Category Archives: Literature

The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy

Pagans who were wicked by pagan standards are punished in the circle of Hell appropriate to their particular crimes. For example, Paris is punished in the second circle for crimes of lust, while Brutus is consigned to the jaws of Satan himself for treachery against his lord and benefactor. Pagans guilty of such sins as suicide and sodomy — sinful by Christian standards but not necessarily by pagan ones — are not specifically punished for them.

Pagans who lived lives of virtue (reckoning, again, by their own pagan standards), but who never had the opportunity to receive Christianity and baptism, are consigned to Limbo — which, though it is technically the first circle of Hell, is not a place of punishment. In fact, it seems to be pretty much what virtuous pagans expected after death. Their only punishment is that they now know that there is something higher — the true Paradise — but have no hope of ever attaining it.

Virtuous Hebrews who lived before Christ could be considered Christians avant la lettre (because they worshiped Jehovah, who is Christ), but they lacked explicitly Christian faith, hope, and baptism. They were consigned to Limbo with the pagans until after the Crucifixion, when Christ came to hell and liberated them. They are now in Paradise.

Note, then, that prior to the Crucifixion everyone (barring perhaps a few exceptions like Enoch and Elijah) went to Hell — either to Hades (Limbo) or Tartarus (the lower circles). This is consistent with most pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife; certainly no Greek expected to ascend to Olympus after death.

Muslims are considered Christian heretics (a view which is not historically unreasonable), and Muhammad himself is punished as such in the sixth circle of Hell. Other Muslims, though, seem more often to be judged as if they were pagans. Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin are found in Limbo with the pagan worthies. This despite the fact that, like all Muslims, they lived during the Christian era and could in theory have become Christians had they wished. (Saladin, in particular, had certainly been exposed to Christianity and rejected it; he spent his career fighting against the Crusaders.) I am not aware of any post-biblical Jews who appear in the Comedy, but Dante would perhaps have treated them similarly.

Virgil’s permanent home is in Limbo with the other virtuous pagans, but he is allowed to visit Purgatory in his capacity as Dante’s guide. Paradise, however, is closed to him.

Cato the Younger works as the gatekeeper and guardian of Purgatory. It is not evident what his ultimate fate will be, but it seems reasonable to assume that his situation is similar to that of Virgil: He is visiting Purgatory “on business,” as it were, but in the end — when Purgatory is done away with — will have to return to Limbo. (Note that he is not condemned for his famous suicide — a sin normally punished in the seventh circle of Hell — because it was not forbidden by the Stoic morality under which he lived.)

Trajan, the Roman emperor, is in Paradise, though originally he had been consigned to Limbo like any other righteous pagan. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great, saddened at the damnation of so great a man, prayed for his soul and was granted this miracle: Trajan, after all those centuries, was raised from the dead. Back in his body, he was once again free to choose Christianity and baptism, and he did so. When he died for the second time, he went to Paradise as a Christian.

Ripheus is hardly a household name, but he makes a brief (two-line) appearance in the Aeneid, where he is described as “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right.” Virgil, ever the pessimist, dryly adds that “the gods thought otherwise” — apparently unimpressed by his outstanding virtue, they allow him to be cut down like any common soldier in the sack of Troy. But according to Dante (who apparently invented the story himself), one particular God was impressed with Ripheus’s virtue and chose to reward it by granting him, centuries before the birth of Christ, a private revelation of the Christian gospel. Thus, unknown to his contemporaries, Ripheus died in the true Faith. He lived before baptism was available, but faith, hope, and charity took the place of that sacrament for him. In this he is similar to the pre-Christian Hebrews, who are also saved without baptism — and we may presume that, like them, he went first to Limbo and only later, after Christ’s harrowing of Hell, to Purgatory and Paradise.

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Seamless verse: terza rima and a close equivalent

Dante’s Comedy is written in terza rima — that is, a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded efe … yzy z. One very appealing feature of terza rima is that each tercet is linked by rhyme to both the tercet before and the one after, making it possible to write an entire canto — arbitrarily long — which is one seamless whole, impossible to break into smaller units which can stand alone in terms of rhyme.

