Yeats and the Occult
Modernism produces obscure poetry because it denies the existence of absolute truth. Without a fundamental truth to reveal, poetry is relegated to presenting a series of images for the reader to supply the meaning of the text. Hart Crane and the pioneers of modernist poetry achieved this with words alone, but later Cummings and the “concrete” poets, heavily under the influence of cubism and modernist movements in visual art, did so through typographical forms of the poem itself.
But modernism has assumed other forms. William Butler Yeats, Nobel laureate, ranks as one of the titans of early modernist poetry. On its surface, Yeats’s poetry seems like a more formal cousin to that of Hart Crane or any of the Imagists – a series of inscrutable images meant to derive their meaning from their impression upon each individual reader.
If such were the case, this essay could serve as a footnote to a more general criticism of modernist poetry. But Yeats’s approach to his poetic images is entirely different, and in many ways unique among modernist poets. Unlike his contemporaries, Yeats assigned the images in his poetry very definite, specific meanings, all of which originated in a complex set of spiritual beliefs he developed from various occult teachings.
For all its symbolism, Yeats’s poetry is no less modernist. Its modernism just denies eternal truth in its own unique way. Its symbolism is occult, which means it is discoverable to only a select enlightened few. The meaning it confers on the poetry is personal to the poet, and carries meaning only insofar as the reader is prepared to accept his system of symbols and the worldview they comprise. Those who do not are left in the dark, the unenlightened masses.
This essay explores the occult as claimed secret, superior knowledge not universally accessible, Yeats’s deep interest in the occult and involvement in organizations that practiced its rites, and how indelibly his occult involvement influenced his poetry. Finally, it analyzes Yeats’s elaborate system of occult symbols in his work as intentional obscurantism, meant to restrict the full understanding of his works only to those “adepts” who have been initiated into Yeats’s own occult world.
Before delving into the subject, however, it is important to address a potential objection at the outset. Critics of the New Criticism mindset will doubtlessly insist on reading each Yeats poem as a self-contained entity with all meaning to be derived from the text itself. Any reference to Yeats’s personal background or beliefs, they will assert, are entirely irrelevant to the text itself. Whatever usefulness this approach has, it cannot seriously be considered useful in approaching the work of a poet like Yeats, who imbued his works with a system of symbols developed from and inextricably linked to his personal spiritual beliefs. These, in turn, can only be properly understood by understanding Yeats’s personal background and his involvement with schools of occult teaching from which he borrowed many of his symbols.
Any reader who still insists on approaching Yeats from a strictly textual approach will find no external meaning in the imagery Yeats uses, but only a series of jumbled images meant for the reader to assign meaning to. Such readers will do better to read the first essay in this series examining the use of such techniques by Hart Crane. But for readers willing to abandon such interpretive constraints, understanding Yeats’s intricate symbolism is an interesting voyage of discovery into the dark world of the occult. Though Yeats’s approach to poetry through the occult is ultimately flawed, it presents a rarer, though no less important, feature of modernism than those examined thus far.
First it is necessary to define exactly what “occult” means in the context of Yeats’s poetry. In general usage, “occult” means simply “beyond the range of ordinary knowledge or understanding; mysterious.” (Dictionary.com.) More specific to the context desired here, the “occult” or “esotericism,” as it is sometimes called, is a belief system comprising two common elements: (1) the attainment of a salvational knowledge, or gnosis, which would liberate the human soul from the material world and unite it with the divine, and (2) the study of hidden or secret laws and dynamics of nature. (Hanegraaff, pp. 18, 21.)
In Western society, the occult falls into one of three common models: first, “an ‘enchanted’ pre-Enlightenment worldview with ancient roots but flourishing in the early modern period;” second, “a wide array of ‘occult’ currents and organizations that emerged after the Enlightenment as alternatives to traditional religion and rational science;” and third, “a universal, ‘inner’ spiritual dimension of religion as such.” (Id., pp. 3-5.) The second of these models, organized occultism, was expressed starting in the eighteenth century by initiatic organizations – Freemasonic and Rosicrucian societies – that “usually claim to preserve the true secrets of the ancient wisdom.” (Id., p. 34.)
