Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Winter Solstice

To Winter (by William Blake)

`O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs,
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.'
He hears me not, but o'er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain'd, sheathèd
In ribbèd steel; I dare not lift mine eyes,
For he hath rear'd his sceptre o'er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
He takes his seat upon the cliffs,--the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch, that deal'st
With storms!--till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driv'n yelling to his caves beneath mount Hecla.

Yes, I realize this is more than a week late. What can I say? It was a busy “holiday season”
This poem of Blake’s differs immediately from “To Autumn” in that there are no enjambments between stanzas. Each of the four stanzas exists as its own unit, cut off and isolated from the others by full stops. This is what we would naturally expect in a poem about winter, the season attributed to the north and to earth – which, in its lowest aspect signifies, among other things, the creation of distinct entities by the mind’s separation of the flux of existence (cf. the Thelemic concept of the Khabs and the Khu and how, according to Thelemic metaphysics, the Khu creates this separation, enabling experience but also creating the tendency of the mind to misperceive reality, including the True Will, thus necessitating the practice of Thelema).
Yet each stanza contains at least one enjambment, many of them quite deep: the form of the poem suggests that beneath that separation into distinct entities, there is an underlying unity, a degree of interdependency.

One has to be careful with ideas like these. They too easily descend into vague, unhelpful platitudes like. “We’re, like, really all ‘one,’ man.” As Erwin Hessle reminds us, “unity” is just as much an illusion as “separateness”: the insight of mystical experience is not that one has discovered the “truth,” but rather that one has discovered a different perspective, one that can be very useful indeed. [It should also go without saying – though it sadly does not, usually – that “interdependence” carries with it no moral implications. We might say that predators and prey in nature are “interdependent” upon one another, but that doesn’t preclude them from acting in accord with their natures and producing conflict]
As I argued in my essays on the LBRP and the Star Ruby, the element of earth, though represented in the Old Aeon as the element of darkness – and death, and the winter, and the material world conceived of as “evil” – is actually an element of light and joy in the New Aeon. In the New Aeon, we understand that “darkness” is an illusion created by the rotation of the earth, that the sun continues to shine on the other side of the world (and within ourselves, metaphorically, as our True Will), that the material world is not cut off from the spirit but that it is the spirit in a very real way. Thelema does not posit a spirituality cut off from materiality, any more than it posits a materiality cut off from spirituality. Thus the events of one’s life, one’s path through the physical, material world, is created by the True Will, is a bright path illuminated by light (though it can be perceived as cut-off from the world – lonely, and dark – when the fog of the mind grows thick).

Students are advised to study the Ace of Disks in the tarot, and Crowley’s commentary thereupon (particularly regarding the identity of Sol and Terra).

With these ideas in mind, we are in a better position to understand Blake’s “To Winter” from a Thelemic perspective, and its formal combination of separate stanzas containing deep enjambments. The very form of the poem performs the way that Winter (the earth, the physical world, the regular events of one’s life, the north) can appear barren, in which entities are disconnected, but in fact contains within it – for those who know how to look – the interconnection represented by the joy of Sun.
The first line of the poem is a syntactically-complete sentence, a command to Winter, but it ends in a colon, a mark of punctuation that throws forward the emphasis. That colon both arrests the motion of the stanza and propels it, in exactly the way that the element of earth can both signify the solidification of the individual into a “separate” ego at odds with the world and can also act – when seen rightly – as a gateway to an understanding of the physical world as a paradise in which the boundaries between self and other are understood as arbitrary distinctions drawn by the mind/Khu.

Unlike “To Autumn,” which consisted of the anticipation of Autumn, the performance of his song, and his departure, “To Winter” features a stanza of commands to the season – set off by quotation marks – followed by the speaker lamenting (as if in an aside) that Winter cannot hear him. The speaker perceives no meaningful connection here. He describes Winter in its most monstrous aspects and anticipates the season’s eventual overthrow and his retreat below “Mount Hecla,” an Icelandic volcano mentioned in Thompson’s famous poem The Seasons, which Blake clearly has in mind in these mini season poems.
In other words, the speaker exists in a state of isolation, cut off from the rewarding experience of the sun, perceiving Winter as nothing more than a monster (and the description of Winter echoes what will later become in Blake’s corpus “Urizen,” the tyrannical god modeled on Jehovah, the rational faculty when it has usurped control of the human).

Like the speaker of many of the Songs of Experience, the speaker of “To Winter” cannot see past his limited perspective, but the form in which the poem is written enables us to discern that the situation is more complicated than the speaker can realize. We do not have to wait until the overthrow of Winter but can exult and enjoy the materiality of this – and all seasons – with which our bodies and minds are inexorably bound.
As Winter comes upon us, let us reflect that the days are starting to grow longer, that the sun never really goes anywhere, that there is a constant, neverending source of light, love, liberty, and light that is always available to those capable of shifting the focus of the mind.

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