Friday, October 5, 2018


I was reading a review of a new book on Pamela Colman SmithPamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, by Kaplan, Greer, O'Connor, and Parsons (2018)—which comments that: “W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked 'exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.' ” Maybe because I remembered reading it before or because the name Nannie struck me as strange, I went to check. Checking online only repeats the same attribution in the majority of cases, but the odd online source does give the correct source of a letter to W. B. Yeats from his father, J. B. Yeats, as do most of the book sources. But it reminded me of how easily attributions can drift or be misremembered either by proximity or just the jumbling of memory. And how these jumblings are all too easily propagated across the web.

For many years witty quotations have been attributed to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to give them some parentage when we are unsure, but careless attribution is becoming more and more common as attributions are simply copied and pasted. Quite a few of the quotations attributed to W. B. Yeats are not really his—sadly, perhaps, because they are among the most widely quoted of his supposed formulations. For instance, out of a supposed Top Ten Quotes published this year for Yeats's birthday, I think only four are authentic:

1. X “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (see below)
2. X “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” (see below)
3. X “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.” (see below)
4. √ “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”)
5. √ “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.” ("Ephemera")
6. √ “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” (“The Municipal Gallery Revisited”)
7. ? “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” (source uncertain)
8. √ “Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.” (“The Stolen Child”)
9. X “People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.” (John Butler Yeats to his son, W. B. Yeats, in 1906)
10. X “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.” (John Butler Yeats, again; this time writing to Miss Grierson in 1909, slightly adapted: “And happiness . . . what is it? I say it is neither virtue...” etc.).

The first example—“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” or sometimes “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”—seems to derive from someone reading a passage which gave two quotations together—one by Yeats and one by Plutarch—and somehow eliding the name associated with the second one:
In other words, the key to a lively and a vital appreciation of the arts in the fields of collecting and criticism is the willingness to keep doors open, an eagerness to venture into new fields for the sake of the enjoyment which a work of art can bring.
William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” and Plutarch in “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing, James Johnson Sweeney, 1968)
Sweeney was in fact reformulating the traditional translation of Plutarch's Greek, making it a little more pithy: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but wood that needs igniting” or in the translation of Philemon Holland, which Yeats read: “For that the minde and understanding of man is not of the nature of a vessell that requireth to be filled up: but it hath neede onely of some match (if I may so say) to kindle and set it on fire” (Plutarch, “Of Hearing”, Moralia). The full story is set out in The Quote Investigator and is also examined in an article from the Irish Times.

The Quote Investigator also tackles a few more Yeats attributions:–

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking” is slippery in terms of precise wording, but a similar phrase seems to come first from the pen of Benjamin Franklin in 1782. 

“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't met” appears to have its origin in the words of the popular American poet Edgar A. Guest, who published a poem titled “Faith" in 1915, which includes the lines: “I believe in the purpose of everything living, / That taking is but the forerunner of giving; / That strangers are friends that we some day may meet..."

Changing the author can change the meaning, and the fuller context often sheds a slightly different light on the words. Looking at the Yeats quotations investigated, there is one that I remember first seeing as part of an informational film at a National Park: “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. Attributed to Yeats, it hints at “nature's finer forces” and devas or nature spirits, which we may perhaps discern if we subtilize our natures and refine our perceptions through spiritual practice. Yet the quotation (or its original version) comes from the playwright and essayist Eden Phillpotts and actually refers to the use of scientific instruments such as telescope and microscope:
The fimbriated flowers [of the buckbean] are a miracle of workmanship and every blossom exhibits an exquisite disorder of ragged petals finer than lace. But one needs a lens to judge of their beauty: it lies hidden from the power of our eyes, and menyanthes must have bloomed and passed a million times before there came any to perceive and salute her loveliness. The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.  (A Shadow Passes, 1919).
It becomes therefore a paean to scientific observation and the senses' need for technology to sharpen them.

Of course, given the frequency with which one or other line of “The Second Coming” is quoted nowadays, two or three of the authentic Top Ten list would probably come from that poem: perhaps “The centre cannot hold,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”.

What else should make that genuine Top Ten?

