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Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

Yeats and the after-life

Kathleen Raine

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1In this paper I do not propose to enter into a discussion of the symbol of the cycle of "states" or "phases of the moon" through which souls pass from life to life, nor into the account of "the soul in Judgment", given in AVision, which is Yeats's final elaboration of knowledge gained from many sources, written and unwritten, of the world of discarnate souls. Rather I shall confine myself to a few of his principal Western sources. His debt to India – to the Upanishads, of which he himself made a translation, with his Indian teacher Sri Purohit Swamy, would suffice for another paper, which I am not qualified to write. Yeats's search was never limited to the written word, nor is the term the afterlife really applicable to Yeats's investigations of the soul's history. Implicit in the word afterlife is the assumption that we have but one life on this earth, that new born-souls have no prehistory but pass at death into an eternal heaven or hell according to our deserts. This is not the teaching of Indian, nor of Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophers, nor was it Yeats's belief. Yeats had already seen India afar when, in 1885, he was a member of the Dublin Hermetic Society. It is significant that in the poem 'Mohini Chatterjee' written many years later, in 1928, in recalling the teacher of his youth (sent to Dublin by the Theosophical Society of which Yeats was already a member) it is precisely the Indian teaching on rebirth that he celebrates – the long succession of lives through which the soul must pass on its journey, in which the afterlife is indistinguishable from the life of the soul before incarnation. Already at the age of twenty it seems that Yeats had adopted this view, common to Hinduism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and other sacred traditions embraced within the "perennial philosophy". Perhaps it was not so much the desire for perfection and release from the wheel of return, but rather the poet's insatiable thirst for life, the desire "to live it all again, / And yet again" expressed in so many of Yeats's later poems that had kindled his early conversion – if conversion it was – to the traditional teaching of the East:

I asked if I should pray,
But the Brahmin said,
'Pray for nothing, say
Every night in bed,

'I have been a king,
I have been a slave,
Nor is there anything
That I have not been,
And yet upon my breast
A myriad heads have lain.'

That he might set at rest
A boy's turbulent days
Mohini Chatterjee
Spoke these, or words like these.

2Mohini Chatterjee's visit to Dublin was two years before Yeats met for the first time Maud Gonne, the beloved of his youth; her rejection of his love must have fired his need to believe that beyond this present life all desires will be satisfied – and does not that hope lie in every heart, for every human being is bitterly aware of how little of our innate being we can realize in one brief lifetime? In the intervening years a personal love and a personal anguish have become an insight into a universal truth, as Yeats replies to his early teacher:

  • 1 (1) Collected Poems, p. 279.

I add in commentary,
'Old lovers yet may have
All that time denied –
Grave is heaped on grave
That they be satisfied –
Over the blackened earth
The old troops parade,
Birth is heaped on birth
That such cannonade
May thunder time away,
Birth-hour and death-hour meet,
Or as grey sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet'1.

3Desire for the rich experiences of the Wheel of life, not for that release from the wheel which inspires Buddhist and other forms of monasticism, fired Yeats's poetry from first to last, and his explorations also of the discarnate phase of soul's unbroken story.

  • 2 (2) 'Is the Order of the Rosea Rubia and Aurea Crucis to remain a Magical Order?' (1900).

4I see in Yeats's 'Mohini Chatterjee' a great declaration of this love of life which energizes his whole work, and the faith which impels the soul's leap into the dark in order to discover (in Yeats's master Blake's words) "whether providence is there also. "Yeats in a later poem implies that faith and hope are the self-realizing energies of the Imagination: "... everything we formulate in the imagination, if we formulate it strongly enough, realizes itself in the circumstances of our life, acting either through our own souls, or through the spirits of nature" – so Yeats wrote in the first year of this century to his fellow students of the Magical Order of the Rosea Rubiae et Aurea Crucis2; and indeed the power of magic is the power of imagination. In 'The Tower' Yeats declared without reserve his faith in the Imagination as the creator of this and all worlds:

And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus' thought
And cry in Plato's teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.

  • 3 (3) Introduction to Aphorisms of Yoga by Patanjali, translation Sri Purohit Swamy, p. 16, note.
  • 4 (4) 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate 7'. Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes, p. 151. (He (...)