Unfortunately, terza rima just isn’t workable in English, at least not for long poems. It requires that every line of the poem rhyme with two other lines, and in a rhyme-poor language like English that is just too stringent a requirement (though of course it works fine in Italian). Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima translation of Dante has made me even more sure of this. Too many forced and awkward rhymes, too many near-rhyme compromises. Many of the “rhymes” (like rhyming — no joke — here, singular, and far!) don’t even register as rhymes at all unless the reader is actively paying attention to the rhyme scheme, and in the end the effect is simply not that of reading rhymed verse. I know Sayers is operating under the additional constraint of having to write English terza rima which is a translation of Italian terza rima, but I think even writing original verse using this rhyme scheme would be unworkable in English, unless it were very short.

Structurally, terza rima is like a chain, every link of which has the shape of a figure-eight. The easiest way of adapting it to a rhyme-poor language like English, then, is to simplify it to a chain with ordinary circular links, eliminating the need for triple rhymes. I experimented a bit with this scheme when I was a teenager, before I knew anything about Dante, and I called it “snake rhyme” because it could be used to produce an arbitrarily long, indivisible poem.

terza rima

As an experiment, I tried rendering the beginning of the Inferno in “snake rhyme.” The main disadvantage of snake rhyme, as opposed to terza rima, is that every line is separated from its rhyme by two intervening lines, making the rhymes less obvious. I tried to ameliorate this by shortening the lines to four feet each — that makes for 32 syllables per quatrain, very close to Dante’s 33 per tercet. I’m not sure how successful the result is.

I have no intention of finishing this “translation” (if one can even use that word for a version which takes so many liberties, and whose author is ignorant of Italian); it was just an experiment. But I thought I’d share it for what it’s worth.


My life’s long journey halfway through,
I found myself within a wood
So dark my path was lost to view.

How hard it is to speak of how
that forest was — so dark! — and should
I call it back to mind, I know
fresh fear would kindle even now.

Such bitter fear — like death it stings! —
Yet good I found there, too, and so,
That you may understand that good,
I’ll shy not from the darker things.

How came I to be lost so deep
Within that dense and savage wood?
When lost I the true path? Who knows?
I was so very full of sleep.

But, stumbling through that murky maze,
I came to where a mountain rose
Up from that valley thick with vines
and tangled brush. I dared to raise

My eyes and saw its slopes aglow,
Lit by that Planet bright which shines
On all men’s paths and with its light
Directs them in the way to go.

With this my heart began to take
Fresh courage — for throughout the night,
A squirming terror vile and black
Had lurked within my bosom’s lake.

But now, like one who, safe ashore,
Still gasping from the swim, looks back
To see the churning waves which he
Survived — against all odds — once more,

So I, though in my heart still fleeing,
Looked back. I was the first to see
The other side of that dread vale:
None else had lived to do the seeing.

Awhile I rested in that sun,
Then stirred again and moved to scale
The lonely slope, and as I went
My firm foot was the lower one.

There on the lower slopes I spied,
Not far from where the hill’s ascent
Began — a leopard! — lithe of limb
And covered with a spotted hide.

Wherever then I turned my face
Or made to move, I spotted him.
All ways he blocked, till back I turned,
Retreating to my starting place.

But it was spring, and early morn,
And in its native Aries burned
The Sun, with those same stars attendant
It rose with when the world was born,

On that first morning when the Love
Divine first moved those things resplendent,
So that the season and the hour —
And, too, that dappled beast above

Me on the path — seemed cause for hope
but hope, alas, had not the power
To steel me for what happened next:
I saw a lion on the slope!

. . .

(If you want to know what happens next, read Dante.)


Filed under Literature, Poetry, Translation

For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.


I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

I’ve been making my way through Dante’s Comedy for my third time — this time in Dorothy L. Sayers’s version. The translation, which pulls off the incredible feat of reproducing the original terza rima rhyme scheme in English, certainly has its charms, but in many places it strikes me more as an interpretation of Dante than a faithful rendering, and I would recommend it only to those who have already read a more literal version. However, Sayers’s introduction to each cantica and brief commentary at the end of each canto are often very insightful.

The following is from Sayers’s commentary on Canto IV of the Inferno, which deals with the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, to which Virgil and the other virtuous pagans are consigned.

