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Yeats's Mask

 | 
Margaret Mills Harper
, 
Warwick Gould

Yeats’s mask

The Mask of Derision in Yeats’s Prologue to A Vision (1937)

Elizabeth Müller

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Esoteric Comedies of Carlyle, Newman and Yeats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), (...)
  • 2 ‘Yeats’s Vision as Philosophic Satura’, Eire – Ireland, 12, n. 3 (Fomhar/Autumn 1977), 62–70 at 67
  • 3 ‘Michael Robartes: Two Occult Manuscripts’: see YO 204–24. Yeats probably had Plato’s Dialogues in (...)
  • 4 A Vision has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka, a Prose Poem, Jeffrey Meyers, Edgar Allan (...)

1Yeats’s prologue to the 1937 edition of A Vision conceals important occult knowledge under the cloak of irony and self-derisive wit. Wit or humour has not been targeted very often in criticism of Yeats’s work and A Vision might be deemed a dubious place to start. However a few critics have attempted to tackle the issue, and I have based a substantial part of this essay on the work of Steven Helmling, Haz ard Adams and Eugene Korkowski. All three have commented upon the predominantly humoristic tone of the Prologue, with Korkowski and Helmling pointing to the literary traditions of Antiquity as a possible source. Helmling considers that, in the Prologue, Yeats endorses the role of the Socratic eirôn and uses mock-humility, as Socrates often does in Plato’s Dialogues, in order to gain strength at his interlocutor’s expense: in the end, the moral stature of the eirôn becomes such that he enforces respect for his theories and wins the argument or, at least, ridicules his opponent.1 Korkowski, on the other hand, interprets the Prologue in the light of the Menippean satura, the Latin word satura meaning ‘a medley’ or ‘mixed plate’. This medley involves the use of ‘jocularity in combination with serious philosophic matter’ in order ‘to bring philosophy in an appealing and entertaining form to the common man’.2 The quality of such critical attention seems to indicate that the Prologue is pivotal to the system. Indeed, as demonstrated by Walter Kelly Hood, Yeats had originally conceived the presentation of the whole system as a dialogue between Aherne and Robartes, two central characters in the 1937 Prologue, and he had even composed an epilogue in the same vein, entitled ‘Michael Robartes Foretells’ which he later discarded.3 Obviously, bypassing the Prologue as a mere piece of tomfoolery in order to make a greedy dash for Yeats’s ‘system’ would not render A Vision justice. The Prologue not only lends Yeats’s whole treatise tone and colour, but a close study of its intricate architecture is a necessary step to reach some understanding of what this intricate cosmogony has worth revealing.4 As Warwick Gould suggests, the Prologue, particularly the fictitious part, can be considered a useful guide to the system itself:

  • 5 ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect: W. B. Yeats’s Two Versions of A Vision and the Arabian Nights’, in (...)

Some critics have sought to read the fictions in the light of the system; others see them as the comic manipulation of the form of a printed book. No one has tried to read the system by the light of the fictions. Yet, since they were the bridge Yeats used between doctrine and its concrete embodiment in lyrics, it is worth asking whether the fictions might serve the reader not as temporary scaffolding, but as a permanent, necessary and integral part of Yeats’s work, coterminous with plays and poems on the one hand and with abstract thought on the other.5

  • 6 The Book of Yeats’s A Vision, Romantic Modernism and Antithetical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University (...)

2Before I offer my own attempt at analysis, a short summary of the Prologue and a glance at its situation within the system seem apposite. The five books constituting A Vision are bracketed by two poems, ‘The Phases of the Moon’ as introduction, and ‘All Souls’ Night’ as epilogue. The Prologue itself, situated before ‘The Phases of the Moon’ can be said to fall into two parts. ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’, is composed of three ‘chapters’: one is about Yeats’s life in Rapallo and his aesthetic disagreement with Pound, the second is ‘the true story’ of his wife’s automatic writing, and the third consists in a letter addressed to Pound. In this first part, which Adams amusingly calls the ‘primary account’,6 Yeats is speaking in his own person and, apparently, nothing fictional intervenes.

  • 7 Aherne and Robartes, besides appearing in Yeats’s three short stories ‘Rosa Alchemica’, ‘The Table (...)
  • 8 See Adams, 46–48.
  • 9 Huddon, Duddon and O’Leary who first appear in the poem introducing the fictitious stories (AVB 32 (...)
  • 10 The names themselves glance at Blake’s two poems ‘Long John Brown & Little Mary Bell’ and ‘William (...)

3The second part, ‘Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends: An Extract from a Record made by his Pupils’, is an extravagant series of fictitious tales concerning characters who, as is well-known, either represent Yeats’s well-established heteronyms such as Robartes and Owen and John Aherne,7 or are young people who embody single aspects of his past self-conceptions.8 It can be divided into two sections, both composed of three chapters, and each section culminates with the appearance of Robartes, the younger characters’ mentor. In the first section, which seems linked with the theme of art, Huddon, Duddon, Denise de L’Isle Adam and Daniel O’Leary, form a quartet.9 The second section introduces the new characters of John Bond and Mary Bell and focuses on love.10 Throughout the two fictitious sections, the general rule seems to be that each protagonist must tell his or her own story and, in the first section, Daniel O’Leary begins: he labours under an obsessive hatred for the realistic theatre and, during a performance he particularly dislikes, hurls both his boots at the actors on stage. Duddon’s story follows: as an impoverished artist, his main achievement consists in an attempt to assault and batter his own patron, Huddon, and even that fails as he attacks the wrong man. We thus have two narratives before the first appearance of Michael Robartes. The latter’s first intervention is partly comical narrative, exactly in the same vein as the other tales, partly philosophical. He mentions discovering an old manuscript printed in Cracow in 1594 and written by one Giraldus and, then, receiving the visit of a mysterious Arab who recognizes the doctrine of Giraldus as identical with the teachings of his tribe, called the Judwalis.

  • 11 Here again, fact and fiction intermingle since the story of Denise’s love affair with Huddon and D (...)

4In the second section, Denise de L’Isle Adam tells the peculiar story of her ménage à trois: she loves Duddon but is the mistress of Huddon for real love cannot be realized in the flesh.11 This is followed by the next extravagant narrative, another love triangle: Mary Bell, her husband, Mr. Bell, and her lover John Bond. In this story, Mary Bell, after her affair with John Bond, has to return to her dying husband for financial reasons. This husband has a passion for birds and his life-long dream is to teach cuckoos to build nests, an endeavour which, of course, is doomed to failure. Finally, Mary Bell manages to fake a cuckoo’s nest by dint of great labour and skill, and passes this off as a real one to her husband so that he can die in peace. Of all the extravagant stories, this one sounds particularly absurd but such an impression is deceptive, of course, and, it is, in fact, the only success story in all the fictitious tales. Robartes’ second and last intervention concludes this apparently nonsensical presentation, but this time his revelations concern the cycles of history. We learn that our next age will be one of warfare, and this ends in a sort of apotheosis with Robartes triumphantly producing the third egg of Leda he has purchased in the East, before he, Aherne and Mary Bell repair to the desert: they plan to bury the egg in the sand where, in due course, it will be hatched and give birth to the new Messiah.

  • 12 The creation of John Aherne, Owen’s brother, is probably due to a slip of the pen, as Yeats himsel (...)
  • 13 Many critics have noted the importance of Yeats’s interaction with his characters. See the precedi (...)

5The fictitious account presents a fine symmetry: two narratives about art followed by Robartes’ first intervention, then two more narratives about love followed by Robartes’ second appearance. This is partly why I tend to regard the concluding letter of the fictitious prologue as a sort of annex or third part, which bridges the gap between the primary reality of ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’ and the fictitious stories of the second part. The letter is written by Owen Aherne’s brother, John Aherne, and is addressed to Yeats who thus stages himself within the fictitious tale and creates an interaction between himself and several alter-egos of his own making.12 Essentially the letter, although it does not mention the automatic writing, links the two accounts together since it states that Yeats’s work (three poems and his revised edition of A Vision) are in due conformity with the Giraldus manuscript as well as the diagrams of the Judwali sect. In short, Yeats, as author, is fortunate enough to receive the sanction of his own fictional characters for some of his latest work. This has attracted various comments from critics but all generally agree that the constant interaction between fact and fiction provides the reader with a much needed suspension of disbelief as regards the system and its origin. Both the treatise and the mysterious ‘voices’ from the beyond which instigated it are somehow rendered acceptable through these constant mirror effects destined to blur our sense of ‘reality’.13

6The prologue also constitutes a healthy proof, if we needed one, of Yeats’s sense of humour and in the course of my summary, the most farcical elements will already have stated themselves. What interests me here is what lies hidden underneath the farrago of fact and fiction. So I shall first cast a quick glance at Yeats’s self-derisive irony before I point to the subjacent unity which, in my opinion, underpins the various accounts.