5The challenge to Plato and Plotinus would seem to be because the Greek philosophers, like the Christian theologians, have not attained the realization of the Indian scriptures, that Spirit is "that which has value in itself "and that the purified "soul itself is truth". "To Aristotle and Christian orthodoxy", Yeats comments3, "only God has value in himself, even Spirit is contingent". It seems that in the name of Indian advaita he challenges even Plato and Plotinus on similar grounds. Such themes might well seem to lead directly to Indian sources, and it was indeed India that through the Theosophical Society had first kindled his imagination, and to which his long spiritual journey led him at last. But Yeats's declaration of the creative power of the Imagination, and that this power to create worlds extends beyond the grave, Yeats learned, in the first place, from Blake and from Blake's master Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish mystic. Yeats, in his late twenties was (with Edwin J. Ellis, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle in which Yeats's father, J.B. Yeats, moved) the first editor of Blake's Prophetic Books, and these form the foundation of his knowledge of the learning of the Imagination. The writings of Blake's own master, Swedenborg, he had known even earlier. It was Blake, great prophet of the Imagination, who affirmed the creative power of that supreme Self who is the theme of India's scriptures. Blake (although he had read the Baghavaa Geeta in its first translation, by Charles Wilkins, a member of the learned circle of Sir William Jones and the Calcutta Society of Bengal) lacking a more comprehensive term, names that innate creative presence "Jesus the Imagination", or by the Swedenborgian term, "the Divine Human". Blake's "Jesus the Imagination" is not a historical person but a metaphysical reality. In this revolutionary affirmation that the creative principle is within man himself, Blake explicitly, and Swedenborg implicitly made a break with the dualism not only of Christianity, but also, as Yeats recognized in the passage already cited, with the Greek philosophers who set European civilization on the road to that scientific materialism whose supremacy both Blake and Yeats himself radically challenged. In his aphorism "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees"4 Blake summarizes a profound realization, well understood in the Eastern world, that consciousness, not nature, determines appearances. It may be that Yeats's lines about the creation of sun moon and star from the soul itself echo Blake's couplet

  • 5 (5) 'Auguries of Innocence' 1.109-10, Keynes, p. 433.

If the Sun and Moon should doubt
They'd immediately go out5.

6– or his more philosophically phrased lines,

  • 6 (6) 'Jerusalem', Plate 71, 17-19, Keynes, p. 709.

... in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven
And Earth and all you behold; tho' it appears without, it is Within,
In your Imagination, of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow6.

  • 7 (7) Ibid., 69.25, Keynes, p. 707.

7– "For all Things Exist in the Human Imagination"7.

8– but the creation of "translunar paradise" from the dreams and fantasies of the discarnate souls is purely Swedenborgian.

  • 8 (8) Aphorisms of Yoga, p. 20.

9In philosophic terms, the view that appearances are the creation of the perceiving mind, had already been stated by Berkeley in the eighteenth century. Blake had annoted some of his works, and Berkeley's name is honoured by Yeats – "God-appointed Berkeley, who thought all things a dream". Swedenborg was not a philosopher, but a highly respected scientist, assessor of minerals to the Swedish government. His extraordinary writings on the world of discarnate spirits are based upon a transformation of consciousness, experienced in his late middle life, and which he describes as an opening of the inner worlds. These he calls the heavens and the hells. From this time, and for the rest of his life, Swedenborg was able to perceive discarnate spirits, some who in life had been known to him, others not. From these experiences he built up a picture of the world of the discarnate, of minute and meticulous descriptive precision. He describes a world adjacent to ours, and resembling our world in many ways. His voluminous writings have since provided the foundation of the great body of evidence since collected by the Society of Psychical Research, and the many distinguished researchers in a field in which Yeats was himself an industrious worker. In Yeats's words8 "Swedenborg gave what there is of anatomy to the sentimental body of spiritualistic theory, but 'waking trance' and vision were themselves uninvestigated". In this sense Swedenborg was unsophisticated by Indian standards, which recognize the relativity of the observing mind itself. According to Swedenborg whereas in this world objects are fixed and dead, in the discarnate world objects and surroundings, garments, places, all appearances vary and fluctuate according to the state of the spirits, of which they are correspondences – such is Swedenborg's term. Most impressive of all his visionary perceptions is that all separate lives are united in the single body of "the Divine Humanity" – Blake's "Jesus, the Imagination" – the many-in-one and one-in-many of all humankind. I know of no parallel unless the self-revelation of the Lord Krishna of his universal form in the Baghavad Geeta. Yeats's "translunar Paradise" is taken directly from Swedenborg who describes the discarnate spirits creating in accordance with their thoughts and moods their garments and surroundings.

10To the second volume of his friend Lady Gregory's Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (published in 1920) Yeats appended a paper (written in 1914) entitled 'Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places'. By comparing evidence gained from many seances with mediums, collected by Lady Gregory and himself from the Irish-speaking country people, seen in the context of the comprehensive doctrine of Swedenborg, Yeats sought to arrive at "a doctrine of souls", a "vast generalization", an ever-growing structure of thought whose final presentation is A Vision, and which underlies his powerful plays on the discarnate world, The Words upon the Window-Pane, The Dreaming of the Bones, and Purgatory. "I was comparing one belief with another" he writes "and like Paracelsus, who claimed to have collected his knowledge from midwife and hangman, I was discovering a philosophy.

  • 9 (9) Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland, II, p. 296, (Hereafter V.B.).

And yet I do not think I have been easily convinced, for I know we make a false beauty by a denial of ugliness, and that if we deny the causes of doubt we make a false faith, and that we must excite the whole being into activity if we would offer to God what is, it may be, the one thing germane to the matter, a consenting of all our faculties9.

11This all-embracing thought of the Imagination – which I earlier described as Yeats's attitude of faith – is far removed from the negating attitude of discursive reason. He did not possess Swedenborg's psychic gift, nor Blake's soaring imaginative vision. States of expanded consciousness came to him seldom, and then through magical techniques, mediumship, and other aids towards the opening of the mind. Yeats was, one might say, a scientific investigator, but winged by that attitude of imaginative assent which serves to create the reality towards which it is directed – nothing less than the building of the worlds – the heavens and the earths – the soul inhabits.

12Yeats did not enter into his prolonged and deep searching of the records, written and unwritten, of the soul's history in search of proofs of survival, but rather because, believing as he did in its immortality he wished to discover more of the discarnate phase of our single and continuous life. The Catholic teaching of Purgatory and the value of prayers for the dead notwithstanding, Christianity is strangely reticent and incurious on the afterlife, and necromancy has always been actively discouraged. Yeats was aware of this lack and in A Vision writes:

  • 10 (10) A Vision, Second edition, 1937, p. 223 (Hereafter V.II).

Because we no longer meet the still unpurified dead through our own or others' dreams, and those in freedom through contemplation, religion cannot answer the atheist, and philosophy talks about a first cause or a final purpose, when we would know what we were a little before conception, what we shall be a little after burial10.

  • 11 (11) V.B., p. 301.
  • 12 (12) V.B., p. 300.

13In contrast with this official silence, Swedenborg describes the heavens and hells not as places of reward and punishment but as correspondences of the ever-varying imaginings of the spirits. In an instant they can build up mountains and gardens and palaces or caverns and claustrophobic ruinous surroundings. "This earth-resembling life" Yeats writes11 "is the creation of the image-making power of the mind, plucked naked from the body and mainly of the images of memory". In the discarnate state – so Swedenborg teaches – no dissembling is possible, and so the spirit "slips from state to state until he finds himself after a few days 'with those who are in accord with his life in the world.' ... it is characteristic of his whole religious system, the slow drifting of like to like. Then follows a period which may last but a short time or many years, while the soul lives a life so like that of the world that it may not even believe that it has died"12.

  • 13 (13) V.B., p. 305.

So heaven and hell are built always anew and in hell or heaven all do what they please and are surrounded by scenes and circumstances which are the expression of their natures and the creation of their thought13.

14Thus the very trivialities of communications through mediums are just such as we would expect from those whose lives are wrapped up in such things. In The Words upon the Window-Pane Yeats evokes the very atmosphere of the séance-rooms he has frequented, and which he describes in the same essay:

  • 14 (14) V.B., p. 296.

When I had climbed to the top storey of some house in Soho or Holloway, and having paid my shilling, awaited, among servant-girls, the wisdom of some fat old medium. That is an absorbing drama, though if my readers begin to seek it, they will spoil it, for its gravity and simplicity depends on all, or all but all, believing that their dead are near14.

15The form of The Words upon The Window-Pane is that of the realistic drama of Ibsen's school, but its drama comes (as in the Nôh theatre of Japan) from the arrival of the tormented spirits of Swift, Stella and Vanessa, still held in the passions of unsatisfied ambition and tragic love, and re-living their past

  • 15 (15) V.B., p. 300.

16Yeats compares Swedenborg's account of the discarnate world with that of "the early races of those whose dead are in the rath of fairy hill, of all who see no place of reward or punishment but a continuance of this life, with cattle and sheep, markets and war"15. Yeats and Lady Gregory collected abundant examples of the Fairy-faith, and Y. Evans-Wentz a young American scholar at that time pursued his studies on "The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries" under Yeats's guidance, working in Ireland and Scotland, Wales and Brittany. The classic work on Scottish beliefs that the world of the fairies is also the world of the dead, Dr. Robert Kirk Aberfoyle's Secret Commonwealth of the Elves and Fairies, was, need it be said, in Yeats's library.

17Yeats finds many parallels in the writings of the Cambridge Platonists, More and Cudworth, and in antiquity. "Orpheus calls them 'a people of dreams'" – a term which he uses in The Dreaming of the Bones.

  • 16 (16) The Tower', iii. Collected Poems, p. 223.

And, being dead, we rise,
Dream, and so create
Translunar paradise16.

18Yeats concludes his essay by comparing the folk-beliefs of the western world and the visions of Swedenborg with the supreme drama of the world of discarnate spirits, the Noh theatre of Japan. He tells a story from the Isle of Aran of lovers who came to a priest after death asking him to marry them, with that of a Noh play "rich in lyric poetry" in which a Buddhist priest performs that rite for two ghosts on a hill-side who tell him their story; their spirits are set at rest by the performing of the marriage they had not consummated in their earthly life.

19Such stories were, for Yeats, first-hand, told him by country-people in County Sligo or in Galway, (as I have myself heard them from Scottish Gaelic people in the Western Isles) and had reached him with all the poignancy of life itself, "warmed on our hearths, and in our souls". In The Celtic Twilight he had told many such stories. As in the Noh drama, so in Ireland, this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart. Yeats tells such a story in the words of an old Mayo woman:

  • 17 (17) Celtic Twilight, p. 165.

I have heard of a ghost mat was many years in a tree and many years in the archway of a bridge, and my old Mayo woman says, "there is a bush at my own place, and the people do be saying that there are two souls doing their penance under it. When the wind blows one way the one has shelter, and when it blows from the North the other has shelter. It is twisted over with the way they be rooting under it for shelter"17.