After those who refused choice [described in Canto III] come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. . . . Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost . . . because they “had not faith” — primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.

The First Circle is uniquely troubling because its inmates seem to be there through no fault of their own. It is true that they are not actively tortured as those in the lower circles are — their only punishment is that “we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — but they seem not to have deserved even that. Virgil’s explanation in Canto IV is that these souls are damned for no other “fault” than that, living before Christ, they lacked baptism and did not profess the Christian religion. To damn them for failing to do what they could not possibly have done seems manifestly unjust.

However, that is not the whole story. Even in Canto IV we learn of how Christ descended to Limbo and rescued the unbaptized souls of Adam, Abraham, David, and other pre-Christian biblical figures. And once one has read the entire Comedy and found Cato in purgatory and Trajan in paradise, the situation appears even more complicated. It is not true that all non-Christians are summarily damned. It is not even true that all non-Hebrew non-Christians are summarily damned. Therefore, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other denizens of the First Circle must be there for some actual moral failing — a comparatively minor failing, but still one which precludes all possibility of salvation — a failing which, without the benefit of the Christian revelation, is almost (but not quite) inevitable. Sayers’s interpretation of that failing seems a plausible one.

“Dream other dreams, and better!” — the admonition of the angel at the end of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger. This, in Sayers’s interpretation, is what Virgil and the others failed to do. It is characteristic of Dante’s logic that each punishment in hell simply is the sin being punished, seen for what it truly is. If Virgil’s only punishment is that he has no hope, it stands to reason that that was also his only sin. (As a great admirer of Virgil and a somewhat obsessive re-reader of the Aeneid, I would have to say I agree with that assessment.) Where there is no vision, the people perish. By way of contrast, consider Goethe’s Faust — whose only virtue is that he lacks Virgil’s only vice. And Faust is saved.


In her commentary on Canto VII of the Inferno, Sayers comments on Dante’s passage through the first few Circles of Hell. Dante blacks out at the gate of Hell and enters the First Circle (Limbo) unconsciously. The passage from the First to the Second (where lust is punished) is made consciously but is not described in any detail. Dante then again loses consciousness and awakes in the Third Circle (where the gluttons are). The passage to the Fourth Circle (misers and spendthrifts) is described in a little more detail, and thereafter the passage from each Circle to the next is very clearly described. Sayers writes:

From Limbo to the Second Circle — from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it — the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third — from mutuality to separateness — the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth  Circle the way is a little plainer — for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.

For Sayers, what distinguishes the sins of the Second, Third, and Fourth Circles is not so much their differing objects (sex, food, and money, respectively) as the differing attitudes towards other people which they represent. Lust involves love and mutuality and is “not wholly selfish”; gluttony, in contrast represents “solitary self-indulgence,” indifferent to others. In the Fourth Circle, “indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism of hoarding and squandering.”

This is not the most obvious interpretation of these three categories of sin, but I think it is a promising one. (If the sins are taken at face value, it is rather difficult to see how indulgence in food could be considered more serious than sexual sin!) Here, then, is Sayers’s interpretation of the first four Circles, with the succeeding five Circles noted as well:

  1. Virtuous living, limited only by a lack of hope or imagination
  2. Mutual and quasi-“loving” pursuit of pleasure together with other people (typified by sexual lust)
  3. The solitary pursuit of pleasure without regard to other people (typified by gluttony)
  4. Antagonism towards others because their chosen pleasures are incompatible with one’s own (typified by the antagonism between misers and spendthrifts)
  5. Wrath
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treachery

If this is indeed the primary significance of the first four Circles, Sayers is right that the passage from each to the next is smooth and natural and many be made almost unconsciously.  Certainly the transition from “imagine there’s no heaven” to “imagine all the people living for today” is an easy one — though not, as shown by the virtuous pagans, an inevitable one. And once mere pleasure has been accepted as a goal, the transition to selfishness — first indifferent and then resentful — is equally natural.

A passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, showing a very similar progression, comes to mind:

The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness [Circles 2-3: lust and gluttony] thus becomes indignation [Circles 4-5: avarice and wrath] and then transforms itself into morality [Circle 6: heresy]. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness [Circle 7: violence]. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture.