  • 14 As most readers of Yeats know, Kusta Ben Luka’s story was a veiled autobiographical account of the (...)
  • 15 As Adams notes, 46–48; also Helmling, 181–83.
  • 16 Helmling, 183. For the real story see above, n. 11.
  • 17 See Adams, 48. His interpretation is substantiated by the antagonistic feeling Maud Gonne often ar (...)
  • 18 The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, updated 1994), 683, 687. Claire Nally also notes (...)

7The derision in the prologue is mostly targeted at Yeats himself as practically all the fictitious characters in the second part, from the mage Giraldus to the old Arab (who, it is claimed, is a probable rein-carnation of Kusta Ben Luka), could be considered alter egos.14 Many of these characters are ridiculous because excessive as well as obses­sive: the anecdotes about rebelling against realistic plays or about the patron one dislikes remind us of Yeats’s early life;15 the story of the trio Huddon, Duddon, and Denise could be viewed as a pastiche of Yeats, Maud Gonne and MacBride even though there is a fac­tual basis for the story;16 and the love and hate relationship between Robartes and the dancer is also reminiscent of Yeats’s intellectual disapproval of Maud Gonne17: ‘I adored in body what I hated in will’ (AVB 38). From Denise’s high ideals regarding discarnate love to the more iconoclastic adventures of Robartes, all these stories present a kaleidoscope of Yeats’s own life. Even the literary and philosophical references are veiled allusions to Yeats’s past: his youthful enthusiasm for Villiers de L’Isle Adam, held up to ridicule through the inept character of Denise; his high-flown illusions about so-called Platonic love embodied in the Huddon, Duddon, Denise trio; his early style inspired by Pater, which is defended by one alter ego (John Aherne) and mercilessly attacked by another (Robartes); lastly, Yeats’s own constant preoccupation with birds, their nests and their eggs. These are only a few echoes which come to mind and this enumeration is by no means exhaustive. In his note to the poem, ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, Daniel Albright aptly speaks of ‘a reverberating abyss’ and of Yeats’s image being endlessly reflected ‘in a roomful of mirrors’.18 This also applies to the 1937 Prologue and, since most anecdotes tell of silly failures or fanciful figures propounding eccentric theories, there seems very little to salvage from the wreck: Yeats’s life and personality lie mercilessly exposed through all the distorted masks of his own self mingled with the refractions of miscellaneous characters, some real, some fictitious, but all sharing some aspect of him in the past.

  • 19 Adams, 20 and Helmling, 208.
  • 20 Adams, 30.
  • 21 Ibid., 30, 69–70.
  • 22 Ibid., 39.
  • 23 The distinction we find between the Ionic and the Doric in A Vision, Book V, is indebted to Walter (...)

8In addition, a more subtle kind of self-derisive irony transpires through a recurring trick of announcing the opposite of what is, in fact, going to be done. Critics have pointed out several instances of this: Yeats telling the reader the system is not a system and then presenting him with one;19 or warning us he does not intend to include the Arabs into this story, and promptly doing so ‘in the very next section of the book’;20 pretending he can find nothing but Empedocles to corroborate the system (AVB 20), whereas the whole of Greek tradition, Dante, as well as a few other sources will serve to back it up later;21 dismissing his fiction as nonsense now that ‘the truth’ is known and yet immediately elaborating upon it.22 To these, I could add the hasty dismissal of Pater’s style in a fundamentally Paterian book (one thinks of Yeats’s rich imagery in connection with Byzantium, as well as the distinction between Ionian and Dorian art which informs the whole of Book V);23 the choice of the title A Vision for this intricate, precise, diagrammatic codification of personality and civilization; the unexpected proposition that the instructors ‘have come to give … metaphors for poetry’ (AVB 8), an information which, in his eager anticipation for revelation, Yeats blissfully disregards in any case.

  • 24 Adams, 40, on sprezzatura, see 14–15 and 46.
  • 25 Helmling, 15–17 and 21. In the discarded manuscript entitled ‘Robartes Foretells’, Yeats’s willing (...)
  • 26 Helmling, 211.
  • 27 Korkowski, 70.
  • 28 Korkowski points out that the Roman satura, unlike its Greek counterpart, did not aim to ridicule (...)

9For Adams, the self-derisiveness in the Prologue indicates that the system itself is not to be taken seriously: it is a no-system and the book must be treated as a piece of antithetical uncertainty, a fine construct and a fictional challenge which Yeats wrote in a fit of light-hearted sprezzatura.24 For Helmling, the Prologue bears witness to Yeats’s role as eirôn, ‘the wise man who enlightens others by playing the fool with them’: eventually, self-derisiveness backfires and the reader feels compelled to endorse the eirôn’s position, in this case, Yeats’s ‘indictment of materialist, bourgeois, ‘modern’ culture’.25 These various readings, thought-provoking as they might be, seem incomplete, for more is at stake here than mere ironical criticism. Nor can I agree that ‘A Vision presents no ‘philosophy’ but rather … a fantasia of images, poses, gestures’.26 Korkowski seems nearer the mark when he asserts that the sheer medley of fact and fiction, the many loopholes and disavowals in both real and fictitious accounts are merely part of the technique of the satura which consists in mak­ing ‘bitter and difficult learning’ palatable.27 As Korkowski makes clear, the improbable medley aims at more than parody and satire, and this brings me to my main development which is about the kind of coherence I detect under the guise of nonsense.28 In the apparently cock and bull story of the Prologue, every detail points both to the forthcoming system and to the hidden esoteric doctrine which Yeats likes to veil from his readers’ eyes.

10Two main leads are given at the very beginning of the true account, two clues which will serve as constant leitmotivs throughout the whole Prologue, and contribute to explain the very neat division of the fictitious Prologue into two sections. The first point is that apparently it is necessary to read about or write one’s own biography before obtaining revelation. This principle is supported by Yeats’s famous statement: ‘We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric but of the quarrel with ourselves poetry’ (Myth 331), and this sentence, taken from Per Amica Silentia Lunae, is said to have drawn the communicators’ attention to Yeats in the first place (AVB 8). In the very first pages of the true account, Yeats recalls Browning’s Paracelsus and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister: the former had to write his autobiography before he obtained ‘the secret’ (AVB 9); the latter ‘before initiation’ had to read his own history written by another (AVB 9). This first element, biography, knowing about oneself, will not only reappear severally throughout the Prologue, but it directly applies to the whole first half of the subsequent system (the phases of the moon).

11The second point is history: in the true account, shortly after their revelations regarding the various personality types, the instructors start drawing cones relating to European history, and relevant to the second half of Yeats’s system. Logically, enough, in the fictional tale, Robartes follows the lead given by Yeats’s instructors: in the first of his interventions he talks about love and the 28 Phases of the Moon, whereas in the second, he deals with the history motif.

12Those two points, biography and history, not only sum up the system itself but also clarify many details in the Prologue: indeed, Yeats’s instructors allow him to read no philosophy, but only biography and history (AVB 12), and Robartes, in his final address, requires that his young pupils accept two main precepts, one regarding biography, the other history: ‘Have I proved by practical demonstration that the soul survives the body?’ and ‘Have I proved that civilizations come to an end ... and that ours is near its end?’ (AVB 50)

  • 29 Hence, perhaps, her association with Blake’s poetry. Interestingly, Mary Bell is caught between tw (...)
  • 30 George Yeats is also indirectly present in the fictitious account through Aherne’s letter, when he (...)
  • 31 Although Helmling does not draw any immediate parallel between Mary Bell and George Yeats, he desc (...)