20In The Dreaming of the Bones and Purgatory Yeats is, again, drawing on what he had long before learned in the Desolate Places. Both these plays are attempts to create an equivalent of the Noh drama, the supreme drama of ghosts. The Dreaming of the Bones captures the very atmosphere and beliefs of the west of Ireland and the structure is close to the model of the Noh drama. A young man fleeing for his life after the Easter Rising meets on a hillside near the Abbey of Corcomroe a stranger and a young girl. These offer to lead him by safe ways to his rendez-vous with a boat that will carry him to safety; the chorus describes the stony path among briars and thorn. The stranger begins to tell the story of the adulterous lovers Diarmuid and Dervorgilla, buried nearby, who had first invited the English into Ireland to take their part against Dervorgilla's husband the King of Thomond. Because of their guilt they must haunt the hills, and as "people of dreams" relive again and again their story.

21There are echoes of folklore known to Yeats in the chorus and dialogue, as the young man remembers

... My Grandam
Would have it they did penance everywhere;
Some lived through their old lives again

22– and the Stranger takes up the theme –

And some for an old scruple must hang spitted
Upon the swinging tops of lofty trees,
Some are consumed with fire, some withered up
By hail and sleet out of the windy North
And some but live through their old lives again.

23The drama of the living and the dead unfolds, inwoven with images of mountain and thornbush and old bones buried in the Abbey ruins, as the unassuaged ghosts, still reliving their old sin, vanish at cock-crow. The power of the play lies in Yeats's total commitment to a theme that to a lesser poet might have been make-believe. But in it he is communicating his deeply-held belief, as also in Purgatory, where the son returning to the burnt-out ruin of the castle where he was born witnesses his mother's restless spirit re-enact the night of his conception, when she admitted a groom from the training-stables to her bed. The son vainly attempts to end the old crime by murdering his own son; but only to see the terrible re-enactment at the window of the mined castle play itself out again in the timeless world of the discarnate.

And she must animate that dead night
Not once but many times...

24In this fluid world of ever-changing appearances the spirits themselves flow, as Swedenborg reports, into one another's thoughts and memories, sometimes (still according to Swedenborg) believing themselves to be some other than themselves. In A Vision Yeats himself records from his own and Mrs. Yeats's communications that world of flux and phantasmagoria. One communicator told Yeats, "We will deceive you if we can". Indeed Swedenborg cautions against holding converse with unpurged spirits, a warning unheeded by Yeats, whose thirst for knowledge was greater than his caution – or at least until at a certain moment Yeats and Mrs. Yeats, who had acted as the medium through whom A Vision was dictated, stopped (as I was informed by their friend Captain Dermott MacManus) abruptly.

25From the account Yeats gives of the writing of A Vision it is clear that he encountered just such a flux as Swedenborg describes and the communicators themselves might, if Yeats discussed his experience with other people, "mistake that misunderstanding for their own thought". There were others whom they named frustrators who

  • 18 (18) V.II, p. 13.

...attempted to confuse us or waste time. Who these Frustrators were or why they acted so was never adequately explained, nor will be unless I can finish The Soul in Judgment' (Book III of this work) but they were always ingenious and sometimes cruel. The automatic script would deteriorate, grow sentimental or confused, and when I pointed this out the communicator would say From such and such an hour, on such and such a day, all is frustration'. I would spread out the script and he would cross all out back to the answer that began it, but had I not divined frustration he would have said nothing18.

26In earlier séances reported by Yeats, spirits appeared whose masks proved to be borrowed from a performance of Tartuffe currently playing at the Comédie Française, or enacted stories from a serial currently running in a weekly newspaper, or the like. It is no wonder that the Chaldean Oracle warned against that Protean world; and Yeats himself, in his essay on Swedenborg, quotes words that he nevertheless continued for so long to disregard:

  • 19 (19) V.B., p. 324.

Stoop not down to the darkly splendid world wherein continually lieth a faithless depth of Hades wrapped in cloud, delighting in unintelligible images19.

27For all that he made a series of drawings of "spirit heads" for the astrologer, Varley, we may be certain that Blake needed no medium to communicate truths which he was able to discern directly in his own imagination. An expansion, not a relinquishment, of conscious control is the mark of the imaginative vision of the poet as it is of the Yogi.

  • 20 (20) 'A Vision of the Last Judgment', Keynes, p. 605.
  • 21 (21) Aphorisms of Yoga, 1937, Introduction, p. 20.
  • 22 (22) V.I., p. 237.

28Writing in 1937, by which time Yeats had become to some extent familiar with India's more subtle thought on the nature of the Self, he returns to Swedenborg once more. Already he had understood that the worlds of the discarnate are worlds of the Imagination, and from Blake that the Imagination is "the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the Vegetated body"20. He had already understood that no study of nature will ever discover the heavens and hells discerned by Swedenborg, for these are regions not of nature but of the human Imagination. Swedenborg's visions had not opened to him a region of nature but of imagination. "Possibly I should deny to the visions of Swedenborg" Yeats writes, "the character of conscious Samadhi, Tureeyâ as Patanjali or the Upanishads understand that term is a sovereign condition and cannot accept a limit" but concedes "we may, I think, concede to Swedenborg an impure Samadhi". Yeats concludes that "there are two interpretations of psychic phenomena. In England and America it is attributed to spirits, whereas almost without exception, Continental investigators discover its origin in some hitherto unimagined power of the individual mind and body. These two points of view, spiritism and animism, are not in the eyes of the student of Yoga contradictory: to quote from the Chândogya Upanishad "The wise man sees in Self those that are alive and those that are dead"21. In A Vision the obscure symbol of the "thirteenth cone" or sphere is the abode within which live "all souls that have been set free". What for Blake is a Person (Jesus the Imagination) and for Swedenborg also, (the Divine Human) is for Yeats an abstraction, a cone or sphere. Yet there is surely an echo both of Blake and of Swedenborg in a passage of great beauty in the first version of A Vision22 in which Yeats writes:

We can sometimes hear the voices of the spirits of the Thirteenth Sphere, those men and women who have finished all their cycles and are called Those who Wait. We may even while we live hear their voices when in a state of trance, but speaking detached and broken sentences, and that which they say is always the greatest wisdom attainable to our soul.

  • 23 (23) V.II., p. 22.

29In the later version23, Yeats repeats his warning that "mere spirits" (using the word in the Swedenborgian sense, as the unpurged dead)" are the objective, a reflection and distortion; Reality itself is to be found in the Daimon, in what they call, in commemoration of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Ghosdy Self. The blessed spirits must be sought within the self which is common to all".

30The convergence of Swedenborg, Blake and Yeats himself is surely something more than the transmission of knowledge – Yeats's words carry the conviction of direct experience – as indeed does Swedenborg's unprecedented vision of "the Grand Man of the Heavens" whom he calls the Divine-Humanity, who when at a distance is seen as one man, but from a nearer view an innumerable multitude. Blake, who describes that Person as "Jesus the Christ" seems to be paraphrasing Swedenborg closely, although there is no doubt of his imaginative realization, present throughout his writings, of that universal Self; Blake writes

  • 24 (24) 'Vala or the Four Zoas', Night the First, 1.469-74, Keynes, p. 277.

Then those in Great Eternity met in the Council of God
As one Man, for contracting their Exalted Senses
They behold Multitude, or Expanding they behold as one,
As One Man all the Universal family, and that One Man
They call Jesus the Christ, and they in him and he in them
Live in Perfect Harmony, in Eden, the land of life24.

  • 25 (25) Aphorisms of Yoga, p. 11.

31Blake, Swedenborg, and Yeats himself in the passages cited, all suffered from want of a received language in which to speak of a knowledge outside the bounds of the post-Renaissance West; but the depth and comprehensiveness of Yeats's understanding of the mystery he perceived afar off reveals itself as the more authentic as we understand how deeply he was "engaged in that endless research into life, death, God, that is every man's reverie"25. It is Yeats's greatness that life itself was, first and last, his book of wisdom, and not the printed word; wide as his reading was, the truth he pursued through many pages could, ultimately, be found in no written book.

32Swedenborg's vivid world of discarnate souls is in some sense progressive, spirits passing from state to state, rising to higher, or descending to lower heavens orhells, but reincarnation forms no part of Swedenborg's essentially conventional Christian system. It might be assumed that Yeats's belief in reincarnation came from his Indian studies, together with elements from Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry and other Neoplatonists. The evidence, however, points to another source, Swedenborg's "disciple and antagonist" – so Yeats truly describes him – Blake. Crabb Robinson, the diarist and friend of Wordsworth, who visited Blake when nearing the end of his life tells that Blake held that there would be no life after death if there were not also a life before birth. Yeats could not have known that Blake had illustrated, in the beautiful tempera painting found at Arlington Court in Devonshire only in the year 1949, Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum, a book Yeats himself loved and often quotes, a work loved also by the Italian painters of the Florentine school. In that work Porphyry sets forth in beautiful mythological symbols, the Neoplatonic doctrine of the descent of souls, their clothing in mortal garment by the nymphs of the sacred cave, and their return to the world of immortality. But Yeats, with his infallible discernment, recognized, from many passages in Blake, that reincarnation was indeed a part of his system. In the essay on Swedenborg already cited, Yeats makes this important distinction between Swedenborg and Blake. He refers to the teaching of discarnate spirits,

  • 26 (26) V.B. II, p. 315.

speaking through a great number of automatists and trance speakers, and all the essential thought of Swedenborg remains, but ... these spirits do not believe in an Eternal Hell, and, like Blake, they describe unhuman races, powers of the elements, and declare that the soul is no creature of the womb, having lived many lives upon the earth. The sorrow of death, they tell us again and again, is not so bitter as the sorrow of birth26.

33In his commentary in the Ellis and Yeats edition of Blake's prophetic Books Yeats had written,

  • 27 (27) Blake's Prophetic Books, 1893, ed. Ellis and Yeats, Vol. 1, p. 274.

Blake's doctrine of reincarnation divides his teaching from that of Swedenborg and Boehme, and unites it with that of the eastern mystics and mediaeval Kabbalists27.

34Yeats had recognized this belief implicit in a number of passages in Blake, which have in turn clearly influenced his own thought – or rather, his own symbolic language. This radical difference between Blake and Swedenborg can be attributed to Blake's knowledge of the works of his one-time friend Thomas Taylor the Platonist and Taylor's translations – the first into English – of Plato, Plotinus, and the most important writings of the Neoplatonists. Many passages in Yeats which describe the descent and return of souls can be ascribed directly to his reading of Blake, whose writings, as Blake's first editor, he knew so well. Although certain images – as the body as the garment of the soul Yeats might have derived directly from Taylor's Porphyry, others could only have reached him through Blake. One such example is the earth as the cradle of the generating souls, the "daughters of Albion" are described, in terms Blake clearly derives from Porphyry's nymphs of the Cave as the weavers of bodily garments. Yeats in two poems uses the image of the Cradle with dramatic power. The use that comes most powerfully to mind is in 'The Second Coming'. The image follows Yeats's awesome vision of "the rough beast" – the antichrist – approaching the place of birth:

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?

35Much in this passage derives from Blake's poem 'The Mental Traveller', itself based on the parable in Plato's Laws which describes the alternation of ages, ruled in turn by God and by earth-born men. After twenty centuries of Christendom (Yeats declares, and Blake and Swedenborg had already announced a New Age) we have reached the point of reversal, and the turning of the gyres that rock the cradle of the world into which the Lord Jesus was born, are about to witness another birth. So far this is Platonic symbolism but the cradle is Christian, and comes specifically from Blake, who had written:

This World is all a Cradle for the erred wandering Phantom
Rock'd by Year, Month, Day and Hour, and every two Moments
Between, dwells a Daughter of Beulah to feed the Human Vegetable.

36(that is, the bodily garment of the generated soul). Like Porphyry's Nymphs who on "stone looms" weave the "purple garments" of generated bodies the "daughters of Beulah" (a Swedenborgian and Biblical symbol of the married state) clothe the discarnate souls:

  • 28 (28) 'Jerusalem', Plate 56, 1.9-14, Keynes, p. 688.

Entune, Daughters of Albion, your hymning Chorus mildly,
Cord of affection thrilling extatic on the iron Reel
To the golden Loom of Love, to the moth-laboured Woof
A Garment and a Cradle for the infantine Terror
For fear, at entering the gate into our world of cruel
Lamentation it fly back and hide in non-entity's dark wild28.

37No symbol of power has a single source, and there may be also in the image of the cradle a resonance of Plotinus' phrase describing the spiritually unawakened souls passing "as it were, from bed to bed, from sleep to sleep". No poet knows so well how to resonate the multiple overtones of symbolic image as does Yeats. The learning of poets differs in kind from that of academic scholars, though they may read the same books. The "learning of the Imagination" is a search for truth and reality, not for information as such or in the service of some theory. Yeats does not display his learning – rather he conceals it in some casual phrase that yet will serve as a clue to the discerning; and these will invariably find that he writes always from a great background of exact, though undisclosed, knowledge. His clues are sufficient for the serious student (I mean especially the student of that "knowledge absolute" Yeats himself pursued) while concealing from the imaginatively unprepared a kind of learning they would not understand. I met only once the great Renaissance scholar, Edgar Wind, who said, on that occasion, how greatly he admired Yeats whose art, like that of Botticelli and other Florentine painters, was to veil deep wisdom and exact knowledge in a gossamer-light vesture of beauty. Such clues, need it be said, are likely to be overlooked by commentators for whom (in the words of one of these) "the supernatural forms no part of our mental furniture". So what to Yeats were the deep mysteries of the soul, whose theme runs through the art and literature of all sacred traditions is passed over.

38Even now Yeats's writings continue to be studied in ingorance and disregard for the deep current of imaginative knowledge from which it is drawn. True, the sources he studied – even the written ones – are unlikely to be found on any University syllabus – Dee and Paracelsus, Myers and Lombroso, the Kabbalah Denudata and the 17th century Rev. Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle's Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. But then neither are the works of Plotinus and Porphyry nor Thomas Taylor the Platonist, the Hermetica, the Baghavad Geeta and the Upanishads. In contrast, the works of T.S. Eliot are interwoven with allusions to literary sources, English, French and Italian generally known and studied in the English faculties of Western Universities. But between these two great poets lies a watershed. At the time it was held that whereas Eliot's was a great seminal mind, Yeats somehow succeeded in writing great poetry despite his disreputable dabblings in psychical research and his studies of obsolete superstitions of Kabbalah and alchemy. Now it is clear that the civilization on which Eliot's work is supported, and of which it is the last great expression, belongs to the past; while Yeats, in looking to the "excluded knowledge" of the Philosophia Perennis, the learning of the Imagination embodied in the sacred traditions alike of the West and of the East, and above all to India, has opened for us a door into the universal mind, and into the future; "the rise of soul against intellect, now beginning in the world" as in words of self-realizing prophecy he himself proclaimed. For his poetry is more than an art, it is a profound mode of thought, an extension of the frontiers of wisdom.

