Updated: Mar 30
The Poem, A Dialogue of Self and Soul was written in the year 1933 by William Butler Yeats, this was published in his collection of poetry The Winding Stair. Yeats was strongly influenced by Platonism, Plotinus’ philosophy and The Eastern philosophy. He had developed his own interpretation of the soul and the self (i.e. body) from this influence. Before getting into this poem all should know what is Platonism? What is Plotinus’ philosophy? What are the soul and the self and what are its characteristics according to the Eastern Philosophy? To be precise, going right away to the poem without an understanding of all these concepts is equal to nothingness.
Plato’s believes and his doctrines are called as Platonism. To specify, Plato believed in the existence of abstract things in this universe. He said abstract things exist in a third dimension of this world which is unseen by both the external world and the internal intellect senses. Plotinus said there are three principles in this world, they are The One (a supreme, a complete Metaphysical transcendence), The Intellect (Nous, the faculty of the Human mind for understanding reasons) and The Soul (the psyche).
Considering the Eastern Philosophy, In Sanatana Dharma (Eternal) there is a belief of Re-incarnation. The body is decayable, Breakable, destroyable or materialistic in nature, but the soul is not. The soul has no form, has no structure. In Bhagavat Gita (Holly Book) it is written that the punyas (good deeds) that we do in this Janma (birth) is what comes back in your next birth or even this birth (this is the reason for life). According to Buddha there are four noble truths. 1. Life is suffering. 2. There is a reason for your suffering. 3. There is a solution to end your suffering. 4. The path to enlightenment or the place where your sufferings Ends. And we are Re- incarnated to follow the same in the next Janma.
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 the 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.
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.
In this poem both the self and the soul speak to express their characteristics. In the first stanza, the soul speaks; here it says that it is the one who guides the body to make all the actions. Initially it says that “I summon” by this it makes the body to go towards the zigzag ancient stair, the stair here represents our life and it is ancient (old) as it might get broken here or there (life is full of suspense). We take the risk of going forward by listening to the voices of our soul. It makes us to go beyond the limit “human limit” which is the external world. A soul has the power of getting together all our wandering thoughts (search for reasons) in a single area. In this section the soul questions itself, Can anyone divide darkness from soul?
In the second stanza the self that is the body speaks. Here the poet has used one of his life experiences in order to express the actual idea of self in our life. He was gifted by one of his friends named Junzo Sato. The gift was a pious Japanese blade which is actually the heir loom of his friend. The blade looks like a glass, it appears sharp and ageless. The poet says that upon his knees lies ‘the Blade’ which was wrapped (protected) by a torn cloth of an old Japanese court-lady’s gown. Though the Blade is with him; it was Junzo’s, will be Junzo’s and will always remind as his own. He means that the soul is one; it has no death; it remains the same; the medium that it uses to be in action might differ for one life to the other; which is the body; the body might be different but the soul will remain the same and nobody has the hold of the soul. The soul itself is eternal and the body is its property which it can change when the body becomes old and decayed (Here the Blade is the soul and the cloth wrapped around it to protect is the body).
The third stanza is the continuation of the first. The soul here speaks on the intellect of the human mind which wanders in search of reasons for birth, life and death. The soul questions, why is the human mind not confined with its remarkable emotions such as love and war? Why is it wandering hither and tither and the other (the inner self) to get answers? The soul tries to get together all these wandering thoughts in the first stanza.
The fourth stanza is the connection of the second stanza. The self speaks on the continuity and repetition of soul’s actions through different mediums (i.e. body). He says the embroidery of the cloth shows its age but all he sees is the past actions which have the ability to be repeated. (Here he means the deeds that are left undone will be done sooner or later by the soul in a different self).
The fifth stanza is connected to the third stanza. Here the soul says that when it makes a human to bring all his wandering thoughts together and his mind gets filled with the overwhelming power, he goes to a stage of trance and becomes deaf, blind, and dumb; and loses his intellect because he will be dead by the stage. His soul will reach the heaven because this is beyond his reach (moksha).
In the second section of the poem, his self speaks. To be precise, soul is eternal and so it lives in different forms. The cycle of birth-life-death becomes an infinite loop in which the soul is same and the self gets to be in different shapes to repeat its life over and over. The toil of growth, the facing of pain in immature state and the stage of fighting all the enemies at once in the matured state; these inescapable situations which are faced by the self in different forms with different forms (other souls and men) in all its lives is an unbreakable chain. Life is like a ditch he says it is same over and over again; all the people we have faced, all the situations we have crossed, the life partners we chose, the experiences we have undergone happens again in a different shape. This sounds depressing. Yet the poet’s self gets a reason to be content.
He says he will feel content to be in the loop because a man’s intellect wanders in search of reasons which require ultimate thoughts and toil, amid of this he gets the bliss of attaining remorse. The bliss that spreads all over the breasts, the happiness that the self attains makes him feel content to be in this loop. Because when he gets the ecstasy of remorse he gets to laugh, he gets to sing, he gets blessed by everything and everything he look upon gets blessed. This is enough for the self to be content with this endless life of toil in this undying loop.
When we analyse this poem we can get to know that William butler Yeats has mixed up reality with his irreality believes. Here the reality is life’s nature and the irreality that he has mixed is the essence of abstract things based on Platonism, Plotinus’ philosophy and Eastern Philosophy.