13The insistence on biography is immediately perceptible in the Prologue and, in the fictional account, the telling of stories is precisely the point of the young people gathering together as O’Leary clearly indicates: ‘I am to tell you my story and to hear yours’ (AVB 33), then, when he has finished, he continues: ‘Robartes says you must not ask me questions but introduce yourselves and tell me your story’ (AVB 35); when Robartes comes with his first revelations, he also has a personal narrative; in the second gathering, Robartes introduces John Bond and Mary Bell and further proposes: ‘Before John Bond tells his story, I must insist upon Denise telling hers’ (AVB 42). From the outset, John Bond’s narrative has special significance, as his love story with Mary Bell is contrapuntal to that of Denise: the two fictitious love triangles reflect and reverse one another. In fact, Robartes ironically suggests that Denise’s story ‘will be a full and admirable introduction’ to John Bond’s narrative (AVB 42). And, after Denise’s narration, John Bond begins his own story after ‘fixing a bewildered eye’ first upon Denise, then upon Duddon (AVB 44). In truth, Mary Bell’s love is not the abstemious kind and she has a child by John Bond, which contrasts with Denise’s rather sterile day-dreaming about Axel.29 Furthermore, Mary Bell is endowed with creative faculties, and her bizarre production of a fake cuckoo’s nest seems to counterbalance the ineffectual relationship of Denise with Huddon and Duddon. If Denise and Robartes’ cruel dancer may represent refracted versions of Maud Gonne, another parallel can be drawn between Mary Bell’s gift for fruition and George’s appeasing influence in the non-fictional story of Yeats’s marriage. Indeed, we know what may have motivated the automatic writing at least in part, i.e., Yeats’s struggle with his conscience regarding the three women in his life: Maud, Iseult and George (AVA xxiii). In the true story, the tumult of sterile love torment is set to rights by George, another Mary Bell contriving to please an ageing husband with somewhat unorthodox methods.30 In addition, a certain wild resemblance between the two young wives’ undertakings cannot be denied: creating a fake cuckoo’s nest and inspiring a book based on automatic writing sound perfectly demented propositions, and yet, both seem aesthetically productive. In effect, the fictitious stories not only mirror Yeats’s own biography ad infinitum, but also relate to the very writing of A Vision itself.31

  • 32 Adams, 52.
  • 33 Symposium, 190, d, e, translated by Michael Joyce; Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Ed (...)
  • 34 As Kathleen Raine notes, the egg by its ovoid shape suggests duality, unlike the sphere which repr (...)
  • 35 Raine, 142–45. This world-egg is mentioned at the very beginning of the fictitious prologue and, u (...)
  • 36 An allusion to Sappho’s fragment 166: ‘They say that Leda once found an egg of hyacinth colour.’ G (...)
  • 37 Obviously, this points to the fact that the dichotomy between Love and War needs to be refined and (...)

14At this point, it is necessary to examine the nature of Mary Bell’s artistic achievement which relates to both biography and history. As pointed out by Adams, Mr. Bell (the husband) is ‘primary’ in his desire to improve nature and teach cuckoos to build nests.32 From the outset, he appears animated by the true passion of the reformer: ‘I wanted to serve God ... I wanted to make men better’ (AVB 52). In his view, birds and beasts are one and the same with man and represent our wild desires at the origin of time: ‘The passions of Adam, torn out of his breast, became the birds and beasts of Eden’ (AVB 48). Animals, therefore, are the incarnations of human desires and since Mr. Bell observes that: ‘Now birds and beasts were robbing and killing one another’ (AVB 48), this leads him to focus on birds as an indirect way to improve mankind. Mr. Bell uses the cuckoo, this anomaly in nature, to rectify some imbalance in the cosmos. His attempt, however, is based on teaching and patience, obviously an empiricist’s method which cannot succeed as it only imitates nature. Mary Bell, on the other hand, is able to bring her husband’s quest to completion through a combination of art and love since her illicit affair is the probable motive for this strange form of atonement. We note that Mary Bell’s creative feat, the producing of a fake cuckoo’s nest, is evocative of the third egg of Leda she will be allowed to carry at the end of the fictitious Prologue. In fact, Leda’s egg suggests both love and creation in keeping with Mary Bell’s special status as lover and artist. In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’ speech on the nature of Eros draws upon the metaphor of the egg to explain the nature of love. Indeed, the first hermaphrodite beings were round-shaped and self-sufficient until Zeus decided to punish them for impiety: he ‘cut them all in half’ as one might ‘slice an egg with a hair’.33 In Aristophanes’ theory, the deprived halves perpetually seek one an­other, and, love exists to bridge the gap in this dissociation of nature against itself.34 This quest for fundamental unity also relates to the mysterious egg of the Orphic myth of creation, since according to that tradition, the whole created world was hatched from a mysteri­ous world-egg, a well-known symbol in Blake’s cosmogony as well as Yeats’s.35 Thus, Mary Bell’s fabrication of a nest, more than a proof of love or an ingenious device, has restored primordial unity and made her worthy of holding the egg from which a new era will emerge. We find that her achievement closely fits the fundamentally Yeatsian tenet that art exists to fill the gap, i.e., mend and improve ‘reality’: ‘If the real world is not altogether rejected, it is but touched here and there, and into the places we have left empty we summon rhythm, balance, pattern, images’ (E&I 243). Clearly, only Mary Bell’s kind of love can generate the type of ‘subjective’ art that re-creates the world, thus bridging the gap between history and biography. As the figure of the true lover as well as the visionary artist, Mary Bell will be entrusted with the holding of the lost egg of ‘Hyacinthine blue’ (AVB 51),36 the symbol of the new subjective dispensation which, ironically, will uphold War as the Summum Bonum.37

  • 38 Cf., Adams, Tradition, 46–47.
  • 39 If one accepts Adams’ interpretation which, I think, is correct here. Of course, the complexities (...)
  • 40 The Opposing Virtues: New Yeats Papers XV, ed. Liam Miller (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1978).

15From the previous considerations, one notes that biography seems inextricably bound up with history. The structure of the fictitious section brings this principle to the fore: the first stories related to art culminate in Robartes’ recounting his personal story of unrequited love, whereas the love stories move him to announce the new historical dispensation. The story of Mary Bell illustrates that point also, since she is both a lover and an important agent in the new dispensa­tion. Furthermore, the complex historical antinomy between an age of Love and an age of War is echoed by the opposition between self and anti-self in the biographies. What seems at first a reverberating medley of masks and costumes in the Prologue finally resolves itself into distinct antinomies, as the trios turn into twos, prefiguring Yeats’s subsequent theory of will and mask.38 Huddon and Duddon are comical ones, stressed by rhyme, just as Bell and Bond are linked alliteratively. We are also confronted with the constant bickering and quarrelling of Aherne and Robartes: they are opposed in every way, but nothing can tear them apart, just as Giraldus finds his counter­part in the old Arab and, in the primary account, Yeats continually wars against Ezra Pound (AVB 3–4). Similarly, the women in the Prologue, whether fictitious or real, come in pairs: Mary Bell and Denise de L’Isle Adam, George Yeats and Maud Gonne.39 At this point, I can draw a partial conclusion and remark that biography and history (love and art for Yeats) are but two sides of the same coin, as Fahmy Farag notes: ‘Our everyday clashes and accords, our local events and minor disputes, with all the passions they generate and the feelings they engender, constitute the more distant drama of preordained history with its divisions and dispensations’.40 It therefore follows that both biography and history reflect the same clas­sification in pairs: the dichotomy between objective (primary) and subjective (antithetical) which constitutes the essence of the system.

  • 41 Yeats’s dedication to Pound and his relationship with the latter are essential components of the P (...)

16From all that precedes the complex structure which holds the Prologue and the system together begins to assert itself. Through the use of satire or seemingly random juxtaposition, Yeats is carefully interweaving threads which run through both accounts in a complex criss-cross pattern: the real and the fictional are not so much juxtaposed as woven into the same tight net of reference. Furthermore, the complexity of the Prologue intensifies when we come to the realization that the true account includes a second ‘story’ or another real character, namely Ezra Pound, and that, in effect, the Prologue offers us three different angles of approach: the story of the automatic writing, the fictional tales, but also the relationship between Yeats and Pound.41 Indeed, we have to bear in mind that the book is dedicated to Pound, another anti-self for Yeats since, we are told, ‘his art is the opposite of mine’ (AVB 3). This third aspect, essential to any study of the Prologue, can help us redefine the kind of message Yeats wishes to deliver about his basic dichotomy: antithetical/subjective versus primary/subjective.

  • 42 For the incompatibility between art and politics, see Daniel Cory’s reaction to the Cantos: ‘The p (...)
  • 43 Perhaps also a lesson in humility, as Yeats stated elsewhere: ‘We may come to think that nothing e (...)
  • 44 See Gould, ‘“The Unknown Masterpiece”’, 72.
  • 45 Since the letter ends up suggesting ever so gently that there should be no rejection of one realit (...)