39To return to the image of the Cradle: the other poem in which this image is used with great power is "The Phases of the Moon', which in A Vision prefaces the elaborate symbol of the wheel of reincarnations. This lunar wheel, a symbol to be found in both Buddhist and Upanishadic scriptures I shall not discuss, except insofar as Yeats describes the souls seeking successive incarnations as in flight from "a dream" – Orpheus' "people of dreams" in the House of Hades – who seek refuge in life after life:

Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,
Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,
Cradle after cradle, and all in flight, and all
Deformed, because there's no deformity
But saves us from a dream.

  • 29 (29) Plotinus, Translation Stephen MacKenna, Ennead IV.8.5.

40The poetic ease of Yeats's language and the strength of his images in themselves should never deceive us into taking the precise and learned allusions from which he weaves the magic of his words for simple description or poetic flight of fancy. All is deliberately chosen to lend strength to the edifice of his poetic thought from the traditional body of knowledge from which it is drawn. A typical example of the image which may seem descriptive to the simple reader but which resonates with meaning for the initiate, is the image of the souls in flight, which may refer to a passage in Plotinus29 and perhaps also to Empedocles and Herakleitus themselves; Plotinus is discussing the reasons for soul's descent into incarnation:

It is possible to reconcile all those apparent contradictions – the divine sowing to birth, as opposed to a voluntary descent aiming at the completion of the universe; the judgment and the cave; necessity and free choice – embodiment as an evil; the Empedoclean teaching of a flight from God, a wandering away, a sin bringing its punishment; the "solace of flight" of Heraclitus; in a word a voluntary descent which is also involuntary.

  • 30 (30) Ibid., IV.8.2. and IV.3.25
  • 31 (31) Ibid.

41In an earlier passage Plotinus cites Empedocles "where he says that it is a law for faulty souls to descend to this sphere"30 and in another passage(31 declares that "no one can ever escape the suffering entailed by ill deeds done; the divine law is ineluctable, carrying bound up, as one with it, the fore-ordained execution of its doom. The sufferer, all unaware, is swept onward towards his due, hurried always by the restless driving of his errors, until at last wearied out by that against which he struggled, he falls into his fit place, and by self-chosen movement is brought to the lot he never chose".

42The Phases of the Moon' owes much also to Blake who both in an early book, Vala or The Four Zoas and later in Milton, describes how Los and Enitharmon, agents of time and space, give forms to "the spectres of the dead":

  • 32 (32) 'Vala Night the Sixth', 1.439, Keynes, p. 331.

... stern desire
I feel to fabricate embodied semblances in which the dead
May live before us in our palaces in our gardens of [pleasure]
and labour32.

43Los creates

... a lovely form, inspir'd, divinely human,

44– and the bodiless spectres

  • 33 (33) Ibid., 474-5, Keynes, p. 332.

Assimilating to those forms, Embodied and Lovely,
In youth and beauty, in the arms of Enitharmon mild reposing33.

45This theme is more fully developed by Blake in the poem Milton. Again Blake is drawing on Porphyry's myth, in which two gates are described, one to the South, through which the souls descend, the other to the North by which they return to the world of immortals. Blake's allusion is unmistakeable when he writes of "Two Gates thro' which all Souls descend, One Southward... the other toward the North". Blake's enigmas, like Yeats's, are never vague or imprecise, though they may remain deeply obscure to those unaware of their allusion. For Blake, "Time is the mercy of Eternity" and souls who seek incarnation do so from their need of embodiment They come from "the borders of non-entity".

  • 34 (34) 'Milton', Plate 26. 1.26-30, Keynes, p. 512.

Where Souls incessant wail, being piteous Passions and Desires
With neither lineament nor form, but like to wat'ry clouds
The Passions and Desires descend upon the hungry winds
For such alone Sleepers remain, mere passion and appetite.
The Sons of Los clothe them and feed and provide houses and fields34.

  • 35 (35) V.B., p. 315.
  • 36 (36) V.II, p. 8.

46Yeats in the essay on Swedenborg already cited is surely remembering Blake'swailing souls about to descend into incarnation when he writes that "had our ears the subtlety we could listen to the wailing of the spirit betrayed into a cradle"35. Whereas Yeats weaves his symbolic images into a texture of flawless beauty, Blake's use of images only an initiate will recognize must merely bewilder the uninitiated with their obscurity, as if challenging, sphinx-like, the baffled reader. For example, the "wat'ry clouds" which surround the generating souls are no vague description but allude to the "moist envelopes" described by Porphyry, which the souls gather about themselves in their descent into generation. These moist envelopes are also a commonplace of the world of psychical research, and Yeats writes of the "luminous cloud, or a sort of phosphorescent mud" or the "cobweb of vapour we can see and handle" of the seance-room, drawn out of the body of the medium and the sitters. In the same way Blake's sleepers – a word he uses throughout his writings – lead us back to Plotinus' use of the term for the spiritually unawakened. Academic readers often take refuge from the necessity to understand Yeats's A Vision by quoting the spirit who told him "we have come to give you metaphors for poetry"36. But such images as Yeats received from the spirits, or discovered in his learned sources, are not those descriptive images perceived by superficial readers, of his (or Blake's, or Shelley's) poetry but the common language of symbolic images within an age-old and universal tradition of spiritual discourse transmitted from Homer to Porphyry, to Dante and Botticelli, to Blake and Shelley and Yeats, continuously re-verified by anonymous humanity – the universal context in which alone these poets (painters also) can be fully understood. The quest for reality and truth was at all times Yeats's inspiring purpose, and he cared not at all when that quest led him into regions undreamed of by the reader who brings to his work only the received culture of our modern secular society – no more than had Blake and Shelley before him.

