The Influence of Hinduism in William Butler Yeats's "Meru"

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William Butler Yeats considered himself to be "very religious," (1) and in his search for Truth one direction he turned was to the East, to an old, established religion: Hinduism. His first encounter with the philosophy was in 1885 or 1886, when he heard Bengali Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee speak. "It was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless" (Autobiographies 113). (2) When he met Shri Purohit Swami in 1931, his interest in the philosophy intensified and lasted to the end of his life. (3) Two years before his death Yeats said he had "fed on the Upanishads" all his life (Hone 459). The Upanishads, part of Hindu sacred scripture, explain how the individual self (Atman) finds the ultimate reality (Brahman) by an inner spiritual journey. Yeats's interest in the Upanishads is reflected in "Meru" (1934). Thematically, "Meru" is distinctly Hindu, and its formal structure parallels the process of man's ascent to Truth according to the teachings of the Upanishads, a structure which augments the meaning of the poem.

Yeats wrote "Meru" after reading Shri Purohit Swami's The Holy Mountain, a work to which he also wrote an Introduction. (4) In that introduction Yeats tells about the spiritual journey of Shri Purohit Swami and Bhagw~n Shri Hamsa, the Swami's master. Both left the comforts of the material world, climbing icy, snowy mountains to meditate in an attempt to prove the existence of and identify with the Absolute. Bhagw~n Shri Hamsa attained this insight on Mount Meru, commenting: "What a great bliss it was! I cannot describe that joy, as it is beyond any description through words ...--all merged into the Absolute Brahma! I found myself reflected everywhere in the whole Universe!" (Yeats, "Mandukya Upanishad" 479-481). Yeats's "Meru" likewise takes us on a spiritual journey to reality, a journey which fails to culminate in the joy experienced by Hamsa.

An English sonnet, "Meru" has a Shakespearean rhyme scheme. Its logical structure parallels the steps to the Absolute taught by the Upanishads. In the first quatrain the problem of maya is presented, which leads to the Path of Desire in the second quatrain. The tension of the first and second quatrains is balanced by the calm of the third quatrain and the final couplet; the Path of Renunciation leads to the ultimate goal of Hinduism: an encounter with reality and the total destruction of maya. The tone of the poem is impersonal like Brahman, the "all-pervading transcendental Reality of the Vedanta philosophy" (Usha 21-22).

According to "Meru," because "manifold illusion"--maya--veils man's vision of undifferentiated reality, civilization is perceived to be "hooped together, brought / Under a rule, under the semblance of peace" (Collected Poems 289). Man's thought creates the illusion of multiplicity, and control of thought is necessary in order to see that the material world is a mental construct and that the only thing that is real is beyond material existence. (5) Although man is terrified of obliteration, he simply "cannot cease / Ravening through century after century, / Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come / Into the desolation of reality:" Man is powerless to stop the process. This process, which teaches man to control his thought, is a long one, and Yeats's repetition of the words "ravening" and "century," his repetition of the "r" and the "-ing," drag the lines out to emphasize the lengthy process of purification, which includes a series of reincarnations in order to work out one's karma, a process which is necessary in order to exhaust the Path of Desire. (6) Indeed, "Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come" is the longest line in the poem, with thirteen syllables.

The tone changes when the speaker says goodbye to Western civilization and thought: "Egypt and Greece good-bye, and good-bye Rome!" The only clue that this farewell is supposed to be one of joy is the exclamation point at the end of the line, and it is not convincing. …