17First, several warnings to Ezra Pound can be found in the ‘Packet’, as Yeats is aware of the latter’s misguided views and growing extremism. Ezra Pound’s compassion for cats is dwelt upon at the very beginning and, therefore, cannot be a minor point for Yeats: via Maud Gonne and, later, Mr. Bell, it relates to the rest of the Prologue. Yeats considers that Ezra Pound, like Maud Gonne and Mr. Bell are primary for their existence is bound up with some commitment to a cause. At the very beginning of the system, one lapidary statement sums up the whole argument of antithetical versus primary: ‘The primary is that which serves [the world], the antithetical is that which creates’ (AVB 85). The former type of humanity, therefore, will tend to become absorbed in the exterior world, while the second will turn the self into a heroic battle ground, productive of great art. Interestingly, Yeats compares Ezra Pound with Maud Gonne (decidedly the unnamed ghost of this entire prelude), because their great thought in living lies outside themselves: they wish to fight against injustice, redress wrongs and change the general state of affairs.42 Their pity for the oppressed has turned them into fanatics: ‘I examine this [Ezra Pound’s] criticism … and thereupon recall a person as unlike him as possible, the only friend who remains to me from late boyhood, grown gaunt in the injustice of what seems her blind nobility of pity’ (AVB 6). Consequently, in his letter to Pound at the end of the ‘Packet’, Yeats tries to restrain his friend’s regrettable propensities, and refers Pound to himself by sending him his own poem, ‘The Return’, adding that ‘in book and picture … [this poem] gives me better words than my own’ (AVB 29). This extraordinary gesture is, I believe, a means of inciting Pound to reflect upon his life through his own work, thus reiterating Yeats’s faith in the restorative powers of biography.43 ‘The Return’, no doubt selected for its heroic dimension, might divert Pound from this rage for reform, this defence of the oppressed just because they are oppressed, which he shares with Maud Gonne. Furthermore, at the beginning of the letter, Yeats’s admonition ‘Do not be elected to the Senate of your country’ (AVB 26) constitutes another clear warning against political engagement.44 Finally, as intimated above, Pound’s attitude anticipates Mr. Bell’s primary pity for cuckoos and, at the end of the Prologue, we are left in no doubt as to what Yeats’s final pronouncement on such compassion is: primary charity is sent packing, whether aimed at men, cats or birds.45

18Second, in keeping with history, the other side of the coin, Pound’s poem is also meant to illustrate Yeats’s theory of the cycles. Indeed, the poem is often thought to herald the return of pagan Greek gods and, if Yeats does not mention this particular inter­pretation, he could not be ignorant of it. A Vision, therefore, an­nounces a dispensation which normally should interest Pound for the advent of Robartes’ new era will cause the return of these same pagan gods. It will bring an age of ‘freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy’ (AVB 52), and proclaim a new deity, antithetical to Christ and symbolized by Oedipus who ‘sank down body and soul into the ground’ whereas Christ ‘crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body’ (AVB 27–28). More subtly, ‘The Re­turn’ also helps the attentive reader discover what epoch is directly relevant to the Prologue: ancient Greece and, more particularly, the turning point between Greece and Rome, which ties up with Robartes’ alleged premise for his theory of the cycles, i.e., ‘Swift’s essay upon the dissensions of the Greeks and Romans’ (AVB 50). Logically enough, in the real account, the same period is elaborated upon as Yeats focuses on the distinction between Greek and Ro­man statues: the former have ‘round bird-like eyes ... ‘staring at in­finity’’ (AVB 18) and represent the antithetical, contrary to Roman art which tends towards realism and the primary. These considera­tions upon ancient history can lead the reader to wonder about the rest of the puzzle such as the connection between Giraldus and the Arab tribe, and this is difficult to grasp without some knowledge of hermetic doctrine.

  • 46 The Corpus Hermeticum was derived from a mysterious text, the Emerald Tablet, discovered in the to (...)
  • 47 Marsilio Ficino’s translations are c. 484, also the alleged date for the death of Christian Rosenk (...)
  • 48 The occupation of Spain by the Arabs started in 711 and lasted until the fifteenth century.
  • 49 The initiation of Christian Rosenkreuz entailed a long voyage into the heart of Arabia Felix, the (...)

19Indeed, the Prologue contains a lesson in esoteric history, and some knowledge of the philosophia perennis, dear to Yeats, is necessary to understand the insistence on the few historical highlights which constantly reappear throughout the text. If we ask ourselves what particular event, at the turning point of hegemony between Greece and Rome, could possibly bring Byzantium, the Arab migrations and the Renaissance to the fore, the obvious answer is Alexander’s conquest (also referred to in Yeats’s seminal poem ‘The Statues’). Alexander altered the course of European history when he conquered Persia, and expanded his Empire eastward, thus displacing the centre of European learning. After his death and the fall of Alexandria, two routes were eventually to restore these treasures to Europe: Greek learning survived the destruction of the Roman Empire in Byzantium, a city which Yeats depicts as a spiritual replica of Athens in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. After the defeat of the city by the Turks in 1453, priests and scholars returned to Renaissance Italy where Plato and the famous Corpus Hermeticum, all that remained of Greek esoteric knowledge inherited from Egypt, were translated in Florence by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499).46 In the Prologue we note that the Speculum Angelorum et Hominum, Giraldus’ manuscript, was published in 1594 which obviously links the event to the late Renaissance and places the manuscript one century after Ficino’s translations and two decades before the first Rosicrucian manifestoes, in other words at the core of the Rosicrucian tradition.47 A second route restored the Greek texts to Europe through the west owing to the Arab conquest. The Arabs had discovered the Hermetica when they conquered Persia and had also become the recipients of the sacred books. Since they later occupied Spain and infiltrated the South of France, the lost tradition returned to Europe via their various settlements.48 In the Prologue we note that the old Arab who visits Robartes finds the doctrine of the Speculum (an old arcane manuscript) in keeping with the ancestral teachings of his own tribe (traditional lore), thus hinting at the esoteric import of these well-established facts of history. Indeed, the two routes of esoteric doctrine are so conspicuously stressed by Yeats throughout the fictitious account that it is tempting to interpret those geographical landmarks as pointed allusions to the meanders of the Rosicrucian doctrine. Furthermore, we note that Robartes, like the Rosicrucian sage, Rosenkreuz, has to go to Arabia for his initiation, which points to the esoteric myth of Felix Arabia as a possible leading thread throughout the fictitious stories.49

  • 50 Adams, 45.
  • 51 Robartes’ evasiveness stresses a parallel with the manuscript of Giraldus which is unaccountably ‘ (...)
  • 52 For Yeats and the Rosicrucian tradition, see George Mills Harper, Yeats’s Golden Dawn: The Influen (...)
  • 53 These landmarks are also mentioned by the Poet Laureate John Masefield, who concludes the ‘flowery (...)
  • 54 This is not to detract from Yeats’s well-attested fascination for The Arabian Nights, whose techni (...)

20This throws some light on Robartes’ vagueness as to the actual place where he purchased the third egg of Leda for the actual place is immaterial as long as it is situated in the east and part of Alexander’s empire: Robartes first mentions Teheran (a likely place as the centre of Persia), then is corrected by Aherne, always ‘a stickler for facts’,50 and Robartes evasively replies: ‘I bought this egg from an old man in a green turban in Arabia or Persia or India’ (AVB 51).51 Furthermore, if one bears in mind the Rosicrucian tradition, the rest of Robartes’ seemingly dubious tale falls into place: his discovery of the manuscript, followed by the visit of the old Arab (AVB 41), the similarity between the tradition of the Arab tribe of the Judwalis and the treatise of Giraldus (AVB 41, 51, 54), and the treasury of Harun Al-Rashid as a refuge for the egg of Leda after the fall of Byzantium (AVB 51). There is no need to expound upon the importance of the Golden Dawn in Yeats’s work, and the 1925 edition of A Vision is still dedicated to Vestigia, MacGregor Mathers’ widow, although the dedication disappears from the 1937 edition.52 What is arresting in the Prologue is that the geographical landmarks are clearly mapped out and anticipate the great highlights of antithetical splendour expounded in the system: Greece, Byzantium, Renaissance Italy, with the Arab Conquest set in parallel.53 At the end of Book V, Yeats pointedly returns to the Arab conquest as a paradigm of subjective perfection: ‘… it was this latter sanctity [the beauty of Heart’s Miracle] come back from the first crusade or up from Arabian Spain or half Asiatic Provence and Sicily, that created romance’ (AVB 285).54

  • 55 Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks [1948, rev. 1979] (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 196 (...)
  • 56 As elsewhere in his work, for example in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (Myth 318– 69) or ‘Swedenborg, M (...)

21In the Prologue however, it seems that Yeats lends a personal twist to the two routes: if the first one is learned, with discoveries based on scholarly texts such as Plato and the Hermetica, that of the Arabs, he professes to believe, is not quite so conventional. His Arabs are nomadic people living in the desert and, in addition to sacred texts, they have diagrams, dancing and a vivid oral tradition, as we learn from ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’: in this poem, Kusta’s young bride talks in her sleep and utters ‘truths without fathers’, ‘self­born truths’ (AVA 125) that spring spontaneously, not painstakingly through learning. In the Rosicrucian tradition, we find no such distinction between erudite esotericism and the mythical Arabia Felix. The reason Yeats invents one is that he wishes to stress the validity of his own experiments with spirits: he therefore arbitrarily relates spiritualism to the nomadic Arabs. We may remember that spiritualism was not encouraged by the more learned schools of esotericism such as the Rosicrucian movement, and that Yeats had received several warnings from his friends to refrain from the practice (AVA xv). Nevertheless, as early as 1909 and especially from 1911 onward, Yeats had re-embarked upon a new quest for wisdom through spiritualism and séances, and had found his Daimon, Leo Africanus who had been ‘a poet among the Moors’.55 The Prologue therefore, spells out rebellion and hints that no rules should apply to limit the promptings of a true quest for knowledge. Apart from the explicit tale of the automatic writing itself, a play on words in Aherne’s letter indirectly addresses the issue: ‘You have sent me three poems founded upon ‘hearsay’, as you put it’ (AVB 54), this hearsay obviously referring to George’s voices. Moreover, Yeats vigorously defends what he calls ‘popular spiritualism’ in the real account of the Prologue (AVB 24),56 and illustrates his vindication with a poetic metaphor: ‘The Muses resemble women who creep out at night and give themselves to unknown sailors and return to talk of Chinese porcelain … – virginity renews itself like the moon – except that the Muses sometimes form in those low haunts their most lasting attachments’ (AVB 24). In view of the context, the ‘Chinese porcelain’ can only represent the rarefied atmosphere of esoteric knowledge, and the ‘low haunts’ the shadiness of disreputable séance rooms.

  • 57 Raine, 234.
  • 58 Ibid., 180. See also YO 291–92.
  • 59 For the lost book of Kusta Ben Luka in Baghdad, see Bushrui, 298–99.
  • 60 With a slight preference for the iconoclastic wanderer: in the discarded ‘Appendix by Michael Roba (...)

22Finally, the Prologue presents us with a parody of the archetypal story of the Rosicrucian tradition which regularly stages the discovery of old sages holding mysterious writings: Hermes, and after him, Rosenkreuz. Here, it only seems fair to assume that the Speculum itself, damaged as it might be, is an echo of the other sacred writings of the Rosicrucians (the Emerald Table and the writings of Para­celsus found in the tomb of Rosenkreuz), especially since, as Raine remarks, Robartes is a type of the ‘mysterious wanderer’ like other famous ‘legendary Rosicrucians’.57 With this story of the Speculum as a sacred text offhandedly used for fuel by an unthinking mistress and accidentally revealed to the iconoclastic Robartes, Yeats is certainly indulging in a bout of irreverent fun. The episode cannot but bring to mind earlier similar discoveries, including perhaps the mysterious cipher manuscripts which lay at the foundation of the Golden Dawn in 1888,58 or the lost book ‘attributed to Kusta ben Luka’ and men­tioned in the 1925 edition of A Vision (AVA xix–xx). 59 A seemingly endless refraction of old sages presenting their manuscripts seems to literally haunt the pages of the Prologue as announced by Giraldus’ portrait. However, Yeats rebels but does not refute, and spiritualism does not contradict the teachings of tradition. Spiritualism merely serves as confirmation since the precepts in the learned manuscript are corroborated by the mysterious diagrams of the Judwali tribe as well as George’s voices or Yeats’s ‘hearsay’. The Prologue makes clear that there are at least two paths to knowledge, both equally valid, and, in his work, Yeats has accustomed his readers to his double role: the learned Mage toiling away in his tower and the wild, iconoclastic Wanderer, both present in the introductory poem, ‘The Phases of the Moon’.60

  • 61 For a study of the various possibilities for the choice of the name Giraldus, see Raine, 408–30.

23As all that new information piles in, another sort of amusement or irony starts informing the Prologue, this time perhaps at the expense of the reader who is confronted with a portrait of Giraldus’ resembling Yeats and winking mischievously (AVB 54).61 Both the resemblance and the wink bring to light the figure of the devious author, also endlessly mirrored in the Prologue: Giraldus and his incomplete manuscript in the fictitious account, the instructors’ partial revelations as well as Ezra Pound’s fragmentary Cantos in the real one. We remember that Yeats had dedicated his book to Pound, an ironic gesture since the latter was known to disapprove strongly of Yeats’s esoteric pursuits. Yet, Yeats seems to have ample justification for his choice, and his idea for the paradoxical ‘packet’ rests upon the alleged similarity between Pound’s Cantos and his own book. Indeed, the obscurity of the Cantos announces the opacity of what the instructors will only half disclose in the next chapter and, as Yeats pointedly remarks, Pound’s poem has much in common with the ‘system’: ‘the descent into hell and the historical characters’, the archetypal events and persons, the Zodiacal signs and a complicated pattern of echoing structures ‘all set whirling together’ (AVB 5). About Pound’s cryptic composition, Yeats hopefully concedes: ‘I may find that the math­ematical structure, when taken up into imagination, is more than mathematical’ (AVB 5), and his incomprehension anticipates his frustration at the complex system withheld from his wondering gaze by the instructors: ‘though it was plain from the first that their expo­sition was based upon a single geometrical conception, they kept me from mastering that conception’ (AVB 11). Other expressions such as ‘they shifted ground … they were determined to withhold’ (AVB 11) underline that the instructors’ communications are, like Pound’s Cantos, a tantalizing game of hide and seek. This immediately places Pound in the category of devious authors who both hide and reveal, but Yeats is not merely the victim of all these ‘frustrators’, since he follows in their footsteps: Pound’s Cantos, like the elliptic geometry of the instructors or Giraldus’ torn manuscript, are but a mere reflec­tion of what Yeats, himself, will do to the readers of A Vision.

  • 62 ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect’, 262.
  • 63 Andreae is also thought to be the unacknowledged writer of the two Rosicrucian manifestoes, but if (...)
  • 64 Ibid.
  • 65 Traces of Chemical Wedding can perhaps be found in the first Prologue of A Vision with the ‘Dance (...)
  • 66 Yeats’s Iconography, 47.
  • 67 With a fine ambiguity for, the distinction between philosophy and esotericism is somewhat blurred (...)
  • 68 For the Platonic influence in A Vision, see my article ‘Reshaping Chaos: Platonic Elements in Yeat (...)
  • 69 The opposites are called ‘the twins’ in the Theaetetus, 156, a.
  • 70 Raine, 261–64. Heracles is mentioned several times in Yeats’s work (for example in Ex 70 and 330) (...)
  • 71 Les Ecoles Présocratiques, ed. Jean-Paul Dumont (Paris, Gallimard, 1991), 791.
  • 72 According to the Pre-Socratic philosopher Prodikos, Heracles is also involved in another antinomy (...)
  • 73 Even the two calendars, lunar and solar, can be traced to the ancient calendars of Antiquity with (...)
  • 74 Adams, 151.