47As to the complexities of AVision with its twenty-eight-fold lunar cycles of incarnations, the summation of all Yeats's studies of the written and unwritten doctrine of souls, only in this work does he allude to The Upanishads, to which he had turned increasingly in his later years as it became clear to him that India alone possessed the full doctrine. To say that Yeats had himself full knowledge and understanding of his Indian sources would not be true; but he had chosen the direction in which he was to travel during the last years of his life, and had travelled some way along that path. His commitment is witnessed in those translations of the ten principal Upanishads he made with his teacher, Sri Purohit Swamy.

48To doubt Yeats's total commitment to the restoration of the immemorial doctrine of the Perennial Philosophy is impossible to any reader who has become aware of the universal language of myth and image Yeats employs. True he was less a mystic or prophetic visionary than an explorer of the frontiers of the soul's universe as he attempted to present and discover an alternative to the naive materialism of the scientific atheist view of the world current in his time and place. Yeats was a member and initiate of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, and in an address given in 1901 to that society he was able to speak without reserve of his deepest beliefs, in words moving in their sincerity and simplicity:

The great Adept may indeed have to hide much of his deepest life, lest he tell it to the careless and the indifferent, but he will sorrow and not rejoice over this silence, for he will be always seeking ways of giving the purest substance of his soul to fill the emptiness of other souls. It will seem to him better that his soul be weakened, that he be kept wandering upon the earth even, than that other souls should lack anything of strength and quiet... He will remember, while he is with them, the old magical image of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood; and when, his sacrifice over, he goes his way to supreme Adeptship, he will go absolutely alone, for men attain to the supreme wisdom in a loneliness that is like the loneliness of death.

49Yeats concludes his address, in which he is for once sharing his deepest thought openly with the like-minded:

  • 37 (37) See Note 2.

We have set before us a certain work that may be of incalculable importance in the change of thought that is coming upon the world37.

50Who can suppose that he had in mind any mere change in literary fashion?


1 (1) Collected Poems, p. 279.

2 (2) 'Is the Order of the Rosea Rubia and Aurea Crucis to remain a Magical Order?' (1900).

3 (3) Introduction to Aphorisms of Yoga by Patanjali, translation Sri Purohit Swamy, p. 16, note.

4 (4) 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate 7'. Complete Writings edited by Geoffrey Keynes, p. 151. (Hereafter Keynes followed by page-number).

5 (5) 'Auguries of Innocence' 1.109-10, Keynes, p. 433.

6 (6) 'Jerusalem', Plate 71, 17-19, Keynes, p. 709.

7 (7) Ibid., 69.25, Keynes, p. 707.

8 (8) Aphorisms of Yoga, p. 20.

9 (9) Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland, II, p. 296, (Hereafter V.B.).

10 (10) A Vision, Second edition, 1937, p. 223 (Hereafter V.II).

11 (11) V.B., p. 301.

12 (12) V.B., p. 300.

13 (13) V.B., p. 305.

14 (14) V.B., p. 296.

15 (15) V.B., p. 300.

16 (16) The Tower', iii. Collected Poems, p. 223.

17 (17) Celtic Twilight, p. 165.

18 (18) V.II, p. 13.

19 (19) V.B., p. 324.

20 (20) 'A Vision of the Last Judgment', Keynes, p. 605.

21 (21) Aphorisms of Yoga, 1937, Introduction, p. 20.

22 (22) V.I., p. 237.

23 (23) V.II., p. 22.

24 (24) 'Vala or the Four Zoas', Night the First, 1.469-74, Keynes, p. 277.

25 (25) Aphorisms of Yoga, p. 11.

26 (26) V.B. II, p. 315.

27 (27) Blake's Prophetic Books, 1893, ed. Ellis and Yeats, Vol. 1, p. 274.

28 (28) 'Jerusalem', Plate 56, 1.9-14, Keynes, p. 688.

29 (29) Plotinus, Translation Stephen MacKenna, Ennead IV.8.5.

30 (30) Ibid., IV.8.2. and IV.3.25

31 (31) Ibid.

32 (32) 'Vala Night the Sixth', 1.439, Keynes, p. 331.

33 (33) Ibid., 474-5, Keynes, p. 332.

34 (34) 'Milton', Plate 26. 1.26-30, Keynes, p. 512.

35 (35) V.B., p. 315.

36 (36) V.II, p. 8.

37 (37) See Note 2.

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