Central Idea of Self and Soul: A Dialogue of W. B. Yeats

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      Yeats’s poetry shows his life long search for the “Unity Of Being.” He aimed to organize his personal convictions as a protection against the intellectual chaos constantly threatening him. He built up a system of thought, whose images and ideas can be traced back to earlier mystics and philosophers. One such was the practice of symbolizing superior wisdom in terms of geometrical figures. Circle, and the interlocking gyres or cones, are basic images in Yeats’s symbolic system, and they display the principle of conflict in the individual’s life as well as the human civilization’s life.

      The Great Wheel has twenty-eight spokes, representing the twenty-eight phases of the moon. These phases relate to the human personality as well as the incarnations of the soul. Phase one stands for objectivity and at the opposite end is phase fifteen standing for subjectivity—these are the extremes of the human personality. Thus, movement from phase 1 to 28 represents a movement from the primary (or objective) to full subjectivity at phase 15 after which a counter-movement starts towards the antithetical self-completed by the 28th phase one, life is lost in darkness; man is pure body and life is not possible, because life subsists through the tension between the conflicting opposites of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, flesh and mind, body and soul.

      A Dialogue of Self and Soul involves the issue of the rejection of human life as opposed to the acceptance of it. ‘The Tower’ stands for the contemplation of heavenly realities. The sword in its sheath, decorated with the tattered finery of a country lady's dress represents the untarnished purity and vitality of the mind blended with the love and desires of the decaying body—ultimately, love of life wins over the deliverance of the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

      The soul wants the self to leave off thinking about the perishable earthly thing and its illusions of life, and turn to the permanent heavenly things of that dark world where the soul can be at rest. But the self refuses to ascend the Tower and points at the sword in its tattered covering, symbolizing a vital mind in a decaying body. The soul urges the self to concentrate on that darkness which, if man surrenders himself to it, will deliver him from the imprisonment of the web of birth and death and earthly desire. But the self accepts “birth and death,” even if it is a crime, and is ready to repeat it.

      It is apparent that the soul wants the self to reach "after-life”, a state of breathless mindlessness, which is the end of the soul’s journey through bodily incarnations. The soul urges withdrawal, solitude and contemplation of darkness: “Who can distinguish darkness from the soul ?” The darkness, of course, suggests complete withdrawal from common life, where no conflict can be, and signifying the ascension of the soul of the heaven—thus the soul cannot be distinguished from darkness. Without the body, the soul many no longer have any existence. The winding stair leads to a state in which the senses will be suspended, and the personality will no longer exist:

For intellect no longer knows
Is from the ought, or knower from the known

      The ascent to the Tower is achieved only by destroying ourselves. It signifies the body left without the soul, i.e., death of all that is temporal. It is a state of being, which is close to phase one of the Great Wheel. The soul will leave, and merge into darkness and life will not be possible when man becomes pure body. But the self will not allow it. The self prefers to face life with all its failures and sufferings and be subject to the cycle of life, birth and death.

      A Dialogue of Self and Soul is a record of the struggle within the poet’s mind, between the attraction of an ascetic withdrawal from life and the alternative of accepting temporal life with its sufferings and sorrows. It records the conflict between choosing an afterlife from which there is no return and the cycle of birth and death, or life afterlife.

       The life-symbols of the self is Sato’s sword—the “consecrated blade.” It stands for war, love, sex and life. The tattered and faded covering can “still protect” and “adorn.” The dress is a symbol of body, and can still protect the sword—the untarnished vital elements. The sword, the sheath, the dress material covering it with the purple flowers embroidered on it, all are “emblems of the day.” The Tower and The Winding Stair, which the soul urges the self to follow, are “emblematical of the night” and darkness. The Soul gives a glowing description of the heavenly state in which the senses and the intellect cease functioning, the ideal and the real, the subject and the object have become one, and the crime of birth and death is forgiven. It is a state which cannot be described by the tongue of living man.

      The self, however, rejects the soul’s arguments. In the affirmative second section of the poem, the self asserts its right to live again, to accept life after life, or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It prefers the world-imposed Mask. Yeats here rejects what Sailing to Byzantium seems to offer as a solution. Life, as lived by human beings is full of suffering, pain, weakness, ignorance, sordidness and humiliation at all stages—from childhood through awkward adolescence to maturity. Old age creeps upon one all to soon. But all this does not discourage the self from opting for “life after life”, to live this life again. It does not want to escape the cycle of birth and death; it would willingly go through the same sadness and humiliation, struggle and folly.

      Yeats appears to be speaking for himself when he says he is ready to forgive and forget. He is content to follow again to its source,

Every event in action or in thought.

      Once the remorse is cast out, there comes “tragic joy”, the bitter sweetness which characterizes the acceptance of life. He concludes.

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

      Temporal life is foul and impure, slimy and dirty, the breeding place of obnoxious vermin. But from the assessment of all the events and experience of life, however ugly and bitter they might be then conies a realization of their meaning and worth. Thus is the sweetness born out of the bitterness. It is this sweetness, evolving out of intense bitterness that constitutes for the artist the only blessedness he can know. It leads him towards insight and understanding. This is surely a matter of joy.

      The poem is, indeed an “impassioned outburst” as B. Rajan remarks, and affirms life’s bitterness with daring intensity in order that its sweetness may be vindicated. Strong terms are employed to bring out life’s ugly aspects—impure ditches, ignominy of boyhood, clumsiness, defiling and disfigured shape. Life may be “the frogspawn of a blind man’s ditch.” Repulsiveness is strikingly and boldly stated so that the acceptance of life is all the more convincing and glorious. All the ugliness and unhappiness can be merged in to a meaningful pattern; then regrets and fretting evaporate. “There is in the creative joy an acceptance of what life brings, because we have understood the beauty of what it brings, or a hatred of death for what it takes away, which arouses in us, through some sympathy perhaps with all other men, an energy so noble, so powerful that we laugh aloud and mock, in terror or the sweetness of our exultation, at death and oblivion,” said Yeats in a letter. The poet certainly looks boldly at life’s reality and makes the choice of life after life, as A.G. Stock observes. But more than the obvious feet that life even at its most bitter is worth living, the poem postulates Yeats’s proposition that “what we know of ultimate reality is only known by the extent that it is lived.”

University Questions

Bring out the central idea in A Dialogue of Self and Soul.
In A Dialogue of Self and Soul, the poet commits himself to rebirth “in an impassioned outburst in which the bitterness of life is affirmed with daring intensity so that its sweetness can be vindicated.” Elucidate.
The poet “stares at life’s reality and....like a boy, who decides that the apples are worth the threshing makes the hero’s or the artist’s choice of life afterlife.” Discuss with reference to A Dialogue of Self and Soul.
“The Soul is describing a state of being perilously close to phase 1 of the Great Wheel.” Comment on this judgment with reference to Yeats’s A Dialogue of Self and Soul.

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