This is, for me, a new way of looking at the Circles of Hell. Instead of seeing each succeeding Circle as simply another sin, “worse” than the ones that preceded it, it can be quite fruitful to try to interpret it as the next logical step in the soul’s downward journey.

I am about to begin Sayers’s translation of the Purgatorio, which is explicitly about the soul’s step-by-step progress from sin to absolution — though, oddly, I have never really kept that sufficiently in mind in past readings. Finding pride near the bottom of the mountain and lust near the top, I have been content with the explanation that pride is “worse” than lust — when in fact the explicit message of the Purgatorio is that one must overcome pride first, then envy, and so on, and lust last of all. (This contrasts strongly with my own feeble efforts at self-improvement, which have always focused first on “obvious” sins of lust and gluttony rather than abstractions like envy and pride.) This time through Purgatory, I intend to focus on the sequential, step-by-step aspect of it and see what kinds of insights reveal themselves.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time

In one of the English classes I teach, the students are just starting to reach the level where they can read relatively simple novels, so I assign them a chapter a week of some novel, and one of our classes each week is devoted to discussing the chapter they’ve just read. Because of their limited English proficiency, and because they are housewives who are studying English mainly so as to be better able to help their children learn it, we generally read children’s stories. Currently, we’re working on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Generally our weekly discussions revolve around questions of vocabulary, grammar, and usage — but this past week we dealt with the 13th chapter, “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time,” which introduces the central idea of Aslan’s sacrificing himself to appease the law which demands the death of Edmund. All language questions aside, my students found it completely baffling — and I have to agree with them. While I’m a big fan of Lewis’s nonfiction and of the Screwtape Letters, I have to admit that this particular novel has a very poorly constructed plot.


In the 13th chapter, it is suddenly revealed that, because of “the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning,” the Witch has the right to kill anyone who commits any act of treachery. In fact, executing traitors is not only her right but a requirement. She explains that “unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water,” and Aslan agrees that this is in fact the case. She also makes it clear that treason is treason, and that whom is betrayed is of no consequence. Anyone who betrays anyone has to be killed, or else the Emperor will destroy the entire country.

Prior to this chapter, there has not been the slightest hint that the Witch is an agent of the Emperor (whom Aslan also serves, and who is supposed to be one of the good guys) or that her special function is to avenge treachery. In fact, earlier in the story, the faun Mr. Tumnus betrays the Queen and is arrested for high treason and turned to stone — but his blood is never shed as the Deep Magic supposedly requires, and yet Narnia is not destroyed. (We know that merely turning a traitor to stone is not enough to satisfy the Deep Magic, because the Witch explains that she must “have blood.” Also, when she attempts to execute Edmund, she does not turn him to stone, which is otherwise her preferred way of punishing people, but tries to slit his throat.)


Once the Deep Magic and its requirements have been revealed, Susan asks Aslan the obvious question:

“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there some way to work against it?”

“Work against the Emperor’s Magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

The implication is that Aslan is unquestioningly loyal to the Emperor and accepts the Deep Magic and its requirements. Why this should be the case is not clear. We might assume that Aslan is unwilling to betray the Emperor because all traitors must be killed by the Witch — but of course later on in the story he does allow the Witch to kill him, so that can’t be his motive.

(Of course we readers know that Aslan is loyal to the Emperor because Aslan represents Jesus and the Emperor represents God, but I mean that within the context of the story his loyalty to the Emperor — who seems more like the Ancient Ones from The Cabin in the Woods* than like a proper God — is hard to explain.)

At any rate, for whatever reason, Aslan is completely loyal to the Emperor — and the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to execute all traitors. The Witch should therefore be confident that Aslan will not stand in the way of such executions, and in fact he does not. She confidently confronts Aslan and demands her pound of flesh, and he gives it to her (though of course he contrives to do so in such a way that Edmund is saved).

However, just pages earlier, the Witch does not seem so confident that Aslan will stand back and let her do her job. Despite wishing she could keep Edmund alive for a while to use as a bargaining chip, she decides she had better kill him immediately lest he be rescued and she lose her chance. She seems not to realize at this point that, should he be rescued, she can simply demand him back and Aslan will be forced to comply. Instead, she assumes Aslan will stand in the way of the execution.

