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Daddy / Cut /Metaphors/ The Thin People / I Am Vertical / Bee Poems / November Graveyard / Mirror / Apprehensions / Eyemote / Guestbook / Lady Lazarus / Links/ In Plaster / Mirror / Black Rook in Rainy Weather / Mary's Song / Getting There / Ariel / Fever 103 / Elm / The Moon and the Yew Tree / The Bee Keeper's Daughter / Firesong / Lorelei / Stings / The Bee Meeting / Burning the Letters / Words/Balloons/The Queen's Complaint/Moonrise/Sonnet to Satan/Thalidomide
( by Kenneth DiBenedette 2004)
Maenad, Edge, Mignon, Plath and Goethe
(Ed.'s Note: My discussion of "Edge" makes an interesting climax to this rather rambling presentation. If the reader wishes to jump directly to my few thoughts about this poem then click here.)
KNOW'ST thou the land where the
fair citron blows,
'Tis there, 'tis there,
Know'st thou the house? On columns
rests its pile,
'Tis there, 'tis there,
Know'st thou the mountain, and its
'Tis there, 'tis there,
-Goethe in 1795
Poussin-"The Inspiration of the Poet"
To the contemporary, rational mind "Meeting one's muse" is a reference to inspiration- the ability of the poet to unlock interior secrets and bring that experience into writing. The modern thinker equates inspiration with fortuitous creative waves of brain activity that result from years of study and practice.
The spiritual or "occult" tradition views "study and practice" as an invocation of actual spiritual beings which in some way unites with the psyche of the poet. Ideas and thought forms are not merely the result of physical brain activity but are energy filled beings that give birth to and always precede physical reality. (see http://www.ax.boudicca.de/guild/corpus/muse.htm for an actual ritual of muse invocation although I certainly don't necessarily recommend trying it.)
There are many possible relationships between the world-creative muses and the ego of the individual poet. An artist who has insight into supersensible realities may enter into a free and conscious relationship with the Muses, or at the other extreme, an artist may be possessed by beings that unite with the artist "below" the threshold of consciousness inhibiting freedom and forcing the artist into a struggle for autonomy. In the larger scheme of things, even these unfree relationships are helpful because what the conscientious artist is forced to enact and record becomes an archetypal blueprint for the rest of humanity: a homeopathic dose of a corrective element that furthers the evolution of the world.
Sylvia Plath's relationship with her muses fell in between these two extremes. Her sharp interior vision allowed her to remain conscious of the beings joined to her psyche; however, she could not fully unfold her will and retain complete objectivity with respect to these "others". In "Edge", she identifies with a dead Sophia who can no longer nourish her children-muses:
"The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over."
Like her classical marble-heavy father, Plath looks back to the point of time where the atavistic clairvoyance withdrew to allow room for the growth of rational materialism. This rationalism, now historically played out, becomes the corpse of Plath's Ahrimanic double or "Daddy Doppelganger". This petrified, lifeless body can no longer nourish the creativity within the poet. She reabsorbs her creations and gives birth to them in a higher, ideal realm. The death of the double coincides with a birth in the world of spirit.
In Maenad, Plath's life again recapitulates greater historical processes:
Maenad by Sylvia Plath
(From the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath.
HarperPerennial Edition. Page 133)
The mother of mouths didn't love me.
I must swallow it all.
Maenad,according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, means:
1 : a woman participant in orgiastic Dionysian rites : BACCHANTE
The ego is ordinary, undeveloped and undifferentiated despite the nurturing wisdom of Buddha under the Bodhis tree. Milk formation was an airy process. The formative forces seemed to proceed from the air and humans merged into the divine creativity. The two dimensional ego was not exposed to the pain of existence. But that source of nourishment could not last. The youthful muse could no longer drink the milk of Sophia:
To eventually achieve freedom, the ego loses the Sophia nurturing and the father God shrivels to a demonic shell. The ego cannot reenter the womb and our former sources of strength are dried up. "Birdmilk is feathers"--an example of Plath's brilliance. In esotericism, feathers refer to thoughts and ideas. Here the "milk" of wisdom becomes the "feathers" of rationalism. But we cannot continue to drink "milk". Milk implies dependence and an unfree condition.
