shrewd lawmaker of old, should they shirk office: If they will not rule themselves, then lesser men will rule them.

This and more, coming soon to a Plato’s Republic near you.

Thesis: The dialogue is not about justice so much as anagke (necessity, fate, compulsion) and how hard, costly, and dangerous is the road toward the good.

“Twofold Always”

May 11, 2014


A Vision “Twofold Always” in The Wild Swans at Coole

Blake closes a letter to his friend Thomas Butts with the verses of a prayer: “Now I a fourfold vision see / And a fourfold vision is given to me / ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And three fold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single vision & Newton’s sleep” (479). For Blake, as well as for Yeats, poetic vision means seeing the world given to the senses as doubled and redoubled in patterns of meaning that transcend sensation. Blake’s “Single vision [of] Newton’s sleep,” or what in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” Yeats calls “grey truth,” can see in the shape of human lives only the convergence of contingencies; man’s desires and predicaments become the mere epiphenomena of an atomic chaos, or Tate’s “drowsy cubes of human dust.” Poets seek to see more. A symbolic poet such as Yeats or Blake is fiercely aware that, in in this search, he resists the fundamental disposition of his age, even its “truth.”

In the solitude of lyric form, a poet shapes out of his inner life a symbolic language to reenshrine the complexities of human experience. A poem is a “twisted echo-harboring shell” that repeats the human story “in melodious guile” turning “fretful words” over and over until they “melting fade in ruth / And die a pearly brotherhood.” If so, the poet himself is a kind of oyster that slowly, out of a constant inner irritation, spins a pure globe into being. Louise Cowan writes that “The lyric mode depicts what Keats describes as ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul’ at the still center, when it feels its own separation from plenitude” (13). In the process of the poem’s rewording and reworking, its original irritated impulse to cry out may “melt” and “fade” into the silence of its englobed and finally impenetrable form. This will not be the blank silence of materiality though, but a hushed attentiveness that intuits unheard depths in experience. As A.G. Stock writes: “Yeats set out from the belief that there is that in man which underlies all experience. Poetry is a discovery of the inner soul, which emerges when all outward preoccupations are stilled, like a shy ghost, to possess the deserted landscape” (38). The Wild Swan’s at Coole, perhaps the first collection of Yeats’ artistic maturity, brings together poems ranging in mode from meditation set within life’s natural backdrop, to the commemoration of dead friends, to attempts at metaphysical allegory. While the combination may jar modern sensibilities, Yeats bound these poems in one volume because–like Dante–he saw correspondences among the orders of nature, human relationships, and spiritual destiny, and because–like Blake–he was committed, even when reflecting on the “natural” or familiar world, to see with a double vision always.

The collection’s opening and title poem signal the beginning of a new poetic phase for Yeats. Louis Macneice notes that, in this collection, “most noticeabl[y different from Yeats’ prior work] are the direct poems he wrote about his own experiences—the people he really knew, the swans he really saw” (109). The collection gains power from setting aside mythical material, allegorical figures, and conventionally “poetic” language. Macneice writes that “what [Yeats] is saying is still often very peculiar, sometimes esoteric, but he says it with an air as if it were the whole man speaking” (110). Yeats sheds his coat of lovingly embroidered “old mythologies,” judging that (his first attempts at a mysterious style being too easy to cheapen by poor imitation) “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” And in “Wild Swan’s at Coole” we are addressed by a grippingly “naked” voice, one that does not presume bardic impersonality from the outset but wins its authority in following through on transformative trajectories already present in experience itself. The technique Yeats adopts here—dramatic monologue where the actual man and his poetic persona appear in simultaneous and constant interplay—he will employ to the end of his career, exploring very strange territory indeed.

In the “Wild Swans at Coole,” however, we seem to be securely in the human world. The poem gives voice to an ordinary mind in a natural landscape, musing (as if) casually on its muted concerns. Swans, autumn forest, still sky, and lake-top are what they are. The pure and unchanging cycle of nature speaks to the poet of human difference and aging. Looking in the still mirror of nature, he recognizes that, over the course of the last nineteen years (the first of the twentieth century), everything that in itself has remained the same has become starkly different to him: “all’s changed.” The spare and unassuming beauty of the poem’s images, gliding in a cool, quiet current of seemingly undirected meditation, nevertheless betrays the emergence of a certain pattern–a spiritual movement all the more convincing because arising as if unsummoned from “familiar matter of today.”