The most important feature of occultism is the hidden, secret nature of the knowledge that leads to union with the divine. Truth is not discoverable by the faculties of human reason which everyone possesses, nor does it lie in religious revelation open to everyone’s faith or disbelief. It is not held in common by all. Instead, it lies in mysteries hidden from all except the select few deemed worthy to access it by virtue of their initiation and passing through levels of hierarchy. Truth itself is a mystery, knowable only by permission of its guardians.
This is the essence of the occult worldview. It is the worldview to which Yeats enthusiastically subscribed. It will be important throughout this essay always to keep this aspect of occultism in mind, particularly throughout the exposition of Yeats’s symbolic system and the interpretation of his poems according to that system.
To understand Yeats’s own occult views and how they influenced his poetry, it is essential first to examine his personal involvement with the occult. That involvement runs long and deep, and Yeats himself was open and proud about it.
In his youth in Dublin, Yeats “began to study psychical research and mystical philosophy,” and formed a Hermetic Society with a friend. (Yeats, Autobiography, pp. 54-55.) In forming the society, Yeats proposed “that whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion, and that their mythology, their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth.” (Id., p. 55.) In these early days Yeats read Carl von Reichenbach’s theories on the Odic force and the Theosophical Society’s publications and discussed Persian mysticism and Indian philosophy. (Id., pp. 55-56.)
Yeats’s interest in Theosophy is particularly illuminating. Its doctrines, based largely on the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, were “only a confused mixture of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and occultism, . . . gathered . . . around two or three ideas . . . of completely Western origin” and “presented as ‘esoteric Buddhism.’” (Guénon, pp. 91-92.) Blavatsky attributed Theosophy’s doctrines to “Tibetan Mahatmas,” or “Masters of Widsom.” (Id., pp. 37, 38.) According to her, these “adepts” were the highest-ranking members of the “Great White Lodge” that secretly governed the world. (Id., p. 38.)
Madame Blavatsky herself was a notorious figure, a widowed and bankrupted Russian aristocrat of crude manners who traveled the world working odd jobs before founding the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. (Id., pp. 5-12, 15-16.) Yeats met Blavatsky in London in the 1880’s and began an association with her that involved discussion of her ideas. (Yeats, pp. 106-11.) While taking in the teachings of Theosophy, Yeats grew “irritated by the abstraction of what where called ‘esoteric teachings,’” for he “had learned from Blake to hate all abstraction.” (Id., p. 111.) He then undertook a series of experiments in occult magic. (Id., pp. 111-12.)
In 1887, Yeats began his association with the occultist Samuel Liddle Macgregor Mathers, and “began certain studies and experiences, that were to convince [him] that images well up before the mind’s eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory.” (Yeats, Autobiography, p. 112.) Mathers then introduced Yeats to his own “hermetic society,” and Yeats was inducted. (Id.)
That society was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which Mathers and two other Master Masons had founded in 1888. (Serra, p. 310.) It was a secret, initiatory society whose rituals and teaching were structured around an adaptation of the kabbalah of mystical Judaism. (Id., p. 309.) Members were promised occult knowledge and taught yoga and other fragments of teaching and ritual borrowed from various historical and religious sources. (Id.) Though founded by Masons, it was not a Masonic order, and professed, in one of its founder’s words, “the secrets that Freemasonry has lost.” (Id., pp. 310-11.) Its aims were gnosis – higher knowledge – and eventual, perhaps even literal, union with God. (Id., p. 309.)
Yeats strove to master the Order of the Golden Dawn’s highest grades, reaching the level of “Adeptus Exemptus 7°=4°.” (Id., pp 311, 313-14.) When he eventually left the Order in 1900, it was not because of any doctrinal quarrel, but because he disliked Mathers’s autocratic administration. (Id., pp. 311, 312.) On the contrary, Yeats attempted mastery even after he left, and spoke positively about Mathers’s magical system after he left the order. (Id.)
Indeed, Yeats wrote that he had “mastered Mathers’ symbolic system, and discovered that for a considerable minority – whom I could select by certain unanalyzable characteristics – the visible world would completely vanish, and that world, summoned by the symbol, take its place.” (Yeats, Autobiography, p. 114.) This world of symbol, which he believed appeared in clairvoyant experiences, was no less than a shared subconscious among the people of a given nation, a “Unity of Culture defined and evoked by a Unity of Image.” (Id., pp. 152-62.)