It is the season of dying in human evolution. Only our own red-blood maintains the seed of the "word" or logos and preserves the creative seed for future evolution. Future milk or manna must come from the interior transformation of the red blood.
"I am becoming another" There's no going back. The black berries of all experience must be swallowed and metabolized -spiritualized transformations.(see the dark berries in Ariel)
In the Moon sphere Plath meets the unconscious dead who the living must redeem and reawaken. Compare to:
"Tell me my name"--like Fable and the Sphinx-the self is the ultimate mystery and the key to unlock all secrets.The self includes time and the macrocosm. The self is the mirror of the great macrocosm and all that we behold in that mirror must now be consumed and swallowed.
"Tell me my name."-The following except from my commentary on Emerson's "The Poet" delves into the mystery of names:
Rudolf Steiner, in his lecture on the Lord's Prayer, also sees nature as an emanation from unity and created from an act of will where each separate element contains the holographic image of the whole. Humans are essential to this process. We create the differentiation of the unity by the process of "naming":
("Hallowed be Thy Name")
"The kingdom, in turn, reproduces the being of the Divine in infinite variety. Observe it fully, at least to the extent to which it is our kingdom, our multiplicity, or universe. Observe its visible manifestations in minerals, plants, animals and human beings. The kingdom is manifested in each separate being of all these, a fact that even our language expresses in the terms mineral kingdom, vegetable kingdom, animal kingdom and all the great divisions of our universe. The kingdom is all these; each of these in turn, is a kingdom, and if we observe the mass of details involved, we find the nature of all to be divine. In all of them the divine being is reflected, just as the central being is reflected in a hollow globe. So an observer, looking at the world in the sense of spiritual research, sees God reflected in every human being as an expression and image of the Divine. In a graded series of beings, in infinite diversity, the Godhead appears in the kingdom, and the separate entities are distinguished from one another in the sense of spiritual science by their names. An observer at a stage of existence sufficiently lofty to look upon all these separate entities as emanations, or outpourings, of the Divine is able to give these entities their names, to give each manifestation of the Divine its name. Of all beings in the universe, only man thinks the name of each of the separate members of the great multiplicity of the kingdom, distinguishing each from all the others.
Plath reports the dawn of the modern epoch where humans must now name themselves. Like primordial Adam we must now name our own being which is the process of creating our future selves. The answer to the Sphinx's riddle is "human". Our sense perceptions and concepts are not simply tools that allow us to grope our way through some detached universe but are our ego's tools for the creation of our own selves. There is nothing that we know or see that isn't part of ourselves. Even other ego-centers or intelligent beings unite and are part of the archetypal potential human being. Paradoxically, the greater autonomy and freedom of the individual allows for a higher unity between all manner of intelligent beings where the power and experience developed by each becomes the common property of the perfected human entity. This new unity is the Greater Guardian of the Threshold--the vision that activates the will and causes the ego to continually strive and to manifest in the world.
Interestingly, the human participation in the process of cosmic differentiation has been traditionally called "manas" therefore the term maenad may rightly refer to those who pursue a high faculty of mind to understand and to reunify the thoughts of the world. This pursuit may once have been perceived as a release of insane, orgiastic forces as in the Bacchanal. Today we may recognize it as the "new wine" of the poets who comprise the vanguard of human development.
Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, used a fictional character in a novel to incarnate an archetypal thought form. His Mignon seems an embodiment of pure energy and force that is a catalyst to poetic creation. Goethe's ability to incarnate this force indicates his ability to remain fully conscious of the beings that crowded around him. Mignon anticipates the difficulties that future poets would have in adjusting to material existence--the merging of this force with human embodiment is never totally harmonized. Mignon always remains somewhat strange and maladjusted. She is shy and fearful. Even her physicality is never quite in balance. Despite being capable of the most difficult and unusual movements, she always seems feverish and capable of something like an epileptic seizure at any moment. Her primordial energy seems to overwhelm her circulatory system and her heart cannot bear the pressure.
