Rachel V. Billigheimer, Wheels of Eternity: A Comparative Study of William Blake and William Butler Yeats (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1999), 243pp.

Blake’s revolt against church dogma, deism and science, and his advocacy of the power of the individual imagination as man’s only gateway to redemption are in some sense continued by Yeats but within the context of the currents of his own time. Living in a later period of history, Yeats view of history, poetry and religion must accordingly be expected to diverge from Blake’s. Yeats sees history as a self-determining process. Predestination as well as free will are seen in the cyclic nature of the whole process of human experience. […] While Yeats explores the world of time through the use of the imagination, Blake employs imagination in order to escape the wheel of time. In both Blake [3] and Yeats the world so time and eternity are represented by circles and cycles.’ (pp.3-4.)

Yeats’s search for the Spiritus Mundi as the origin of all images, may be seen as suggested by Blake’s archetypal forms. Both Blake and Yeats saw literature in terms of archetypes, that is they regarded all facets of literature as part of a unified cultural heritage. Blake was a symbolist before the Romantic literary movement had arisen in England. Directed against the empiricism of Newton and Locke, neoclassicism and church authority, [4] Blake’s symbolism is romantic rather than traditional. In his age, one of upheaval and contention between traditional and revolutionary beliefs, the gulf between fact and value had greatly widened. Blake helped to bridge this gap by putting forward the argument that truth is a quality of perception, rather than an object of perception. In Blake all myth and ritual are symbolic of the universal truth: ‘Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.’ ( Marriage of Heaven & Hell).

Yeats, through a voice of deep national consciousness, reaches to archetypal meanings. In his late poem “Under Ben Bulben” he speaks of all the ages of mankind as living on as a progressively interacting unity and refers to the relationship between the individual, the society and the nation as a general cultural heritage. In Autobiographies he assigns to Blake a part of “all imaginative literature which, though made by many minds, would seem the work of a single mind, and turn our places of beauty or legendary association into holy symbols”. (A 254). Yeats was, however, mistaken in looking for a mystical doctrine as the chief purpose in Blake’s symbols. As Northrop Frye comments in his study ‘Yeats and the Language of Symbolism’ (1947), contrasting Blake and Yeats, “Poetic symbolism is language and not truth, a means of expression and not a body of doctrine, not something to look at but something to look and speak through, a dramatic mask.” However, even though Blake’s symbolism is uncluttered by concepts which Yeats drew from the occult, Ellis and Yeats provided the first major breakthrough in unlocking the meaning of Blake’s work by demonstrating a systematized language in Blake’s cosmology myth of the four Zoas and identifying an organised coherent structure, thereby refuting the serious charge of obscurity often made against Blake. (pp.4-5.)

In his book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), Bloom defines Climamen or poetic misprision as a poet’s deliberate swerving or misinterpretation of a precursor’s concepts, structures or ideas. As he thereby loses part of the former meaning he creates a new meaning or an expansion of his own. (p.9.)

It appears that the circle, rather than the gyre, should be regarded as fundamental to Yeats. The circle is an archetypal symbol. Since it is primeval, it is a universal expression in all cultures of the basic, moving pattern of life. Yeats also aspires to an immutable, transcendent state of perfection such as that put forward by the French symbolists Mallarmé and Maeterlinck [sic]. In addition there are the magical elements of an immortal Irish mythical world […] the magical, circular dance, for instance, which treads to the rhythm of the Wheel of Eternity, is a dominant symbol in Yeats. It embraces the moving forces of love and life and the tragic vision of life and earth, creation and destruction. (p.10.)

From the division of subjective and objective we have the concept of the anti-self and the self, corresponding to the Emanation and Spectre in Blake, which are characteristic of the division of mental states in all societies and individuals. We may see the symbolic circle in Yeats signifying the struggle of the self and anti-self as lending itself to the Jungian interpretation of the mandala indicating complete self-integration. (p.11.)

We explore in this work Blake’s ‘Seven Eyes of God’, connecting the historical, mythological and biblical visions of these cycles of Experience to passages in the prophetic poems. Yeats’s ‘winding stairway’ leading to the moon is related to Blake’s ‘Seven Eyes of God’, the labyrinths of Experience, leading to apocalypse, However, in contradistinction to the Eros vision of Yeats, Blake’s apocalypse, the highest limit of the human imagination, extends to the vision of the Logos. We undertake a study of the symbolic dance and dancer in Yeats’s poetry and their relevance to Blake’s archetypal forms. The female is symbol of man’s emanation. Since she is redemptive she must also be destructive. Her creative role in the mother-child relationship is however only implicit. As the controller of human destiny she determines the vicissitudes of love and war, passion and violence and ultimately delivers redemption or rebirth from the Circle of Destiny or the Great Wheel.

The symbolic circle conveys the fundamental principles of Blake and Yeats. Only by examining circularity in each poet do we see the fundamental differences in each of them. In both, life is affirmed with its circularity. In Blake, one looks forward to redemption, the cycles forming a spiral in which there is a moral progression in the world of time. In Yeats, who sees nature and history as recurrent, the circularity of experience is the infinite itself. The eternity of infinite recurrence in Yeats leads to the [12] resignation of tragic joy. Yeats has come to see that the overthrow of tradition, convention and morality has led to social disorder and violence precipitating the end of the cycle. He sees the world as coming to the end of a cyclic phase that Blake helped to initiate. In his significant poem ‘The Second Coming’ Yeats prophesies the apocalypse of the present civilisation and the birth of a new cycle in a history of cyclical recurrence.

An exploration specifically of symbolic circles in both Blake and Yeats is used here to illuminate significant similarities as well as contrasts between the two poets. In both poets the circle is shown to be the archetype of all images conveying circularity in the nature of experience and the state of perfection. The circle is a unifying principle for the poets’ visions of the world. (pp.12-13.)


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