24However, Yeats may have no choice for he is bound to assert his truths in a cryptic way and ‘the safety in derision’ (VP 624) that he seeks might not be for himself, but for his secrets, hence, of course, the Mage’s wink: this is perhaps the fundamental reason for what Gould calls Yeats’s ‘increased strategies of disavowal’.62 Considering the many allusions to the Rosicrucian tradition in the Prologue, one of Korkowski’s examples of a satura, Johan Valentin Andreae’s Chemical Wedding seems particularly apposite to Yeats’s fictitious account.63 Chemical Wedding indeed encompasses many genres including comedy and farce while at the same time alluding to occult ritual and alchemy in very obscure manner.64 It shares many characteristics with Yeats’s Prologue since both stories weave abstruse esoteric allusions into preposterous bouts of comedy.65 However, if in both works we find a mixed plate of entertainment and serious thought, neither can be said to render its philosophy accessible thanks to the technique of the satura. It rather seems that the main strategy of both authors consists in withdrawing knowledge and befuddling the average reader. One wonders whether it is the philosophy which is ‘bitter and difficult’ or whether the devious author might not be acting as ‘frustrator’ to his reading public. It seems that Yeats was particularly reticent to divulge the sources he drew upon and, as F. A. C Wilson points out, he ‘did not explain all he knew, preferring to write as an initiate for initiates’.66 Conversely, for those readers of Yeats who are cognisant of esoteric doctrine, the deviousness of the Prologue can be major source of amusement, since Yeats’s system, which is often rejected as arbitrary, subjective, confused or incomprehensible, quite simply follows the long sinuous road of hermetic tradition and re-asserts some of its fundamental tenets in apparently offhand manner. As Yeats himself admits in a letter to Olivia Shakespear, the philosophical content of the subsequent system ‘is all ‘very ancient’’ (L 781) and some of it draws upon Platonic philosophy.67 The two antinomies crowned by the sphere or what Yeats calls the 13th Cone are well-established Platonic concepts.68 Plato constantly proceeds from two opposites to build up his philosophy, which might explain why the Prologue develops under the aegis of the Dyad.69 Another traditional element is the appellation, the 13th Cone, which Yeats coined for the sphere, probably in memory of the twelve labours of Heracles, a haunting figure in his work, as Raine points out.70 Before becoming an astronomical divinity related to the zodiac and the tutelary deity of the Pythagoreans,71 Heracles’ life was directly entangled with two antinomies: Hades and Olympus, dark and light, since he was half human, half divine.72 When we recall that the hero rejoined the twelve Olympians at the end of his twelve labours, the 13th Cone does seem an appropriate choice for Yeats’s principle of immortality. Indeed, Heracles’ struggle through life emblematizes the central figures of the system: the two dichotomies and the immortality which transcends them, vortices and sphere. Thus, it often seems to the reader that Yeats’s system, if admittedly difficult, is ‘indeed is nothing new’ (AVA xi),73 and the uppermost irony might be that the alleged instructors do not, in fact, instruct Yeats at all. After all, supernal knowledge comes from the daimon, the instructors repeatedly observe, and the revelations might conceivably emanate from Yeats’s or his wife’s daimons, in other words from themselves (AVB 22). This could account for the fact that the concluding poem, ‘All Souls’ Night’, was composed prior to A Vision,74 a probable hint that Yeats knew it all before. This interpretation seems corroborated at the very beginning of the Prologue, when Yeats, gazing at Rapallo in the sunlight, comments enigmatically: ‘the mountain road from Rapallo to Zoagli seems like something in my own mind, something that I have discovered’ (AVB 7).

  • 75 We know from Yeats’s letters that he still frequented Cabalists in 1929: ‘I go … to the west of En (...)

25To conclude, in this abyss of reverberation, everything is linked to everything else and the two major themes of history and biography, art and love, are inextricably bound up with the esoteric teachings Yeats never completely relinquished.75 Such doctrine being, by definition, occult, it is sometimes not clear whether Yeats is mocking himself or merely pretending to do so, while making sport of his reader. In the end, the jest seems to be at the reader’s expense for the necessary silence of the adept will compel Yeats to produce an abstruse text interspersed with a few clues as he, in fact, re-writes an ancient system, passed off as a new revelation.

  • 76 As Helmling shrewdly observes, Yeats’s ‘motive [in writing A Vision] was surely to enlarge freedom (...)
  • 77 The distinction is based on Empedocles’ two opposing principles: Discord and Concord, as Yeats exp (...)
  • 78 George Mills Harper notes the ‘unusual distinction between destiny and fate [that] runs throughout (...)
  • 79 Farag, 18.
  • 80 Ibid., 12.
  • 81 Thermopylae may also be alluded to in the poem ‘Crazy Jane on God’ (VP 512).
  • 82 Identical with the Self of the Upanishads, as Kathleen Raine explains in Yeats the Initiate, 398.
  • 83 This is fragment 53 (Diels), quoted in extenso by Yeats in Burnet’s translation (AVB 82).
  • 84 The three steps of this spiritual progress are aptly summed up in Edouard Schuré’s Les grands init (...)
  • 85 Yeats’s Iconography, 65.

26Yet, for those of us who are willing to meet the challenge, the Prologue to A Vision is a rewarding text which is fundamentally about freedom.76 Under the guise of self-derision and irony, the reader is taught a valuable lesson about a sort of liberation which does not simply spell out rebellion against the dictates of learned esotericism. The Prologue states that the whole system of antithesis (personal and historical) works around freedom from and subjection to the exterior world. If we bear this in mind, it becomes possible to redefine Yeats’s two antinomies upon which the whole system is founded: Love (primary) and War (antithetical).77 The point is not so much to oppose love and war in the conventional sense, for, here, we see that anaemic love stories emulating Axel (Denise de L’Isle Adam) fare little better than charity or reforming zeal (Maud Gonne, Ezra Pound and Mr. Bell). Conversely, an age of war could not possibly exclude heroic love, the kind of love that is an incentive to art: Mary Bell’s strange achievement in the fictitious account, George Yeats’s mending of the poet’s heart in the real one. The fundamental antinomy is best defined through the distinction Yeats himself had established in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (Myth 337). The choice lies between losing oneself (love or fate), or finding oneself (war or destiny),78 hence the insistence on biography as a preliminary step towards initiation: ‘I begin to study the only self that I can know, myself and to wind the thread upon the pern again’ (Myth 364). Indeed, as Farag notes, ‘the poet’s study of esoteric sciences taught him that just as common metals can be transmuted into gold when subjected to the alchemical fire, the human soul can, on the metaphysical level, be transformed into an imperishable spirit’.79 This interior war (biography) necessarily alters our interaction with the exterior world (history), as Farag further expounds: ‘The human mind therefore is the battleground … and the outcome of this tragic war is the heroic choice that shapes and is the cause of the war that ensues between man and his age’.80 Robartes’ final injunction illustrates this heroic discipline: ‘Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae; make rich and poor act so to one another that they can stand together there’ (AVB 52). Thermopylae is Yeats’s last word on charity, moral or political entanglements, and a warning to Ezra Pound, Maud Gonne and all other would-be reformers.81 Love in the sense of charity fails for it enslaves men and does not make them greater than they are; whereas war understood as war against oneself, interiorized war, is the liberating as well as the aggrandizing principle. Indeed, when faced with the unbearable, the tragic object which cannot be removed, we still have one freedom to call our own: either to remain acted upon in passive misery, or to embrace the insufferable as our destiny, thereby creating our mask. Thus, liberation is not brought about by a vain attempt to alter exterior circumstances; liberation comes from within, from a deliberate effort to change one’s self.82 Bearing these considerations in mind, we can now fully appreciate Heraclitus’ cryptic pronouncement on war and the fascination it always held for Yeats: ‘War is God of all and Father of all, some it has made Gods and some men, some bond and some free’.83 This insistence on freedom as opposed to bondage brings to mind the three stages in the initiation of the adept: bondage (fate), choice (destiny) and freedom (Yeats’s 13th cone or sphere),84 otherwise known as the alchemical ‘perfectio, contemplatio, libertas.85 The Spartans at Thermopylae reached the second stage of the initiation and met their destiny, but Heracles exemplifies the third stage, as Yeats pointedly recalls in his very last address to the reader:

27Shall we follow the image of Heracles that walks through the darkness bow in hand, or mount to that other Heracles, man, not image, he that has for his bride Hebe, ‘The Daughter of Zeus the mighty and Hera shod with gold’ ?’ (AVB 302)

Notes

1 The Esoteric Comedies of Carlyle, Newman and Yeats (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 15–17, 21–25 and 228–38.

2 ‘Yeats’s Vision as Philosophic Satura’, Eire – Ireland, 12, n. 3 (Fomhar/Autumn 1977), 62–70 at 67.

3 ‘Michael Robartes: Two Occult Manuscripts’: see YO 204–24. Yeats probably had Plato’s Dialogues in mind.

4 A Vision has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka, a Prose Poem, Jeffrey Meyers, Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Legacy (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992), 214.

5 ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect: W. B. Yeats’s Two Versions of A Vision and the Arabian Nights’, in The ‘Arabian Nights’ in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ into British Culture, ed. Peter L. Caracciolo (London: Macmillan, 1988), 251.

6 The Book of Yeats’s A Vision, Romantic Modernism and Antithetical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 30.

