Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Delphic Oracle on Plotinus

To Yeats as a poet and magician, Plotinus is sometimes viewed less as the great exponent of Platonic philosophy than as the figure described by his disciple Porphyry in his biography: the man who saw his own Daimon and who was praised by the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. 
Fyodor Bronnikov, Pythagoreans Celebrating Sunrise (1869)

Porphyry recounts how, when consulted by a follower about the fate of Plotinus's soul, the oracle spoke of how, after being buffeted by the waves of life and passion, his soul had arrived at last in Elysium:

Apollo was consulted by Amelius, who desired to learn where Plotinus' soul had gone. And Apollo, who uttered of Socrates that great praise, 'Of all men, Socrates the wisest'--you shall hear what a full and lofty oracle Apollo rendered upon Plotinus.

I raise an undying song, to the memory of a gentle friend, a hymn of praise woven to the honey-sweet tones of my lyre under the touch of the golden plectrum.
    The Muses, too, I call to lift the voice with me in strains of many-toned exultation, in passion ranging over all the modes of song:
    even as of old they raised the famous chant to the glory of Aeacides in the immortal ardours of the Homeric line.

    Come, then, Sacred Chorus, let us intone with one great sound the utmost of all song, I Phoebus, Bathychaites, singing in the midst.

Celestial! Man at first but now nearing the diviner ranks! the bonds of human necessity are loosed for you and, strong of heart, you beat your eager way from out the roaring tumult of the fleshly life to the shores of that wave-washed coast free from the thronging of the guilty, thence to take the grateful path of the sinless soul:
    where glows the splendour of God, where Right is throned in the stainless place, far from the wrong that mocks at law.

    Oft-times as you strove to rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life, above the sickening whirl, toiling in the mid-most of the rushing flood and the unimaginable turmoil, oft-times, from the Ever-Blessed, there was shown to you the Term still close at hand:
    Oft-times, when your mind thrust out awry and was like to be rapt down unsanctioned paths, the Immortals themselves prevented, guiding you on the straightgoing way to the celestial spheres, pouring down before you a dense shaft of light that your eyes might see from amid the mournful gloom.
    Sleep never closed those eyes: high above the heavy murk of the mist you held them; tossed in the welter, you still had vision; still you saw sights many and fair not granted to all that labour in wisdom's quest.
    But now that you have cast the screen aside, quitted the tomb that held your lofty soul, you enter at once the heavenly consort:
    where fragrant breezes play, where all is unison and winning tenderness and guileless joy, and the place is lavish of the nectar-streams the unfailing Gods bestow, with the blandishments of the Loves, and delicious airs, and tranquil sky:

    where Minos and Rhadamanthus dwell, great brethren of the golden race of mighty Zeus; where dwell the just Aeacus, and Plato, consecrated power, and stately Pythagoras and all else that form the Choir of Immortal Love, that share their parentage with the most blessed spirits, there where the heart is ever lifted in joyous festival.
    O Blessed One, you have fought your many fights; now, crowned with unfading life, your days are with the Ever-Holy.
Rejoicing Muses, let us stay our song and the subtle windings of our dance; thus much I could but tell, to my golden lyre, of Plotinus, the hallowed soul.

Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging: thus the oracle presents him, and so in fact we found him. Sleeplessly alert—Apollo tells—pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being, he laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life: and this is why to Plotinus—God-like and lifting himself often, by the ways of meditation and by the methods Plato teaches in the Banquet, to the first and all-transcendent God—that God appeared, the God who has neither shape nor form but sits enthroned above the Intellectual-Principle and all the Intellectual-Sphere.
Plotinus: The Ethical Treatises,
being the Treatises of the First Ennead with Porphyry's life of Plotinus...
translated by Stephen MacKenna

(London: Warner/Medici Society, 1917), 22–24.

Yeats radically condensed and versified this in "The Delphic Oracle upon Plotinus", the last poem in the series entitled "Words for Music Perhaps".

Behold that great Plotinus swim
Buffeted by such seas;

Bland Rhadamanthus beckons him,
But the Golden Race looks dim,
Salt blood blocks his eyes.

Scattered on the level grass
Or winding through the grove
Plato there and Minos pass,
There stately Pythagoras
And all the choir of Love.
(VP 530, CW1 269–70)

The drafts are in the "White Vellum Notebook" (catalogued as MBY 545 when it was in Michael Butler Yeats's collection and now in private hands), and the selection of details was almost unchanged from the first draft to the final version (see David R. Clark, "Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems": Manuscript Materials [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999], 558–563). The wording also found its final form relatively quickly, indeed phrases such as "stately Pythagoras" were already given by MacKenna's translation.
Fair draft of "The Delphic Oracle upon Plotinus", White Vellum Notebook, 141.
     Yeats removes almost all the metaphysical and spiritual elements of the oracle to focus on the physical and the mythic Isles of the Blessed. The brothers Rhadamanthus and Minos, two of the mythical judges of Hades, are foremost.* Plato and Pythagoras appear as figures of history and legend, rather than philosophers. The "blessed spirits" are not to "be sought within the the self that is common to all" (AVB 22; CW14 17) in mystical contemplation, but are presented as "the choir of Love", an evocation of harmony.
    The viewpoint shifts from an external view of Plotinus struggling through the seas to Elysium—"Behold"—to the swimmer's own eyes, which discern only a blurred image of the "golden race of mighty Zeus" through the water and the blood. The second stanza involves a slightly different set of shifts, presenting figures both stationary and moving, scattered and winding, with the verb "pass" which again implies a viewpoint. The scene is almost suspended in time, so that it is worth noting the timeless present tense of "pass" in comparison with the same verb in the final line of of "Sailing to Byzantium", where the golden bird may sing: "Of what is past, or passing, or to come" (VP 408, CW1 194).      
      Elements of the sea-passage and of "blood-drenched life" are also important in "Byzantium" and in Yeats's revisiting of this theme in "News for the Delphic Oracle", but that will be matter for another post.

Jean Delville, The School of Plato (1898)
*The adjective "Bland" is a little strange—presumably it indicates that Rhadamanthus is not in his role as a stern judge, as Porphyry comments that the brothers are seen not as holding Plotinus "to judgement but as welcoming him to their consort to which are bidden spirits pleasing to the Gods". Rhadamanthus is generally described as "just", but it is possible that Yeats knew the Homeric epithet of "blond Rhadamanthus" ('xanthos Rhadamanthus', Odyssey 4:564) and that MacKenna's phrase "blandishments of the Loves" made this association in Yeats's mind.

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