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Yeats's Occultism

Although I have looked at the subject on the website, and it deserves far fuller treatment than I give here, the following examination of the implications of the term occult was enthusiastically commented on by one of the people who read the uncut manuscript of the forthcoming book, so I have rescued it from the off-cuts, with a little modification

When writing about his favourite Yeats poem, John Banville observes that Yeats's “occult and alchemical preoccupations, collected in that dotty compendium A Vision, are entirely risible”, before going on to note that “they served to inspire magnificent poetry”.[1] More positively, promoting Catherine Paul's and Margaret Mills Harper's edition of A Vision (1925), the publishers declared that “One of the strangest works of literary modernism, A Vision is Yeats's greatest occult work”.[2]

Yeats very seldom uses the word “occult” in connection with any of his own thought,[3] and he would probably have rejected it as a label for A Vision, yet to many readers it seems the most appropriate single-word description. But it is a problematic word, as it is used in a wide variety of ways by different people and applied to a range of ideas and fields.
"All things rest connected by hidden knots" 

At its simplest it refers to hidden aspects of reality and historically it included such phenomena as gravity and magnetism, forces that operate through unseen means. More generally, it includes an element of the supernatural, and many understand it to indicate something outside the accepted supernatural of religion, often dubious, even dangerous. It can include studies and techniques, ranging from methods of divination and traditional practices to New Age themes and heterodox science; the term can also encompass beliefs and philosophies, particularly when influenced by Eastern religion, paganism, or magic. Many aspects are incompatible with each other, or at least inconsistent, so there is no single meaning to the term, except where it is used negatively to refer to all forms of contact with supernatural or hidden reality outside a particular religion or church. In this context it is usually a condemnation and seen as sinful and, potentially at least, diabolic.

Also related to these terms is the concept of secret or “esoteric” doctrine, communicated to the initiated and hidden within or transcending the commonly understood exoteric forms of religion or thought. Esotericism deals with essences and truths are hard to apprehend, so suitable only for those with the correct mind or preparation.[4] In this sense, Yeats makes A Vision openly available to all readers, but it “is intended… for my ‘schoolmates only’” (E&I xi, CW5 219) from his Hermetic or Theosophical training.

Similarly, “mysticism” is frequently mixed up with “mystery” in general and “occultism” or “magic” more specifically, and Yeats himself used the term for his interests, stating that “the mystical life is the centre of all that I do” (CL1 303). Yet when carefully used the word denotes something largely alien to Yeats, and as more strictly defined it indicates a search for union with the ultimate reality or godhead, rather than the engagement with the manipulation and understanding of creation.

In his biography of Yeats, Terence Brown explicitly shifts the language from Yeats's "mystical" in that letter to a possibly more accurate or more current "occult":
When Yeats wrote to John O'Leary in 1892 that "the mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write...." (CL1 303), he was identifying what had been his principal preoccupation since he had left the High School: the occult. And the occult was to remain a controlling, energizing obsession throughout his life. (The Life of W. B. Yeats, 32-33)
James Webb described the occult as “rejected knowledge” and, though the definition may have limitations in other contexts, it applies well to Yeats’s interests.[5] Tracing the nineteenth-century “flight from reason,” Webb suggests that there is “a perennial Underground of rejected knowledge,” one “comprising heretical religious positions, defeated social schemes, abandoned sciences, and neglected modes of speculation, has as its core the varied collection of doctrines that can be combined in a bewildering variety of ways and that is known as the occult”.

This rejected knowledge includes science that has been superseded by the advances and discoveries of later periods, and Brian Vickers notes that in the Hermeticism of the Renaissance, “one is confronted with a tradition in which nothing has been abandoned, all ideas have been absorbed into ever more comprehensive syntheses”.

Nineteenth-century European “occultism”, while rejecting Enlightenment rationalism, followed in the wake of earlier freemasonry and a surge of interest in Egyptian religion and theurgy, focusing on the rejected knowledge of the ancient world and the Renaissance. The Theosophical Society was eclectic in the influences and religious traditions it used, while the Golden Dawn
George Pollexfen's notes on The World (tarot trump 21)
is arguably the zenith of such syncretic thinking, bringing Christian Rosicrucianism together with a panoply of elements including Jewish Cabala, Egyptian religion, Indian practices, Neoplatonism, sacred geometry, alchemy, various divinatory techniques, and the writings of John Dee. The process of synthesis is made easier by the frame of mind through which “the occult imposed traditional thought categories onto the world and read nature in the light of them,” so that observed phenomena are read through the construct, rather than the construct being derived from observed phenomena. They work through correspondences that are simple in principle and complex in application, where number and “signature” are the keys to “matching” categories.

Yeats’s thought deliberately appeals to the authorities and modes of pre-scientific thought familiar to such fellow students, particularly the spiritual or mystical strain of metaphysical philosophy that can be traced back to Pythagoras and the Plato of Timaeus and the Myth of Er. Plato’s followers such as Plotinus and Porphyry developed this Platonism to the verge of religion, and Iamblichus and Proclus incorporated elements of Egyptian religious thought, including the Corpus Hermeticum, and the Chaldean Oracles. Along with strains of Gnosticism, Cabalism, the Christian thought of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, these strands all feed into what was relabelled “Hermeticism” with the renewed awareness of the Corpus Hermeticum through Marsilio Ficino’s translation.

The question is whether a modern thinker can deliberately eschew the intervening centuries and write in the form and mindset of previous age. Yet Yeats sees himself as jumping ahead and returning to the order that existed before Descartes and the Scientific Revolution.

A series of drafts of A Vision opened with the observation that “it resembles nothing of philosophy from the time of Descartes but much that is ancient”.[11] The Cartesian or scientific revolution comes at a particular point in the cycles that his system envisages, starting a period dominated by what he terms the primary impulse, including “All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre” (VP 825, CW1 650), but one that lasts only five hundred years or so from the Renaissance, giving way to a revivified form of the ancient in the imminent new millennium, “the mummy wheat” of the new antithetical. In “The Gyres”, he looks to “Old Rocky Face”, the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece to validate the return to the old that is also new, so that “all things run / On that unfashionable gyre again” (VP 565, CW1 299).

[1] Irish Times, 10 June 2015 Our favourite W. B. Yeats poem: John Banville and Colm Tóibín on 'Byzantium'.

[2] Simon & Schuster, The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume XIII: A Vision The Original 1925 Version, 2013.

[3] In Yeats’s usage, “occult” or “occultism/occultist” usually refers to specifically to the Theosophical Society or similar concerns. See, for example, Mem 281–82; his letter to Joseph Hone, 22 June [1915], CLInteLex 2681; or a note for Augusta Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, CW5 270. The OED gives the first citations for “occultism” and “occultist” as 1881, from the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World.

[4] Except for matters of the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section (Mem 281–82), Yeats’s usage of “esoteric” tends not to refer more commonly to the limited or rarefied appeal of certain things. See, for example, letter to Ruth Pollexfen Lane-Poole, 2 September 1914, CLInteLex 2509; “A Canonical Book” (1903) UP2 301.

[5] James Webb, The Flight from Reason (London: Macdonald, 1971), in the USA, The Occult Underground (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), 191–92. The idea has been widely taken up, see, for example, W. J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[6] James Webb, The Occult Establishment (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1976), 10.

[7] Brian Vickers, “On the Function of Analogy in the Occult,” in ed. I. Merkel and A. G. Debus, Hermeticism and the Renaissance: Intellectual History and the Occult in Early Modern Europe, Part 3 (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespear Library, 1988), 266.

[8] Though "occult" meaning hidden or mysterious exists earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the first citations for “occultism” and “occultist” as 1881, from the Theosophist A. P. Sinnett’s The Occult World.

[9] See Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).

[10] Brian Vickers, “On the Function of Analogy in the Occult,” 266.

Monday, September 24, 2018

A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision"

One of the reasons for the dormancy of this blog over the last few years has been my focus on writing a book on A Vision. This is not a crowded field and relatively straightforward introduction to A Vision is one of the gaps in Yeats Studies, so I hope that A Reader's Guide to Yeats's "A Vision" will be a genuine aid to readers new and old.

The book will be published by Clemson University Press, in association with Liverpool University Press in the UK, and should be out at the beginning of 2019.

The cover art is by Jaff Seijas, whose Vision-inspired art I've featured on the blog here before.

It's divided into four sections of three or four chapters each (plus a coda).

1 Overview: The Book of A Vision
2 Genesis: Making and Remaking A Vision
3 Background: Antecedents and Assumptions
4 Presentation: Gyres and Geometry
5 Spirits: Determinism and Free Will
6 Being: Human and Divine
7 The Faculties: Action and Pursuit
8 The Principles: Reality and Value
9 The Daimon: Opposition and Essence
10 The Divine: One and Many
11 The Circles of Life: Wheels and Rebirth
12 The Twenty-Eight Incarnations: Lives and Phases
13 After Life: Understanding and Preparation
14 History: Cycles and Influx
15 Reframing A Vision
Appendix: People in Phases

Background starts off looking at the writing and printing history of A Vision's two editions; then the automatic writing and the questions that raises; and then examines the ideas and baggage that the Yeatses brought to the enterprise and what belief meant to Yeats.

Foundations outlines the fundamental framework of A Vision in its duality, the gyre and the wheel; it continues with a consideration of what Yeats saw as the nature of spiritual and human existence, then looks at the human beings and their relationship to the divine and Unity of Being.