The first stanza simply lets us find ourselves within the autumn scene. Yet within the serene extroversion we catch small enlivening indications of focus and care in the eye that composes the scene. That the ground of that care remains unexpressed makes the whole picture uncanny, full of possibility. The eye, accompanied by a walking-pace ballad meter, falls downward from the autumn trees to the “dry path” then down again to the surface of the lake. But here suddenly, the focus sharpens, the meter slows and intensifies: “the water / Mirrors a still sky.” There is the merest flash of a conscious image, as well as (though this reversal is perfectly orchestrated by the logic of the landscape itself) a sudden shift of the eye from listless decline to a wide awake leap to the sky. Something in the pane of natural description has been disturbed, doubled in its presence. This turn is underscored by the poem’s insistence on the count of the swans: “Upon the brimming water among the stones / Are nine and fifty swans.” The numeral implies the force of each swan in the viewer’s awareness—and his own attempt to see them individually and together at once.

In “The Mimetic Principle,” John Crowe Ransom compares the kind of imitation done by a camera and that a painter makes. What is the special value of the latter? “The photograph is a mechanical imitation perhaps but not a psychological one. It was obtained by the adjustment of the camera and the pressing of the button, actions … that … indicate no attitude necessarily, no love; but the painting reveals the arduous pains of the artist. We are excited by these pains proportionately; they give the painting its human value; … we never discover in the work a single evidence of technique, discipline, deliberation, without having the value enhanced further. The pains measure the love” (209). While its credibly human voice emerges without effort from its natural scene and takes its color from the ambiance of the season, Yeats’ poem is undoubtedly a “psychological imitation.” With partially effaced but nevertheless willful care and decision, he applies “that stern colour and that delicate line” of “our secret discipline / Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.” Yeats remains concerned with life’s transcendent trajectories, and the pain out of which this poem grows is the inescapable sense that his own life-energies, “passion and conquest,” will inevitably dissolve into the grey “twilight” of a merely natural life—“rolled round in earth’s diurnal course.”

The sharp, white outlines of swans against the fading light gain focus from his recollection of how they appeared nineteen years before–defying gravity in an Iliadic “sudden … mount[ing] / And … wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clattering wings”–gain focus from the memory of how he too “[t]rod with a lighter tread” to hear “the bell-beat of their wings” nineteen years ago. The passage of time, his growing older, and his soreness of heart that “all’s changed” for him since then–the very difference between his present and remembered selves complicates and sharpens the beauty that birds possess for him. Their pure, graceful embodiment of life and power, the immediacy of their movements, their self-continuity in time, represent a mode of being from which his accumulated experience alienates him. The birds thus enforce on him his human difference, his capacity for sustaining loss. Out of this self-knowledge arise psychic possibilities not intuited before. One of these–that of human community-through-poetry–where losses may take on meaningful form glimmers in the query of the final lines:

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

The swans have become an image of the poet’s lost singleness of passion—an image that lives in a poem. So in asking what the swans will be, him absent, the poet figures the acceptance of his death, and offers up these now external symbols of his inner world to the unknown life they will live in the “delight” of other “men’s eyes.” Even if he himself will be drawn ungraciously back into the material ground, the spiritual impulse that he followed through to poetic form will continue to live in the human community.

The swans, then, are real and natural swans, but they appear finally in a doubled and tripled poetic vision. They are seen through the eyes of Yeats’ present attention as signals of his life’s alienations and complexities; they are seen through the eyes of his recollected joy as images of the human drive to self-transcendence; and they are seen through the imagined eyes of “other men” as prayerful projections towards a shadowy human communion. The four folds of the image—as natural object, as soul-unifying focus, as signal of human differences, and as opening through the pain of alienation the possibility of human communion—are all implicitly present in a single moment of vision. By embracing the limits of voice and depiction imposed by the conventions of a Wordsworthian naturalism, the poem engages the modern mind’s drift toward materialism and, ultimately, manages to incorporate the weight of that drift toward death-in-life into a shadowing-forth of the world of the spirit.

The subsequent poems of the collection unfold orders of meaning implied in the image of the swans. In poems dealing with the deaths of Robert Gregory and Mabel Beardsley, Yeats shows how individual lives may shine within (and somehow beyond) the realm of human relationships. The elegy, “Shepherd and Goatherd,” near the center of the volume, forms an imaginative bridge between commemorations of dead friends and the allegorical visions with which the collection ends. The pattern of the whole volume, then, reveals the coherence of Yeats’ poetic cosmos, unfolding its highest metaphysical configurations out of the world of familiar relationships. Yeats  can be seen as a poet with the sort of “symbolic imagination” exemplified by Dante who, according to Allen Tate, “not only begins with a common thing; he continues with it, until at the end we come by disarming stages to a scene that no man has looked upon before. Every detail of Paradise is a common thing; it is the cumulative combination and recombination of natural objects beyond their ‘natural’ relations which staggers the imagination” (300-1). In bearing with, and reflecting on the conflicts and graces wrapped up in human loves, one begins to intuit possible reconfigurations of the world  “beyond its natural relations.” Here that intuition is occasioned by Yeats’ seeing the marks of heroism or high style in the lives of friends: how a Robert Gregory or a Mabel Beardsley, dying, has realized some pure and unique commitment or impulse.

Like “Wild Swans at Coole,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” presents a moment in Yeats’ personal life, set in the familiar world. The poem’s monologue is addressed to his recently married wife, and develops out of the couple’s loneliness in their new home; the couple’s anxieties of adjustment are present in the background. They are imagined as “almost settled” in their house, but with no other company to “sup with us / Beside a fire of turf in th’ancient tower.” House, hearth, table, married couple—these are symbols of communal gathering, hospitality—spiritual centers around which human relationships form. But this house is empty, and (Yeats reflects with somewhat cynical wisdom) to gather one’s disparate friends is as likely to cause confusion, strain, and quarrel as harmony. Such difficulties are doubled, if one bring together the friends of two very different individuals, especially if married perhaps:

Always we’d have the new friend meet the old

And we are hurt if either friend seem cold,

And there is salt to lengthen out the smart

In the affections of our heart,

And quarrels are blown up upon that head;

The soul-shaping claim of friend on friend leads instinctively to the desire to bring one’s friends together. If “the close companions of many a year” become “A portion of [one’s] mind and life,” then the uniting of all one’s friends—each of whom calls forth and partially owns a different aspect of one’s person—might bring together all the dimensions of one’s being, expressing them in the many mirrorings and re-inflections of self in other and other in self that characterize a community of love. But to the extent that humans are creatures of heat rather than light, one’s inner loyalties will pull against each other. “Quarrels,” wounds, and “smarts,” exacerbated by the stinging “salt” of persistent affections, are part of the “hammering into unity” that is the work of any community, marriage, or individual life.

Sometimes it is better that the home be empty of living guests. To invoke instead those friends that have been simplified by death, Yeats suggests, has special power to move one’s being toward unity. The shadowy claims they represent are no less essential, but somehow quieter than the warmer ties of the living: “[N]ot a friend that I can bring / This night can set us quarreling, / For all that come into my mind are dead.” The finished lives of Lionel Johnson, John Synge, George Pollexfen each represent an ascending movement through life’s tensions towards unity. And though these dead friends are like calming touchstones for the mind, the fact that they have been dead for some time perhaps oversimplifies their power: “[they] seem to look / Out of some old picture-book; / I am accustomed to their lack of breath.” Robert Gregory, just over the threshold of death, is the more appropriate psychopomp for quieting and deepening living minds and hearts. His death still possesses the freshness of an affront, a “discourtesy,” and his claim on Yeats still possess something like the heat of life, though already strangely altered by the fact of death. Glenn Arbery argues that, because of Achilles’ raging ties to the dead Hektor and Patroklos–“one of them beloved, one of them hated”–their passing souls hold transforming powers for his own. Because part of him dies with them, they “precede the hero into death” and precipitate his anagnorisis and transformation. Only through releasing friend and foe and reconciling his passions in a surpassingly intimate embrace of death’s mystery does he enter into his own depth of soul (50).

Indeed, part of what calls to Yeats in Robert is the fact that his image still lacks the completion he perceives in those of his other friends. As poet, Yeats will seek out and bring to presence the inner simplicity, the formal radiance of his life. Macneice writes that “Yeats in his poems treated … Major Robert Gregory in the same way that Shakespeare treated his tragic heroes and heroines; the hero is conceded full individuality. … This means simplification, means … the elimination from the tragic figure of all psychology except some simple trends, it means the explanation of a man not by his daily life but by one or two great moments” (109). In the process of the poem’s composition, then, Yeats and Robert will each become a pyschopomp for the other. Yeats, through the healing work poetry and memory (whose patterns move in an opposite direction to those of life), draws his friend’s broken story toward its full and radiant image. Robert, receding deeper into death, leads his friend inward to the realm of psyche, where life’s self-forgetful and strangely unmotivated graces and powers may be found.

