Following on from my last article on the Octopods in P’o-lu, I thought I would attempt a brief look at Taliessin’s Song of the Unicorn, to see if we can make any interpretations of its symbolism in a traditional vein. While the answer may get very abstract and philosophical, the question I have to ask is simple: why is Taliessin a unicorn?
In the bestiaries of the middle ages, unicorns feature prominently as creatures full of allegorical meaning. Chief among these meanings is the association with Christ: the unicorn is an elusive, magnificent, and wild creature which can only be tamed by a virgin. Once the beast has fallen asleep on the virgin’s lap, it can be slain by a hunter. This kind of depiction is taken as an allegory of the incarnation, specifically.
Yet Williams’ use of the unicorn takes these associations to a much more abstract level of interpretation. For him, the incarnation of the Word has a literal meaning apart from the Christian narrative of salvation. The ability for the written word to communicate meaning is a miracle unto itself. These scribbles and pen marks on the page can somehow embody complex meanings. Crucially, the meaning behind the words, so to speak, is immaterial and unbounded by time and space. In a sense, it exists nowhere until awakened by the consciousness. In poetry, perhaps above all other forms of writing, this unmanifested meaning finds its embodiment.
This traditional relationship of the spiritual and the material was conceived in oppositional terms by the likes of Pythagoras, whose concept of the monad (the supreme centre of all meaning embodied in the cosmos) is that of a dimensionless point, like the absolute centre of a circle. By contrast, the circumference is that which manifests in opposition to the centre – producing two opposing yet mutually dependent aspects which make up the circle as a formal unity.
In this context, darkness, René Guénon writes, has at least a double aspect in traditional symbolism – it not only represents negation (in opposition to the light of manifestation), but the positive sense of the “centre” which is by its nature unmanifested and invisible.1 It is in this sense that I believe we can read Williams’ descriptions of the unicorn.
When the unicorn is described as ‘the animal which is but a shade till it starts to run,’ we see that two opposing aspects of its nature are being represented. On the one hand, there is a transcendent, unmanifested potentiality (the ‘shade’), which manifests itself when it ‘starts to run’ in actuality.
As a surface meaning, what this suggests for Taliessin the poet (and thus also for Williams) is that he has a certain glory or brightness that goes unnoticed until he gets to actualise it through poetry. There is a darkness within the poet which is nonetheless pregnant with meaning yet to be actualised.
We know that Williams associated the name ‘Taliessin’ (which means ‘shining brow’) with Kether on the Sephirotic tree, which is represented with a crown, as the first degree of manifestation of the A’in Soph (the primordial unity, like the monad of Pythagoras and the Neoplatonists). Both ideas (the shining brow and the crown) are linked with the imagery of solar rays. Thus in one sense the horn of the unicorn is a symbol of the rays of light radiating from the sun – with manifestation or emanation from the “centre”, that is.2
Yet the unicorn, insofar as it is capable of embodying the two extremes, takes on an ambiguous position. That it is said to have ‘galloped from a dusky horizon’, suggests the ambiguity of that twilight meeting point between day and night, between light and darkness.
Elsewhere Williams’ repeats this motif of the dusky horizon in conjunction with a rose in The Calling of Taliessin. Read in light of the use of rose imagery elsewhere in the cycle, which takes on the same internal relationships of the circle (of centre and circumference), we can see this as symbolising the ‘grand ambiguity’ (in Williams’ terms), the incarnation. For, taken in abstract terms, the union of divine and human natures in the incarnation suggests the ultimate archetypal unity of these opposites – the spiritual and the material.3
This kind of abstract reading of Christian doctrine will seem strange to many of us, but it is really typical of the Neoplatonists, and I believe that Williams belongs to this intellectual tradition. Such a tradition is not Orthodox in any meaningful sense, and leads inevitably, I would say, to perennialism – the rejection of the very Christian dogmas it appropriates. Nevertheless, to understand the thinking behind it will be invaluable in decoding much of this obscure poetry, for, by abstracting these ideas to their broadest meanings, they find their greatest symbolic scope.
1 Symbols of Sacred Science, p.81
2 There is of course another level of meaning to the horn in the poem, which Williams links explicitly to the idea of the cuckold – irrationality, futility and the general fickleness of the margins. Again, combined with the image of the centre we have seen, this supports my reading here, that both centre and circumference are represented in unity through the unicorn.
3 Likewise, the sexual union of male and female in Williams’ poem is another archetype of this union of opposites. Since Williams adheres to the notion of form being masculine and matter feminine, we can clearly see how the symbolic woman of the poem gives birth to the unicorn’s song. Feminine matter is what embodies the spiritual meaning of the masculine form.