Under this system Yeats believed that “memory is from the self, but from that age-long memoried self,” and that “[t]here are . . . personifying spirits that we had best call but Gates and Gate-keepers, because through their dramatic power they bring our souls to crisis, to Mask and Image.” (Id., p. 164.) And “the Gate-keepers who drive the nation to war or anarchy that it may find its Image are different from those who drive individual men.” (Id., p. 165.)
Another noteworthy protégé of Mathers and a member of the Order at the same time as Yeats was the infamous Aleister Crowley. (Serra, p. 314.) Crowley almost needs no introduction: he was “certainly the most notorious occultist of the twentieth century, and also one of the most prolific. (Rogers, p. 209.) In crafting his own magical rites, Crowley appropriated “symbols, structure, and materials” from the Order of the Golden Dawn, and syncretized them with outside materials, notably from Madame Blavatsky, to whom Crowley “was quick to point out his debts.” (Id.)
From 1912, Crowley headed the Masonic Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) in Britain, which practiced a form of sex magic. (Serra, p. 318.) Yeats had close connections with Crowley’s OTO, and, perhaps not coincidentally, a number of obscure esoteric sexual symbols appear in his later poetry. (Id.) Indeed, Crowley was undoubtedly familiar with Yeats’s symbolism as a fellow Golden Dawn adept, and he openly criticized Yeats’s coyness about revealing his symbols’ meaning: “Better abandon mysticism outright,” he wrote, than “peer into the darkly splendid world, the abyss of light” and “pose as one who has trodden the eternal snows.” (Id., p. 315.)
From this deep and detailed involvement with the occult Yeats developed his own unique synthesis of occult views. Fortunately, requires little synthesis or speculation is needed to reveal those views. Yeats himself left voluminous critical essays explaining his poetic principles in detail. Of particular importance to the subject of the occult is a 1901 essay unambiguously titled “Magic.” There, Yeats outlines his spiritual beliefs thus:
I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are:
(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.
(Yeats, “Magic,” p. 29.)
Describing his own beliefs, Yeats speaks of spirits creating “visions of truth,” and outlines doctrines he is convinced are ancient. The most important elements of occultism are present: higher truths in a spirit realm understandable by ancient doctrines and accessible through symbols. While Yeats does not call this spirit realm “hidden,” it is implicitly so. After all, the “single mind” and “great memory” are not realms of ordinary experience, or Yeats would hardly need to call it a matter of belief. And symbols as the access-points of that spirit realm really function as keys to what is not otherwise readily accessed. It is the practitioner of magic, of course – Yeats himself – who holds those keys and controls access. He is in a privileged position to reveal that realm only to those who understand the symbols – that is, the initiates.
Yeats goes on, speaking of visions during séances and dreams. He says, “Our most elaborate thoughts, elaborate purposes, precise emotions, are often, as I think, not really ours, but have on a sudden come up, as it were, out of hell or down out of heaven.” (Id., p. 50.) Man is thus a conduit for something greater from the spiritual realm. But dreams and visions are not the only link with his “great memory” lurking invisibly in the spirit realm. Yeats gives primacy to symbols, and he describes his belief in symbolism thus:
I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist. At first I tried to distinguish between symbols and symbols, between what I called inherent symbols and arbitrary symbols, but the distinction has come to mean little or nothing. Whether their power has arisen out of themselves, or whether it has an arbitrary origin, matters little, for they act, as I believe, because the great memory associates them with certain events and moods and persons. Whatever the passions of man have gathered about, becomes a symbol in the great memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret, it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils. The symbols are of all kinds, for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous or trivial, in the great memory, and one never knows what forgotten events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into the great passions. (Id., pp. 64-65.)
After discussing symbols, Yeats concludes his essay thus:
And surely, at whatever risk, we must cry out that imagination is always seeking to remake the world according to the impulses and the patterns in that great Mind, and that great Memory? Can there be anything so important as to cry out that what we call romance, poetry, intellectual beauty, is the only signal that the supreme Enchanter, or some one in His councils, is speaking of what has been, and shall be again, in the consummation of time? (Id., pp. 68-69.)
In Yeats’s view, the human spirit – his “great memory” – is not to be found in human chronicles and experiences plainly known and accessible to all. Instead, the experienced collective “passions” of mankind are mystically incorporated into symbols within the great mind. And disturbingly, the great mind stirs in patterns that “remake the world.” It is Yeats, the poet as sorcerer, who by virtue of his initiation into higher knowledge is master of the symbols, and thus controls access to the hidden great mind that changes the world.