This is a being that modern poets must encounter and nurture.
Mignon originates from the Italian classical world. She was a force of antiquity that Goethe felt compelled to integrate into the modern German psyche creating a quantum leap in human consciousness. If modern Western daylight consciousness could be fused with the creative life force of antiquity, then humans could retain freedom and individuality while regaining their clairvoyant vision into spiritual worlds.
Sylvia Plath involved herself in the development of these forces.
Meister is a book of initiation. Mignon is a being that must accompany the initiate. She is a constant impetus to development and extremely loyal and devoted -an emissary or emanation from Sophia. When she leaves the material world her power is enhanced exponentially and penetrates the entire cosmos.
As early as 1824 Thomas Carlyle recognized the power of this tragic character:
"But above all, let him turn to the history of Mignon. This mysterious child, at first neglected by the reader, gradually forced on his attention, at length overpowers him with an emotion more deep and thrilling than any poet since the days of Shakspeare has succeeded in producing. The daughter of enthusiasm, rapture, passion and despair, she is of the earth, but not earthly. When she glides before us through the light mazes of her fairy dance, or twangs her cithern to the notes of her homesick verses, or whirls her tambourine and hurries round us like an antique Mænad, we could almost fancy her a spirit; so pure is she, so full of fervour, so disengaged from the clay of this world. And when all the fearful particulars of her story are at length laid together, and we behold in connected order the image of her hapless existence, there is, in those dim recollections, those feelings so simple, so impassioned and unspeakable, consuming the closely-shrouded, woe-struck, yet ethereal spirit of the poor creature, something which searches into the inmost recesses of the soul. It is not tears which her fate calls forth; but a feeling far too deep for tears. The very fire of heaven seems miserably quenched among the obstructions of this earth. Her little heart, so noble and so helpless, perishes before the smallest of its many beauties is unfolded; and all its loves and thoughts and longings do but add another pang to death, and sink to silence utter and eternal. It is as if the gloomy porch of Dis, and his pale kingdoms, were realized and set before us, and we heard the ineffectual wail of infants reverberating from within their prison-walls forever.
Continuò auditæ voces, vagitus et ingens,
Infantumque animæ flentes in limine primo:
Quos dulcis vitæ exsortes, et ab ubere raptos,
Abstulit atra dies, et funere mersit acerbo.
(At once he heard voices, and a great wailing
and the souls of infants crying, right on the threshold
they had been denied sweet life; snatched from the breast
a black day took and plunged them in bitter death;
This history of Mignon runs like a thread of gold through the tissue of the narrative, connecting with the heart much that were else addressed only to the head: Philosophy and eloquence might have done the rest; but this is poetry in the highest meaning of the word. It must be fore the power of producing such creations and emotions, that Goethe is by many of his countrymen ranked at the side of Homer and Shakspeare, as one of the only three men of genius that have ever lived.
( Thomas Carlyle's
Translators Preface to THE FIRST EDITION OF Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship
J.W. von Goethe (17491832)).
Here is Wilhelm's astonishment when he first meets Mignon:(Chap4 bk2):
.......he was going up-stairs to his chamber, when a young creature sprang against him, and attracted his attention. A short silk waistcoat with slashed Spanish sleeves, tight trousers with puffs, looked very pretty on the child. Its long black hair was curled, and wound in locks and plaits about the head. He looked at the figure with astonishment, and could not determine whether to take it for a boy or a girl. However, he decided for the latter; and as the child ran by, he took her up in his arms, bade her good-day, and asked her to whom she belonged, though he easily perceived that she must be a member of the vaulting and dancing company lately arrived. She viewed him with a dark sharp side-look, as she pushed herself out of his arms, and ran into the kitchen without making any answer.
