Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499
The most striking comment on Christian themes in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is the attitude toward the human body and experience, which reverses the traditional Christian stance. For instance, the English poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), in his “A Dialogue, Between the Resolved Soul, and Created Pleasure” (1681), has his Created Pleasure present the things of this earth as beautiful, pleasurable, and tempting. Human knowledge is powerful, although by implication much less so than heaven; so too the pleasures of heaven are far beyond our human existence.
Yeats’s Self, by contrast, promises nothing of this, saying rather that the experiences of this world are ignorance, pain, difficulty, and humiliation but nevertheless asserting that “I” would suffer it all again. Here the poem is filled with painful memories and images from Yeats’s life, including a reference to his long and unrequited love for Irish actress Maud Gonne (“A proud woman not kindred of his soul”). Too, the image of the Japanese sword and the old and ragged but still beautiful embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped emphasizes both the violence (which can also be seen as courage) and the power of sex in human life, reversing two aspects of a once widely held ideal of the Christian life, peace and asceticism.
Yeats is arguing that life itself is—paradoxically, because of its difficulty—our reason for existence. The Self’s arguments can be read as laying out the Eastern religious belief that the soul is born again and again, on the slow path to escaping the individual existence. However, Yeats, even in using these images, is still arguing against treating the body as something that leads only to sin. Yeats’s poem also differs from the usual débat in that the débat normally begins at the end of life, when hell threatens and has, usually, won the struggle through the sins of the body. Although the Self in Yeats’s poem is obviously no longer young, the poem still celebrates physical life, life as individual existence, and furthermore asserts it to be “blest.”
Neither hell nor punishment enters into Yeats’s poem. Nor, for that matter, does any vision of heaven: There is no promise of eternity in the presence of God, as in the standard Christian teaching. Indeed, Yeats’s Soul offers a mystery, almost more threatening than comforting. The Soul urges the Self to climb the staircase of the tower on Yeats’s Irish property, mounting toward death but not to see a landscape that somehow speaks of a Dantean heaven—rather to see only the darkness, the mystery, of the night. What that night may mean cannot be discerned. Indeed, the Soul’s last speech closes with “Only the dead can be forgiven;/ But when I think of that [what follows life] my tongue’s a stone.” Heaven, in brief, hardly seems a reward. The Soul itself in not speaking, or being unable to speak, cannot therefore prove that it is right.
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