Yeats has unambiguously described what symbols mean to him in general, but to examine his individual symbols themselves, it is necessary to delve further into Yeats’s thought-world. This is not a straightforward task. “Yeats’s occultism” stressed “not the doctrines in themselves but the experience of their psychological meanings.” (Bloom, p. 212.) For Yeats, then, there was no “key” to his symbols neatly tying each image to an idea. Instead, the individual symbols arise from their particular psychological effect.
A few important and unmistakable symbols do pervade Yeats’s work, however, and explaining those is crucial to understanding his work. First and foremost, central to Yeats’s symbolism was the phases of the moon as representative of the states of the human mind. In Yeats’s own words:
The bright part of the moon’s disk . . . is the subjective mind, and the dark, objective mind, and we have eight and twenty Phases for our classification of mankind, and of the movement of its thought. At the first Phase – the night where there is no moonlight – all is objective, while when, upon the fifteenth night, the moon comes to the full, there is only subjective mind. The mid-renaissance could but approximate to the full moon . . . but we may attribute to the next three nights of the moon the men of Shakespeare, of Titian, of Strozzi, of Van Dyck, and watch them grow more reasonable, more orderly, less turbulent, as the nights pass; and it is well to find before the fourth – the nineteenth moon counting from the start – a sudden change . . . , for the great transitions are sudden. (Yeats, Autobiography, p. 175.)
The twenty-eight phases cycling through history represented a “Great Wheel.” (Bloom, pp. 217.) Yeats famously represented the apocalyptic end of the cycle and the return to its beginning in “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) (Id., pp. 318-19, 322.)
This system most likely originates in Blake’s poem Milton, which describes twenty-eight churches that mark the divisions of fallen human history. (Bloom, p. 206.) Yeats went further, however, applying the lunar system not only to history, but to describe individual personalities. (Yeats, Autobiography, 199, 202.)
The Great Wheel, in turn, is comprised of smaller “gyres” that arise “out of an entirely cyclic movement that he held to be present in every human consciousness, a movement of pure process, in which subjectivity and objectivity constantly interpenetrate, and then spin around, each within the other.” (Bloom, pp. 222, 223.) Yeats also envisioned a double gyre representing a doubled quest for the primary and its antitheses, counterbalancing itself, spinning perpetually in cyclical thought. (Id., pp. 222, 260.) Viewed from mankind’s fallen position, it was unintelligible, but viewed from eternity, it was the cabalistic rose – a symbol Yeats frequently evokes. (Id., p. 222.)
To Yeats, the two components of the gyres signified interplaying opposites: the objective was the “primary,” or “that which serves,” while the subjective was “the antithetical,” or “that which creates.” (Id., pp. 223-24.) Indeed, opposites play an important role in Yeats’s symbolism. His Golden Dawn name was DEDI, an acronym for Demon Est Deus Inversus or “the demon is God reversed.” (Serra, p. 316; Bloom, p. 219.) According to Yeats, the name indicates his desire to attain gnosis and become “more than human,” but also hints that to become more than human is to become less human. (Bloom, p. 219.)
Yeats also adopted the metaphor of the shadow to represent “the mask of creative form in which the uncreated spirit makes itself visible.” (Id., p. 218.) Yeats attributed to this image the theosophical doctrine that symbols can either provide access to knowledge beyond human understanding or serve as a hindrance keeping the eager away from that knowledge. (Id.) The mask itself is also an important Yeatsian symbol: because the poet’s mask is for the audience, it represents that which ought to be, and hence the will or the anti-self, the opposite of what is. (Id., p. 332.)
Other important symbols recur throughout Yeats’s work, such as the Covering Cherub and the sphinx. (Id., pp. 6-7.) These, however, do not figure in the work analyzed below, and need only be noted in passing. At this point, the exposition of Yeats’s elaborate symbolism suffices to undertake an informed analysis of his poetry.
Before undertaking analysis of a major Yeats poem in light of this elaborate system of occult symbols, it is worthwhile to examine Yeats’s less monumental and less overtly symbolic works. These smaller works offer a glimpse into Yeats’s poetical mind, the mind that found interest in the occult and developed its detailed system of symbols – essentially, the groundwork upon which the elaborate occult superstructure rests.