“I would like to have done it [killed the traitor Edmund] on the Stone Table itself,” said the Witch. “That is the proper place. That is where it has always been done before.”

“It will be a long time now [that Aslan is back] before the Stone Table can again be put to its proper use,” said the dwarf.

This implies that Aslan will not allow them to use the Table thus — despite the fact that the Witch has a commission from the Emperor to do so and knows that Aslan is unwilling to oppose the Emperor’s wishes.

(Incidentally, I can’t believe I never noticed the rather heavy-handed symbolism of the Stone Table before. That the same thing should symbolize both the Ten Commandments and the Cross seemed especially natural to my Chinese-speaking students, since the Chinese word for “cross” is literally “figure-ten.”)


Of course the reason the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is incoherent is that it is an allegory of the Atonement, and the Atonement is a mystery. But while some people may find unexplained mysteries acceptable in theology, they certainly don’t make for very good fiction. The whole point of an allegory is to elucidate that which is being allegorized by turning it into a story people can understand — and that Lewis fails to do.


*If you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods, don’t. It’s the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen in my life — and this is coming from someone who has seen both 2-Headed Shark Attack and Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid. However, the synchronicity fairies saw to it that I watched it the day after teaching “Deep Magic,” so I had to point out the obvious parallels. In the movie, the Ancient Ones are “giant evil gods” who will destroy the whole world if they are not periodically appeased with the blood of people who are drugged, entrapped into “sinning,” and then “punished.”


Filed under Literature

The Witch

“The Witch,” from Yeats’s Responsibilities and Other Poems:

Toil and grow rich,
What’s that but to lie
With a foul witch
And after, drained dry,
To be brought
To the chamber where
Lies one long sought
With despair?

If economy is the essence of poetry (and it is, in case you were wondering), Yeats is one of the very best. A whole implied fairy tale is packed into these few microscopic lines. It takes the mind a second to realize that, but once you start unpacking it, you find that everything you need is in there — a complete, coherent narrative — a masterpiece of file compression.

And every strand of this little story is brought to point in the final line, with its three-way syntactic ambiguity. Brought with despair? Lies with despair? Sought with despair? Yes, all of the above — and the unity of those three despairs is the point of the poem.

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The Two Trees

I’ve been brooding over Yeats’s poem “The Two Trees” for several months now, and I thought I might post some of my ideas about it, disconnected though they may be.


First, for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with it, here is the poem itself. Since it consists of two stanzas which are obviously meant to be contrasted one with the other, often in a direct line-to-line manner, I present them here in columns side-by-side, with some of the more obvious parallels highlighted in boldface.

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart, Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The holy tree is growing there; The demons, with their subtle guile,
From joy the holy branches start, Lift up before us when they pass,
And all the trembling flowers they bear. Or only gaze a little while;
The changing colours of its fruit For there a fatal image grows
Have dowered the stars with merry light; That the stormy night receives,
The surety of its hidden root Roots half hidden under snows,
Has planted quiet in the night; Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
The shaking of its leafy head For all things turn to barrenness
Has given the waves their melody, In the dim glass the demons hold,
And made my lips and music wed, The glass of outer weariness,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee. Made when God slept in times of old.
There the Loves a circle go, There, through the broken branches, go
The flaming circle of our days, The ravens of unresting thought;
Gyring, spiring to and fro Flying, crying, to and fro,
In those great ignorant leafy ways; Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Remembering all that shaken hair Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And how the wingèd sandals dart, And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart. Gaze no more in the bitter glass.


As a starting point for interpretation, the “two trees” of the title must be assumed to represent the two trees which grew in the midst of the Garden of Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given that assumption, it is not hard to know which tree is which. The tree of the second stanza, which is offered up to us by “the demons with their subtle guile,” and which is associated with death and with “unresting thought,” is clearly the tree of knowledge. The first tree, with its fruits and flowers and “great ignorant leafy ways,” is the tree of life — which, for Yeats, is also the tree of love. Though I am quite sure that an allusion to Eden is intended, the primary contrast is not so much between life and knowledge as between love and thought. The ignorant Loves go round the first tree; the cruel ravens of thought, round the other.


