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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould

Yeats’s mask

A Vision and Yeats’s Late Masks

Margaret Mills Harper

Texte intégral

  • 1 Terence Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography (London: Blackwell, 1999), 171.

1A mask seems a stable thing, an artificial and fixed image to fit over a mobile human face. In trying to make sense of the concept of the Mask in Yeats’s long creative and intellectual practice, however, a sort of Dorian Gray-like difficulty arises. The image itself does not stay still. Some of the shifts in the idea of the Mask in Yeats’s work and thought, and the implications of these changes, are the topics of this essay. My main emphasis will be on the shifts that occur between the two versions of A Vision, that is, between the idea roughly as Yeats conceived it in the early 1920s and in the late 1920s to the publication date of the second A Vision in 1937. These years saw a large revision of a concept that had, as most readers know, energized him for many years. Generally speaking, Yeats’s Mask before the critical year of 1917 is an intellectual formulation bound tightly to an emotional issue, the problem of self-consciousness. Thus, as Terence Brown remarks, ‘An insecure hold on personal identity had always been an aspect of Yeats’s experience’.1 The sense that one is always playing a role was of course elaborated with the help of Yeats’s intense engagements with the theatre and esoteric ritual. The dramatic quality of literary form is the other driving factor for Yeats’s early elaborations of the Mask. Yeats was keenly aware of the performativity of the lyric voice, not to mention authorial stances and voice in other verbal genres, be they fiction, autobiographical prose, critical essays, or rhetorical acts like speeches and campaigns waged in the pages of newspapers.

2In the midst of the crises that led to the watershed year of 1916, Yeats’s work grapples with dissolutions of clear boundaries, between the personal and social selves of the poet, as well as within those very selves: whom one loves and what love means in the midst of multiple proposals of marriage, what national identity may be as a split nation forms in a fractured society; what an artist may be and do in the context of a continent in the midst of a Great War and associated cataclysmic changes, and so forth. The Mask was still useful, though the conceptual structures that underpin it in this period owe much to his and George Yeats’s extensive experiences with their automatic writing and related occult practices, which provide a way to express a new possibility: not only are public, private, and group selves codependent, but all of these versions of self-conscious life arise on some level from a mysterious place that can be intuited only through the failure of the myth of self. In those places lives something lacking form or even presence and so nearly indescribable. It might be expressed as an existential emptiness or a multiplicity of images, or both. The consciousness that jumps from one possibility to the other in the attempt to reconstruct a coherent self does so out of a strong propulsion that Yeats usually calls will, desire, passion, or hunger. As he puts it in ‘Anima Mundi’, the second of the twin essays that comprise the main body of Per Amica Silentia Lunae (written in early 1917, published in 1918; Myth 317–69, CW5 1–33), at certain luminous moments, ‘I am in the place where the Daemon is, but I do not think he is with me until I begin to make a new personality, selecting among those images, seeking always to satisfy a hunger grown out of conceit with daily diet; and yet as I write the words “I select”, I am full of uncertainty not knowing when I am the finger, when the clay’ (CW5 31–32).

  • 2 Janis Tedesco Haswell has analysed the gendering of the daimon and mask, a crucial aspect of this (...)

3Neither the portrait nor Dorian, in other words, is stable. As a concept, as Neil Mann outlines in his essay in this collection, the Mask underwent a fundamental change after 1917 and the arrival of the automatic script. One of the most salient reasons for this change in the terminology is the doubled creativity at the heart of the system of A Vision, which shifted Yeats’s sense of writerly possibility in radical ways.2 The voice in the script and other experiments that developed the system is, after all, voices – plural, not singular. Despite his collaborations with Lady Gregory and the fundamentally collective enterprises that are book or magazine publishing and especially theatrical production, no work with others had touched on such a deep level the question of the individual subject itself, and thus no such work had raised the same questions of polyvalence and agency. The automatic script documents the challenges of not merely the rare and momentary act of making a ‘new personality’ out of multiple images and feeling unsure when ‘I am the finger, when the clay’: now these were daily tasks.

4The earlier concept of the Mask, resonating with influences of Wilde and Nietzsche, may be summed up most succinctly using the term anti-self, as Yeats does in ‘Anima Hominis’, the first essay in Per Amica Silentia Lunae , as well as the poem ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’, printed as an introduction to Per Amica. The later concept is best seen in terms of the system, which places it both in terms of its other, Will, and also as part of a quaternary of specialised terms (Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate) representing parts of the psyche, or indeed, as Yeats notes, ‘every completed movement of thought or life’ (AVB 81). Especially in the 1925 version of A Vision, some sense remains of the earlier notion, though the sense of an anti-self or other is largely taken over by the term Daimon. The question that concerns me is what happened next.

  • 3 Between the 1925 A Vision and the 1937 text, in addition to drafts and other unpublished material, (...)

