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Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

The Yeatsean Apocalypse

Augustine Martin

Texte intégral

1In the Christian Dispensation the word apocalypse denotes the revelation granted to John the Evangelist, on the Isle of Patmos; foretelling the end of the world and the signs and wonders accompanying it. That last book of the New Testament which Catholics call The Apocalypse of St. John is usually referred to as the Book of "Revelations" in the Protestant tradition. The term apocalypse has otherwise been largely used to mean any kind of revelation involving the end of the world, or at least the end to some decisive phase in the world's history marked by signs and portents. The word "millennial" is often used to describe the apocalyptic process whether it be linear and terminal, on the one hand, or cyclical and recurrent, on the other. In the former case eschatologists speak of a last battle between good and evil, calling it "Armageddon"; in the latter case they speak of a "New Dispensation". The "cyclical" version of historic process was also favoured in the pre-Christian world, notably in the thought of Plato.

2Though Yeats is regarded as eminently a poet of apocalypse, none of these key words occurs in his poetry – with the exception of "revelation" which makes its sole and thunderous entry in 'The Second Coming'. Their absence is not remarkable in itself. The reason may be purely aesthetic – as words they are rather dry and abstract in texture; and none of them moves easily to the iambic beat of English verse.

3The study of apocalypse developed its own intellectual discipline: Eschatology: contemplation of the four last things, Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. I've checked in the Concordance to see how they fare in Yeats's poetical economy.

4JUDGMENT: makes four appearances, two of them germane to our theme: 'Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment' and 'The Man and the Echo', the second profoundly significant as the poet "stands in judgment on his soul" and thereafter "sinks at last into the night".

5HEAVEN and its variations occupy almost a page of the Concordance. About a quarter are used with relevance to our concern, others being merely decorative or conventional as with 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven'. A pattern recurs in the early poems associated with what I provisionally term "soft-core apocalypse": thus 'The Wanderings of Oisin' foretells that "earth and heaven and hell would die"; 'The Shadowy Waters' foresees a time "when earth and heaven would be folded up" or alternatively "when heaven and earth are withering"; the early "Rose" poems presage that "peace of heaven with hell" of which Blake had so frequently written. I call these "soft-core" because they are not accompanied by historical violence and are thus distinguished from his later poems of apocalypse written after 1917. They are part of what Yeats himself called "the poetry of longing and complaint, the cry of the heart against necessity".

6It is characteristic of this soulful early mood that in 'The Island of Statues' "all night long the heavens weep and weep while later, in sharp contrast, "heaven yawns" and its joints "crack" in 'Crazy Jane Reproved'; In 'The Tower' the human soul leaps into a "desolate heaven", while finding positive injustice in the world epitomised by the tide of 'The Cold Heaven'. In the apocalyptic sense heaven, singular and plural, has a notably active force in the later poems, "blazing into the head" in 'Lapis Lazuli', controlling the stars in "Veronica's Napkin'; labouring and sighing in 'The Lady's Third Song', and "opening" momentously as "gyres run on" in 'Under Ben Bulben'. The adjectival form undertstandably, as with "all heavenly glory" in 'Among School Children', is mostly honorific and benign.

7HELL: Curiously the word occurs only thirteen times and its apocalyptic reference is confined to its association with Heaven in the early poems noted above.

8DEATH: Like all serious poets Yeats is much possessed with it. Together with its morphemes, death takes up four pages of the Concordance, a vivid minority of the references being relevant to the apocalyptic theme: "God's death" is but a play in the 'Two Songs' from The Resurrection; that inscrutable "crime of death and birth" enlivens the 'Dialogue of Self and Soul'; in 'Upon a Dying Lady' the heroine joins those legendary world-shakers,

Achilles, Timon, Babar, Barhaim, all
Who have lived in joy and laughed into the face of Death.

9In 'Blood and the Moon' he asks

Is every modern nation like the tower
Half dead at the top?

10"Agamemnon dead" in 'Leda and the Swan' marks the fall of the Trojan world; "Children dazed or dead" are victims of the crumbling gyre, with the "Crazed Moon... staggering in the sky"; because of "those new dead" in 'the Spirit Medium' the speaker clings to the solace of spade and earth.

11I now want to distinguish Yeats's early intimations of apocalypse from his later – without, I hope, compromising the continuity between them. A passage from his celebrated Introduction to The Resurrection – a play of later, "hard-core apocalypse" – provides the necessary perspective.

When I was a boy everyone talked about progress, and rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth. I took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a son of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin, and then came upon the story of Oisin in Tuna nOg, and reshaped it into my "Wanderings of Oisin'... Presently Oisin and his islands faded and the sort of images that came into 'Rosa Alchemica' and The Adoration of the Magi' took their place. Our civilisation was about to reverse itself, or some new civilisation about to be born from all that our age rejected, from all that my stories symbolised as a harlot, and take after its mother; because we had worshipped a single god it would worship many or receive from Joachim of Flora's Holy Spirit a multitudinous influx.

12Yeats sees in 'Oisin' and these two stories a unity of concern not immediately visible to the reader, chiefly because he did not carry through his plans for the poem. He had planned for it "an elaborate metaphor of a breaking wave intended to prove that all life rose and fell in the poem" and the hero, having experienced Christian revelation, was to have "passed in death over another sea to another island".

  • 1 (1) Studies, Dublin, Spring 1975: 'Apocalyptic Structure in Yeats's Secret Rose.

13I have discussed elsewhere1 the apocalyptic structure of The Secret Rose (1897) which had been first planned so as to end with 'The Adoration of the Magi'. The volume would then have encompassed the "twenty centuries of stony sleep" of the Christian era, enacted the savage Nativity and Epiphany of a New Dispensation, and thus supplied the millennial continuity abandoned in the execution of 'The Wanderings of Oisin'.

14The figure of Michael Robartes presides over 'Rosa Alchemica' and "The Adoration of the Magi'. The character is based on MacGregor Mathers whom Yeats met in London around 1888 and whose Order of the Golden Dawn Yeats joined in 1890. This occult sodality becomes the Order of the Alchemical Rose in these millennial stories. Mathers was convinced that the present world was doomed to perish in some vast holocaust:

  • 2 (2) Autobiographies, p. 336.

He began to foresee changes in the world, announcing in 1893 or 1894 the imminence of immense wars... Was this prophecy of his, which would shortly be repeated by mediums and clairvoyants all over the world, an unconscious inference taken up into an imagination brooding upon war, or was it prevision?2

15Yeats's own field research threw up the ubiquitous belief among Irish country people in the Battle of the Valley of the Black Pig, a prophecy informing several poems in The Wind among the Reeds. In a prose sketch entitled 'War', published in the 1902 edition of The Celtic Twilight, he reports a conversation he had with an Irish country woman:

And presently our talk of war shifted, as it had a way of doing, to the battle of the Black Pig, which seems to her a battle between Ireland and England, but to me an Armageddon which shall quench all things in Ancestral Darkness...

16In a note to his lyric, 'The Valley of the Black Pig' he writes

I have myself heard said that the girths shall rot from the bellies of the horses, because of the few men that shall come alive out of the valley.

17And in the lyric itself

... Unknown spears
Suddenly hurtle before my dream-awakened eyes,
And the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
Of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears.

18while the speaker grows "weary of the world's empires".

19This final phrase introduces the last word I want to chase in the Concordance, that most crucial of all Yeats's apocalyptic words – "world". Like Martha Clifford in Ulysses, Yeats "does not like that world".

20WORLD, with its morphemes, takes up three pages of the Concordance: about half of these are conventional – "They have gone about the world like wind". There are then two crucial and related senses of the word, both of them related to our theme.

21There is the biblical, New Testament, sense of "world", the sense in which, according to the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the "children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light"; the same sense in which the Christian, with baptism, renounces "the World, the Flesh and the Devil". The most schematic example of this usage is in 'Beggar to Beggar cried' where the speaker finds it "time to put off the world" in order to – "make my soul" and to "rid me of the devil in my shoes... And the worse devil that is between my thighs". But the idea is already prominent in 'The Song of the Happy Shepherd' where the "sick children of the world" are warned against scientific materialism, and later, in 'Adam's Curse' where the poetic spirit exclaims against the

... bankers schoolmasters and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

22This biblical sense of "world" is, of course, closely related to its use in English Romantic poetry: in Wordsworth's "the world is too much with us" it is seen as the enemy of health-giving and uppercase "Nature".

23(With Yeats "nature" has no such status, it is largely an indifferent, often a destructive force; but most significantly it connotes material process as opposed to the eternity of the soul and of art. The poet in 'Sailing to Byzantium' is "out of nature", free to contemplate its process. God will eventually "burn nature with a kiss" as in The Man who Dreamed of Fairyland'. "Earth", on the other hand, is mostly seen affectionately; "the old earth's dreamy youth" is a source of inspiration and healing to the Happy Shepherd.)

24The second sense of the "world" is as a place which is soon to pass away. Considering its first meaning this consummation is devoutly to be wished, and is repeatedly wished in the lyrics. The exemplary poem here is 'He mourns for the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World' in The Wind among the Reeds (1899), which is, with The Secret Rose (1897), his summary "fin-de-siècle" statement, epitome of his "softcore apocalypse". Already in 'Oisin' we have seen "God shake the world with restless hands"; in 'The Rose of the World' the poet "and the labouring world are passing by"; "time and the world are ever in flight" in 'Into the Twilight'; in The Blessed' again "time and the world are ebbing away".

25How this world is to end, whether with a bang or a whimper, is never quite clear. Yeats's letters of the period show, here and there, a man sniffing the wind with rumours of wars. Apocalyptic doctrine does ordain – as far back as in Plato's Laws – that the moment of change must involve violence. Yeats himself had exclaimed, after seeing Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi:

After Stephane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.

26But is that savage god, who brings down the philistine fabric of Victorianism, destined to "preside" over the new dispensation making it an age of brutal anarchy? Or is he merely the agent of change, a portent of apocalypse, like the "boar without bristles" that comes out of the West in 'He mourns for the Change'? And what is his relationship to the rough beasts and rampant swans of the later "hard-core" apocalyptics? To arrive at an answer it will help to look again at 'Rosa Alchemica' and 'The Tables of the Law'.

27The narrator of 'Rosa Alchemica', a lapsed Rosicrucian, is still a practitioner and scholar of alchemy on which he is writing a book when the story opens. Alchemy was the central sacrament of these Rosicrucians – fictional counterparts of the Golden Dawn – who had derived it in turn from Hermetism and Theosophy. The narrator reveals that the true alchemist "sought to fashion gold out of common metals merely as part of an universal transformation of all things into some divine and imperishable substance". The book he is writing is intended as "a fanciful reverie over the transmutation of life into art, and a cry of measureless desire for a world made wholly of essences".

28His reverie is interrupted by Michael Robartes who conveys him to the temple of the Alchemical Rose which stands on the Atlantic coast, lecturing him as they go on the imminent return of the pagan gods, Celtic and Classical. When the narrator performs the dance of initiation he notices an image of the Alchemical Rose on the ceiling and, on the floor, the face of "a pale Christ on a pale cross". (It is worth noting that the story appeared side by side with an essay by Havelock Ellis on Nietzsche in The Savoy, April 1896). When he asks for an explanation he is told that the dancers desire "to trouble His unity with their multitudinous feet".

29In 'The Tables of the Law' the same narrator recalls that Owen Aherne had believed "that the beautiful arts were sent into the world to overthrow nations, and finally life herself, by sowing everywhere unlimited desires, like torches thrown into a burning city", a belief given weight later "by the fermentation of belief which is coming upon our (Irish) people with the reawakening of their imaginative life".

30In "The Adoration of the Magi' the same narrator – waiting in dread of "that inquietude of the veil of the temple, which M. Mallarmé considers a characteristic of our times" – is visited by three old Irish storytellers from a western island. They had been reading Virgil's 'Messianic Eclogue' – Yeats mentions the Fifth while clearly meaning the Fourth Eclogue – when a voice comes to them over the waters telling them to set out for Paris where a dying woman will give them "the secret names of the gods" which when intoned bring back the Immortals. They make the journey, finding a beautiful, dying Irishwoman in a Parisian brothel. As they kneel by the bedside they hear the voice of Hermes telling them to "bow down before her... that the Immortals may come again".

31The voice continues: "When the Immortals would overthrow the things of to-day and bring in the things that were yesterday, they have no-one to help them, but one whom the things that are to-day have cast out... this woman has been driven out of time and has lain upon the bosom of Eternity". Hermes goes on to announce that "another Argo shall carry heroes over the sea, and another Achilles beleager another Troy". In time the woman revives long enough to intone the secret names of the Irish gods and other names "till the spirit went out of her body". A final name they do not catch, but it is explained to them that it was that of a "symbolist painter" who attended the Black Mass and had "taught her to see visions and to hear voices".

32(In a 1925 version Yeats altered the story to accord with the "hard-core" apocalypse of that period: "another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleager Troy"; the harlot gives birth to "the likeness of a unicorn... most unlike man of all living things, being cold, hard and virginal". Some critics, neglecting to compare the several versions, have mistakenly attributed these uncompromising images to the earlier, softer version of the fable").

33The evidence of these stories, together with that of the poems and commentaries, suggest the overthrow of Victorian convention and ethics in favour of no brutal disorder, but of a subversive concept of art and beauty – "torches thrown into a burning city" – distilled from Nietzsche, Pater, Wilde and Gustave Moreau, sponsored by such mystical patrons as Joachim with his "multitudinous influx" and Blake who wrote of Christ: "His mother should a harlot have been, Just such an one as Magdalen"; and Shelley who announced:

The world's great age begins anew;
The golden age returns.

34That the Armageddon should be a Irish affair, with Celtic gods and mystic harlot, is consonant with current Renanesque theories of the Celt and with Yeats's current determination to found an Order of Celtic mysteries, and to find, with the help of "A.E." a Celtic Avatar among the hills of Donegal.

35After this Armageddon, I would therefore insist, the New Dispensation would be akin to the dream of the Alchemists: a new Golden Age of the kind foretold in Virgil's Eclogue; Joachim's Age of the Holy Spirit; Blake's Golden Age of the Ancients. It is indeed, as Yeats is soon to acknowledge, a "fanciful reverie" which he quickly buries – marking the spot – as the century turns and he enters upon the Iron Age of the Lane controversies and the Playboy riots, the world out of which the "hard-core" apocalyptics of his middle age are born.

36But these feverish millenial hopes are dramatically revived in 1914 when Mather's's prophecies of "immense wars" become a reality. The poet who can so eloquently despair of sacrificial blood in 'September 1913' soon finds himself celebrating the Medusa birth of "a terrible beauty" in 'Easter 1916', completing that brilliant triptych with 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' which faces the appalling reality that "days are dragon-ridden" while nightmare "rides upon sleep". And in a shrewd reversal of Tennyson's nervous Christian optimism he acknowledges with mingled dread and fascination:

So the Platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead;
All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.

37This visionary terrorism, born of an apprehension of total war, has drawn upon the poet charges of "hysteria", "brutality", "fascist authoritarianism". The poem used most to indict him is The Second Coming', written in the midst of Ireland's experience of the Black and Tans, and in the bloody aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The most celebrated of these indictments has come from Harold Bloom in his book Yeats (1970) where he levels charges that have often been reiterated, especially in the terminology of Marxism. Having, with a spirited pedantry, upbraided Yeats for switching from an imagology of the Sphinx of Memphis, in the drafts, to an unearned appropriation of St. Matthew's "second coming of Jesus" in the final text – why can't Yeats have his clinamen? – he concentrates his fire-power at the second stanza:

With the second stanza, heretofore evaded difficulties crowd upon the detached reader, if he can resist not only Yeats's heroic rhetoric but also the awed piety of the exegetes. The poet (or the poem's speaker) says "surely" revelation, the uncovering of apocalypse, is at hand, but what in the poem justifies that word surely? Mere anarchy does not always bring on revelation, and we would all of us be scarred with multiple apocalypses by now if every loosing of a blood-dimmed tide had compelled the final reality to appear... In fact the Second Birth of the sphinx of Egypt, even in the poet's personal apocalypse, is what comes upon him, and us ... In what sense will the rough beast be "born" at Bethlehem? Clearly, not literally, but it is legitimate then to use "born" for what would be a demonic epiphany.

38He concludes that Ivor Winters was justified in asserting that

Yeats's attitude towards the beast is different from ours; we may find the beast terrifying, but Yeats finds him satisfying – he is Yeats's judgment upon all that we regard as civilised. Yeats approves of this kind of brutality.

39It is my intention in this essay to give a context, a sense of continuity and human process to Yeats's dialogue with apocalypse. Therefore I may be forgiven if I point to that quibble with the word "surely" which can be usefully referred to one of Yeats's early annunciations of apocalypse, the final couplet of The Secret Rose':

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

  • 3 (3) The Crane Bag, Vol. I, n° 2, 1927, "What stalked through the Post Office' (Reply to Seamus Dean (...)

40Exclamations like "surely" are characteristic, and highly effective, gestures of the apocalyptic liturgy. But the assertion I want to refute categorically – and I hope for the last time3 – is the assumption that the "rough beast", any more than the "savage god" will preside over the new dispensation, or that the poet in any way "approves of this kind of brutality". The rough beast is a portent of change and the violence that accompanies it. When Yeats seems to be saying "let it come down" he is responding as a human being does in the pause before an imminent and inevitable thunder-storm.

41It has been the misfortune of his generation to be born into the end of a primary phase, a miserable changing-post in history, marked by the eclipse of the individual personality and the tyranny of systems – Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Administration, Democracy itself. In a world where "conduct and work grow coarse, and coarse the soul" the poet, in the expectation of momentous change, utters "that one word 'Rejoice'", it is because the ugliness will soon be over and humanity will run on "that unfashionable gyre again". Out of the violence that accompanies the crumbling of the primary gyre the end of the millennium, will emerge a new antithetical civilisation, reaching its fullness, its new "Unity of Being", around 2,500 A.D. Like its great predecessors, Athens, Byzantium and Urbino it will find "Delight in Art whose end is peace". And if Yeats's belief in reincarnation holds good he may be reborn into it, perhaps as a court poet.

42The version of the gyres that follows is especially adapted to the reading of Yeats's apocalyptic poetry which I have proposed in the preceding pages. The crumbling of each gyre is marked by a personage, a polity, and one exemplary poem. The projected "New Bethlehem" – named tentatively from the last line of 'The Second Coming', is left to more prophetic commentators to characterise.

The Historical Gyres from Troy (B.C 1000) to the New Bethlehem (A.D 2500)

The Historical Gyres from Troy (B.C 1000) to the New Bethlehem (A.D 2500)


1 (1) Studies, Dublin, Spring 1975: 'Apocalyptic Structure in Yeats's Secret Rose.

2 (2) Autobiographies, p. 336.

3 (3) The Crane Bag, Vol. I, n° 2, 1927, "What stalked through the Post Office' (Reply to Seamus Deane).

Table des illustrations

Titre The Historical Gyres from Troy (B.C 1000) to the New Bethlehem (A.D 2500)
Fichier image/jpeg, 639k

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1990

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