Yeats & Symbolism: A Code for the Universe

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Symbolism as a Code for the Universe:

According to Yeats, art gains its power through the use of symbols.   Symbols are more than just images or characters that stand for an abstract idea or principle.  Instead, they are an emotional and "spiritual" language the poet uses to communicate truths that cannot be stated in a propositional form.  Yeats was concerned with making a myth to live by.  Here are some of Yeats' main ideas:

1) Symbols have energy due to "preordained or long associations"  (e.g., the cross, the dove, the hawk, blood).  In other words, people tend to associate certain meaning and emotions with objects that have been meaningful to people over long periods of time.  In particular, Yeats is borrowing from the C. G. Jung's notion of a collective unconscious, which Yeats in "The Second Coming" refers to as the Spiritus Mundi, the "World Soul," a kind of collective, psychic vat of humanity's memory out of which symbols rise and return.

2) The emotions of a text exist only in formal expression.   Individual emotions are too fleeting to be clearly expressed in a text. They are, instead, experienced by being associated with certain symbols.  In other words, the emotions we experience when we read a literary work are the result of associations..

3) Symbols, therefore, are both intellectual and emotional.

4) Such symbols exceed our attempts at ethics or science.  They cannot be reduced to certain propositional statements.  Symbols contain a deeper, intuited meaning

Thought Experiment

Take one of the three poems we have read by Yeats and list all the symbols in the poem.  Next, ask yourself what emotions you tend to associate with these.  Lastly, ask yourself what Yeats is implying by the use of these symbols.   Do you experience the same ideas and emotions when you put the symbols into your own words?  Why or why not?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding