Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Mask (London: Faber 1948) [Chap. XV:] ‘Esoteric Yeatsism: The Flowering of a Dream’, pp.223-43.

[See some preceding materials, infra.]

Which book spak muchel of the operaciouns,
Touchinge the eighte and twenty mansiouns
That longen to the mone, and swich folye,
As in our dayes is nat worth a flye;
For holy chirches feith in our bileve
Ne suffreth noon illusion us to greve.
                       - Chaucer, The Franklin’s Tale

I, being driven half insane
Because of some green wing, gathered old mummy wheat
In the mad abstract dark and ground it grain by grain
And after baked it slowly in an oven; but now
I bring full-flavoured wine out of a barrel found
Where seven Ephesian topers slept and never knew
When Alexander’s empire passed, they slept so sound.
          -Yeats, “On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac”

Had Yeats died instead of marrying in 1917, he would have been remembered as a remarkable minor poet who achieved a diction more powerful than that of his contemporaries but who, except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say with it. Had he not married but lived on in bachelorhood, he would probably have continued his indefatigable attendance at spiritualist séances and made minor elaborations in his rather confusing theories of the mask and of life after death. His prose would have continued to come forth in the same beautiful, bottomless style as in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, published just before his marriage, built up out of evasion so skilful that the reader is never sure whether he is being presented with a doctrine or with a poem in prose. Only too aware of the unreliability of his own conclusions, Yeats would probably have devoted himself chiefly to plays and narrative verse. If bachelorhood had continued, we may reasonably assume also that personal problems [223] would have gone on operating, as they had done for many years as brakes upon his mind.

Marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees released his energies like a spring. He fell deeply in love with his wife and knew for the first time the happiness of a relatively uncomplicated relationship with another person. He was astonished to find himself playing the role of husband and, after February 1919, of father, without feeling that it was a role at all. ‘The marriage bed’, he wrote later is the symbol of the solved antinomy.’ Certainly it was so for him, and the ecstasy of the solution shines through the worldly humour of the poems, “Solomon and the Witch” and “Solomon to Sheba”, which he wrote in 1918. A great serenity came over Yeats as he emerged from the isolation and eccentricity of bachelorhood into peace and harmony. His wife was kind and self-sacrificing ; she understood his strange mixture of arrogance and diffidence, and behind the pose which he put on before strangers found him deeply human. For his part, Yeats kept no more diaries of his mental difficulties, wept no more over a barren passion, and no longer thought of himself as shut out from common experience. Eighteen years before, when George Russell’s first son was born, Yeats had written in his letter congratulation: ‘I think that a poet, or even a mystic, becomes a greater power from understanding all the great primary emotions & these one only gets out of going through the common experiences & duties of life’. A newly acquired sense of strength enabled him now to write lyric after lyric in which he spoke, with fresh confidence, in his own person. He would say a years later in a letter to Tagore that as husband and father he felt ‘more knitted into life’.

Marriage was a humanising and normalising experience, but in no sense a prosaic one. Nothing that had happened to him before was more dramatically exciting than the automatic writing of his wife, which he felt put wisdom at last within his reach. He gave up his obsession for going to séances where he had never been able to learn very much, and stopped his work on a futile elaboration of Henry More’s theory of the after-life, which was [223] to have been a sequel to Per Amica Silentia Lunae. So great was his excitement that he even offered to give up poetry altogether, but the reply that came from the automatic writing said, with a dash of practical wisdom: ‘No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’. He had always considered himself lucky, and perhaps the best of his good fortune was to find himself married not only to an exceptionally intelligent and sympathetic woman, but to the Sibyl herself.

Not that Mrs Yeats, a friendly, witty young woman, relished idea of being the Sibyl; she insisted that her part should not be made public, and after the first excitement had worn off was often bored with her exhausting task. Automatic writing is really a matter of suspending conscious use of the faculties. Many persons with no ‘psychic gift’ are occasionally surprised find that without thinking they have unconsciously scribbled a meaningful phrase or drawn a meaningful picture on a piece paper. A few can prolong this automatism over considerable periods, relaxing the will so that they have the sensation that their hand is controlled by a more powerful hand. The script that results has many of the characteristics of dreams, being full of images, fragmentary, run together, by turns coherent and incoherent. In the excitement of marriage Mrs. Yeats discovered that she possessed this ability to suspend her conscious faculties, and would sit down for two or three hours a day with her tireless husband, he putting the questions and she replying to them in automatic script in a notebook. Certain spirits with incongruous names claimed to be dictating to her, and Yeats liked to refer to them as the ‘communicators’ and never wholly gave up the idea that they were indeed spirits. The sceptic need not, however, believe that anything more than the unconscious mind was involved in the automatic writing, though some of the attendant manifestations, such as the sudden smell of roses in the room, difficult to explain. Since husband and wife would discuss the communications afterwards, their conscious minds no doubt had considerable effect upon the direction which the automatic writing would take, but this effect was never sufficient to prevent [225] the revelations from being exceedingly cryptic.

By the end of November 1917 the first part of A Vision, as Yeats called the completed book, had been outlined. Human personality was classified into twenty-eight types, or, to use phraseology, into twenty-eight phases of the moon, each phase being pictured as one of the spokes of a Great Wheel. classification was based upon the amount of subjectivity objectivity, words for which Yeats substituted the symbolic abstractions, antithetical tincture and primary tincture. He vacillated in his definition of these terms, quoting the colloquial meaning of ‘objective’ in Murray’s Dictionary as ‘all that “is present to consciousness as opposed to consciousness of self, that is object of perception or thought, the non-ego, treating outward things and events rather than inward thought, actual facts, not coloured by the opinions or feelings of write.’ Yeats dodged the difficult philosophical question whether objective reality had any existence apart from the apprehension of the beholder ; it involved problems of the origin the world into which he was not prepared to go, but the psychogical bias learned from his father encouraged him to minimise the importance of the external world. At phase 15, where on the moon is full, subjectivity is at its height; as the moon wanes subjectivity decreases and objectivity increases, until at phase 1, where the moon is dark, objectivity is greatest. Any individual can be typed or classified as belonging to one of the twenty-eight phases, and Yeats soon began to put his friends and enemies in their appropriate phases as Dante had done in the Divine Comedy.

Any human soul passes through all twenty-eight phases in series of incarnations, although at full moon and dark of the moon (phases 15 and 1) the soul takes on the form of a spirit rather than of a man. In a further sense, - and here the system becomes more complicated, - ontogeny recapitulates phasogeny; that the soul may be said to pass through all the phases within a single lifetime, beginning with the completely unindividualized or objective state of infancy (phase 1), rising to the full individual or subjectivity of maturity (phase 15), and sinking back at last [226] into ‘second childhood and mere oblivion’ (phase 28), where it dies and then after a period begins the round once more. The Shakespearean life-span of seven ages grew to twenty-eight in Yeats’s scheme. Usually Yeats discusses the phases as a series incarnations rather than as the stages of a single lifetime, though one may accept either explanation in reading the didactic poem, “The Phases of the Moon”, which he wrote in 1918 to expound this portion of his system:

Aherne. Sing me the changes of the moon once more;
True song, though speech : ‘mine author sung it me.’
Robartes. Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast ;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred,
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athene takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after,
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness,
To die into the labyrinth of itself!

All thought becomes an image and the soul
Becomes a body : that body and that soul [227]
Too perfect at the full to lie in a cradle,
Too lonely for the traffic of the world
Body and soul cast out and cast away
Beyond the visible world.

The fifteenth phase which Robartes is describing is the link between the nion and Yeats’s poetic method. This ‘phase of complete beauty’ is inhabited only by spirits; no human life is possible there. Though Yeats does not explicitly say so, it is clear that to this phase belong the symbols of poetry, caught up into reconcilement. ‘Thought and Will are indistinguishable’, he writes elsewhere of the phase, ‘contemplation and desire’ are ‘united into one’. ‘Chance and Choice have become interchangeable without losing their identity. As all effort has ceased, all thought has become image, because no thought could exist if it were not carried towards its own extinction, amid fear or in contemplation. .’ Robartes next pictures the phases that follow the fifteenth:

And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the world’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.

Aherne. Before the full
It sought itself and afterwards the world.

Robartes. Because you are forgotten, half out of life,
And never wrote a book, your thought is clear.
Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,
Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,
Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all
Deformed because there is no deformity
But saves us from a dream.

Aherne. And what of those
That the last servile crescent has set free?
Robartes. Because all dark, like those that are all light,
They are cast beyond the verge, and in a cloud, [228]
Crying to one another like the bats
And having no desire they cannot tell
What’s good or bad, or what it is to triumph
At the perfection of one’s own obedience;
And yet they speak what’s blown into the mind
Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,
Insipid as the dough before it is baked,
They change their bodies at a word.


When all the dough has been so kneaded up
That it can take what form cook Nature fancies,
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.

Having passed phase 28, where all individuality is lost, the soul begins the cycle again.

Yeats’s psychology is much more elaborate in A Vision than in Per Amica Silentia Lunae or any of his earlier works. The soul, to use a word which he avoids as often as possible because of its theological bias, is not merely subjective or objective (antithetical or primary), but contains both qualities in varying proportions. Instead of being divided into Self and Anti-Self, as in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, it is split into Four Faculties, or two pairs of contraries: Will and Mask Creative Mind and Body of Fate. In the second edition of A Vision, where he was in better control of his material, Yeats defined these chiefly by metaphor, but in the first edition he made some rough definitions:

1. Will, originally Ego in the automatic script, is ‘the first matter’ of the personality, the basic choice which determines the individual’s phase.

2. Mask is the Will’s opposite or anti-self, ‘the image of what we wish to become.’ There are two possible masks, one true and one false, and the Will may choose the wrong one. Yeats implies that the the two masks of any given phase are pre-determined.

3. Creative Mind is ‘intellect, as intellect was understood before the close of the seventeenth century - all the mind that is consciously constructive’, that part of the mind which acts on external events. Like the Mask, it may be true or false.

4. Body of Fate is ‘the physical and mental environment, the changing human body, the stream of Phenomena as this affects a particular [229] individual, all that is forced upon us from without, Time as it affects sensation.’ If any reality exists outside us, it lies in the Body of Fate.

The mind of man is a kind of resolution of the energies of these Four Faculties. Some critics have described the system as completely determinist, and Yeats himself liked to talk as if it made everything predestined; but we soon realize that it does not work that way at all. Man may choose between several alternatives, such as between True and False Mask and True and False Creative Mind; his phase may not be the phase of his age in which case he will have to make voluntary adjustments; as we shall see in analyzing the later edition of the Vision, the doctrine of the Thirteenth Cycle was to make the will even more free.

Reading the Vision we are conscious of many echoes Yeats’s previous work and interests. The mixture has a different taste but the ingredients have been used before. ‘What I found indeed is nothing new’ ( A Vision, 1925, p.15.) Yeats insisted in A Vision. There are numerous connections between his system and traditional occult systems with which he was familiar. The Four Faculties, for example, are a variation of a familiar quarternary, which appears in the four elements of magic, in the four humours medieval medicine and psychology, in the Four Zoas of Blake, in Yeats’s Irish mystical order, and, of course, elsewhere. The opposition of objectivity and subjectivity has an evident relation to the active and passive forces, or positive and negative ones, which form an important part of the teachings of the Golden Dawn and most other occult and mystic systems. The twenty eight-phase lunar cycle is common enough in astrology, as quotation from Chaucer at the beginning of this chapter indicates. The cycle is reminiscent, too, of the Dark Fortnight and Bright Fortnight of Brahminism. As for the conception of the Four Faculties moving about a wheel, we need look no further the Zodiac and the astrological analysis of an event or personality according to the influence of dominant planets. But the amazing aspect of the Yeatsian system is that it is not merely a pot-pourri like Theosophy and the Golden Dawn teachings, but a fairly [230] successful fusion into an original pattern, and here the influence of the unconscious mind of Mrs. Yeats in building up images was almost as important as that of Yeats in bringing into unity with the images the fragmentary theoretical revelations that came with them. In the end everything is stamped with his personality and brought into line with his work.

On December 6, 1917, a new symbol corollary to the lunar holism was introduced into the automatic writing. [Fig. of cones appears here; vide A Vision, 1937, p.72, &c.) This was a spiral, which Yeats preferred to call a gyre (and pronounced with a hard ‘g’), or whirling cone, or, using an Irish and Scots word, a ‘pern’ or spool. Then two such cones were drawn in the script and related to European history, which was considered to pass like the human soul through a cycle from subjectivity to objectivity. These cones were imagined as interpenetrating, whirling around inside one another, one subjective, the other objective. They provided Yeats with a splendid image to represent the antinomies which had always been present in his mind. The cones were not restricted to symbolizing objectivity and subjectivity; they were also, he said, ‘beauty and truth, value fact, particular and universal, quality and quantity, the bundle of separated threads as distinguished from those that are still in pattern, abstracted types and forms as distinguished from that are still concrete, Man and Daimon, the living and the dead and all other images of our first parents’. (A Vision, 1925, p.130-31.) This symbol was a much more successful one than the mask which he had been using earlier in the century, for the relation between mask and face was difficult to visualize. Yeats thought that he had discovered in this figure of interpenetrating gyres the archetypal pattern which is mirrored and remirrored by all life, by all movements of civilization or mind or nature. Man or movement is conceived of as moving from left to right and then from right to left; no sooner is the fullest expansion of the objective cone reached than the counter-movement towards the fullest expansion [231] of the subjective cone begins. For example, if we apply the cones to history, at the time of Christ objectivity was at its fullest expansion; the self was struggling to escape from personality, to be lost in ‘otherness’, while at the time of the Renaissance subjectivity was at its fullest expansion, and great personalities were everywhere realizing themselves to the utmost. In our time history is swinging back again towards objectivity, for the cycles continue in eternal recurrence. Mass movements, such as democracy, socialism, and especially communism, are for Yeats evidences of this shift towards objectivity, when every man tries to look like his neighbour and repress individuality and personality. [Ftn.: He wrote to [Bertrand] Russell just after the Revolution: ‘I consider Marxian criterion of values as in this age the spearheard of materialism & leading to inevitable murder.’ Unpub. letter.]

The interpenetrating gyres have an obvious sexual symbolism, which Yeats welcomed because it anchored the gyres in the earth. They have, too, a striking resemblance to the seal of Solomon, which is basic in magical invocations; in the seal one triangle represents water and the other fire, and in union they sometimes symbolize that marriage of spirit and matter which is the magical beatitude. [2 figs: ‘Solomon’s Seal ‘ and ‘Yeats’s Gyres’ - see ftn to latter: Yeats’s conjoined gyres do not, however, transcend the flux of life; they are, he says, ‘pursuit and illusion’, reality being in a sphere which contains them. The sphere is discussed in later chapters. [232]

This is by no means a full treatment of the architecture of A Vision, but it is perhaps enough to indicate that esoteric Yeatsism was an adaptation, reduced to a few essentials and thereby made unusually coherent, of traditional occult ideas. Many problems arise which he does not solve; for example, he can tell us no more than Leo Africanus about the exact relation between Will, Mask, and Daimon. He slides warily past the question of what causes individual differences, whether it is the action of the Daimon, the man’s free will, or the success with which Mask and Will come to terms, or the action of other spirits, or the effect of earlier lives. Yeats suggests that all these may play their share, but does not commit himself any further.

A more basic question which rises in the mind of the reader is: Did Yeats believe in esoteric Yeatsism? It cannot be answered simply. As a man he sometimes believed in his system and some- times did not; at first he had more confidence in the ‘communicators’ of the automatic writing as being spirits beyond space and time than he afterwards retained. As a poet he largely accepted his father’s position that the poet must be free of dogma and formula. But he feared that the real reason for his reluctance to use the Vision in verse might be his timidity, and therefore wrote a few poems, explicitly didactic, based on the system, to salve his conscience. But in most of his verse he proceeded with his usual craft so that, while the metaphors for poetry which the communicators had brought him often appear, it is hard to find specific passages which are incomprehensible to someone who has not read A Vision. For instance, the musician’s song in The Only Jealousy of Emer, a play which he wrote in 1917 and 1918, alludes to the series of incarnations necessary to bring the soul to the beauty of the fourteenth phase, at which Eithne Inguba (inspired by Iseult Gonne), the ‘mistress of Cuchulain, is classified. Yeats would not have written the song in this way without his system, but the song is not dependent upon the system for comprehension:

How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul [233]
In toil of measurement
Beyond eagle or mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes’ guess,
To raise into being
That loveliness?

The same independence of the system exists in “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” (1918), where the airman is a symbol of subjective life, and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”, written in the same year, where Gregory is identified with the Renaissance man who comes near the full moon of the historical cycle. These poems are wholly exoteric, but in “Shepherd and Goatherd” (1918) the theory of A Vision that the after-life is the gradual unwinding of life’s memories - a proposition put forth also by Leo Africanus is in evidence in the description of life after death:

He grows younger every second. .
He unpacks the loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made. .
Knowledge he shall unwind
Through victories of the mind,
Till, clambering at the cradle-side,
He dreams himself his mother’s pride,
All knowledge lost in trance
Of sweeter ignorance.

Here too, however, the meaning was public enough.

He is quite capable of over-simplifying his system, as in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”, where he asserts that he has no free will but is controlled by mechanical spirits which are themselves controlled ‘by some hidden magical breath’, as Leo Afticanus was controlled by Mahomet. He could also turn the system to humorous use, as in “Under the Round Tower” (1918); here his subject-matter is the interaction of the two cones, but he makes them into a dance of sun and moon in a round tower (the sphere), the wild dream of a beggarman: [234]

He stretched his bones and fell in a dream
Of sun and moon that a good hour
Bellowed and pranced in the round tower
Of golden king and silver lady,

Bellowing up and bellowing round,
Till toes mastered a sweet measure,
Mouth mastered a sweet sound,
Prancing round and prancing up
Until they pranced upon the top.

The poem is not made less slight by the knowledge of its secret meaning. Similarly, a considerable number of symbols of the transcendence of the antinomies appears in these poems of The Wild Swans at Coole and Michael Robartes and the Dancer, but the Vision cannot be credited with having supplied these; rather it reinforced their use by theoretical justification. Thus in “Demon and Beast”, a white gull symbolizes the poet’s sense of joyful freedom as he imagines himself beyond the gyres of hatred and desire. Swans are used in several of the poems, but one of these, “The Wild Swans at Coole”, antedates Yeats’s marriage and evolution of the Vision. Only in “The Phases of the Moon” is the material of the automatic script presented directly as a mystical system, and here Yeats, with his old deviousness, represents himself as not knowing the system which Robartes and Aherne expound, and makes Robartes say

And now he [Yeats] seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find.

With the Vision to sustain him, we need not be astonished to find Yeats beginning to prophesy again, as he had not done since the ‘nineties. Then he had believed that the new epoch would be a golden age, heralding, as in The Secret Rose, a heroic Ireland, or, as in Where there is Nothing, a finer world. But there was little in the post-war era to inspire him with such hopes. From January 1919 to May 1921 war raged in Ireland between the English forces, including the notorious Black and Tans, and the Irish patriots. Yeats and Lady Gregory were both deeply moved [235] by the ‘troubles’, she writing articles for a liberal English review condemning the government’s policies, and Yeats writing, among other things, a still unpublished poem to Robert Gregory, raging bitterly at the deeds of the British soldiery. He had had little to say about the [F]irst World War, its issues being too abstract and international for his mind, but he shared in the feeling that ‘many ingenious lovely things are gone’. As in 1914 he had envisaged a heaven of burning ice instead of ‘ embroidered cloths’, now he gave utterance to a chiliastic prophecy of the transvaluation of values, but saw in it only evil:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This poem could not have been written with such prophetic authority without the Vision, and the ‘widening gyre’ is obviously the gyre of objectivity there discussed. But an awareness [236] of the system was more useful for writing than it is for reading the poem. Yeats was careful not to require knowledge of his prose from the reader of his verse, and has made it possible to suppose that the gyre is merely the falcon’s flight. The symbol has more connotative power if its esoteric meaning is understood, but the extra connotations can be ignored. It is more necessary that we be familiar with the ancient, traditional myth of a second coming, to which Yeats has given a new slant, than that we understand the novel myth of the gyres.

For the most part, then, the Vision supplies only additional connotations for the symbols in Yeats’s verse. But the poet was not satisfied to so restrict its use; scarcely had the automatic writing begun when he decided to make a prose book out of it. Characteristically, he determined to present it to the public as if it were a secret, and his fertile imagination began to tailor a myth to cover ‘those bare symbolic bones’, themselves a myth. For this purpose he brought back to life Michael Robartes; the story he evolved was that Robartes, while travelling in the Middle East, had unexpectedly found in the religious beliefs of an Arab tribe called the Judwalis an explanation of diagrams which he had long before seen in a Latin work of Giraldus Cambrensis. Fascinated by his discovery, Robartes spent twenty years among the Judwalis learning their system and then returned to England to ask his friend Owen Aherne to edit his papers and publish them. But their old quarrel was renewed when Aherne, a loyal Catholic, refused to give any credence to the system beyond that which he would accord to a Platonic myth. Robartes was angry and decided to ask Yeats to prepare the material for publication, and the poet agreed.

This fantastic story, or its rudiments, had already evolved by four months after the commencement of the automatic writing, for in January 1918 Yeats asked Edmund Dulac to cut a medieval-looking woodcut of Giraldus Cambrensis, which would really be a portrait of Yeats, and later used this as a frontispiece for A Vision. He began to make rather coy references to the Robartes papers in his notes to Cuala Press editions of his poems. [237] From 1917 to 1919 he laboured to put the whole of the system into the form of a dialogue between Robartes and Aherne, but dialogue proved too clumsy as the automatic writing grew in detail and complexity. An excerpt from these papers, dated 1919, shows Yeats a little puzzled as to what claim to make for his system’s importance and significance:

Robartes. I have lived so much alone or among men who could not understand their own philosophy reshaped to the needs of my European mind that I must find someone to talk to. Say to yourself that it is all a classification and when I have shown you how every soul contains the rudiments of the soul that follows in the chain assume that God created all from the same stuff and that they are but a series of little wooden medals which show when we put them together the continuous grain of the tree that they were cut from and that I am as mad as though I believe that medal could grow into medal. It is only my idiosyncrasy perhaps that I prefer to believe that God created the world through the souls of men and angels.
Aherne. I shall but return to my catechism the more gladly from granting to your incarnations that form of belief I grant to a play upon the stage.
Robartes. Nor is it a moment for believers to quarrel about the form of their belief, the great mass of men even those who go to places of worship have in reality given up the souls [sic] immortality. I mean, that they do not consider it a premise for reasoning upon important matter. In a few years[,] for it is already established to the student, they will believe once more. When that time comes it will be understood that just as a man can investigate the laws by which the ocean moves in a cup of water we can investigate by studying our own minds the final destination of the soul. In that day the system of Aquinas will be weighed and that of Ben Luka who thinks not more inaccurately because he thinks in pictures and the world will have plenty of time to choose.

The spectacle of the world choosing between Thomism and Yeatsism was of course removed before publication. In the first edition of A Vision, Robartes and Aherne appear only in the introductory chapters and a few notes, and in the final edition, when Yeats was more confident and willing to speak in his own person, they occupy an even smaller role. [238]

Work on this book occupied a great deal of Yeats’s time from 1917 to 1925, and sometimes Mrs. Yeats, fearing for his creative gifts, would refuse for extended periods to do any more automatic writing. But to Yeats the system increased steadily in importance; he was exalted and exulting as never before. With A Vision he had a system comparable in its elaborateness to Blake’s; sometimes it seemed to him a new religion with which he could deny his father’s scepticism; always it was a point of reference for all his thought and action. In a sense it was a huge projection of his own life, filled with autobiography and rationalization of his personal crises and temperament, his own soul sitting for model for all the twenty-eight phases. It was a far more satisfactory system than that he had evolved in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, the furthest extension of his thought before his marriage, for instead of seeing life as an opposition of two principles he saw it now as a pitched battle fought by a whole city-full of faculties, gyres, phases, cycles, principles, spheres, spirits, and daimons, ‘displaying the conflict in all its forms’ (Wheels and Butterflies, 1933, p.240.) That the system appeared eccentric did not worry him overmuch, for he felt that it had enough tradition behind it. He saw more clearly that his earlier posing and masking had been attempts to make his life and work converge into a symbolism; there was truth as well as malice in the rumour that George Moore was now spreading, that Yeats was going to live in a tower in the west of Ireland to cultivate a ‘Poetic Personality’. Yeats knew that now he could live more and more in a world of his own creation, which without the automatic writing he would probably never have brought into being. He was proud of his accomplishment, and his half-humorous description of himself in several poems of this period as Solomon is half-serious too. Though the Black and Tan war reminded him that the night could still ‘sweat with terror as before / We pieced our thoughts into philosophy’, the universe seemed to be coming at last within the sphere of influence of his magician’s wand:

Such thought - such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts, [239]
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

The power to classify is the power to control, and a new sense of strength comes into his writing. The ideal phase in A Vision, the phase ‘where Unity of Being is more possible than at any other phase’, is shortly after the full moon, phase 17, and here Yeats classifies himself along with Dante, Shelley, and Landor. We shall not be surprised to find that Unity of Being is a variant of his father’s old ideal of ‘personality’. It is the result of a struggle, for the mind is beginning to burst into fragmentary images, and consequently ‘The being has for its supreme aim . to hide from itself and others this separation and disorder’, hence the pose and mask. The men of phase 17 are naturally ‘partisans, propagandists and gregarious, yet because of the Mask of simplification, which holds up before them the solitary life of hunters and of fishers and “the groves pale passion loves”, they hate parties, crowds, propaganda’. (A Vision, 1925, pp.75, 77.) Everyone was given a phasal number; in the Yeats household at Oxford in 1920 and 1921, as L. A. G. Strong has described it, the poet would often shoot some searching question at an unsuspecting guest whose answer would reveal where he could be typed in the lunar cycle. Mrs. Yeats and John Butler Yeats belonged to phase 18, where unity is beginning to break up, though a ‘ wisdom of the emotions’ is still possible. Lady Gregory was in phase 24, where codes of conduct must dominate; and George Russell, in spite of his vigorous objections, was put in phase 25, where the self accepts ‘some organized belief ‘. Ezra Pound was originally in the highly subjective phase 12, but Yeats moved him among the humanitarians of the late objective phases after seeing him feed all the cats at Rapallo. So it went, with the dead as well as the living. [240]

A Vision thus became a justification; most of Yeats’s acquaintances were consigned to less attractive phases of the moon than his own, where they could not hope to attain to the state of Unity of Being which is the most satisfying condition to be attained in life. Yeats is proud of his own Unity of Being, and in the essay, “If I were Four-and-Twenty”, part of which has been quoted earlier, a note of self-gratulation can be detected in his language:

One day when I was twenty-three or twenty-four this sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half-asleep: “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence. I had three interests: interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality. None of these seemed to have anything to do with the other, but gradually my love of literature and my belief in nationality came together. Then for years I said to myself that these two had nothing to do with my form of philosophy, but that I had only to be sincere and to keep from constraining one by the other and they would become one interest. Now all three are, I think, one, or rather all three are a discrete expression of a single conviction. I think that each has behind it my whole character and has gained thereby a certain newness - for is not every man’s character peculiar to himself: - and that I have become a cultivated man. (If I Were Four and Twenty [1919] Cuala Press, 1940 p.1.)

He was now able to rephrase his lover’s quarrel with the world’ in more general terms; being a man of phase 17, and born into an age which is at phase 22 of its historical cycle, he is doomed to belong to ‘a tragic minority’. From 1919 to 1922 Yeats rewrote that first draft of his Autobiographies which he had written in a mood of self-purgation before his marriage; with A Vision in mind he put reticence upon his narrative and suffused it with the serenity of the man who has achieved Unity of Being. Memories which had seemed all-important a few years before, such as the intertwining of Maud Gonne with all his thought and action during his youth, he now considerably reduced in scale; his desperate search for the secrets of the occult world was played down and fitted into unity; the crises in his fortunes were, as [241] he said, smoothed over. He had removed many of his particularities and turned himself into that man of phase 17 whom, once he had posited, he had decided to resemble; and the book was no longer a mere autobiography, but a ‘political and literary testament’, he wrote in 1920 to Lady Gregory, ‘intended to give a philosophy to the movement. Every analysis of character, of Wilde, Henley, Shaw & so on builds up my philosophic nationalism - it is nationalism against internationalism, the rooted against the rootless people.’ (Unpubl. letter of 30 Dec. 1920.)

So we see him slowly welding himself and his surroundings into his myth. He is not merely a poet, but the symbol of a poet, and as he thinks of himself in these terms his gestures become more noble and his speech more considered. The normal processes of life do not stop, of course; he retains his old friendships and the need for them, and has, for example, alternate quarrels over politics and reconciliations with Maud Gonne. But, as his principal interest, he surrounds himself with material objects which become part of his secret ritual. One of these was the Norman tower, Thoor Ballylee (Ballylee Castle) in Galway, which he had bought in 1915. He wrote of it to John Quinn on July 23, 1918: ‘I am making a setting for my old age, a place to influence lawless youth, with its severity and antiquity’ (Unpubl. letter); and a year later he remarked that he was reluctant to accept a teaching position in Japan which had been offered him, because his tower needed ‘another year’s work under our own eyes before it is a fitting monument and symbol’. In 1922 he made several poems about the castle where with his family, which now included a son and daughter, he lived. The tower and many of its furnishings took on deep significance. For example, the winding stair which leads up the tower was an emblem of the spiritual ascent, with some side reference to the visionary gyres, which could be conceived of as the antinomy of spirit and matter or of heaven and earth. A sword given him by a Japanese named Sato was a symbol of life, its silk-embroidered sheath a symbol of beauty; while outside in the garden flowered ‘the symbolic rose’. The Yeats touch turned all to symbol. [242]

We can understand what has happened if we remember that the rose was one of the symbols he used in the ‘nineties, but then it was always far off and remote, while now it grew on his property. Those other vague, unpossessed emblems of his youth, such as ‘ the wind among the reeds’, which represented the spirit breathing upon mankind, had entirely given way before the solidity and private ownership of tower and stair. This is not the symbolism of an exile or pariah, but of a man of means and position. Yeats heads the sections of his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” as “My House”, “My Table”, “My Descendants”, “The Road at My Door”. That old Castle of the Heroes of which he had once dreamed as a kind of ethereal temple of the spirit is now, in 1922, a microcosm, where he and his family live, and where life is condensed and controlled by the machinery of symbolism. Who can say now where the work begins and the life ends ? The world, once so hostile, lies docile at his feet. [End chap.]

Additional [preceeding] materials:
Chap. XV: ‘[…] Marriage seemed the solution to many problems: it would give him a family, a home, and peace of mind in which to work. After the death of MacBride Yeats went to Paris and proposed to Maud Gonne on condition that she give up politics. As he had anticipated, she refused, and he then became infatuated with her beautiful adopted niece [sic], Iseult. After some months of deferring her reply to his proposal of marriage, however, Iseult decided against it.

Yeats was luckier than he knew. He had long had more than a casual interest in Georgie Hyde-Lees, a friend of Mrs. Shakespear and Ezra Pound. They had first met in 1911, and he had several times visited her and her family for week-ends, finding in her a charming companion and a kindred spirit in his occult studies. She had become interested in psychical research by reading a book of [Cesare] Lombroso, and from time to time after her first meeting with Yeats she helped him to check the authenticity of inforrnation given him by mediums. In 1914 she joined a group of Rudolf Steiner Theosophists, and that same year Yeats suggested that she become a member of the Golden Dawn. He sponsored her and saw her through her initiation.

Miss Hyde-Lees, with her remarkable subtlety and sense of humour, seemed to be specially fitted for organizing a lyric poet’s errant life. Yeats was greatly attracted to her and felt that she would be able to help him to move forward. On October 21, 1917, after a short engagement, they were married.

A few days after their marriage, Mrs. Yeats for the first time in her life attempted automatic writing. There were a few meaningless lines, and then suddenly she thought that her hand was seized by a superior power. In the fragmentary sentenew that were scribbled on the paper her amazed husband saw the rudiments of the system which he had spent his early life tryi to evoke through vision, and his middle age trying to formula through research. Here, in his own home, was miracle with qualification. The bush was burning at last.

Chap. XIII: ‘[…] “We sing amid our uncertainty”, Yeats wrote in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. Much uncertainty can be found in “The Cold Heaven’” Neither Dante nor the writer of the apocryphal book of Enoch, who probably affected the poem, nor Ruysbroek whose statement that the mystic ecstasy is ‘not this or that’ Yeats incorporated in one of the lines, would have used the point of interrogation; they would have used declarative statement. But Yeats’s problem was to admit doctrine (the idea of a heaven) and doubt (the divergence from the Christian conception of heaven, and the possibility that heaven may be only a state of mind), and then to transcend them by directing the emphasis away from them to the emotional state of the speaker. Through dramatic metaphor Yeats was able to escape a large share of the responsibility for his fictions despite the title of the volume, and at the same time to attain a more powerful mode of expression. Though he said in “A Coat” that he had given up his old coat, embroidered with mythologies, and was now ‘walking naked’, nakedness had itself become an artifice for him. His search now will be for a variety of dramatic situations in which to pretend to be naked. To some extent this solution still seemed a partial evasion of his anxious struggle to escape from scepticism to direct belief. He continued to long for the day when Abramelin the sage would read to him from his sacred book and make all plain.’ [End]

[ back ]

[ top ]