But this mutual guiding and deepening of souls requires that Yeats first of all explore how the common, this-worldly regions register his friend’s absence. He calls to mind the wrongness of Robert’s death, the excellences that it cut short.  His daring as a horseman caused the “astonished” crowd to “shut their eyes”: “and where was it / He rode a race without a bit? / And yet his mind outran the horse’s feet.” As a painter, he shared with Yeats’ “our secret discipline” of the “stern color and the delicate line.” This “secrecy” implies an art impelled by the urgencies of aloneness, and fulfilled for its own sake. Nevertheless, such a discipline, if true to itself, also possesses the unselfconscious freedom and “intensity to have published all / To be a world’s delight.” Skilled “in all the lovely intricacies of a house,” Robert could have bestowed a touch of ennobling grace and humanity on the couple’s still unfamiliar home. Yeats tells his wife how the young man “might have been your heartiest welcomer” to the region, since his painter’s eye loved all the surrounding landscape’s “minute particulars”–its shadowy composition of man-made structures and nature’s shifting life. “And all he did [was] done perfectly / As if he had but that one trade alone.” Each of Robert’s “trades”—“soldier, scholar, horseman”—are seen as free unfoldings of a simultaneously self-completing and self-transcending inner life.

In naming the dead man his own bride’s “heartiest welcomer,” and in imagining him as the supreme embodiment of  all that he admires in himself, Yeats self-emptyingly endows his friend, making riches out of his own sense of insufficiency. For Yeats sits uncertainly by his wife, “burn[ing the] damp faggots” of his now aging life, in a lonely house that he cannot fill with the warm welcome of living friends. In stark contrast, oppositely in fact, Major Robert


The entire combustible world in one small room

As though dried straw, and if we turn about

The bare chimney is gone black out

Because the work had finished in the flare.

Through this stark antithesis between them, the young man becomes an image of Yeats’ soul. Yeats is adopting the heroic form of his friend’s life as the pattern of his own poetic calling. He can recognize Robert Gregory’s self-sacrifice–how all his psychic energies met and consumed themselves in sudden a blaze of glory–only because he inwardly participates in a like dedication. To enshrine the dead man in a poem becomes, for Yeats, an act of self-dedication to everything implied in the shared possessive, “our,” “our secret discipline.” Where the rest of the crowd “close their eyes” at the horseman’s daring leap, Yeats looks on. In a self-purifying and finally self-forgetting trance, Yeats sees the young man go ahead of him to death. And, in forgetting himself, he enters into the death-in-life of his poetic calling, a secret discipline that transforms as it consumes the energies of natural life into the autotelic forms of spiritual activity.

“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is immediately followed by “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” which Yeats speaks in the voice and persona of Robert Gregory. Only the poet’s self-forgetting act of imagination can speak with authority from within the hero’s act of self-sacrifice, restoring his voice. According to a mapping Yeats would recognize, the spiritual courses of poet and hero double back over and recapitulate each other.

The last poems of The Wild Swans at Coole are arranged according to Yeats’ mappings of human life onto the phases of the moon. Man’s life is drawn back and forth between its movement towards dissipation in a material chaos (represented by the moon waning dark) and its movement towards plenitude and form (represented by the moon waxing full): “caught between the pull / Of the dark moon and the full.” To the extent that either movement comes to pure fruition, it lies just beyond the limit of conscious experience. The mimesis either of life’s fulfillment–an active composure that is “still and still-moving”–or of its dissolution occurs only through a symbolization of experience.The realization of either of these states would either dissolve or entirely resolve the region of separation in which representation takes place. Cleanth Brooks writes, in reference “Among School Children’s” great-rooted blossomer and mysterious dancer, that “[f]ull life is instinctive. … It is a harmony which is too blind to be aware of its own harmony. … Or, again as Yeats liked to put it in his last years: ‘man can embody truth but he cannot know truth’ ” (190). Equally, if less mysteriously, pure materiality is a chaos too blind to be aware of its own chaos. Thus, in “The Phases of the Moon,” Yeats’ speaker Michael Robartes says that, under the full or the blank new moon, human life either ceases altogether “or is cast out and cast away / Beyond the visible world.”

