Archive for November 27th, 2016


Yesterday I republished a post from the early days of this blog which states that I could not remember the details of the car break down dream. All these years later, as this post from February indicates, I found my original notes on the dream. It seems only fair to put the two posts together in this way. 

I was breviting through a drawer in my desk the other day, looking for an old diary to check something out, when I glimpsed at the bottom of a pile of notebooks a clump of papers with these words scribbled on the front: Dancing Flames Dream 21/04/80. I was amazed. I had no recollection of writing it. I never remembered seeing it before even though I go into this drawer quite often.

Yet it was something so important.

Why though?

Well, not least because I have always remembered the core of the dream and its main implications. These concerned how my life was getting out of balance at the time with too much emphasis on left-brain grunt work and too little on the arts, and poetry in particular. I’ve been frustrated in the past because I couldn’t recall the full details of the dream and the work I did on it. I just knew that the dream had told me that I needed to make space for poetry in my life or else.

I even blogged about it in 2009.

I explained there that I had been coming to the end of my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill.’ I then had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t recall all the details when I wrote the post, but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I described how I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. It seemed like a routine breakdown. When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Above the engine there was golden funnel. I didn’t recognize what it was at first— then I saw it was a golden horn. I mean the instrument, by the way, not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car above the engine?

William Butler YeatsHorn of Plenty

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a political fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here, which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding, which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life.

The dream might also have implied that I was driving myself too hard.


Detail from the mosaic floor of a Byzantine church. For source of image see link.

Dancing Flames 

Why it was so good to find these lost notes was for the more exact insights they gave into the meaning of poetry for me. They also added one crucial detail to the content of the dream that enriched my understanding further. The engine was underneath the horn. When I removed the horn I could see the engine was burning.

This had given me another key association, as my rediscovered notes explored.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

(W. B. Yeats Sailing to Byzantium – 4th stanza)

Some Valuable Insights

I don’t plan to be so boring as to regurgitate the whole undigested 13 pages of scribble about the dream, as much of it is of purely autobiographical interest. However, there are interesting flashes of insight into what I understood about poetry at the time which seem to be still relevant to my recent exploration of the nature and purpose of the poem towards the end of the Shelley sequence.

I’ll blend these insights into an expression of my current understanding.

At the start of my reflections in 1980, after spotting the Byzantium association and triggered by the connection with a car, I played with the idea of poetry as one of the possible ‘vehicles’ through which to use the fuel of my spirit for some useful purpose. Psychology alone had begun to feel inadequate for this purpose.

I speculated whether a failure to channel the passions life creates in us into some viable form risks sparking off a fire of the spirit in an explosive way. I admitted, though, that the flames in the car ‘looked beautiful dancing as they did.’

The flames came to seem like the burning of the petrol of the spirit, which is only dangerous if improperly channelled. I saw that human relationships were important to me, as they are to almost everyone, but I also saw that they are not the appropriate channel for all the ‘fury and the mire of human veins.’

I tested out the metaphor further a few lines later. The spirit (petrol in terms of the dream) fuels (gives life to) my body (the engine of the dream). When I channel the flames of life appropriately there is no danger. However, if we, as I clearly felt I had, allow the patterns of our work and our relationships to become inauthentic[1] and detached from our life force, we have bartered the ‘Horn of Plenty’ and

. . . every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellow full of angry wind.

(Yeats in A Prayer for my Daughter – stanza 8).

I shifted the focus then to art in general stating that art is an external representation of an inner state which is sufficiently expressive to communicate to other human beings an intimation of someone’s else’s experience of the world. If art, at this interface between mind and life, is successful, it distils the essential truth of the artist’s particular experiences and enables it to be transmitted to other minds. I didn’t close in, as I would now, on the possibility that art not only conveys the artist’s experience but also lifts the understanding of both poet and reader to a higher level.

I mentioned in my Shelley sequence that poetry was my substitute for religion. I have now found the evidence for this. In 1980, I wrote:

Poetry is my transcendent value or position. It gives me a perspective from which I can view the ‘complexities’ of my ‘mire and blood’ with less distress.

I went on then to explain to myself that poetry is an endorsement of my humanity. Pain, violence and lies have been inescapable aspects of human experience from the very beginning, and when seen through poetry, which offers a point of view that accepts all experience as rich in meaning, they become less agonising. Poetry and art, I tried to persuade myself, offer the possibility of incorporating the unacceptable into a pattern of grace. It welcomes raw experience of any kind as a means of achieving a more comprehensive understanding and expression of life, a greater degree of humanity.

I don’t think I placed enough emphasis on the need for achieving the best possible balance in the poem, painting or piece of music, between dark and light, though I did develop the idea to some extent. I wrote that poetry is courage, the courage to face horrors and accept them into a pattern which acknowledges pity, terror, violence, hope, joy, love and creativity. Poetry does not run away from pain, nor does it court it masochistically. Poetry faces what is there and, like all art, puts it into some kind of perspective.

Art/poetry is hope. There is no need to try and run away from hurt if hurt is there to be felt. Beauty is in the whole of life and poetry reminds you of harmony and rest even in the midst of pain and torment. Poetry reminds you of the best even in the midst of the worst. It can accept and express despair, but the very act of writing a poem somehow transcends or counteracts it. The act of writing (or committed reading) implies the hope of resolution and of the existence of other values, of understanding, of reaching out and touching, if not another mind, and at least an unperturbed and accepting part of yourself. Poetry endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.

Art which coarsens sensibility and sets people against another, or makes them more indifferent to their fellow human beings, is counter-productive. Art which draws attention to what humanity has in common, which draws us closer to each other, which is committed to life and love rather than death and hate, is the only art with any kind of value. True art loves life and abhors death and destruction. True art derives its power and meaning from the creative impulses of humanity and is a constant reminder of them.

Attempts to prostitute art for life-hating purposes and petty propaganda are abhorrent violations of art’s true purpose and nature, and should be withstood intransigently at all times. Art is humane, life enhancing, or else it is not art.

On the whole, I was glad to find these notes again and felt some of the insights were worth sharing here. I hope I was not mistaken in that and carried too much away by my own rhetoric!


[1] I was already intrigued by existential philosophy at this stage, though I was to dig much deeper in that field nearly two years later. It’s perhaps also worth saying that I was intellectually still a convinced atheist at this point, which makes the language I was choosing to use in my consideration of the poetic perhaps an indication that my heart and my head were not quite in alignment.

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