7 Aherne and Robartes, besides appearing in Yeats’s three short stories ‘Rosa Alchemica’, ‘The Tables of the Law’ and ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ (VSR 125–72; Myth 2005 177–205) and in several poems, introduce the system with the ‘The Phases of the Moon’ (AVB 59). Fiction and reality are closely intertwined in the case of Robartes and Aherne for the two fictitious characters are a conflation of Yeats and other persons he knew. Robartes is one of Yeats’s earliest ‘masks’ as a poetic voice in The Wind Among the Reeds (VP 803), besides reappearing severally in Yeats’s poetry and short fiction, but he is also modelled after MacGregor Mathers who initiated Yeats into the Golden Dawn as Margaret Mills Harper reminds us in ‘Yeats and the Occult’, The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats, ed. Marjorie Howes and John Kelly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 154. See also Laurence W. Fennelly, ‘W. B. Yeats and S. L. MacGregor Mathers’ (YO 305) and ‘Michael Robartes: Two Occult Manuscripts’ by Walter Kelly Hood who notes that Robartes’ cruelty also relates to other fictitious Yeatsian characters such as Crazy Jane and Ribh (Ibid., 217). For the parallel between Owen Aherne and Lionel Johnson and their relation to Yeats and Robartes, see Warwick Gould ‘“Lionel Johnson Comes the First to Mind”: Sources for Owen Aherne’ (Ibid., 255–84). For a complete survey of Robartes and Aherne throughout Yeats’s oeuvre, see Michael J. Sidnell, ‘Mr. Yeats, Michael Robartes and Their Circle’ (YO 225–54).

8 See Adams, 46–48.

9 Huddon, Duddon and O’Leary who first appear in the poem introducing the fictitious stories (AVB 32) are the slightly altered names of three folkloric characters (Hudden, Dudden and Donald O’Neary) in the tale entitled ‘Donald and his Neighbours’: see FFTIP 299–302 and reprinted in the Colin Smythe edition (1973), 270–73.

10 The names themselves glance at Blake’s two poems ‘Long John Brown & Little Mary Bell’ and ‘William Bond’, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965, rev. 1982), 496.

11 Here again, fact and fiction intermingle since the story of Denise’s love affair with Huddon and Duddon is modelled after the love predicament of three Oxford students that Yeats had heard about twenty years earlier. See Life 2, 602.

12 The creation of John Aherne, Owen’s brother, is probably due to a slip of the pen, as Yeats himself half admits (VP 821). As Gould observes, however, ‘his invention soon proved useful, for he [ John Aherne] can intervene between the “reinvented” Robartes and Aherne, and Yeats-as-character in his own fictions’, ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect’, 269.

13 Many critics have noted the importance of Yeats’s interaction with his characters. See the preceding note for Gould on John Aherne, and also Sidnell: ‘This absurd relation of author and character is fundamental’ (YO 230). Korkowski argues that this strategy produces an effect of ‘aesthetic distance’ which ‘allows Yeats to pass himself off as the soberest person involved in the “visions”’, ‘Yeats’s Vision as Philosophic Satura’, 69. For Helmling, Yeats consents to play the fool with characters of his own making in order to vindicate his own vision of the world, The Esoteric Comedies of Carlyle, Newman and Yeats, 15–17.

14 As most readers of Yeats know, Kusta Ben Luka’s story was a veiled autobiographical account of the ‘true story’, i.e. George Yeats’s automatic writing, in the 1925 version.

15 As Adams notes, 46–48; also Helmling, 181–83.

16 Helmling, 183. For the real story see above, n. 11.

17 See Adams, 48. His interpretation is substantiated by the antagonistic feeling Maud Gonne often aroused in Yeats, which is consonant with Robartes’ rejection of the dancer. As F. A. C. Wilson points out: ‘Love, for Yeats, is at its strongest when it contains an element of hate, and this odi et amo motif he found also in Hermes Trismegistus’, W. B. Yeats and Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 187. The fact that love comes from the attraction of opposites is a principle Yeats had also culled from Blake whom he quotes in a letter: ‘sexual love is founded on spiritual hate’ (L, 758; Myth 336).

18 The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, updated 1994), 683, 687. Claire Nally also notes this endless fragmentation of Yeats’s self in Envisioning Ireland, W. B. Yeats’s Occult Nationalism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 90, 124.

19 Adams, 20 and Helmling, 208.

20 Adams, 30.

21 Ibid., 30, 69–70.

22 Ibid., 39.

23 The distinction we find between the Ionic and the Doric in A Vision, Book V, is indebted to Walter Pater’s Greek Studies (London: Macmillan, 1895), in particular to his essays on ‘The Heroic Age of Greek Art’ and ‘The Marbles of Aegina’, 225–26, 263–66. According to Pater, Ionian sensuousness and refinement (the centrifugal) are opposed to Platonic Dorian discipline (the centripetal). The last Book of A Vision seems to pick up this strain: ‘Side by side with Ionic elegance there comes after the Persian wars a Doric vigour… and the Parisian-looking young woman of the sculptors…give place to the athlete. One suspects a deliberate turning away from all that is Eastern, or a moral propaganda like that which turned the poets out of Plato’s Republic … Then in Phidias Ionic and Doric influence unite and all is transformed by the full moon, and all abounds and flows’ (AVB 270).

24 Adams, 40, on sprezzatura, see 14–15 and 46.

25 Helmling, 15–17 and 21. In the discarded manuscript entitled ‘Robartes Foretells’, Yeats’s willingness to play the fool in Socratic fashion is evident, as he lets himself be criticized by his own narrator: ‘Yeats is wrong’, see YO 214.

26 Helmling, 211.

27 Korkowski, 70.

28 Korkowski points out that the Roman satura, unlike its Greek counterpart, did not aim to ridicule philosophers and philosophy. On the contrary, it sought to foster an interest in philosophical pursuits. Some of the works cited as examples of later saturae certainly seem to aim at imparting serious knowledge; furthermore, two of them at least would have been familiar to Yeats: Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Johan Valentin Andreae’s Chemical Wedding’, Korkowski, 67–68.

29 Hence, perhaps, her association with Blake’s poetry. Interestingly, Mary Bell is caught between two men who, like Yeats himself, are fascinated by birds. Birds represent the antithetical principle in Yeats’s work, as F. A. C. Wilson notes: ‘Birds seem to him the images of subjectivity particularly when, like the subjective soul, they soar into the zone of intellect and the free spirit …’ See his Yeats’s Iconography (London: Methuen, 1960), 196.

30 George Yeats is also indirectly present in the fictitious account through Aherne’s letter, when he mentions Kusta Ben Luka’s story, itself a parody of Yeats’s marriage.

31 Although Helmling does not draw any immediate parallel between Mary Bell and George Yeats, he describes ‘the implausible cuckoo’s nest’ as ‘a suggestive (and elaborately ludicrous) emblem of A Vision itself ’, 183.

32 Adams, 52.

33 Symposium, 190, d, e, translated by Michael Joyce; Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961, rev. 1963).

34 As Kathleen Raine notes, the egg by its ovoid shape suggests duality, unlike the sphere which represents unity, Yeats the Initiate (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990), 149.

35 Raine, 142–45. This world-egg is mentioned at the very beginning of the fictitious prologue and, unsurprisingly, it comprises the two vortices of the system: ‘Michael Robartes called the universe a great egg that turns inside out perpetually without breaking its shell’ (AVB 33).

36 An allusion to Sappho’s fragment 166: ‘They say that Leda once found an egg of hyacinth colour.’ Greek Lyric I, trans. David A. Campbell (Harvard: Loeb Classical Library, rev. 1990), 171.

37 Obviously, this points to the fact that the dichotomy between Love and War needs to be refined and, as I shall demonstrate, Yeats’s concept of war has to be interiorized to be fully understood.

38 Cf., Adams, Tradition, 46–47.

39 If one accepts Adams’ interpretation which, I think, is correct here. Of course, the complexities of biography are such that no single real character stands behind the fictitious one. Denise could be a conflation of Maud and Iseult Gonne as the ideal beloved, for ever out of reach, with George Yeats, like Mary Bell, representing the security of a well-established relationship.

40 The Opposing Virtues: New Yeats Papers XV, ed. Liam Miller (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1978).

41 Yeats’s dedication to Pound and his relationship with the latter are essential components of the Prologue. For Yeats and Pound’s Cantos, see Gould’s ‘“The Unknown Masterpiece”: Yeats and the Design of the Cantos’, in Pound in Multiple Perspective: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Andrew Gibson (London: The Macmillan Press, 1993), 40–92.

42 For the incompatibility between art and politics, see Daniel Cory’s reaction to the Cantos: ‘The poet was smothered by the reformer, the Muses shunned by the prophet’, given by Gould in ‘“The Unknown Masterpiece”’, 59.

43 Perhaps also a lesson in humility, as Yeats stated elsewhere: ‘We may come to think that nothing exists but a stream of souls, that all knowledge is biography’ (Ex 397).

44 See Gould, ‘“The Unknown Masterpiece”’, 72.

45 Since the letter ends up suggesting ever so gently that there should be no rejection of one reality in favour of the other because the opposites are ‘like the two scales of a balance, the two butt-ends of a seesaw’ (AVB 29), I sense another warning here: the whole system is delicately presented to Pound as if to convert the latter to some kind of acceptance of ‘the whole of reality’ and, it seems that Yeats is playing Shroud to Pound’s Cuchulain (see the poem ‘Cuchulain Comforted’ VP 634).

46 The Corpus Hermeticum was derived from a mysterious text, the Emerald Tablet, discovered in the tomb of the great Egyptian master Hermes Trismegistus (sometimes thought to be Pythagoras’ father). The discovery was made by Apollonius of Tyana in the 1st century B.C. See Christian Rebisse, Rosicrucian History and Mysteries (San Jose: Supreme Grand Lodge of AMORC Inc., 2005), 12.

47 Marsilio Ficino’s translations are c. 484, also the alleged date for the death of Christian Rosenkreuz, the mythical founder of the Rosicrucian movement. In 1604, the grave of Christian Rosenkreuz was found in Germany, and the old sage was holding mysterious writings in his hand, among which an account of his life and initiation. Ten years after the event, the first two anonymous Rosicrucian manifestoes, Fama Fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis were published (in 1614 and 1615 respectively). Thus, the discovery of Christian Rosenkreuz’ tomb echoes that of Hermes Trismegistus by Apollonius of Tyana. See Rebisse, 42.

48 The occupation of Spain by the Arabs started in 711 and lasted until the fifteenth century.

49 The initiation of Christian Rosenkreuz entailed a long voyage into the heart of Arabia Felix, the land of the Phoenix, where the Corpus Hermeticum had also been preserved. See Rebisse, 41.

50 Adams, 45.

51 Robartes’ evasiveness stresses a parallel with the manuscript of Giraldus which is unaccountably ‘printed in Cracow in 1594, a good many years before the celebrated Cracow publications’. Krakow was a great centre of learning during the Renaissance and it was visited by John Dee (1527–c.1608), the famous English Hermeticist who travelled around Poland between 1583 and 1589. Dee, who was an assiduous reader of Marsilio Ficino, is pointedly mentioned by Yeats in the 1925 prologue to A Vision (AVA xvii) as the main reason for Robartes’ visit to Krakow (whereas in the 1937 version, Robartes seems to remain in Vienna). This off-handedness is perhaps meant to highlight the peripatetic dimension of the secret doctrine and its numerous focal points. However, if the earlier Emerald Table is associated with the Orient, the second sacred texts are connected with Germany and, more loosely, Eastern Europe, as indeed the history of the Rosicrucian movement shows, according to Rebisse, 39–53.

52 For Yeats and the Rosicrucian tradition, see George Mills Harper, Yeats’s Golden Dawn: The Influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on the Life and Art of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1974).

53 These landmarks are also mentioned by the Poet Laureate John Masefield, who concludes the ‘flowery private pamphlet’ of his eulogium to Yeats in the following manner: ‘Sometimes, I have thought of him [Yeats] as of a Greek poet from Byzantium, who, having attained immortality in Arabia, came, seeking wisdom, to Renaissance Italy, and then having watched ... the decline of life during three centuries, descended in the late Victorian time’ (Life 2, 412).

54 This is not to detract from Yeats’s well-attested fascination for The Arabian Nights, whose technique of embedded narration he adopts in the Prologue, as Gould notes in ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect’, 252.

55 Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks [1948, rev. 1979] (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 196, 199. For Leo Africanus, see YA1 3–47, and Suheil B. Bushrui ‘Yeats’s Arabic Interests’, in In Excited Reverie, A Centenary tribute, ed. A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (London: Macmillan, 1965), 280–314. Yeats’s unwarranted association of the Arabs with spiritualism may have been derived from his ‘encounter’ with Leo. He may also have culled the notion of a nomadic esoteric tradition from R. W. Felkin, who founded the Stella Matutina under the guidance of some mysterious Arab Rosicrucians living in the desert: see Bushrui, 282–83.

56 As elsewhere in his work, for example in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (Myth 318– 69) or ‘Swedenborg, Mediums and the Desolate Places’ (Ex 30–70).

57 Raine, 234.

58 Ibid., 180. See also YO 291–92.

59 For the lost book of Kusta Ben Luka in Baghdad, see Bushrui, 298–99.

60 With a slight preference for the iconoclastic wanderer: in the discarded ‘Appendix by Michael Robartes’, Hood notes an interesting difference between the old Arab and Giraldus, the latter seeming more bent on theology and moralizing (an inferior stance for Yeats), YO 207, 212. Indeed, the old sage is primary, the wanderer antithetical.

61 For a study of the various possibilities for the choice of the name Giraldus, see Raine, 408–30.

62 ‘A Lesson for the Circumspect’, 262.

63 Andreae is also thought to be the unacknowledged writer of the two Rosicrucian manifestoes, but if this is true, he used a radically different style to write Chemical Wedding: see Rebisse, 67–68.

64 Ibid.

65 Traces of Chemical Wedding can perhaps be found in the first Prologue of A Vision with the ‘Dance of the Four Royal Persons’ executed by the Caliph (AVA 9–11), an episode which brings to mind the mysterious beheading of the seven members of the royal family in Andreae’s story: see Rebisse, 67–68.

66 Yeats’s Iconography, 47.

67 With a fine ambiguity for, the distinction between philosophy and esotericism is somewhat blurred in the case of Platonism or Neo-Platonism.

68 For the Platonic influence in A Vision, see my article ‘Reshaping Chaos: Platonic Elements in Yeats’s A Vision and Later Poetry’, Imaginaires (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Reims, 2008).

69 The opposites are called ‘the twins’ in the Theaetetus, 156, a.

70 Raine, 261–64. Heracles is mentioned several times in Yeats’s work (for example in Ex 70 and 330) and always in connection with Homer’s description of his two ‘eternities’ in Odyssey.

71 Les Ecoles Présocratiques, ed. Jean-Paul Dumont (Paris, Gallimard, 1991), 791.

72 According to the Pre-Socratic philosopher Prodikos, Heracles is also involved in another antinomy which obviously relates to the more famous one: this is the choice between Vice and Virtue, a dilemma which is pictured in the Tarot key number 6, deceptively called ‘The Lovers’. This card, apparently representing a man hesitating between two women, actually depicts Heracles selecting one of the two possible ways of life. See Les Ecoles Présocratiques, 944 and Introduction, lix.

73 Even the two calendars, lunar and solar, can be traced to the ancient calendars of Antiquity with exactly the same features that characterize Yeats’s two cycles: the lunar calendar of 28 days presided over secular activities and work in the fields, whereas the solar calendar of 12 months ruled the civic and religious feast days. Thus the Romans had two calendars which overlapped: their lunar year started in March while their solar year began in January. Dictionnaire de l’Antiquité (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1993). 170–71.

74 Adams, 151.

75 We know from Yeats’s letters that he still frequented Cabalists in 1929: ‘I go … to the west of England to look up a little group of Kabalists … I must meet an old Kabalist in London’ (L 770). Furthermore, as Kathleen Raine recalls, ‘Yeats continued his association with the Rosicrucian Stella Matutina to the end of its existence in 1923’, 398.

76 As Helmling shrewdly observes, Yeats’s ‘motive [in writing A Vision] was surely to enlarge freedom’, 210.

77 The distinction is based on Empedocles’ two opposing principles: Discord and Concord, as Yeats explicitly states (AVB 20 and 67–68). For Empedocles’ theory, see Les Ecoles Présocratiques, Empédocle B, 185–247. Yeats uses Empedocles’ vortex and terminology but without embracing the latter’s philosophy of Love as the superior way.

78 George Mills Harper notes the ‘unusual distinction between destiny and fate [that] runs throughout the script’ (MYV1 82). Another way of phrasing this opposition is chance and choice, a recurring Yeatsian motif which is elaborated upon in stanza 6 of the concluding poem, ‘All Souls’ Night’ (AVB 304).

79 Farag, 18.

80 Ibid., 12.

81 Thermopylae may also be alluded to in the poem ‘Crazy Jane on God’ (VP 512).

82 Identical with the Self of the Upanishads, as Kathleen Raine explains in Yeats the Initiate, 398.

83 This is fragment 53 (Diels), quoted in extenso by Yeats in Burnet’s translation (AVB 82).

84 The three steps of this spiritual progress are aptly summed up in Edouard Schuré’s Les grands initiés (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1960), 432. Schuré (1841–1929) was a theosophist and well acquainted with Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner and Annie Besant. However, there is no proof that he ever met Yeats.

85 Yeats’s Iconography, 65.

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