These final states appear in poetry as figures to tempt the contemplating mind towards patterns of activity that, lying beyond the realm of poetry, may nevertheless work out their embodiment in a life’s emergent forms: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know truth.” As Tate writes, “The intricacies of Yeats’s system provide for many of the permutations of this relation [between pure inwardness and pure externality]; but it cannot foresee them all, and we are constantly brought back to the individual man, not as a symbolic counter, but as a personality rich and unpredictable. … [T]he system is constantly absorbed into action” (308). In the Paradiso, Dante’s imaginings of one radiant life after another rise continually upward, until finally he bends “high fantasy” to its breaking point to shadow forth the union of God with man. The image must fail. Yet, by gathering all the achievements of his poetry and unifying all imaginative powers toward this projection, he is initiated into that kind of unconscious movement which one can only represent through participation in it:

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my

desire and will were moved already—like

a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The great power of allegorical poetry is to bend contemplation to a self-transcending limit and, by drawing thought together in a living image, put it to rest within its own self-sheltered center. Yeats’ tiny but perfect allegory “The Balloon of the Mind” represents this movement:

Hands, do what you’re bid:

Bring the balloon of the mind

That bellies and drags in the wind

Into its narrow shed.

The folding of the mind’s great bellying balloon into “its narrow shed” recalls how the shepherd’s “fretful story” moves toward silence in a “twisted echo-harboring shell,” how Yeats’ meditation on “friends that cannot sup with us” will eventually lead him and his wife “up the narrow winding stair to bed.” In “The Phases of the Moon” the “strange reward” won in a life that tosses the human being backwards and forwards, inwards and outwards, is that “[t]he soul begins to tremble into stillness, / And die into the labyrinth of itself. / … / All thought becomes an image and the soul / becomes a body.” In the “Shepherd and the Goatherd,” the goatherd imagines that the shepherd who “died in the great war across the sea” will now begin to live his own life backward, unraveling the skein of his accumulated knowledge and experience until he finds its inner, quiet source:

Jaunting, journeying

To his own dayspring,

He unpacks the loaded pern

Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,

Of all that he had made. / … /

Knowledge he shall unwind

Through the victories of the mind,

Till, clambering at the cradle-side,

He dreams himself his mother’s pride,

All knowledge lost in trance

Of sweeter ignorance.

Perhaps poetry itself is, as Warren writes in “Bearded Oaks,” “an hour’s term” that we can spare “in practice for eternity.” The musing memory of poetry begins to live life backward—to find emergent patterns within what life is doomed to live blindly, chaotically forward. Kathleen Raine writes that, in his “system,” Yeats “describe[s] in detail … the gradual purification, through the painful ‘dreaming back’ of our past life, ‘perhaps many times, until the spirit finds its celestial body.’ … This is what Yeats meant when he wrote that ‘wisdom is a property of the dead’” (59). What else of distinctive value do poetry’s re-writings and re-readings of experience perform if not a “dreaming back” of our shared and solitary lives towards their ultimate possibilities?

In the final poem of the collection, “The Double Vision of Micahel Robartes,” Michael Robartes sees a vision of the human world under the aspects of the new moon and the full—life as the death-in-life of sheer materiality and as the life-in-death of spiritual plenitude. Under the full moon, Robartes sees a Sphinx and a Buddha, representing the intellectual and affective dimensions of contemplation, and between them the dancing, self-forgetful soul:

O little did they care who danced between,

And little she by whom her dance was seen

So she had outdanced thought.

Body perfection brought,

For what but eye and ear silence the mind

With the minute particulars of mankind?

Mind moved yet seemed to stop

As ’twere a spinning top.