First is this sentimental favorite from his early collection, The Rose, published in 1893:
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
This poem is particularly helpful to understanding Yeats because it is an early work, published only five years after Yeats was initiated into the Golden Dawn. Here Yeats’s fully developed occult symbolism is absent, allowing a “stripped down” view of Yeats the poet behind the symbolism.
It is remarkably clear in its description, and almost reads like a classical poem, but deep down it is about the occult. The addressee of the poem, of course, is a woman, now old, reflecting on her younger days. Though “many” have loved – either falsely or truly – her “glad grace” and “beauty,” only one man of those many “loved the pilgrim soul” in her. His love was for the spiritual, not the physicality of grace or beauty. And a pilgrim is one who journeys to a sacred place. The “pilgrim soul” undergoes a spiritual journey just as Yeats’s progression through the Golden Dawn and the occult world with the hope of achieving “higher knowledge” and union with the divine.
Then, at the end, the old woman murmurs “a little sadly,” that personified Love has fled to “the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” The object of the occult, of course, is “higher knowledge,” and those who embark on the journey to achieve it are said to “ascend.” Here, the man who loved her spiritual yearning has ascended to occult knowledge while the woman he once loved has not, for whatever reason. What was meant to be a union of souls never materialized because she did not accompany the one who saw her inner spiritual worth on his occult path of ascension.
While this poem does not display Yeats’s fully developed symbolism, it unmistakably has an occult underpinning. What seems an ordinary love poem on closer inspection is about the spiritual journey to gnosis and love as merely ancillary to achieving that end. Love is a means to that higher knowledge, and true love finds its root in the spiritual search for that knowledge.
If Yeats can reduce a human good as universal as love to a mere means of achieving occult ends, the same can only hold true for other ideals such as beauty and truth (truth being the occult knowledge itself). In this short work Yeats reveals how truly his poetic mind was given over to the occult, and how necessary and understanding of his occultism is to understanding his poetry.
Moving to a later, more developed work reveals the same Yeats at work, only this time with a developed system of symbols. The following is the title poem from Yeats’s 1919 volume, “The Wild Swans at Coole”:
The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
This is a plaintive, autumnal work, almost uncharacteristic for a poet of fifty-one years. Yeats wrote the poem in October 1916, after proposing marriage a second time to the same woman to whom he had proposed nineteen years earlier and at the same location, and being rejected both times. (Bloom, pp. 190-91.) One reading sees in the poem a contrast between the sadness of nineteen years before at the rejection itself and the present sadness at not being sad at rejection. (Id., p. 191.) The former sadness is subjective, while the latter is objective, and their interplay constitutes a gyre between subjective and objective thought.
Yeats begins by describing the water “mirroring” the still twilight sky in autumn. The stillness of the physical realm below parallels that of the spiritual realm above and within. The swans occupy both the water and the air, functioning as a sort of “spirit animal” bridging the material and spiritual realms. Then the swans “scatter wheeling in great broken rings” – an unmistakable reference to the gyres between the subjective memories of the days of “lighter tread” before “all” had “changed,” and the objectiveness of the present.
In the fourth stanza, which originally ended the poem (Id., p. 192), the speaker contemplates the agelessness of the swans, freely loving, inhabiting both the streams below and the sky above. He then concludes by asking himself where they will be when he awakens and finds “they have flown away.” While the awakening in the final stanza can be death, it is also the end of the antithetical consciousness, leading to a death-in-life. (Id., p. 193.) Rather than physical death, the end represents a resolution of the gyre, the antithetical subjective – “that which creates” – subsumed in the objective as the latter contemplates the former from a distance – a resolution the speaker does not desire.
Again, what seems a very direct poem about nostalgia is only about nostalgia to the extent that it fits into Yeats’s occult worldview. Yeats does not simply mourn the days when his outlook was sunnier and able to feel sadness at rejection. Instead, he sees it as part of a mystic gyre twirling in his life and fears its resolution as a “living death” of the subjective. If anything, “The Wild Swans at Coole” serves to underscore that in Yeats’s poetry everything – everything, including love and loss – is subjected to the ruthless strictures of his occult system.
Yeats’s famous “Byzantium,” is the latest of the poems examined here, appearing in 1933 in The Winding Stair and Other Poems. It has been called “the Kubla Khan or Ode on a Grecian Urn of Yeats’s lyric accomplishment, provocative of remarkably varied readings” ranging from being about the images in the poet’s mind to life after death. (Id., 384.) Indeed, ambiguity is crucial to understanding the poem – Yeats consciously found symbols to provide ambiguity in presentation. (Id., p. 389.) Here is the poem:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
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.
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
The first stanza sets the scene at night, a necessary setting to describe the indeterminate lunar phase. Here Yeats also introduces the central image, the dome that “disdains / All that man is / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” Central to the poem’s ambiguity is that its “central image, the dome, is starlit or moonlit.” (Bloom, p. 389.) In Yeats’s lunar phase symbolism, the poem can be either the new moon of Phase 1 (death before life) or the full moon of Phase 15 (the full perfection of images). (Id.)
The dome has been interpreted as an image of eternity (Id., p. 390), and as such takes the shape of the vault of heaven, distant and removed from human affairs; immovable, in contrast to the “fury” and perfect in contrast to the “mire” of the human condition. Indeed, throughout the poem, Yeats uses “blood” and “mire” to describe the mortal human condition and contrasts it with the “fury” of “complexity,” which by its juxtaposition to the “blood and mire” indicates a higher spiritual condition, but not one of benevolence or serenity. It is a force that acts upon and agitates the “blood and mire.” Indeed, the juxtaposition of the two forces represents one gyre of opposing forces in the poem. The “blood and mire” is earthen and passive – the primary, or servile, force – while the active “fury of complexity” is the antithetical, creative force.
But one more word about the dome. The poem’s title is “Byzantium,” and of course the greatest and most famous dome in Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) is of the Hagia Sophia, which in Greek means “Holy Wisdom.” While the cathedral’s name references Jesus Christ as the logos, or Word of God, Yeats’s “holy wisdom” was something quite different, the occult knowledge of symbols that provides access to the great mind. By referencing this dome in Byzantium, Yeats links his occult system of symbols with the eternity of the heavens and their distance from human affairs.
The second stanza provides an unmistakable reference to Yeats’s gyres. When he says, “Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth / May unwind the winding path,” the cycling gyre is an image of death, and it may unwind – that is, into life. The entire stanza incorporates death and life as “the primary” and “the antithetical” in this gyre, respectively. The image “man or shade / Shade more than man” – that is, alive and dead – or “death-in-life and life-in-death” is the “superhuman.” That is, the cycling between life and death comprise the great mind of collective human consciousness.
Perhaps the ambiguity about the lunar phase directly mirrors the opposing forces of life and death in this gyre. Which phase represents which, the reader cannot know. The new moon could represent the emptiness of death just as much as the living material world’s separation from the spirit world accessible beyond death. The converse is true for the full moon. Or perhaps Yeats intentionally allows the two opposing phases to represent both, as his gyres are comprised of opposites whirling into one.
Then the bird appears – a “miracle” and “golden handiwork,” but “More miracle than bird or handiwork.” It alights on the “golden bough” – a reference to The Aeneid, in which Aeneas at the Sibyl’s bidding plucks the golden bough to protect him on his journey into the underworld. (Frazer, p. 3.) It is also an almost ham-handed allusion to Sir James George Frazer’s famous comparative study of mythology. Frazer’s work launches its study by describing the golden bough guarded by the priest of Diana at Nemi, which entitled only an escaped slave who plucked it to fight the priest to the death and become the new priest if he triumphed. (Id.) Either way, the bough with which Aeneas enters and returns from the underworld and which causes a “death and rebirth” of the priest at Nemi continues the cycling gyres of life and death from the previous stanza.
But back to the bird. It can either “like the cocks of Hades crow” or simply “scorn aloud / . . . All the complexities of mire or blood.” The bird is an intermediary, another spirit-animal, capable of either speaking in the mortal realm or disdaining from on high like the dome. It is a symbol for symbols, linking the two worlds in the function that Yeats has his symbols perform. Indeed it unites two of the gyring forces into “complexities of mire and blood.”