Structure devotes a chapter each to the three major elements in Yeats's anatomy of the human being: Faculties, Principles, and Daimon, and then moves on to the divine, including the Thirteenth Cone.

Process then looks at these elements in action, the cycles of individual lives and recurrent lives, the pageant of the incarnations represented by the phases of the moon, the process of the afterlife, and the processes of historical cycles.

The epilogue is a brief assessment of A Vision's significance, its implications, and its meaning for Yeats. An appendix gives a table summarizing the phases that the Yeatses assign to various individuals in A Vision and the automatic script.

The book is quite a bit thinner than the draft that I finished back in May, having lost almost half of its material to reach the agreed length and to be useful as a guide—it might have been rather daunting and less usable. The good news is that I hope to work up some of the bits that I cut to become entries for this blog. The better news is that I was allowed 40 figures and illustrations. Bad news is that it will be almost as hideously priced as A Vision was when it came out in 1925. A Vision A was priced at 3 guineas (this was the fancy way of pricing a privately produced edition, meaning 3 pounds and 3 shillings, just over $15 at that date); this was roughly equivalent to £180 today, around $240. Incidentally, the 1937 edition was 15 shillings, roughly a quarter of the price. So this could be seen as a bargain at half that price (at current exchange the UK edition is looking cheaper). It will, however, be accessible through universities and libraries, and at least partially through search online, and I hope that eventually it will reach a cheaper format.

I shall give updates when I have them, but will start with some new blog entries from unused material.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

One of the side effects of studying the material of W. B. Yeats's A Vision is that you do notice echoes of its categories in some fairly unexpected places. These may have nothing to do with the Yeatses' system, yet they show how elements of it are natural distinctions.

Reading David Brooks's column "Does Decision-Making Matter?" in the New York Times last Saturday, I was struck at the end by how clearly he had described the role and importance of the Mask, and then looking back through the article saw elements that corresponded to Body of Fate, and then to Will and Creative Mind.

I'll summarise the article here, even though it's brief, but I'd recommend that you read it—maybe even read it first. The article starts as a preview of a forthcoming book by Michael Lewis The Undoing Project (2016), which examines the life and work of the Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman's book outlining some of their research Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) has been a recent best seller, and Lewis has previously written such books as Moneyball, The Big Short, and Flash Boys). Brooks then moves on to some thoughts provoked by this double biography.

After describing Kahneman's background in France under Nazi occupation and then Israel, and Tversky's childhood in Israel, and their meeting, the article notes the intensity and closeness of their partnership and how their research "revolutionized how we think about ourselves". Kahneman and Tversky showed that, rather than being the rational creatures of traditional economics,  we are biased and in predictable ways.

Though their research has analysed decision-making, Brooks pauses to ask how much of these two men's lives depended upon decisions that they made:
The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions.
....Their lives weren't so much shaped by decisions as by rapture.
....when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
....Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Tversky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves. 
Brooks's subject here is the Mask, the goal and focus of desire, what beckons us onward. Yeats's approach is mythic and symbolic, not the scientific and psychological study that Brooks asks for, but it is the same drive and compulsion that they identify. This is how I summarised Yeats's descriptions of the Mask in an essay a few years ago:
The Mask is... the ‘object of desire or moral ideal’ and ‘idea of the good’ (AVB 83), ‘the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence’ (CW13 15, AVA 15), ‘the Ought (or that which should be)’ (AVB 73), and ‘in the antithetical phases beauty’ (AVB 192). It is chosen but involuntary, taking ‘a form selected instinctively for those emotional associations which come out of the dark, and this form is itself set before us by accident, or swims up from the dark portion of the mind’ (CW13 24, AVA 27), so that it is the object of willed choice but comes before us without conscious selection. It is intrinsically at the limit of reach, ‘that object of desire or moral ideal which is of all possible things the most difficult’ (AVB 83), and vulnerable to chance and external reality.
("The Mask of A Vision", Yeats Annual 19) 
To follow through with a Yeatsian anatomy, the circumstances and historical events that Brooks notes might be seen as connected to the Body of Fate, while decision-making is the function of the Will—the natural bias (cf. AVB 171; CW13 85; AVA 105)—presumably with input from Creative Mind in more rational aspects.