Helen Vendler interprets the figures of this animate allegory: “As all the human faculties move together—as intellect scans things known and unknown, passion scans things loved and unloved, and body transmits those activities into kinesthetic patterned energy—contemplation reaches its apogee … in dance-form” (366). In the final section of the poem, Michael Robartes is cast back upon the limited vision of ordinary experience, where the movements of the natural and spiritual life are painfully, inexplicably tangled. While his natural energies drive man blindly and often chaotically forward, his contemplative powers turn his life over again and bend it backward toward its source. These movements may seem to counter each other in rude and startling succession. But at moments—whether the “hour’s term” spared for poetry, or the kairos a heroic deed achieves—they harmonize in the unforeseen steps of a dance. As John Unterecker writes, “The first part of the poem presents a vision of elemental chaos; the second part presents a vision of elemental order. Yet life—as Yeats never wearies of pointing out—is neither one nor the other. Living man … is a compound of body and soul; experiencing simultaneously a sense of chaos and order, only in rare moments of insight can he see the whole design or contemplate its extremities. Michael Robartes, granted his double vision, does the best he can” (155). This inescapably double vision, then, is the horizon of earthly experience. In its fullest and richest moments, poetic images tempts us toward the embrace a fuller and purer sight. Such moments are given to instill in the “blind, stupefied heart” those living movements and rhythms whose sources remain somewhere just beyond our waking vision.

Works Cited

Arbery, Glenn. “Soul and Image: the Single Honor of Achilles.” The Epic Cosmos. Ed. Larry

Allums. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992.

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt,

Brace, and Jovanovich, 1975.

Cowan, Louise. “Epic as Cosmopoeis.” The Epic Cosmos. Ed. Larry Allums. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992.

MacNeice, Louis. The Poetry of W.B. Yeats. London: Oxford UP, 1941.

Raine, Kathleen. W.B. Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination. Ipswich: Golgonooza, 1999.

Ransom, John Crowe. The World’s Body. New York: Scribner, 1938.

Stock, A. G. W.B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961.

Tate, Allen. Essays of Four Decades. Wilmington: ISI, 1999.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. London: Noonday, 1959.

Vendler, Helen Hennessy. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1956.


An Intro, for students, to Cicero’s Pro Archia

March 22, 2014

Humanitas and Romanitas

An Introduction to Cicero’s Pro Archia

Adam Cooper, August 2013

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

–John Adams, lifelong admirer of Cicero, in a letter to Abigail, his wife

He was winner of a greater laurel wreath than any gained from a triumph, inasmuch as it is greater to have advanced the frontiers of the Roman spirit than those of the Roman empire.

–Plinythe Elder on Cicero

… tum, pietate gravem ac meritis si forte virum quem conspexere, silent, arrectisque auribus adstant; ille regit dictis animos, et pectora mulcet.

–Vergil on the stateman’s Auctoritas

Salve primus omnium parens patriae appellate–primus in toga triumphum, linguaeque lauream merite!

–Pliny the Elder, again, on Cicero

Humanitas–or the development of the virtues peculiar to the human being–stands at the heart of Cicero’s defense of Archias, Greek poet and teacher. Three of Aristotle’s statements on human nature can serve as a guide for understanding the Latin word: (1) “man is the animal with logos (with rational speech),” (2) “man is the polis-dwelling animal,” and (3) “all men desire to know.” To these one should add (4) that humans love to imagine and create. Humanitas includes: (1) the powers of speaking and writing logically, persuasively, and gracefully; (2) the habits needed to thrive in an ordered community (or polis), including friendship, manners, empathy, dedication to the common good, prudence in decision making, courage and generosity in action; (3) the love of wisdom (philosophia), the search for the nature and meaning of things, the courage to ask fundamental questions and think them through clearly, and a sense of wonder that simply delights to know; (4) the powers of creativity, the arts of poetry, drama, music, dance, painting, and statuary. Put briefly humanitas encompasses the excellences peculiar to the human being: liguistic, communal, and intellectual, and artistic virtue.

To be a good human being and to be a good Roman are not precisely the same thing (just as to be a good American is yet another thing). Often a tension arises between being “a good citizen” of one’s state and being a good person. But it is usually possible to succeed at being both. If any Roman did, it was Cicero. Underlying the Pro Archia is Cicero’s attempt to reconcile a universal standard of human excellence with the values of his Rome, to harmonize humanitas and Romanitas.

Archias–who possesses learning, language that is clear and beautiful, friend-winning kindness, and a poet’s meditative praise of what beauty or meaning he can see in the world–exemplifies humanitas. But his status as a Roman citizen is under attack. Why might the Greek poet have been suspect as a good citizen? The Roman genius is for politics and war. They were organizers, managers, engineers, soldiers, farmers. They knew what it takes to create order, and maintain it. They were by nature fiercely conservative (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), appealing not to philosophical principles but the mos maiorum,”the way of our forbears” or, more freely, “how our fathers did things.” Public speakers and the art of oratory–practiced by lawyers and statesmen–did have their place in this society. After all, they were needed to maintain law and order. But intellectuals and philosophers were suspect, as were poets. Such men seemed to foster bookishness, idleness, even womanishness in those who fell under their spell. More importantly, they often planted the seeds of subversive ideas. Their Greekified words might be smooth, shiny, and pleasant to hear, but perils lurked beneath them like armed men in a wooden horse. Lacoon’s statement from the Aeneid sums up the common Roman attitude to Greek learning: Danaos timeo et dona ferentes. “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts.”