Then Yeats presents a vision “at midnight” on “the Emperor’s pavement.” It is fire, but not kindled mortal fire. It is “flames begotten of flame” that “cannot singe a sleeve.” This is a spiritual flame. It separates the forces that the bird united, bidding the “blood-begotten spirits” come and “all complexities of fury” flee. It is a purifying flame, drawing in souls of mortals and expelling the confusion of fury.
In the final stanza, Yeats describes the fire at work: “spirit after spirit” of mortals – that is, from “blood and mire” – fill the scene, accompanied by another spirit-animal, the dolphin – this time a sea creature, associated with the element of water rather than the air of the bird. The “golden smithies of the Emperor” “break the flood.” This is the second oblique reference to the unseen Emperor whose drunken guards soldiers were sleeping in the first stanza. This is an obvious reference to God, the Monarch that rules the world under the dome of Heaven. Though his soldiers are neutralized, his smithies “break the flood” – of spirits, it is implied. They are the forces dividing the mortal nature from the spirit realm.
And as the smithies break the flood of spirits, the “Marbles of the dancing floor / Break bitter furies of complexity.” Yeats identifies the furies this time: “images that yet / Fresh images beget,” all one giant “dolphin-torn and gong-tormented sea.” The world comes apart at the poems end: the “mire and blood” and “fury of complexities” that the bird briefly united come apart and are separately broken, the spirits of “mire and blood” by the Emperor’s smithies and the “fury of complexities” on the marbled dance-floor – the images of the spirit realm unable to penetrate the concreteness of mortal nature.
As a whole, the poem presents a series of gyres – death versus life, the mortal realm versus the spiritual, the objective versus the subjective – that whirl and interplay and even combine, yet at the end they come apart and shatter separately as they are confined to their proper spheres and nature is “reset,” presumably for the beginning of another great cycle of lunar phases.
To the uninitiated reader, particularly the New Critic, “Byzantium” presents nothing beyond a series of random images couched in very evocative language and flowing, almost musical rhymed meter. On its surface, Yeats’s poem appears no different from Hart Crane’s, a series of images strung together for each individual reader to interpret as he wishes.
But Yeats has a different methodology. He has imbued each of his images with a definite meaning, except the reader must be fully schooled in his occult system of beliefs to discover them and make sense of the poem. And even then, many of the images are not stock symbols in the occult – the dome, the smithies, or the dolphin, for example – but specifically chosen to represent an idea in this poem only, and can only make sense in light of Yeats’s larger symbolic system.
The irony is breathtaking. On one hand, Yeats the essayist describes a system of symbols gathered through collective human experience to provide access to the universe’s great mind. Yet Yeats the poet uses symbols with unique, psychological meanings – a language not that only initiates can understand, but that only he can understand. In the end, Yeats achieves the astounding feat of creating ambiguity and meaning at the same time.
In this respect, Yeats’s poetry is a tease – a confused jumble of images to the uninitiated, from which they may yet derive some meaning through their own reading of the text, but at the same time carrying a very definite meaning for the initiated. Though the first, “plebeian” reading is a perfectly acceptable modernist approach to poetry, Yeats imbues the poem a hidden, “higher” meaning, accessible only to those adepts familiar with his system. Rather than lead the reader to a truth and show what the reader can readily grasp, Yeats conceals his meaning coyly behind symbols, in mysteries knowable only with permission of him as the “adept” guarding them.
This is antithetical to classicism, which sees truth as a priori and thus knowable by everyone. In Yeats’s occult world, the “adepts” who achieve gnosis are a caste apart. They possess secret, higher knowledge inaccessible to the masses. Yeats’s poetry does as much to hide the meaning of the superficial images from the uninitiated. Indeed, Yeats is so coy about his symbols’ underlying meanings that even the consummate occultist Aleister Crowley berated him for obfuscation.
And once the poem has been read and re-read, Yeats’s lunar system and his gyres analyzed and understood, the individual symbols deciphered in the context of Yeats’s larger worldview, what does the reader discover? Yeats provides no revelation, no catharsis, no exposition of truth or beauty, no image of the Divine. Instead, he merely describes his secret world as an interaction of opposites, separate and opposing at the end as much as at the beginning. The antithetical forces interact in the gyre, combining only to be separated and shattered. There is neither truth, nor hope, nor beauty – only the eternal revolutions of the gyres.