5In examining what happened to the Mask between 1925 and 1937, I hope to suggest some of the issues that were at stake as Yeats revised A Vision. This task, or set of many tasks, involved reworking a set of ideas that started in a deeply intimate experience, steeped in what he was later to call ‘miracle’, and that ended in a public form suitable for a global readership.3 He performed its concepts and conceptualised the performance that is at its core. Attending to changes in Yeats’s self-presentation from the 1920s through the 1930s, decades in which he took highly contentious positions on European politics, aesthetics, and philosophy, requires understanding differences between the 1925 and 1937 A Vision (AVA and AVB). My hope is that this essay will point to the degree to which Yeats in his late period was concerned not only to depict but very much also to enact. When we read his outlandish late poses, whether of a crazed man preaching racial politics on a boiler, a scarecrow pretending to be a distinguished and smiling public man, a lover of rich women who were to varying degrees oriented sexually towards men, or an Irish nationalist who has substituted for Celtic culture Indian philosophy, we should remember this conviction of enactment of ideas. His late works consistently insist that one cannot know without doing: identity is inherently part of a structural system that is constantly in motion and unavailable if one is not enmeshed in its patterns. We believe in ourselves, Yeats suggests, but it is crucial to know that we both invent and inhabit them: it is ourselves that we make and remake.

6A Vision, which presents a symbolic and theoretical ‘system’ of psychology, history, culture, and the many lives of the soul, is especially handy for illustration of this point. First, the psychology, history, cultural identity, and soul Yeats presents in A Vision are those of the author of the book at the same time as they are the ambitiously large-scaled system. A Vision is symbolic autobiography as well as general philosophy. In fact, this double stance, in which the subject is very personal as well as distantly impersonal, is demanded by the main ideas of the book. The system insists that oppositions between subjectivity and objectivity, the inner being of the self and the seemingly unrelated external world, are illusions. One overarching set of symbols always reaches down as well as up, spiralling in and out simultaneously. Everything is caught in it, including book, author, and reader.

7The second reason A Vision provides an especially useful text is of course that although it is true to say A Vision is a book, it is also a bit misleading to talk about A Vision in the singular, since in important ways it is not one book but two. In terms of genetic materials, the first Vision began as an occult experiment in automatic writing between W. B. Yeats and his wife George Hyde Lees, a private ritual between two newly married partners, in late 1917. The second Vision ended over twenty years later as the poet sent the 1937 version to Macmillan in London and Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York so the book could be reset as one volume of deluxe editions of his complete works. (Neither of those editions was ever published, and whatever final changes Yeats [or his wife] made to the book are lost.)

  • 4 For a study that focuses on the authorial character ‘Yeats’ in A Vision (though almost exclusively (...)

8If we put these two observations, that A Vision is a symbolic autobiography and that it is two books rather than one, into the same frame, the reasons for looking between them for the Mask is clear. If A Vision is the performance of a self, and there are two Visions, then it follows that Yeats plays the roles of two authorial personae in it/ them.4


9The first Vision-ary Yeats is the more overtly unstable of the two. The structures and rhetoric of the book show traces of the esoteric genesis of it all, in the automatic writing that started on the Yeatses’ honeymoon. To summarise a set of events that has been described many times, within a month or two, Yeats decided that what was arriving in the daily sessions was a philosophical system and that he should give it organized expression. He began crafting a dialogue between his fictional characters Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne, resurrected for the purpose from the 1890s, then switched to a core of expository prose for the philosophy itself, embedded in a fantastic semi-hoax in the best fictional fashion. An introduction by Aherne tells the story of how he and Robartes gave their old friend Yeats an esoteric manuscript to edit.

  • 5 Letter from T. Werner Laurie to A. P. Watt, 12 October 1923, CL InteLex 4380.

10Yeats’s regular trade publisher, Macmillan of London, had little interest in a book as strange as this one, even by one of the writers in its stable it could usually count on for sales, and even in the 1920s (when a number of other very strange books and other works of art were appearing in high modernist modes). Luckily, T. Werner Laurie, a small-scale, quirky publisher in London, took it on, as he had an instalment of Yeats’s autobiography a few years earlier, and despite some confusion. His correspondence sometimes strikes an anxious tone, as when he wrote to Yeats’s agent A. P. Watt to ask, ‘As no-one here has the faintest idea as to what the book is about do you think you could coax Yeats to write me a descriptive paragraph of it for my Catalogue? I wish you would try.5 Laurie finally reduced the print run of 1000 copies to 600 lovely, signed, expensive books.

11When A Vision was published in January 1926, it offered itself to the public as a kind of art book, an aestheticised artifact by a poet and playwright known for highly stylized poses. Faux-Renaissance woodcuts inside were reminiscent of fine press books like those of the Kelmscott Press. Here was something to puzzle over, engage with and perhaps baffled by, the way one would read T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land or listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The semiotic of the first version of A Vision seemed to suggest that it was a sort of skeleton key that would explain some of the forces at work in the autobiography, The Trembling of the Veil, which had been published in book form in 1922, just a few years earlier. It contains references to ideas and terms from the system, as does some of the poetry and drama that had been appearing in periodicals, collections, and on the stage from 1919 forward.

12The 1920s is the context for this Vision. The Yeats who is its author is the writer looked to more than any other for articulation of some of the extreme pressures of the decade in Irish political and social life, including of course years of war and civil war. This is the Yeats who is a Senator in the new Free State, who wins the Nobel Prize, who will shortly publish majestic and powerful work like The Tower and The Winding Stair. However, A Vision seems to want to enact a different narrative. This Yeats seems actively to be opposing his own stature. A Vision is filled with arcane jargon, difficult diagrams, and a very curious rhetoric that seems to take itself very seriously and at the same time be laughing at some private joke. Its author is someone immersed in art and magic, who conducts elaborate, even baroque, experiments in genre, style, and form. He is also sometimes in command of his material and sometimes seemingly overwhelmed by it, so that the book acts out a wobbly, dynamic performance. It is modernist and esoteric.

13After it was published, Yeats began to rewrite, or rather to prepare to rewrite, by undertaking a mammoth course in reading. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he read philosophy from the pre-Socratic philosophers through Neoplatonism through George Berkeley through Hegel to contemporary thinkers like Benedetto Croce and George Moore, revisiting old friends like Plotinus and Nietzsche along the way. He read history from Herodotus to Gibbon to Toynbee and art history from Ruskin to Henry Adams to Josef Strzygowski. He studied religion from The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, to entries on calendars, astrology, and Byzantine theology in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics he bought with the money from the Nobel Prize. With the help of George Yeats (and her proficiency in French) he dived into the multi-volume history of science by French mathematician Pierre Duhem; with the help of Lady Gregory he revisited collected folklore and Roman and Greek classics in her library. And he wrote and rewrote much of A Vision, finally producing in 1937 a book by the same title as the first one but with about two-thirds made up of new material.

14The author of AVB poses as someone confidently in command of things, at home in a wide and sophisticated intellectual world, and in no need of ornamentation for its own sake. For example, in the first third of the book, a sort of grab-bag of material extraneous to the philosophical sections, an introduction tells the story of the automatic script openly, rather than in the fantastic hoax of the first edition. An open letter to fellow resident of Rapallo Ezra Pound discusses Yeats’s frustrations as a Senator for the Free State – the sort of frustration one can only throw around if one is a Senator, of course. (By contrast, the 1925 A Vision was dedicated to Moina Mathers, one of Yeats’s old friends and fellow members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – and not to her openly but to ‘Vestigia’, her secret motto in the Order.) A story filling out the pages includes Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne as openly fictional characters. Though the plot of Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends is outrageous and the tone ambiguously tongue-in-cheek, it is at least labelled as ‘stories’, rather than the tales of Robartes meeting up with Arab tribesmen who dance mysterious designs on the desert floor, which the 1925 author gives his readers with a deceptively straight face. The philosophical chapters of the 1937 edition have been smoothed out, seemingly logical explanations replacing imagistic and poetic examples. Authoritative names are dropped, footnotes added that pile up even more citations. The magically inclined aesthete, often confused but always intense, of the 1925 book has been replaced by someone who wears a more worldly, slightly pompous air.

15The 1937 author has also partly relaxed into his own narrow place in the grander schemes. Rather than trying and failing to give successful explanations of the very confusing philosophy, this authorial voice is at war with himself: part of him accepts his own limited ability to see past his own location on the wheels of the system. Part of him pushes against this acceptance and (somewhat artificially) props up his engagement and energy with reading and having strong opinions about the latest work on subjects germane to the business at hand, such as idealist philosophy and art history. The two sides of the 1937 Mask, push and counter-push, can be seen through the inherent contrast between two sets of ideas that underpin much of the new material of the book. The push can be seen in comments about, for example, contemporary commentators on Hegel, including modern philosophical arguments like those of J. M. E. McTaggart, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore. This push cites and engages with cultural historians like Otto Spengler or art historians like the National Socialist Josef Strzygowski on questions of grand movements in history, including ominous references to the coming ‘new order’. The counter-push can be seen in citations of the working-class ‘tramp’ poet W. H. Davies, Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras he composed, Daisetzu Suzuki’s discussion of Zen Buddhism, or Stephen MacKenna’s wonderful translation of Plotinus. These and other sources in this counter-push lean toward a state that seems static if viewed from the outside but moving and flexible if experienced from within. The point is that the Yeats of the 1937 Vision is in self-contradiction, part pushing urgently towards the new ideas that he believes are definitive of the next age, part pushing against into intellectual and spiritual dimensions that offer an enticing distance from definition itself.


  • 6 The quotation is from the Latin Asclepius (not Aeslepius) III. 31: Hermetica. The Ancient Greek an (...)
  • 7 Asclepius III. 30–32a, Hermetica I. 351–55.

16The shift in the concept of the Mask in the two versions of A Vision, not only the roles assumed by the authorial presences of the two books, may be seen by reviewing some of the structural differences between them. To some degree, of course, A Vision is A Vision: the system is fundamentally the same in both books. Yet the books themselves are quite different from each other, in presentation and structure. These changes mirror important alterations in Yeats’s thinking in the important decade or so during which he was working on the revisions. The altered emphasis, and the structure in which that emphasis can be perceived, may be seen in texts beyond A Vision, as well, as might be expected: Yeats used A Vision in part as a quarry of ideas and images for use in his other work. Yeats’s last Masks are formed not so much by an emphasis on either self or anti-self, nor the unity formed out of their opposition, but by the need of the one for the other, and the importance of not looking for or finding any state of rest beyond that need. In a seeming non sequitur in the 1937 A Vision, a section describes the relation between cone (representing movement and time) and sphere (representing stasis and timelessness), Yeats quotes from Sir Walter Scott’s translation of the Hermetica: ‘“Eternity also”, says Hermes in the Aeslepius dialogue, “though motionless itself, appears to be in motion”.6 The point being underscored, in a circuitous fashion, is found in the section of the Latin dialogue from which Yeats quotes: that even these purest of principles require each other. Movement is still, and stillness is in motion. Hermes Trismegistus explains to Asclepius that time itself, though ‘ever in movement, possesses a faculty of stability’ because it operates according to rules, an ‘ordered course’. Similarly, eternity ‘enters into time’ because it has a relation to it. It follows that even God ‘also moves with himself’. All is ‘circular movement’.7 As Crazy Jane would say, ‘nothing can be sole or whole | That has not been rent’ (VP 513). Yeats’s late Masks embody the need for aesthetic as well as spiritual and political control in restless cohabitation with an urge toward wildness, wickedness, and submission to chaos.

17Between AVA and AVB has occurred a change from presentation of the occult system in a more or less present tense, despite the preoccupation of the ideas generally with moving gyres of history and the progress of the soul from incarnation to incarnation. By and large, in 1925, the philosophy is presented statically. In terms of voice, the author of the book is caught in the gyres and often confused by them, but he speaks as if the material itself emanates from a still, stable point of view. As Yeats writes in the concluding pages, his hope is that his book might restore the sense that ‘every condition of mind discovered by analysis, even that which is timeless, spaceless, is present vivid experience to some being, and that we could in some degree communicate with this being while still alive, and after our death share in the experience’ (AVA 207). By 1937, somewhat paradoxically since the author of the book understands the system much more thoroughly than he does in the 1925 version, many more tags implying mobility dot the pages. The acknowledgement of the origin of the system in George Yeats’s automatic writing, in the introduction, allows Yeats to loosen the propositional stance into a pose that acknowledges change, in levels of understanding, in ways of describing things, and even in the degree of command of the instructors themselves. He even notes the presence of Frustrators (who tell lies instead of imparting truths) and partiality even of the truthful spirits: ‘Those who taught me this system did so, not for my sake, but their own’ (AVB 12–14, 234).

  • 8 For a survey of criticism, see Ron Heisler, ‘Yeats and the Thirteenth Æon’, YA13 241–52. For a com (...)
  • 9 Mann, ‘The Thirteenth Cone’.

18By the 1937 publication, the suggestion of a still point beyond the turning gyres has become more complex, with the possibility lessened of attaining a final resolution or escape from the wheel. Much has been made by many perceptive readers of the Thirteenth Cone (or Cycle, or Sphere) in the 1937 A Vision, a concept that receives much more emphasis there than in the 1925 text. To many, the Thirteenth Cone in the later Vision has seemed a promised liberation from the soul’s entrapment in endless predestined cycles of reincarnation.8 To some degree, such readings are justified: the concept is described in salvific language, as when Yeats writes that the Thirteenth Cycle ‘is that cycle which may deliver us from the twelve cycles of time and space’, in which ‘live all souls that have been set free and every Daimon and Ghostly Self’ (AVB 210–11), or which ‘is in every man and called by every man his freedom’ (302). The last is an especially resonant passage, coming as it does on the concluding page of the text proper, in a section called ‘The End of the Cycle’. However, the concept of the Thirteenth Cone is misread as a geometric replacement for an idea of God or eternity, as Neil Mann has recently shown.9

  • 10 Letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham, 4 January 1939, cited in Ann Saddlemyer, Becoming George: The Lif (...)

19Larger structures of the 1937 text also fail to support such a rhetoric of salvation. For example, the introductory fictions of the 1925 book depict obviously fake sources for the system in mysterious rituals and a sacred book, both of which understand the system even if ‘Yeats’, a character in the fictions, does not. In the 1937 book, these fictions have been supplemented by the autobiographical introduction (which renders the recitation of the earlier account an overtly revealed hoax rather than a thinly veiled one), as well as stories of the strange crew of characters engaged in bizarre activities that roughly enact the concepts of the system. Rather than knowing and dancing the meanings of it all, as do the Judwali tribespeople from the 1925 version, Michael Robartes and his friends are caught up in doing very odd things (including, as an utterly outlandish final item in a strange series of acts, incubating a lost egg of Leda), which they do not understand. These late stories demonstrate the principle Yeats famously described in one of his last letters: ‘I am happy and I think full of energy of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say “Man can embody the truth but he cannot find it”. I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the saint or the song of sixpence...’.10 In other words, readers encounter a relatively thorough account of the automatic script, as well as two other origin stories. There is both more and less: the author clearly has a better purchase on the material, but the presentation is also destabilized by the multiplicity of narratives.

20Other formal aspects also work against a sense of solid footing. Inside the framing material, the 1925 text has four books, a neat foursquare structure. Inside this architecture, however, Book II in particular is a sort of grab-bag of concepts culled from the automatic script and notebooks, attempting to describe a number of the further complexities of the system beyond essays describing each of the lunar Phases. In 1937, the seeming neatness of the earlier structure has become an uneven set of five Books. The messy Book II has been replaced by two Books, one describing the further geometries (Book II, ‘The Completed Symbol’) and one focusing just on the Great Year, that is, the larger cycles in which the historical cones are themselves embedded (Book IV, ‘The Great Year of the Ancients’). Regarded in terms of a readerly experience, occurring in time, the 1937 A Vision implies a movement from one Book to another that mirrors the intellectual shuttling between multiplicity and unity, many and one, that is stressed in the exposition of the ideas themselves. Thus, Book I, with a description of each lunar Phase, dominated by the influences of the four Faculties, is followed by Book II, an account of the larger view of the discarnate Principles. Next, Book III, detailing the progress of the individual soul from incarnation to incarnation, is followed in Book IV by an explanation of the large structure that decrees how often such returns occur. Then, the text finishes with a finer-grained analysis of the latest eras of western cultural history, Book V (‘Dove or Swan’), which was Book III of the 1925 text. Smaller structures operate with a similar sense of alternation: Books I, III, and V move in linear patterns, from one numbered Phase, one state between lives, or one historical period to the next. Books II and IV are organized in numbered sections, but the sections often jump from one idea to the next with little sense that they could not be reordered without any loss of logical progression.


  • 11 It is difficult to date with any precision when Yeats revised sections of the body of A Vision. As (...)
  • 12 I have told one version of the story in ‘“The clock has run down and must be wound up again”: A Vi (...)
  • 13 11 May 1925, CL InteLex 4725.
  • 14 In Yeats at Work (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), Curtis B (...)
  • 15 Ibid. , 238, 267.

21Part of the point of the long disquisition in AVB on the ancient concept of the Platonic or Great Year, on which Yeats worked energetically especially between 1928 and 1930,11 has to do with how to measure the larger cycles in which the eras and their gyres are set. Yeats had set out an outline of the last set of gyres, our own era, in Book III of AVA, which is placed as the last book (V) of AVB. (The ending of this book, in other words, the question of what to do about the present moment, gave him great trouble, but that is another story.12) It is apparent in some of the creative texts from this period that the Great Year, or Magnus Annus, was at the front of Yeats’s imagination. For example, the play The Resurrection, begun in 1925 as ‘a sort of overflow from the book’ (the newly finished AVA), as Yeats wrote Lady Gregory,13 was reworked considerably, in at least two drafts between its first publication in The Adelphi in June 1927 and two more on the way to a later, definitive version, first published in the Cuala Press volume Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends in 1931 (both versions are presented on facing pages in VPl, 900–36).14 The revisions work toward several aims. One is straightforwardly theatrical: to make the play more dramatic. By and large, this aim is achieved: by the final version there is less talk and more action than in the earlier versions, and the talk that remains is often in the nature of teichoscopy, the synchronous recitation of events happening offstage (notably a Dionysian ritual including self-mutilation, re-enacting the death of the god, described in horror by the Greek). As Curtis Bradford puts it, Yeats had set himself the difficult task in this play ‘to dramatize a theological argument’, about three different conceptions of the nature of Christ, symbolized by means of three characters. By the final version, according to Bradford, Yeats had succeeded in making ‘a much better play’.15

22The revisions also parallel the revisions Yeats was working out in A Vision, in which it is both possible to measure, with some precision, large cyclical forces, as seen from a distance, and at the same time necessary to live ecstatically, momentarily, in an intensity that is the hunger or wildness that drives even the greatest cyclical patterns. (We might notice that a number of poems being composed during this period, collected in The Winding Stair and Other Poems and A Full Moon in March, express similar convictions.) The early Resurrection is shaped by the system, but its intellectual scaffolding is more static. In the early version of the play, the three characters represent a regular triangle of ideas. The first character, the Hebrew, a sensualist, represents one cone of a cultural gyre. He believed Jesus was the promised Messiah but is now filled with doubt, remorse, and despair (as was Judas, a parallel that explains why a good deal of discussion about Judas is placed in the first scene). The Hebrew declares of Christ that ‘There is only one sensible thing to say; He deceived Himself and us, maddened by His love – and He is dead’ (VPl 926). The second character, the Egyptian, an Alexandrian and therefore ‘almost a Greek’ (Ibid.), although as interested as the Hebrew in driving out the Greek overlords from his homeland, believes in the power of the image, not the flesh. He prophesies the rise of the edifice of Christianity (‘If we but fix our faith upon that image, men in times to come will lay upon their altars, a splinter of the Cross whereon it seemed to have been nailed, and some Roman Emperor attribute his victories to the nail that he has made into the bit of his horse’ [VPl 918]). A god must be an ideal:

God can communicate with mankind through an illusionary body, such a form as sculptors in my city make for Alexander the Great – no beating, suffering heart, all stone or bronze, as it were, perfect – exactly 6 ft. high, neither more nor less – nothing can be added, nothing taken away and perfect maturity. Christ when he began to preach was exactly thirty years old (VPl 924).

  • 16 VPl 930. This line nearly mirrors the last line of the octave in the sonnet ‘Meru’, the final poem (...)

23The third character, the Syrian, understands the larger pattern; he believes a truth that is impossible for the other two characters, that ‘Our Master has risen from the dead’ (VPl 922). Like other gods ‘all over Greece, all over Asia Minor and Magna Grecia, from generation to generation, men have celebrated the death and Resurrection of Attis, or Adonis, or Dionysus, of God under some name or other... and now... God has become flesh’ (VPl 924). The climax of the play occurs when ‘The figure of Christ’ enters. The Egyptian touches the body he believes cannot be real and speaks the lines that sum up the historical meaning of the event: ‘Reason itself is dead. [In a loud voice. ] Rome, Greece, Egypt – it has come, the miracle, that which must destroy you, irrational force. The Heart of a Phantom is beating!’.16

  • 17 VPl 931. The translation of Heraclitus frag. 67 is taken from John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (...)

24The final version of the play incorporates a seemingly slight shift. The neat system is enacted as well as described: the characters embody truths as well as knowing them. The Hebrew, in his despair, still thinks of Christ that ‘He was nothing more than a man, the best man who ever lived’ (VPl 909) but mistaken in thinking Himself the Messiah. He is in a way relieved to avoid the consequences of Christ being divine; if that were true, his individual will would have been erased and ‘God had to take complete possession’ (VPl 913). When the figure of Christ appears at the end of the play, then, the Hebrew realises just this destiny: he ‘backs in terror’ toward the corner of the stage, then kneels (VPl 929). The Greek, not an Egyptian in this version, believes still that Christ is a phantom, not a corporeal being. He is again given the climactic moment in the play, when he touches the figure of Christ, and the final lines. Now, however, his final speech echoes one of Yeats’s favourite sayings, from Heraclitus: ‘God and man die each other’s life, live each other’s death’.17 The genius of the Greek for access to divinity through abstraction has been attained. To the Syrian belongs the most dramatic change. In this version as in the Adelphi text, he sees that the events take place in a larger framework, responding with rhetorical questions to his fellows, ‘What matter if it contradicts all human knowledge? – another Argo seeks another fleece, another Troy is sacked’, and ‘What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if at the moment when knowledge and order seem complete that something appears?’ (VPl 923, 925). In this version, however, a distinctly unsettling moment has been added, when he ‘has begun to laugh’. The Greek claims that he ‘has lost control of himself’, and the Hebrew tells him to stop, but the Syrian does not think he is laughing. He says ‘What if the irrational return? What if the circle begin again?’ while continuing to laugh, then denies that he is laughing. Drums and rattles occur from the crowd outside, which the Syrian says he thought was laughter, and he exclaims, ‘How horrible’! (VPl 925). It is unclear whether his horror is at the crowd or his own moment of madness. The play ends as did the earlier version, with a song (the second of ‘Two Songs from a Play’, as it is entitled in The Tower [VP 438]), though in the version of the play in Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (and in the 1933 Collected Poems) the song has a second stanza. This final stanza emphasizes not the large patterns of ‘Galilean turbulence’, ‘Babylonian starlight’, ‘Platonic tolerance’, and ‘Doric discipline‘ but the patterns as they appear on the level of personal immediacy, to lover, painter, herald, or soldier. Moreover, human desire is the ultimate cause of all the cosmos: ‘Whatever flames upon the night | Man’s own resinous heart has fed’.

25Not only does the play in its variants demonstrate that Yeats was working on the Great Year while he was composing it, The Resurrection suggests that personal issues were at stake for a writer who like his Hebrew feared for the loss of identity in the face of larger spiritual truths; like his Greek strove to find personal meaning in abstractions from a long history of philosophy (beginning with the pre-Socratic thinkers); and like his Syrian found that he had ‘mummy truths to tell | Whereat the living mock, | Though not for sober ear, | For maybe all that hear | Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock’ (VP 474).


26At the very end of AVB, in one of the last composed sections, the author poses as an old man:

Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra. I have felt the convictions of a lifetime melt though at an age when the mind should be rigid, and others take their place, and these in turn give way to others. How far can I accept socialistic or communistic prophecies? I remember the decadence Balzac foretold to the Duchess de Castries. I remember debates in the little coach-house at Hammersmith or at Morris’ supper-table afterwards. I remember the Apocalyptic dreams of the Japanese Saint and labour leader Kagawa, whose books were lent me by a Galway clergyman. I remember a Communist described by Captain White in his memoirs ploughing on the Cotswold Hills, nothing on his great hairy body but sandals and a pair of drawers, nothing in his head but Hegel’s Logic. Then I draw myself up into the symbol and it seems as if I should know all if I could but banish such memories and find everything in the symbol (AVB 301).

  • 18 One key term I have not defined, of course, is ‘unity’. In the passage above, the contrast between (...)

27The conflict between rigid convictions, to which Yeats writes he believes he should be attached at his age, and what he calls (in a Blakean term) ‘particulars’, brings up a list of four ‘socialist or communistic prophecies’ linked by the rhetorical tag ‘I remember’. Uncovering sources for these four memories (as I have been doing as Catherine Paul and I edit AVB for the new Collected Works) has underscored another permutation of the phenomenon this essay has traced: how Yeats’s last Masks are multiple rather than one side of a duality (of self and anti-self), and that they stress not unity though they recognize that yearning for it drives life.18

  • 19 Balzac had a famous infatuation (which ended badly) with Claire Clémence Henriette Claudine de Mai (...)

28The first item ‘I remember’, ‘the decadence’ prophesied to Balzac’s sometime amour the Duchesse de Castries, comes from the introduction to one of the volumes of the complete works, a full set of which Yeats owned. The passage, which is written as if to the Duchesse, defines ‘the commercial traveller – a being unknown in earlier times’ as being symbolic of ‘the immense transition which connects the age of material development with that of intellectual development’. The prophecy is of coming barbarism because ‘the age of isolated forces rich in original creativeness’ is yielding to ‘that of the uniform but levelling force which gives monotony to its products, casting them in masses, and following out a unifying idea – the ultimate expression of social communities’.19 The second reference is to Yeats’s apprentice socialism in the 1880s, in Hammersmith at Kelmscott House, under the tutelage of William Morris. The third is to the Japanese Christian labour organiser Toyohiko Kagawa, who was very popular in Protestant theological circles in the early decades of the century (he has been venerated by the Episcopal Church USA and the Lutheran Church, according to one source). I have not identified the ‘Galway clergyman’, but this may point to an interesting relationship.

29The fourth allusion is a strange description of a half-naked Communist ploughing on the Cotswold Hills, preoccupied with Hegel. This reference comes from a vivid depiction of a giant Czech philosopher in an English commune in a memoir by Captain Jack White. White was a Communist organiser from Antrim, who attended Sandhurst and served with the First Gordon Highlanders in the Boer War, then in India and Scotland. He married a Roman Catholic woman, resigned his commission on ethical grounds, travelled (and lived in a Tolstoyan commune), then returned to Ireland, where he agitated for Home Rule in the North, then went south to work with James Larkin in the Dublin Lock-out. It was he who came up with the idea of organising an Irish Citizen Army. He

the J. M. Dent complete Comédie Humaine [New York: Macmillan, 1901; YL 99]). Dedicated ‘To Madame la Duchesse de Castries’, it begins:
Is not the commercial traveller – a being unknown in earlier times – one of the most curious types produced by the manners and customs of this age? And is it not his peculiar function to carry out in a certain class of things the immense transition which connects the age of material development with that of intellectual development? Our epoch will be the link between the age of isolated forces rich in original creativeness, and that of the uniform but levelling force which gives monotony to its products, casting them in masses, and following out a unifying idea – the ultimate expression of social communities. After the Saturnalia of intellectual communism, after the struggles of many civilisations concentrating all the treasures of the world on a single spot, must not the darkness of barbarism invariably supervene?

30Yeats refers to the idea of ‘history as a personal experience’ expressed by ‘Balzac in his letter to the Duchess de Castries’ in the ‘Private Thoughts’ section of On the Boiler (CW5 233). See also Warwick Gould, ‘The “myth [in]... reply to a myth” – Yeats, Balzac, and Joachim of Fiore’, YA5 238–51; and Warwick Gould, ‘A Crowded Theatre: Yeats and Balzac’, in Yeats the European, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1989), 69–90, and 293, n. 6 for additional sources on Yeats and Balzac. was involved in the 1916 Rising and worked on several leftist causes in the Free State.

  • 20 Page numbers from Captain Jack White, Misfit (London and Toronto: Jonathan Cape, 1930), are cited (...)

31Chapter 16 of White’s memoir Misfit describes his experience in Whiteway Colony, a communist experimental community in the Cotswold Hills, including his encounter with Francis Sedlak, ‘the only man I have ever met who claimed to have mastered and digested Hegel’s logic’.20

He had written a book called A Holiday with a Hegelian, which no one on earth but himself could understand. I, as little as any; but I could understand that Francis understood. He had entered a world of pure thought with the key of Hegel’s logic that suited him. He retained his giant’s body, but he lived in his mind. He was no longer a groundling, but on the road to become a god. He declared he had found a key to the movements of the heavenly bodies in the fifty-two movements of thought in Hegel’s logic and could make thereby slight corrections in astronomical calendars (147).

32Sedlak’s appearance is described by Nellie Shaw (‘the lady to whom he once described himself as “married but not legally, my wife objecting to chattel slavery”’ [146]) in her own words:

In those days we was pure Communists... Well, as I was sayin’, we was eating our lunch one day when I looked up, and there was the queerest sight comin’ along the road ever I seen in all my life; a great’airy giant of a man as naked as’is mother made’im to the waist, and nothing but a pair of running-drawers, and sandals below that (149–50).

33Besides the humour of the allusion (added to by the voices of Captain White as well as the quoted Nellie) and the female sexual pleasure that surely also caught Yeats’s attention (and are relevant to A Vision as well as other late works), this little reference to Captain White’s quirky memoir also speaks to the enactment of the Mask. Yeats ends AVB by sinking into his symbol, allowing it to release him from his ‘memories’ and accept the uncertainty, or instability, he describes at the start of the paragraph, when ‘I have felt the convictions of a lifetime melt though at an age when the mind should be rigid, and others take their place, and these in turn give way to others’. What are these convictions? We may well wonder. Some, which go back a ‘lifetime’, are the left-leaning political ideas of Morris and others, which paradoxically accompanied theories of art that posit the authoritative power of the symbol, the artist as something like a magician. Other ‘convictions’ might of course be right-leaning doctrines that were the topic of much debate in critical circles for several decades (and which still surface in the work of some writers), or the enthusiasm for a ‘people’s’ art that preoccupied Yeats in the 1920s and 30s, in projects like the deceptively simple lyrics of ‘Words For Music Perhaps’ or the Broadside ballads he produced with his brother Jack. The ‘symbol’ in the passage quoted above, that of the system of A Vision with its relentless oppositions, and Yeats’s training in ‘drawing myself up’ into it, is different from his earlier symbolist theory. The ‘unity’ in the passage is also not the same as any semi-Fascist political involvement, or indeed the ‘unity’ castigated by Balzac. Rather, the symbol is recognized as a dynamic mental construct, something that shifts as the mind does. There is play, in the sense of what might be called ‘give’, in the relationship between the symbol and the mind of the writer, but this is hardly ironic detachment. The dominant emotions are a struggle between humility and pride, acceptance, even of ruin, alternating with engagement and approval of those who are passionately involved, even of bringing that ruin. This dramatised late Mask enacts concepts and convictions that I hope will receive more attention.


1 Terence Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography (London: Blackwell, 1999), 171.

2 Janis Tedesco Haswell has analysed the gendering of the daimon and mask, a crucial aspect of this change, which, in her words, ‘elevates the mask from an aesthetic construct to an explicitly gendered psychodrama’ (Pressed Against Divinity [DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997]), 4.

3 Between the 1925 A Vision and the 1937 text, in addition to drafts and other unpublished material, and in addition too to ideas worked out and published in various texts from Autobiographies to Wheels and Butterflies, two publications in particular include material that would be incorporated into the later book: the Cuala Press editions of A Packet for Ezra Pound (Dublin, 1929; Wade 163) and Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (Dublin, 1931; Wade 167). For analyses of the former, see Catherine E. Paul, ‘Compiling A Packet for Ezra Pound’, Paideuma 38 (2011), 29–53; and Catherine E. Paul, ‘A Vision of Ezra Pound’, in W. B. Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: Explications and Contexts, ed. Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire V. Nally (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2012), 252–69.

4 For a study that focuses on the authorial character ‘Yeats’ in A Vision (though almost exclusively in AVB), see Hazard Adams, The Book of Yeats’s ‘Vision’: Romantic Modernism and Antithetical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

5 Letter from T. Werner Laurie to A. P. Watt, 12 October 1923, CL InteLex 4380.

6 The quotation is from the Latin Asclepius (not Aeslepius) III. 31: Hermetica. The Ancient Greek and Latin writings which contain religious or philosophic teaching ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, ed. and trans. Walter Scott, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924–1936), I. 351–53; YL 881.

7 Asclepius III. 30–32a, Hermetica I. 351–55.

8 For a survey of criticism, see Ron Heisler, ‘Yeats and the Thirteenth Æon’, YA13 241–52. For a comprehensive and nuanced analysis of the concept, see Neil Mann, ‘The Thirteenth Cone’, in W. B. Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: Explications and Contexts, 159–93.

9 Mann, ‘The Thirteenth Cone’.

10 Letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham, 4 January 1939, cited in Ann Saddlemyer, Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 559. Cf. CL InteLex 7363, L 922. On the issue of exact wording, see also my Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 264, n. 25.

11 It is difficult to date with any precision when Yeats revised sections of the body of A Vision. As Connie K. Hood notes, few of the more than a thousand pages of manuscript and typescript drafts of A Vision are dated. Some extraction of dates can be made, however, and Hood’s account remains the most complete: Connie K. Hood, ‘The Remaking of A Vision’, YAACTS 1 (1983), 33–67. Other evidence also exists. Between 1928 and 1930, Yeats left traces of his work on the Great Year, for example, in the notes he made in the Rapallo D notebook (NLI 13,581). These notes include information about the Indian Great Year from Sepharial [Walter Gorn Old], Hebrew Astrology: The Key to the Study of Prophecy (London: W. Foulsham, 1929), 61. Yeats also wrote in the margins of his copy of A. E. Taylor’s A Commentary on Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928; YL 2107), the Platonic dialogue most concerned with the Great Year. The introduction to The Resurrection, one of the essays appended to a set of late plays that comprise the volume Wheels and Butterflies, also treats the topic in confident terms. This essay was begun, according to John Kelly, in late 1930: John Kelly, A W. B. Yeats Chronology (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 271. On 27 Dec 1930, Yeats mentions ‘Wheels and Butterflies (a book of plays & essays all most finished)’ and ‘putting the last touches to a play called “The Resurrection”’ (CL InteLex 5428).

12 I have told one version of the story in ‘“The clock has run down and must be wound up again”: A Vision in Time’, Yeats and Afterwords, ed. Marjorie Howes and Joseph Valente (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2013, forthcoming).

13 11 May 1925, CL InteLex 4725.

14 In Yeats at Work (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), Curtis Bradford examines unpublished versions of the play, including two scenarios, two manuscript versions composed before the Adelphi printing, and two manuscript versions written in 1930, in advance of the Cuala Stories (237–67).

15 Ibid. , 238, 267.

16 VPl 930. This line nearly mirrors the last line of the octave in the sonnet ‘Meru’, the final poem in the sequence Supernatural Songs from the volume A Full Moon in March: ‘Egypt and Greece good-bye, and good-bye Rome!’ (VP 563). The tone of this line, from a poem Yeats claimed ‘came spontaneously, but philosophy is a dangerous theme’ (VP 855), is signally difficult to interpret.

17 VPl 931. The translation of Heraclitus frag. 67 is taken from John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1892), which Yeats owned (YL 308), 138. See AVA (CW13) 105 and 270, n. 21. Yeats first referred to this fragment (in a slightly different form) in his journal in 1909 (Mem 216). See also AVB 275 and On the Boiler (CW5 227, 234, and 236).

18 One key term I have not defined, of course, is ‘unity’. In the passage above, the contrast between the unity of the system as a whole is put into opposition with the human being trying to examine it. ‘Unity of Being’, a term from Dante discussed from early in the automatic script (January 1918) and retained in the presentation of the system through AVB, is a state possible to beings in the Phases nearest Phase 15 or Perfect Beauty. Near the end of Book II of AVB, Yeats writes, ‘My instructors identify consciousness with conflict, not with knowledge, substitute for subject and object and their attendant logic a struggle towards harmony, towards Unity of Being’ (214). In this life, in other words, human beings engage in a ‘struggle towards harmony’, not the attainment of it.

19 Balzac had a famous infatuation (which ended badly) with Claire Clémence Henriette Claudine de Maillé de La Tour-Landry, the Duchesse de Castries (1796– 1861). See the story ‘L’Illustre Gaudissart’ (‘Gaudissart the Great’), which opens Parisians in the Country, trans. James Waring (one volume of the Temple reprint of

20 Page numbers from Captain Jack White, Misfit (London and Toronto: Jonathan Cape, 1930), are cited in the text. See also Leo Keohane, ‘Captain Jack White DSO: Anarchist and Proleptic Postructuralist’, in Voicing Dissent: New Perspectives in Irish Criticism, ed. Sandrine Brisset and Noreed Doody (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2012), 241–51.


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