The second important thing to notice is that, despite the title, there are not actually two trees in the poem, but only one. The second tree is only a reflection of the first, as seen in the “bitter glass” — externalized. (There is just a hint of this idea in Genesis; Eve refers in the singular to “the tree which is in the midst of the garden,” although we are told that the Lord planted two trees there.) One of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” has it that “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Yeats (a great admirer of Blake)  appears to agree — but he prefers the fool’s point of view! Where the fools sees, the wise man reflects — and instead of a direct presentation of the tree, experiences only a bloodless re-presentation. Reading Yeats in the light of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, we might say that the two “trees” — the two ways of looking at the tree — represent the right- and left-hemisphere views, respectively. The following passage from McGilchrist seems especially relevant:

As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power’. The higher values of Scheler’s hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.

It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as ‘good and evil’, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’.


The idea of the “bad” tree as the mirror-image of the “good” one brings to mind the motto Daemon est Deus Inversus — which Yeats chose as his “magical name” in the context of his Golden Dawn activities. Yeats is here clearly indebted to H. P. Blavatsky, whom he knew and to whose Theosophical Society he belonged. The following passage is from Mme. Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (Book 1, Part 2, Section 11).


THIS symbolical sentence, in its many-sided forms, is certainly most dangerous and iconoclastic in the face of all the dualistic later religions — or rather theologies — and especially so in the light of Christianity. Yet it is neither just nor correct to say that it is Christianity which has conceived and brought forth Satan. As an “adversary,” the opposing Power required by the equilibrium and harmony of things in Nature — like Shadow to throw off still brighter the Light, like Night to bring into greater relief the Day, and like cold to make one appreciate the more the comfort of heat — SATAN has ever existed. Homogeneity is one and indivisible. But if the homogeneous One and Absolute is no mere figure of speech, and if heterogeneity in its dualistic aspect, is its offspring — its bifurcous shadow or reflection — then even that divine Homogeneity must contain in itself the essence of both good and evil. If “God” is Absolute, Infinite, and the Universal Root of all and everything in Nature and its universe, whence comes Evil or D’Evil if not from the same “Golden Womb” of the absolute? Thus we are forced either to accept the emanation of good and evil, of Agathodaemon and Kakodaemon as offshoots from the same trunk of the Tree of Being, or to resign ourselves to the absurdity of believing in two eternal Absolutes!

I believe that the bolded portions make it clear that Yeats is consciously alluding to Mme. Blavatsky’s ideas in his poem.


Another text which seems relevant to “The Two Trees” is the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which contrasts love (agape or “charity”) with knowledge — first in the 8th chapter (“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth”) and then, more extensively, in the famous 13th:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . . For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.


Though it obviously could not have been an influence, I find Frost’s poem “Bond and Free” to make an excellent companion piece to “The Two Trees.”

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about–
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Here again love and thought are contrasted, and again there is the suggestion that they offer two views of what is essentially the same thing. Everything that the second tree offers can be possessed by “simply staying” and gazing in one’s own heart.” While Yeats takes an almost entirely negative view of the second tree, allowing only that it might be permissible to gaze on it “a little while,” Frost comes closer to accepting thought as a valid path, granting that “his gains in heaven are what they are.”


Yeats’s reference to “tender eyes” bring to mind the biblical description of Jacob’s first wife Leah — who, for Dante and others, represents the active life, as contrasted with the contemplative life personified by Rachel. (I don’t pretend to understand the biblical grounds for these associations — Martha and Mary would seem to be much more natural symbols — but this symbolic use of Leah and Rachel is nevertheless well-established, and Yeats would have known about it.) Dante obviously consider’s Rachel’s to be the higher path, though Leah’s is also valid (he explicitly says as much in the Convivio) — but he depicts Rachel as gazing continuously on her own face in a glass, while Leah gathers flowers! Is this another conscious allusion by Yeats — and does he, contra Dante, prefer Leah’s way to Rachel’s?

But perhaps there is meant to be something of both Leah and Rachel in each of the trees — the “tender eyes” appear in both stanzas, after all. The active life appears as direct, concrete engagement with the world in the first stanza; and as the unresting pursuit of fultilities in the second. And two different forms of contemplation — gazing in one’s own heart versus gazing in the bitter glass — of course form the central contrast of the poem.

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