What possible benefit could a poet, especially one who only spoke Greek, ever bring to the state? Had his presence ever helped win a battle? or put more bread on the table, or more butter on the bread? Just what function did he serve? Why not get rid of him? (It would be easy enough to prosecute him for misfiled papers and strip him of citizenship, discouraging others from the empty enticements of foreign learning.) These are the doubts and questions that Cicero attempts to answer in the Pro Archia.

His case is less hopeless than it might seem. The legal case against Archias is not strong–his papers are, in fact, in order. Moreover, the power of Cicero’s own reputation is immense. He is a powerful and effective advocate who, from his youth, has won unexpected victories in the law court, exposing the injustices of powerful men at great risk to himself. At the same time, he knows intuitively when it is more prudent to compromise than stand on principle. In a dangerous city, he has not lost his head.

He is universally known as a sound man whose arguments hold water. He’s also exciting to listen to–a feisty performer who can think on his feet, turn a fine phrase, launch a devastatingly humorous series of insults at his opponent, or steal his audience’s breath away with a moving appeal for compassion, justice, or forbearance. His powerful oratory and prudent politics have made him–a man of unknown family–one of the most prominent men in the state. His consulate, in which he exposed Cataline’s plot to seize the state by intrigue and force, saved Rome from civil violence and has made him a national hero. When Cicero speaks, people listen. He has personal auctoritas: his voice immediately commands a respectful hearing because of his established public character. He has won the trust of the senate and people by consistently demonstrating wisdom, confidence, and loyalty in moments of crisis.

Moreover, right beside his suspicion with learning, poetry, and all “womanish” Greek refinements, a Roman could not but grudgingly admire the achievements of Hellas. Only the Greeks could vie with the Romans in feats of engineering, public architecture, war. What Roman could forget the career of Alexander? The Romans had always recognized that Athens was the place to learn oratory. Moreover, throughout the history of the Republic, many prominent citizens had–in the quiet of their homes–read Greek poets and philosophers with delight. Circles of influential friends had grown up, from time to time, around the foreign learning–for the sheer enjoyment of it. Greek had become the language of the educated throughout the Roman world. And often, beneath the slur a Roman cast on Greek “refinement” would lurk a deep fascination, even a repressed sense of inferiority.

The Cicero who speaks in Pro Archia has been deeply versed in Greek philosophy, poetry, history, and oratory form his youth. He not only completely lacks the Roman taste for battle but represents a new kind of Roman hero: he has rescued the Republic not by force of arms but by foresight, energetic statecraft, and sheer rhetorical prowess. He himself aptly summed up this crowning moment of his career with the phrase, arma togae cedant, “let arms give way to the toga.” He sees an opportunity, in his defense of Archias, to outline a place for Greek learning inside of Roman culture, to show that the people’s Romanitas can only be enhanced and ennobled by their growth in humanitas, and to demonstrate that a philosophical development of the intellect, imagination, and the heart can become a pillar of the Roman state.

The hart hath hung his old head on the pale

February 10, 2013

“After closely observing the casting process during the past 20 years, I believe bucks feel no pain when they cast their antlers. What I have observed is that bucks are startled and curious when their antlers drop from their heads. A buck might lunge away from the cast antler as it hits the ground, and then cautiously come back to examine it. In some cases, I’ve even seen the buck lick his shed antler. The speed at which casting occurs is very interesting.”

From How do bucks shed their antlers

The Soote Season

The soote season that bud and bloom forth brings
With green hath clad the hill and eke the vale.
The nightingale with feathers new she sings;
The turtle to her make hath told her tale.
Summer is come, for every spray now springs;
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale;
The buck in brake his winter coat he flings;
The fishes flete with new-repairèd scale.
The adder all her slough away she slings;
The swift swallow pursueth the fliës small;
The busy bee her honey now she mings;
Winter is worn that was the flowers’ bale.
And thus I see among these pleasant things
Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs.