Literary Criticism/ in practice for a test

St Kevin and the Black Bird / by Seamus Heaney (1996)

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

_

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

_

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

_

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

_

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

_

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

_

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

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Literary Criticism

The following is offered as a draft criticism for the above poem/ as my classmates and I prepare for our upcoming U Oxford/ Creative Writing exam / comments gratefully appreciated:

Heaney’s St Kevin and the Blackbird begins with a saint kneeling – arms outstretched in his narrow cell.   One of his upturned palms is out the window.  This invites blackbird to lay in it and settle down to nest.  St Kevin feels the warm eggs and small breast of the bird and finds himself linked with the network of eternal life.  He is moved to pity because now he must remain in this position until the blackbird’s young have grown up and flown away.  This leads to an intense self-scrutiny where he questions whether he’s even imagined being himself at all.  He examines each part of his aching body and then slowly slips out of himself into the solitude of prayer.

This poem is about the tension of man as a part of the material world (nature) and his more divine self that is shared only with God.  It elaborates on the pain of incarnation and the man’s innate yearning to be at one with the divine.  In the end, it may even suggest a religious or mystical experience through which one senses one has connected with God.

The use of free verse contributes to the overall sense of the search for order and place.    That each stanza consists of three lines reinforces the notion that such order is to be found in the Trinity – traditionally the three faces of the divine.  The use of the specific name of St Kevin (as opposed to an anonymous seeker) gives an overall sense of reassurance.  We know whom we’re dealing so in the end everything will turn out fine.  The first line in the first stanza (where Kevin and the blackbird are introduced) is end-stopped.  This shapes the initial feeling that nature (of which man is a part) is all that there is.  However the next two lines– are run-on-lines giving the impression of expansion beyond that which man incarnate is able to physically touch.  The cell is ‘narrow’ (the word cell is repeated to emphasize the sense that incarnation is a prison) yet St Kevin does his best to escape.  Because he’s kneeling, we know he means to accomplish this through supplication.  Thus man’s horizons broaden when he appeals to that within him, which is divine.

One thing leads to another as the run-on-line into the 2nd stanza suggests.  St Kevin has only partially managed to set himself free.  Only one ‘turned-up’ palm is ‘out the window’.  The words ‘stiff’ and ‘crossbeam’ reinforce the feeling of man’s frustration to be in his body – separate from God.  However when the blackbird (birds are symbolic of messengers from heaven) ‘lands’ on his palm there’s some suggestion that through nature man can find his desired communion with God.    The messenger from heaven (the blackbird) finding himself comfortable in the ‘’palm’ of a man (usually we find man in the hands of God rather than the other way around), ‘lays’ and ‘settles’ to ‘nest’.  This is the beginning of something that will grow with time.  The end-stopped line at the end of this stanza also suggests that St Kevin’s yearning has found temporary rest.  All is in order when man and the heavens are at one.

The next stanza stirs things up again with the use of run-on-lines.  There’s an uncomfortable contrast struck between the feeling of ‘warm eggs’ and ‘claws’.   Now Kevin (a regular person like you and me no longer referred to as St) is ‘linked’ with the ‘network’ of ‘eternal life’.  This suggests that by his experience he’s fallen in status.  While the experience feels ‘warm’, it’s also unpleasant.  In a run-on-line into the next stanza we find indeed the experience in uncomfortable enough to have moved him to ‘pity’.  This a strange word to choose.   The cause of the ‘pity’ is that now Kevin must ‘hold his hand’ ‘like a branch’ until the baby birds have grown and flown away.  I would have thought Kevin would feel ‘anger’ instead of ‘pity’.   That he doesn’t suggests he’s already overcome some of the emotions of man and transformed them into something more (Christian-based) divine.  A end-stopped line finishing the stanza give a sense of finality.  At this point we get a sense that everything is so static that something must give soon.

After the break, come the questions. The tone has clearly changed.   A transition of some kind is in process.  Like Kevin, we struggle to make sense of where we are and where we’re headed next.   There’s very little punctuation from now through the end of the poem except for the question marks.   This adds to the feeling of searching and being lost.  Despite the lack of end-stopped lines, the sense and grammatical structure of the lines don’t really run over.   It’s abrupt.  Not continuous.  So how and where will we find our place?  Perhaps we won’t.  Perhaps everything is shutting down?  Kevin ‘imagines’ ‘being’ Kevin.  He ‘forgets’.  His fingers are ‘sleeping’.  He feels his body (his ‘hurting forearms’) yet he has thoughts of stillness (even perhaps death) – ‘shut-eyed’, ‘blank’ and ‘underearth’.

Equally however he could be moving into a trance that is often the precursor to a mystical or religious experience.   This is suggested by the words ‘distance in his head’ which could point to an out-of-body experience.   He is definitely ‘praying’ while at the same time slipping away – his body ‘entirely making the prayer (as opposed to his mind).   Also there ‘forgotten’ is repeated 3 times – suggesting that he is deep in meditation (or the religious or mystical experience) and thus has stepped away from ‘self’.  The sense of slipping away is further reinforced by ‘love’s deep river’, which is winding further and further away.  The poem concludes with Kevin having completed the journey he commenced at the beginning.   At least in one sense, he’s no longer man incarnate and separate from God.

In many ways this is a soothing poem.  Although the use of free verse and many run-on-lines suggest displacement and ‘agony’, the use of the 3-line stanza structure reassures us that order is in the end, preserved.  Thus the poem itself creates a safe space for Kevin to let go of ‘self’ and join with God.   This is skilfully accomplished through using of a heavenly messenger (a bird) coming down to Kevin while at the same time Kevin moves up to God.  The circuit is complete.

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The Dangers of Magical Practice – Ego Gratification vs. the Divine

As transiting Neptune slides into Pisces, many will become more interested in the occult.   If you decide to dabble in anything more strenuous than practical household magic, it’s worth keeping in mind one point that just might save your life.

In his excellent book, The Philosophy of Magic, Arthur Versluis reminds us that in both Eastern and Western traditions, Magic has always been worked for the grace of God – not for ego-gratification.

Sadly these days, however, the situation is quite the reverse.

“As a result, one can see today a situation arising which involves the greatest possible danger to those who misguidedly become involved with ‘pseudo-traditional mysticism’ or ‘neoshamanism’, not recognizing that these are, for reasons we will discuss later, but ‘inverted’ images of the traditional, be it Buddhism, Islamic or Christian, and can well lead to the psyche becoming irremediably lost in the labyrinthine confusion of the ‘second world’.”

At the foundation of Western magic, lays a Platonic universe consisting of three inter-connected spheres.  According to the Corpus Hermeticum, after being created in the image of the highest sphere – The Divine – man descended through the starry heavens to the planet of illusion – the moon – whence he landed with a resounding thud.  It was there while gazing in a pool of water, that man fell in love with his own reflection thus binding himself like a slave in chains, to the lowest sphere – the material world.

Since then, man has worked through magic to transcend his ego (which through an illusion of immortal permanence in a constantly changing mortal world, keeps him firmly earth-bound) and ascend back up through the spheres to be reunited with the Divine.

According to Versluis, in correct magical practice, the magus transcends to the higher spheres when his ego is subsumed by celestial realities.

However most modern magical practices work in reverse – keeping the ego firmly in charge.  As Versluis points out, the dangers of this are significant and real.

“…(i)f the visualization is of the Divine, enclosed within tradition, then one ‘ascends’ and radiates beneficence.  But if the visualization is, inversely, governed by ego, outside tradition – then one ‘descends’ and is overwhelmed, destroyed by the infernal and malignant.”

As an example, he cites the experience of the Belgian spiritualist Alexandra David-Neel who during a ritual in Tibet created a small round-faced monk who was greeted by others as quite real.   The monk, a product of David Neel’s own mind, eventually became so independent she could no longer control him and it was with great difficulty that he was dissolved.

“This story carries within it the implicit danger of ritual visualization, for the ritual changes the very nature of one’s relationship with the celestial world.”

Some years ago while innocently dabbling in Wicca (with what I believed was proper supervision),  I myself had a similar experience that made me physically ill for many months.

The lesson to be learned here is to take great care when following any ‘spiritual path’.  Without proper grounding and years of trainingwithin that tradition – you might just find yourself getting more than you bargained for – dumped head first into the proverbial deep end unable to swim.

Self, Spirituality, and Zen – Journey of the Ox-Tamer

The concept of ‘self’ is as woolly as that of  ‘spirituality’.

Yet today’s Western spirituality seeker must come to grips with both because now he’s so psychologically oriented, the ‘self’ is the centre of his ‘spirituality’.[i]

While both mystics and psychologically oriented spirituality seekers often speak in terms of ‘transcending the self’, I suggest they mean completely different things.  The confusion is not surprising given that the source for today’s Western notions of spirituality is found in the European mystical traditions of the 12th century.[ii]

In his book Riding the Ox Home (London, 1982), Willard Johnson helps come to grips with relationship of the psychologised ‘self’ to spirituality using the ancient Taoist parable about the ox tamer on the Zen path to enlightenment.

The story begins with the ox tamer and his missing ox.  The ox tamer isn’t sure whether his ox is lost or he just can’t see it.  Either way he’s unhappy for all the traditional things that should bring him happiness do not.  Intuitively the ox tamer knows only his ox will bring meaning to his life so he sets off on the first part of his journey, the goal of which is to tame his ox.

Traditionally, the ox symbolises the ultimate, undivided reality, the Buddha-nature that is the ground of all existence.  The ox tamer symbolises the part of the ‘self’ that initially indentifies with the individuated ego, separate from the ox.  However with progressive enlightenment, the ox tamer finally comes to realise the fundamental reality – he and the ox are – and always have been – one.

Psychologically, Johnson suggests that the ox tamer represents that part of the self that makes choices and acts in accordance with them.  At the beginning of the ox tamer’s spiritual journey,  this ‘self is immature and uncertain of its place in the world.  This nascent (and easily manipulated) self, sees everything as in service to it needs; the world is to be exploited for its pleasure.   According to Johnson, to achieve maturity we must overcome this infantile self unless we wish to die unfulfilled having known life only from the perspective of our animalistic needs.

In turn, the ox represents the ox tamer’s psychologically deeper self – his daemon or inner voice, which keeps his more immature self in check.

As with most Eastern religions, to lose one’s ‘self’ is to rediscover a deeper ‘self’ that will become his orientation to reality.  In most Western religions, this deeper self corresponds at least in part, with God of the Divine.  In the west, generally it is only mystics who achieve unification with this other dimension of self and as they well know, this requires more than just finding and taming one’s ox.

Playing his flute, the triumphant ox tamer rides home on his ox.  Having tamed his ox (i.e. his need for self-gratification) he is free to express his creative energies in the celebration of life.  He has won the battle for self-knowledge; he knows that he himself created his ox through his thoughts.  After taming his ox, the ox tamer hears his inner voice –  he has found his true home.

But the ox tamer is not yet finished.  In next part of his journey he must say goodbye to his ox and leave it behind.

In both Zen and Western mystical traditions, the goal is not just to tame the self but instead to transcend it.  This is the essence of spirituality in the ultimate sense.  I suggest this requires more time, space, and personal commitment than most spirituality seekers are able and willing to devote.  Instead, I suggest that their goal is more like that of the first part of the ox tamer’s journey – the taming of their egoist ox.

The key point is that we confuse the two at our peril.  While psychology does offer us knowledge about ourselves as human beings, it has not yet been shown to offer us any knowledge about God.


[i] For more information see Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality – The Silent Takeover of Religion, (Routledge, 2005).

[ii] For more information see Passage to Modernity – An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale University Pres, 1993)by Louis Dupré.

Playing God – Religious Experience in the 21st Century

At the turn of the last century, the famous philosopher and scientist William James asserted

“….the mother sea and fountain-head of all religions lies in the mystical experience of the individual”.

James believed that the key to understanding such experience, was to be found in the manner in which our eyes and minds, together, created our world.  Quite simply, for James the varieties of religious and mystical experience were dependent on the varieties of human nature, which in turn, were dependent on the nature of consciousness itself.

Has much changed in the 21st century where we embrace anything from artificial intelligence to ‘uploaded consciousness’ – the transfer of the human mind to an artificial substrate? I suggest that it has.  We have now moved beyond human to post-human.

In the post human matrix, consciousness is a function of the entire organism – not just the brain.  As any holistic practitioner will tell you,  our minds and bodies act together; it is impossible to know the whole of something from the sum of its parts.   Interesting enough, but in and of itself, not earth shattering news.

The important point is that in the post human matrix, we now control both our minds and our bodies. We began with pacemakers and artificial joints.  We now use a myriad of drugs to control our emotions.   Soon enough, we will have computer implants that will seamlessly perform as another brain hemisphere.  In other words, in the post human matrix, man controls his experience – religious or otherwise.

Assuming we control our experience of God, does this mean that in essence, we control God?  In some sense, I believe it does.

James believed that just as a novelist plays ‘God’ by taking his fictional characters to the heart of their consciousness through interaction with their world, we do the same through our interpretation of own experience of our own world.  Our minds are the essence of our humanity.  We participate in reality.  We make our own truth.   This has always been matter of perception.    But now we control our perception.

In this way, I suggest that the post human experience will make redundant our most fundamental assumption that God is superior to man, and that man is in turn superior to nature.  The Rationalists eliminated God and the Post humanists are eliminating humans.  After that, there’s nothing left but nature.

The funny thing is – and I suggest James would agree – that all these distinctions were man-made in the first place.