Critics find the poem ambiguous in its failure to specify which of two lunar phases sets the scene, but they read the poem too narrowly. The setting is in either or in both lunar phases. The poem is set out of time, in which the gyres of opposing forces interact. Indeed, the world of gyres is in a sense ambiguity itself: opposing forces combining and interacting, with neither annihilated and the qualities of each preserved. No action, let alone a poem, can reach resolution in such a universe. The best that can result is equilibrium, a state that preserves the opposing forces.
And what is worse, the forces of Yeats’s universe are value neutral: subjectivity and objectivity are not equivalent to good and evil. They are merely antithetical characteristics, each in and at different times beneficial and harmful.
The classical worldview, by stark contrast, holds with Keats that truth and beauty are one. Falsehood and ugliness are not separate forces, but the absence of truth and beauty – as, according to Saint Augustine, evil is but the absence of good. Evil and ugliness as absences, therefore, are overcome by the presence of truth and beauty as those positive forces fill the void. Yeats the occultist sees instead a dualistic system – not uncommon among occult belief systems – in which darkness is not the absence of light, but a force separate from and opposed to the light. The interactions between the opposing forces are his gyres, from which all movement in the universe derives.
Yeats sees no truth, but only mysteries. Certainly, he saw his gyres and spirit-world as very real, but it is a reality that can only be understood by understanding an elaborate system of symbols – his system. He holds the keys to revelation and only those adepts initiated into the mysteries of his system have access to the knowledge he hides behind his symbols.
Yeats’s fault lies not in his use of symbols, which is one of the very fundamentals of poetry. Nor does it lie even with his construction of a unique worldview, value-neutral though it is. Instead, it lies in turning symbols into a secret language of conveying his system – a deliberate and methodical concealment of the meaning he conveys. One symbol, though arbitrarily selected itself, must make sense in the reality commonly understood by both the poet and every potential reader for it to carry any meaning. Yeats’s symbolism, however, is a self-contained universe, and makes sense only in the secret reality he himself constructed.
It is true that Yeats’s approach is atypical modernism. Rather than being dependent on each individual reading, Yeats’s images are fixed. But their fixation renders them no less arbitrary. They make sense only as assigned by Yeats in the context of Yeats’s elaborate occult worldview. Indeed, in this way Yeats achieves something of a union with divinity that was his ultimate aim as an occultist. He created his own poetic universe, and as creator set forth the terms for reality by which everyone entering it must abide. Those untaught in its ways are left forever in the dark.
Poetry that depends on the autocratic whim of its author not merely for its subject, diction, or worldview, but for the entire key to its understanding is not poetry but a religious system. Certainly Yeats, the consummate occultist, would have approved of this characterization. But poetry that constructs such elaborate systems fails as poetry no less than when it abdicates the task of assigning meaning to the reader. In the end, the poem is a system of arbitrary images, only with a fixed instead of a variable meaning. Understanding depends on initiation into the mysteries that the poet in godlike omnipotence has set forth.
True poetry requires neither secret knowledge nor dependence on its keeper. Truth is beauty, and truth is ascertainable by all through reason as beauty is by perception. The true poet only points out what is already and eternally present, but from his own vantage point. To the modernist, nothing exists to point out, and the modernist poet must either direct others’ gaze inward or, as in Yeats’s case, construct his own reality and dictate its terms to others. To all but the initiated reader, poetry is rendered incomprehensible, and thus inaccessible.
Bloom, Harold. Yeats. Oxford University Press, 1970.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. (1890 edition). Canongate Books, Ltd., 2010.
Guénon, René. Theosophy: The History of a Pseudo-Religion. Tr. Alvin Moore, Jr.; Cecil Bethell; Hubert and Rohini Schiff. Sophia Perennis, 2004.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Rogers, Matthew D. “Frenzies of the Beast: The Phaedran Furores in the Rites and Writings of Aleister Crowley.” Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism. Ed. Henrik Bogdan, Martin P. Starr. Oxford University Press, 2012. pp. 209-226.
Serra, C. Nicholas. “Esotericism and Escape.” W.B. Yeats’s “A Vision”: Explications and Contexts. Ed. Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson & Claire Nally. Clemson University Digital Press, 2012. pp. 307-328.
Yeats, William Butler. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. The Macmillan Company, 1944.
---. “Magic.” Ideas of Good and Evil. A.H. Bullen, 1903. pp. 29-69.
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their children. He practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.