Saturday, September 16, 2006

Yeats and the Hymn of the Pearl

The above translation is from F. Crawford Burkitt, Early Eastern Christianity. St Margaret’s Lectures 1904, on the Syriac-Speaking Church (London: John Murray, 1904), 218-223, but I need to check whether this was reproducing an existing translation, or if the translation is actually Burkitt's. These blog entries on The Hymn of the Pearl are a way for me to record some of my Internet research on the Hymn of the Pearl for further reference, and so are very notelike.
Yeats referred to the Hymn of the Pearl in his elaborate prose work A Vision. I'm a great fan of Yeats, but A Vision always struck me as inauthentic.
" "The Celestial Body is the Divine Cloak lent to all, it falls away at the consummation and Christ is revealed" ’, which Yeats links to Bardesan’s ‘Hymn of the Soul’. The context in the Automatic Script clarifies the point slightly, contrasting ‘the spirit body [which is] the immortal body’ with ‘the celestial body [which] is the cloak of Christ’, so that the Spirit may be seen as the Christ-principle in humanity, ‘the symbolism & not the historical christ’ (YVP 1 326). The falling away of the Celestial Body is the revelation of ‘the true ego’ which has been ‘throughout incarnation subsidiary to CB’ and ‘cannot act alone’. Though it may not illuminate the state particularly for the reader, it resonated strongly with Yeats because it echoed a dream of 1898, in which he heard ‘a ceremonial measured voice, which did not seem to be mine, speaking through my lips. ‘We make an image of him who sleeps’, it said, ‘and it is not he who sleeps, and we call it Emmanuel’’ (Au 379; AV B 233n). Thinking about the experience years later, he ‘took down from the shelf, not knowing what [he] did, Burkitt’s Early Eastern Christianity, and opened it at random’ at Bardesan’s ‘Hymn of the Soul’ from the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas (Au379). The strangeness of the dream and the coincidences evidently impressed him deeply, in a similar way to those surrounding his vision of the Archer in 1896, and the details of the hymn are helpful. The hymn is an allegorical representation of life from a Gnostic point of view, with the soul’s incarnation represented as an exile in Egypt. A child, born in a palace, is given a robe of precious metals and gems by his parents (Yeats’s Solar Principles? or Celestial Body?), but this ‘Glorious Robe’ is taken from him, as is his scarlet tunic (even the Lunar Principles are latent?), when he is sent out on a mission to Egypt to recover a pearl from the toils of a serpent. He is, however, promised that he will regain his robes and will inherit the kingdom along with his brother (the Christ) on his return. He puts on the clothes of the land (the Faculties), and forgets his mission until he is reminded by a letter sent from his father, so that he rescues the pearl and sets out towards his homeland. On his journey home he is met by messengers, who restore his bright garment to him, it is ‘myself that I saw before me as in a mirror’, and the robe speaks, saying that the man is ‘the Champion, he for whom I was reared by the Father’. He then puts on the robe and returns to his Father. In Yeats’s brief retelling, the garment seems to appear in while he is still in Egypt, but this does not greatly change the meaning; less clear, however, is the dual process of divesting and restoration of the robe which is the nub of Yeats’s reference. The general movement of the after-life has been the weaning of the Spirit from the Passionate Body to the Celestial, and its integration with the latter. The putting on of the original vestment is the restoration of the Spirit to itself, since the robe is a transfigured mirror image of its own form, unlike the Passionate Body. The Script’s image of the Divine Cloak falling away portrays this consummation as the apotheosis of Spirit into the Christ-principle, in which it stands forth in itself from the Celestial Body’s spiritual necessity. The Spirit is the true ego or identity, and the falling away of the garment may reveal the essential ‘pilgrim soul’, and Yeats entertains the idea that the Celestial Body is not the ultimate goal, and ‘that we do not in reality seek these [ideal] forms [of the Celestial Body], that while separate from us they are illusionary, but that we do seek Spirit as complete self-realisation’, so that Spirit is the Principle of the future rather than Celestial Body (AV B 191). The extreme allusiveness of the reference in A Vision tends to confuse rather than explain through the symbolism."


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