Later Wilhelm observed Mignon's "fantastic contortions":(Chap4 bk2):
.... and Wilhelm could not, without the deepest sympathy, see the child he had at the first glance felt an interest in, go through her fantastic positions with considerable difficulty.
Wilhelm and Philine question Mignon:
"Wilhelm noticed the wonderful child standing on the street near some other children at play; he showed her to Philina, who, in her lively way, immediately called and beckoned to the little one, and, this not succeeding, tripped singing down stairs, and led her up by the hand."Here is the enigma," said she, as she brought her to the door. The child stood upon the threshold, as if she meant again to run off; laid her right hand on her breast, the left on her brow, and bowed deeply. ".Fear nothing, my little dear". said Wilhelm, rising and going towards her. She viewed him with a doubting look, and came a few steps nearer. ".What is thy name?" he asked. "They call me Mignon". "How old art thou?" "No one has counted"".Who was thy father?" "The Great Devil is dead".. .
--"You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
Compare Mignon to the "ancient child" Fable in Novalis's Fairytale:
"What is it you seek?" said the Sphinx.
"My own inheritance," replied Fable.
"Where do you come from?"
"From ancient times."
"You are still a child."
"And shall stay a child forever."
"Who will stand by you?"
"I stand alone. Where are the Sisters?" asked Fable.
"Everywhere and nowhere," answered the Sphinx.
"Do you know me?"
"Where is Love?"
"In the imagination."
The Sphinx muttered inaudibly to herself and rustled her wings.
"Sophia and Love!" cried Fable triumphantly, and passed through the gate.
Wilhelm gazes further into the enigma:
"Well! this is singular enough". said Philina. They asked her a few more questions; she gave her answers in a kind of broken German, and with a strangely solemn manner, every time laying her hands on her breast and brow, and bowing deeply. 38 Wilhelm could not satisfy himself with looking at her. His eyes and his heart were irresistibly attracted by the mysterious condition of this being. He reckoned her about twelve or thirteen years of age; her body was well formed, only her limbs gave promise of a stronger growth, or else announced a stunted one. Her countenance was not regular, but striking; her brow full of mystery; her nose extremely beautiful; her mouth, although it seemed too closely shut for one of her age, and though she often threw it to a side, had yet an air of frankness, and was very lovely. Her brownish complexion could scarcely be discerned through the paint. This form stamped itself deeply in Wilhelm's soul, he kept looking at her earnestly, and forgot the present scene in the multitude of his reflections. Philina waked him from his half-dream, by holding out the remainder of her sweetmeats to the child, and giving her a sign to go away. She made her little bow as formerly, and darted like lightning through the door."
Wilhelm undergoes a transformation of consciousness as this "form" enters into his soul.
The Death of Mignon
Mignon is an atavistic force of creation and clairvoyance who guided poets of antiquity. Goethe sensed the presence of this being in the remnants of the Classical world and realized its subconscious effect in the mind of modern 19th century poets.
In Wilhelm Meister, Wilhelm finds the temple of initiation. As Wilhelm begins his inner work, his objectified Muse, Mignon, undergoes a transformation that allows her force to work into the future. Mignon's suffering will unite with the alienation of the future poets-priests. This Muse will help birth the process of ego autonomy as well as provide the raw pain-filled darkness that will be transformed into future light.
Here is Goethe's description of Mignon's exequies(funeral rites):
He raised the veil: the child was lying in her angels-dress, as if asleep, in the most soft and graceful posture. They approached, and admired this show of life. Wilhelm alone continued sitting in his place: he was not able to compose himself: what he felt, he durst not think; and every thought seemed ready to destroy his feeling.
For the sake of the Marchese, the speech had been pronounced in French. That nobleman came forward with the rest, and viewed the figure with attention. The Abbé thus proceeded: With a holy confidence, this kind heart, shut up to men, was continually turned to its God. Humility, nay an inclination to abase herself externally, seemed natural to her. She clave with zeal to the Catholic religion, in which she had been born and educated. Often she expressed a still wish to sleep on consecrated ground: and according to the usage of the church, we have therefore consecrated this marble coffin, and the little earth which is hidden in the cushion that supports her head. With what ardour did she in her last moments kiss the image of the Crucified, which stood beautifully figured on her tender arm, with many hundred points! So saying, he stripped up her right sleeve, and a crucifix, with marks and letters round it, showed itself in blue upon the white skin.
The Marchese looked at this with eagerness, stooping down to view it more intensely. O God! cried he, as he stood upright, and raised his hands to Heaven: Poor child! Unhappy niece! Do I meet thee here! What a painful joy to find thee, whom we had long lost hope of; to find this dear frame, which we had long believed the prey of fishes in the ocean, here preserved, though lifeless! I assist at thy funeral, splendid in its external circumstances, still more splendid from the noble persons who attend thee to thy place of rest. And to these, added he with a faltering voice, so soon as I can speak, I will express my thanks.
Tears hindered him from saying more. By the pressure of a spring, the Abbé sank the body into the cavity of the marble. Four Youths, dressed as the Boys had been, came out from behind the tapestry; and lifting the heavy, beautifully ornamented lid upon the coffin, thus began their song:
Well is the treasure now laid up; the fair image of the Past! Here sleeps it in the marble, undecaying; in your hearts too it lives, it works. Travel, travel, back into life! Take along with you this holy Earnestness;for Earnestness alone makes life eternity.
The invisible Chorus joined in with the last words: but no one heard the strengthening sentiment; all were too much busied with themselves, and the emotions which these wonderful disclosures had excited. The Abbé and Natalia conducted the Marchese out; Theresa and Lothario walked by Wilhelm. It was not till the music had altogether died away, that their sorrows, thoughts, meditations, curiosity again fell on them with all their force, and made them long to be transported back into that exalting scene.
The woman is perfected.
The perfect woman's Greek garb reminds the reader of the ruins of "The Colossus". The poet achieves mastery over the intellect and the elements of form, but this "accomplishment" is rigid and corpse like. It serves the Ahrimanic double--the "Daddy Doppelganger". This perfection requires union with the forces of Death. Here the Moon is a feminine death mask, the white bone of the skull (or "Golgotha"-the place of the skull).Plath perceives the Moon as carving out sounds from the blackness of death consciousness. Bone indicates the complete mineralization of the Life force.
The mechanization of the Ahrimanic double leads to Death and a cessation of
Will. The motionless feet indicate the loss of Will.
The garden imagery indicates that this hardening and Death is only a part of a larger cycle. Nature forces retract in order to prepare for something new. Plath's creative energies return into her being:
"She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower."
The "bleeding odors" are the physical traces of Sophia/Plath's soul and spirit moving into the ideal realm or the Spiritual-Archetypal world. What is left behind is the dead Double or Doppelganger like a discarded shell or cocoon. Just as the intellectual, scientific, materialistic world view is the discarded petrified remains of the Goddess Sophia. The true Sophia lives in the minds and hearts of those who unite with the world's creativity. In Goethe's words:
"Well is the treasure now laid up; the fair image of the Past! Here sleeps it in the marble, undecaying; in your hearts too it lives, it works. Travel, travel, back into life! Take along with you this holy Earnestness;for Earnestness alone makes life eternity. "
Poussin "The Assumption"
Table of Contents / Daddy / Cut / The Thin People / I Am Vertical / Bee Poems / November Graveyard / Mirror / Apprehensions / Eyemote / Guestbook / Lady Lazarus / Links/ In Plaster / Mirror / Black Rook in Rainy Weather / Mary's Song / Getting There / Ariel / Fever 103 / Elm / The Moon and the Yew Tree / The Bee Keeper's Daughter / Firesong / Lorelei / Stings / The Bee Meeting / Burning the Letters / Words
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