One could even speculate on Phases for the researchers, but there is such a thing as taking the Yeatsian approach too far.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower, IV

Previous posts have considered the symbolism of the unicorn, the tower and the lightning flash within Yeats's work and in the system of A Vision, but the most immediate source in many respects is, of course, the Tarot card of the lightning-struck tower. This card is labelled "La Torre" in most Italian packs, such as the one that W. B. Yeats himself had, and "La Maison Dieu" in the older French packs, such as George's Marseilles pack. The majority of designs show a lightning flash, often coming from a cloud, striking the top of a crenelated tower, dislodging its crown, and with two or more people falling, along with a hail of particles.
In the Golden Dawn's specific iconography, the card is named the "Blasted Tower" and titled "Lord of the Hosts of the Mighty". In the Order's syncretic system, the Tarot trumps were identified with the paths connecting the sephiroth on the Tree of Life, and these in turn had correspondences with astrological principles. In their system, The Tower corresponds with the path on the Tree of Life joining Hod and Netzach, one of three horizontal paths on the Tree, identified by the Hebrew letter Peh (פ)  and the planet Mars. In many ways both these attributes have some appropriateness for George: Peh means "mouth" and her work as medium for the automatic script gave words to the communicators, and she was strongly marked as a Scorpio, both by her astrological rising sign and her cycle sign in the system, ruled by Mars (Pluto had not been discovered, and the Yeatses generally used the traditional rulers anyway). George was also said to have a Mars Daimon (YVP3 292) as did WBY.

The symbolism may well extend further. The Golden Dawn's Outer Order was not involved with magic—that came later in the Second Order—rather, it was designed to provide a grounding in the basics of occult knowledge and to help balance the temperament of the aspiring initiates by a series of elemental initiations, Earth, Air, Water and then Fire. In this structure, Water and Fire were associated with Hod and Netzach, respectively, so that the path joining them is the last one that is wholly within that elemental world. Beyond that came the Portal Ritual, after which the successful aspirant would pass to the Second Order. This ritual symbolically involves crossing the "Veil of the Paroketh", separating the lower sephiroth from the central ones.

The lower four sephiroth on the Tree of Life, with some of the Golden Dawn correspondences. For Mathers' diagram of the whole Tree in relation to the GD, see
W. B. Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in March 1890 and, by the time he stood as a candidate for the Golden Dawn's Portal Ritual in January 1893, he had passed through the four initiations of the Outer Order. There was a minimum period of three months at each grade, so Yeats's progress was not unduly fast.

After induction into the Order as Neophyte (0=0), preparation for the grade of Zelator (1=10) focused on elemental Earth and the sephirah of Malkuth; next came Theoricus (2=9), elemental Air and the sephirah of Yesod; then Practicus (3=8), elemental Water and Hod, followed by Philosophus (4=7), elemental Fire and Netzach. These processes focused on exploring and balancing the 'lower' personality, represented by these four sephiroth, preparatory to advancing towards actual magical workings and raising of the consciousness towards the Higher Self in the Second Order, Rosae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis. The Portal Ritual does not have a specific grade related to it, representing a liminal level: the fifth element of Spirit or Akasa, the culmination of the Outer or First Order and an induction into the Second Order.

George followed the same steps, over twenty years later, inducted into the Stella Matutina in August 1914. Her advance through the grades seems to have been a little rapider, with initiations into the next grades in September and then November or December (as far as can be told from astrological charts she drew up that seem to indicate the times of initiations, see Becoming George 69-71). She probably advanced to Practicus (3=8) in May 1915.  At the end of that ritual, the Hierophant congratulates the newly made Practicus, and confers "the Mystic Title of 'MONOCRIS DE ASTRIS', which means 'Unicorn from the Stars' and I give you the symbol of MAIM which is the Hebrew Name for Water" (Regardie, The Golden Dawn, 2:118; see also the earlier version in Equinox 1:2, 274, where the title is "MONOKEROS DE ASTRIS").

Three or more months later, the aspirant might be ready to undergo the initiation to Philosophus. In this ritual he or she is addressed by the title of "Monocris de Astris", and symbolically approaches the sephirah of Netzach via the three paths that lead to it from the lower sephiroth already mastered:
· first from Malkuth by the path of Qoph, identified with the Tarot card of The Moon and the zodiac sign of Pisces;
· then from Yesod by the path of Tzadi, identified with The Star and the zodiac sign of Aquarius;
· and finally from Hod by the path of Peh, identified with The Tower and the planet Mars.

The ritual of the Philosophus, approaching Netzach via the horizontal path from Hod, shows the card as conceived by the Golden Dawn:
          And the Sixteenth Key of the Tarot:
It represents a Tower struck by a lightning-flash proceeding from a rayed circle and terminating in a triangle. It is the Tower of Babel. The flash exactly forms the Astronomical symbol of Mars. It is the Power of the Triad rushing down and destroying the Column of Darkness. The men falling from the tower represent the fall of the kings of Edom. "On the right-hand side of the Tower is Light, and the representation of the Tree of Life by Ten Circles. On the left-hand side is Darkness, and Eleven Circles symbolically representing the Qliphoth."

Aleister Crowley notes that this card "which we have seen in the 4°= 7° Ritual represents a tower struck by a flash of lightning, symbolising the Tower of Babel struck by the wrath of Heaven, and also the Power of the Triad rushing down and destroying the columns of darkness, the light of Adonai glimmering through the veils and consuming the elementary Rituals of the 1°=10°, 2°=9°, 3°=8°, and 4°=7° grades" (Equinox 1:2 293). This underlines that this stage is the true final stage of the elemental levels, associated with a breaking down of the Tower of selfhood that was built before, so that a new one can be constructed consciously to lead to the Higher Self.

A new Tarot pack, coming from the Golden Dawn tradition, actually includes a unicorn in the symbolism of the Tower card.
This Tarot is designed Harry and Nicola Wendrich, painted by Harry, in association with Nick Farrell and the Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea, a successor to the Golden Dawn. The tower seems to have been constructed out of letter blocks, with the base constructed from the twelve so-called simple letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the middle tier from the seven double letters, and the highest level from the three mother letters. (These categories come from the Sepher Yetzirah and correspond in turn with the twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven ancient planets, and the three elements—excluding earth.) The arrow that strikes and topples the crown of the tower issues from a circle in the form of the symbol for Mars, the card's astrological counterpart, and connected to the red colours that dominate this card. The circle is in fact a complex geodesic form of sphere, patterned on the "flower of life". This widespread form of sacred geometry can in turn be used as a matrix to generate the cabalistic Tree of Life: the patterns of the two sets of discs or globes that fall on either side of the tower, as noted by Mathers in the ritual description of the card.
The brightly coloured, positive tree is on the viewer's right and the muddy coloured negative tree on the left, with an extra eleventh sphere at its base, symbolizing imbalance. Over the stormy left side the rainbow arches, recalling the rainbow that came after the Flood that destroyed almost all human and animal life on earth. If the tower recalls the destruction of the Tower of Babel, it is testimony to the less fatal punishment that the promise of the rainbow symbolizes. The Hebrew letters letters for "bow", Q-Sh-Th, also correspond to the three lowest paths on the tree \|/ that meet in Malkuth, which Yeats linked to his vision of the Archer: the arrow is the path of Samekh, which crosses that of  Peh.

"On the right hand side of the Tower is Light and the Tree of Life. There is also the Unicorn of the Stars which is a reference to the 3=8 ritual and the Archangel Uriel. Uriel is the angel of the Mysteries, who overthrows the false perceptions" (Farrell and Wendrich). Traditionally also, Uriel is the angel who warned Noah about the coming flood, so the card brings together many aspects of emerging from an experience in which the old order is swept away to be replaced by a new one. "In fact if you cross the path from Hod to Netzach you are looking at the pulling apart of your existing universe, however if you travel the path from Netzach to Hod you are seeing your higher self creating a new Universe out of the letters it sees. The path of Peh is therefore a destruction and construction" (Farrell at the Wendriches' website).

It seems that the Yeatses must have been thinking about something very similar, and made the connection through study, or more likely through vision. In an e-mail, Nicola informed me that "The inspiration to include the unicorn in the Tower image came from a joint meditation wherein my husband and I met with the Tower archetype, who requested that Harry paint a unicorn in the image to represent the Archangel Uriel.  Uriel is the Angel of the Mysteries, who overthrows false perceptions".  Farrell also made the same connection, independently: "At the time I was inspired by the fact that the Unicorn was a symbol of the Archangel Uriel whose energy tends to unsettle and destroy in this way.  Unfortunately for the life of me I do not know where I got this association from. When I said to Harry I think we should should stick a unicorn in, he said 'oh good we have been getting that in our meditations too' " (e-mail). (See further considerations of the path and the card on Nick Farrell's blog for June 2011.)

With symbolism that is both different and strikingly congruent, the Wendrich card of the Tower bears out much of the passage that was quoted at the end of the "The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower, III":
In the same way that the external divine of the Thirteenth Cone sends the revelatory shock of the new era in a lightning flash, the Daimon's contact with its human counterpart marks turning points in an individual life. The crises are a form of constructive destruction.
He expresses through a system of images a harmony of related aims and we should discover in this harmony of aims, in this unity of being not the mere intervention of the thirteenth cone but the sphere itself. . . that which only contradiction can expressnot “the  lone tower of the absolute self” but its shattering*; that whi unknown reality painted or sung by the monks of Zen.
* When my Instructors talk of the shattering of the tower they seem to [depend on?] the old symbol. I am thinking of the Tarot trump [of the?] tower struck by lightning.
       (NLI MS 36,272/22, p. 29)
The shattering of "the lone tower of the absolute self" comes through the Daimon's lightning flash and frees the inner being. George's bookplate is thus a symbol of contradiction, a Daimonic moment of crisis, of freedom, connection with "the sphere itself", and Beatific Vision.
It may seem a strange emblem to choose as a bookplate, but it is a constant reminder that the initiate is remaking herself, shattering the tower of self that has been constructed largely unawares in youth, and that part of building a new structure of self and life comes from the words, letters, and speech of the books she reads.

Monday, November 24, 2014

W. B. Yeats tells Stephen Spender of the coming times

It seems slightly incredible that Stephen Spender should have decided to write an autobiography when he was just 40, but he had seen so much and met so many people that there was already plenty to fill it. Among his encounters he recalled a meeting with W. B. Yeats at Lady Ottoline Morrell's London house in 1934.
Yeats, at the age of seventy, had something of the appearance of an overgrown art student, with shaggy, hanging head and a dazed, grey, blind gaze. On the occasion of our first meeting he look at me fixedly and said: "What, young man, do you think of the Sayers?" This took me aback and I murmured that I had not read any. "The Sayers," he repeated, "the Sayers." Lady Ottoline then explained that he was speaking of a certain troupe of speakers who recited poetry in chorus. I knew even less of these than of detective fiction and had to admit so. Lady Ottoline, who had arranged for us to have tea with very few people present, saw that I was a failure. She left the room and telephoned Virginia Woolf to get into a taxi and come round from Tavistock Square at once. Virginia, highly amused, arrived a few minutes later. (World Within World, 179)
If you have to be rescued from WBY, being rescued by Virginia Woolf isn't too bad. (Knowing WBY's taste for detective fiction as distracting entertainment, my first thought was also that Yeats was referring rather archly to Dorothy L. Sayers novels or to her translation of Dante, and I have been unable to discover anything else about these choric reciters.)

Yeats apparently went on to explain to Woolf "that her novel, The Waves, expressed in fiction the idea of pulsations of energy throughout the universe which was common to the modern theories of physicists and to recent discoveries in psychic research." Though Spender himself was out of sympathy with Yeats, particularly his philosophical and esoteric interests, he was interested enough to try to record what Yeats had said. Later on:
he spoke about the political views in the writing of my friends and myself, contrasting it with his own interest in spiritualism. "We are entering," he said, "the political era, dominated by considerations of political necessity which belong to your people. That will be bad enough, but there will be worse to come. For after that there will be an age dominated by psychologists, which will be based on the complete understanding by everyone of all his own motives at every stage of his life. After that, there will be the worst age of all: the age of our people, the spiritualists. That will be a time when the separation of the living from the dead, and the dead from the living, will be completely broken down, and the world of the living will be in full communication with that of the dead.
          Yeats expressed these ideas in a half-prophetic, half-humorous vein, and I may have distorted them in recording them. But certainly he spoke of the three ages to come, of the political, the psychological, and the spiritual: and he affirmed that the last would be "the worst". It is difficult to understand how to take such a prophecy. What is clear though, is that he saw spiritualism as a revolutionary social force as important in its power to influence the world, as politics, psychology, or science. (World Within World, 180–81)
There probably is some distortion or at least confusion over spirituality and spiritualism, but it is clear that Yeats was telling Spender about the last gyres of the current age. In general he breaks a millennium down into twelve gyres, corresponding to the cardinal phases and eight triads of phases. He had speculated about those of the near future at the end of "Dove or Swan" in the 1925 version of A Vision, a section that was cut from the later version. The "political era" that he spoke of to Spender is the culmination of the eleventh gyre, the "moral" triad of phases (23, 24, 25), which he saw already starting in 1925, when he discovered "the first phase—Phase 23—of the last quarter in the certain friends of mine, and in writers, poets and sculptors admired by these friends" (AVA 210). The zeitgeist he discerned in the work and attitudes of Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Pirandello involved engagement with the present moment of actuality and being "absorbed in some technical research to the entire exclusion of the personal dream" (AVA 211), as primary fact comes to dominate the inner truth. It does not exclude imagination but  eliminates the element of inventive fantasy. He then foresaw Phase 24 as offering "peace—perhaps by some generally accepted political or religious action, perhaps by some more profound generalisation" (AVA 212), while Phase 25 might "give new motives for obedience" or "an enthusiastic acceptance of the general will conceived of as a present energy" (AVA 213), which seems to be what he perceived in the politically engaged attitude of Spender and his contemporaries.

The ages of psychology and spirit seem to fall under the twelfth gyre, the "spiritual" triad of phases (26, 27, 28). Except that Phase 26 is spiritual in a strange way, so that psychological might be an appropriate term for the phase described as the Hunchback. One of the dominant characteristics in the description of the phase is the analysis of action and motive, and the way that these are isolated from their contexts:
His own past actions also he must judge as isolated and each in relation to its source; and this source, experienced not as love but as knowledge, will be present in his mind as a terrible unflinching judgment. Hitherto he could say to primary man, “Am I as good as So-and-so?” and when still antithetical he could say, “After all I have not failed in my good intentions taken as a whole”; he could pardon himself; but how pardon where every action is judged alone and no good action can turn judgment from the evil action by its side? He stands in the presence of a terrible blinding light, and would, were that possible, be born as worm or mole. (AVA 112; AVB 179)
This phase of psychology is however related to the psycho-spiritual, as A Vision B clarifies in a paragraph added to the treatment of Phase 26: "From Phase 22 to Phase 25, man is in contact with what is called the physical primary, or physical objective; from Phase 26 and Phase 4, the primary is spiritual. . . . Spiritual, in this connection, may be understood as a reality known by analogy alone. How can we know what depends only on the self? In the first and in the last crescents lunar nature is but a thin veil; the eye is fixed upon the sun and dazzles" (AVB 179). This may be what lies behind the idea that the spiritual gyre will be the worst: lunar nature, the basis of civil life, is overwhelmed by the solar, spiritual side, which is in some ways inimical to life. The Faculties are what produces history, and in human lives these are the phases where "the Faculties 'wear thin' " and "the Principles . . . shine through" (AVB 89).

In Spender's account, Yeats seems to have imagined that the worldly counterpart would be a thinning of the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of those outside incarnate life (whom we commonly call "the dead"). Although this seepage between worlds sounds like the scenario of a new Hollywood film or the latest TV pilot, it is difficult to see why Yeats of all people would be so negative about communication with the dead, having pursued such communication in séances, automatic writing, and "sleeps". It is also hard to discern in what senses it would be the worst, except that it must soon pass into the final phase of the wheel, that of the Fool, where control is gone.
Then with the last gyre must come a desire to be ruled or rather, seeing that desire is all but dead, an adoration of force spiritual or physical, and society as mechanical force be complete at last.
Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and unbent
    By those wire-jointed jaws and limbs of wood
Themselves obedient,
    Knowing not evil or good.  (AVA 213)
This vision of the twelfth gyre was written ten years before the meeting with Spender and Yeats had put a lot of thought into the coming years, drafting a number of versions before deciding that he could not see clearly enough. The prophecy of mechanical society, with the lines from "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes" describing Phase 1, seems to foresee a totalitarian world. This in turn seems to be at odds with the age of either spiritualism or spirituality he spoke of in 1934, but may not be so opposed as it seems at first. Halfway between the two, in 1929, Yeats had written:
Europe is changing its philosophy. Some four years ago the Russian Government silenced the mechanists because social dialectic is made impossible if matters is trundled about by some limited force. Certain typical books—Ulysses, Mrs. Virginia Woolf's Waves, Mr. Ezra Pound's Draft of XXX Cantos—suggest a philosophy like that of the Samkara school of ancient India, mental and physical objects alike material, a deluge of experience breaking over us and within us, melting limits whether of line or tint, man no hard bright mirror dawdling by the dry sticks of a hedge, but a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves. In this new literature announced with much else by Balzac in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, as in that which it superseded, man in himself is nothing.
          ("Introduction to Fighting the Waves": Wheels and Butterflies 73; Explorations 373; Variorum Plays 568–69)

Perhaps the equality of mental and physical objects in experience, and humanity as both "the waves themselves" and "nothing" in itself, points to a loss of identity and individuality that truly would be the worst imaginable world for the antithetical lyric poet who values the sincerity of his personal truth and experience above the truth of fact and shared experience.

This might even offer a clue to the otherwise baffling and gnomic comments that Spender recorded:
Of all that Yeats said, I remembered most his words about Shakespeare. "In the end," he said, "Shakespeare's mind is terrible." When I asked him to expand this, he said, "The final reality of existence in Shakespeare's poetry is of a terrible kind." (World Within World, 181)