Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower



Part I

KALON KAGATHON, and Marengo,
                This aura will have, with red flash,
                the form of a diamond, or of crimson,
Apollonius, Porphery, Anselm,
                 Plotinus EN THEORIA 'ON NOUS EXEI
had one vision only, and if the stars be but unicorns. . .
or took the stars for those antilopes.
 Ezra Pound, Canto CI

George Yeats’s bookplate, designed by Thomas Sturge Moore in 1920, shows a unicorn bounding from a lightning-struck tower. The image is a complex symbol of the soul’s release, which draws on imagery from the Golden Dawn, Yeats’s writing and the symbols of the automatic script.

As has happened before, what I thought would be a relatively brief piece lightly touching on a few topics has grown rather unwieldy as I start to write and keep adding a detail here and there. So this will now be a series of posts, exploring a few  of the implications of this image in the areas mentioned, starting with Yeats's writing, then considering the automatic script, and finally the Golden Dawn's magical system. In most respects the Golden Dawn material comes first in terms of how the symbols evolved and entered Yeats's art, but it makes more sense to set out how Yeats used them before examining their roots.

Though “The Adoration of the Magi” (1897) features a unicorn, that element actually dates from a revision of the 1920s, and Yeats's first use of the unicorn is in Where There is Nothing (1902), where the Tolstoyan visionary Paul Ruttledge recounts a vision where he is beset by beasts symbolizing "the part that builds up the things that keep the soul from God":
Then suddenly there came a bright light, and all in a minute the beasts were gone, and I saw a great many angels riding upon unicorns, white angels on white unicorns. They stood all round me, and they cried out, 'Brother Paul, go and preach; get up and preach, Brother Paul.' And then they laughed aloud, and the unicorns trampled the ground as though the world were already falling in pieces. (Variorum Plays 1131-32)
Here the angels and unicorns come to break down what builds the barriers to God, and the unicorns are associated therefore with the angelic, but also with destruction. The play itself indicates this destruction of barriers and its title alludes to an earlier story, "Where there is Nothing, there is God". The axiom says both that God is even where there is nothing, but more deeply that, as for the Cabalists, God lies behind the veils of the Negative as the seeker finds "the nothing that is God" ("Where there is Nothing, there is God", Mythologies 190). In a similar way in the play, Paul Ruttledge claims to "have learned that one needs a religion so wholly supernatural, that is so opposed to the order of nature that the world can never capture it" (VPl 1133). This austere absolutism was never congenial to Yeats himself, but he recognized its validity, and in some ways it also lies behind the formulation of the Sphere and the Thirteenth Cone in A Vision: a God so alien that it cannot be conceived in normal terms.

Yeats rejected Where There is Nothing for a variety of reasons, mainly because it had been a collaboration with George Moore, whom he came to dislike and distrust. He rewrote the play's central theme with the far more congenial Augusta Gregory in 1908 as The Unicorn from the Stars. Rather than a gentleman becoming a monk, the new central character is a working man and militant, Martin Hearne. He too has a similar vision of unicorns:
Martin: There were horses—white horses rushing by, with white shining riders. . . . Then I saw the horses we were on had changed to unicorns, and they began tramping the grapes and breaking them. I tried to stop them, but I could not.
Father John: That is strange, that is strange. What is it that brings to mind? I heard it in some place, monoceros de astris , the unicorn from the stars.
Martin: They tore down the wheat and trampled it on stones, and then they tore down what were left of the grapes and crushed and bruised and trampled them. . . . it was terrible, wonderful! I saw the unicorns trampling, trampling, but not in the wine-troughs. O, I forget! Why did you waken me? 
Father John:....The unicorns--what did the French monk tell me?--strength they meant, virginal strength, a rushing, lasting, tireless strength. 
Martin: They were strong. O, they made a great noise with their trampling. 
Father John: And the grapes, what did they mean? It puts me in mind of the psalm, Et calix meus inebrians quam praeclarus est. It was a strange vision, a very strange vision, a very strange vision.
(VPl 659-661)

Here the association of the unicorns with destruction is even more pronounced, though  they also seem to echo Julia Ward Howe's "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored" ("The Battle Hymn of the Republic"), words of course themselves echoing the Biblical Isaiah and Revelation. That echo of Revelation is also in the angelic figure with the vessels of wrath that Martin remembers later:
I saw a bright many-changing figure; it was holding up a shining vessel holds up arms ; then the vessel fell and was broken with a great crash; then I saw the unicorns trampling it. They were breaking the world to pieces—when I saw the cracks coming I shouted for joy! And I heard the command, 'Destroy, destroy, destruction is the life-giver! destroy!'  (VPl 669)
"Destruction is the life-giver!" is the recognition of Siva's place in the Hindu trimurti as destroyer and transformer, as well as the alchemical dictum that generation proceeds out of corruption. The Latin phrase recalled by the priest, "Monoceros de astris", is taken up in revolutionary fervour by Martin and directed against the English lion by others:
We will go out against the world and break it and unmake it. Rising. We are the army of the Unicorn from the Stars! We will trample it to pieces.—We will consume the world, we will burn it away.... (VPl 686)
Yeats was well aware of the interpretations place on the work of Joachim of Fiore, and there seems to be some of this millennial and prophetic strain in the burning of the world. This ecstatic conflagration is directed on a wider scale than that envisaged by Paul Ruttledge, but the theme of creative destruction is common to the two, and apparently linked in Yeats's mind with the heavenly unicorns.

Later on, after the automatic script had started, Yeats began to use the unicorn to symbolize the  new dispensation, still representing destruction and purity: the clearing away of the old and the instauration of the new order, alongside an uncompromised absoluteness. This is seen in The Player Queen (1922), where Septimus announces, 
the end of the Christian Era, the coming of a New Dispensation, that of the New Adam, that of the Unicorn; but alas, he is chaste, he hesitates, he hesitates.... I will rail upon the Unicorn for his chastity. I will bid him trample mankind to death and beget a new race. (VPl 745)
The unicorn is aloof through its chasteness, and if not inimical to humanity, at least pitiless towards it. It is another version of the "Rough Beast" that symbolizes the coming dispensation in "The Second Coming" with its "gaze blank and pitiless as the sun".

When Yeats revised “The Adoration of the Magi” (1897) in 1925, he included a series of allusions to the system of A Vision and substituted for the revelation of secret names of the gods a miraculous or spirit birth of a unicorn to a dying whore:
that which she bore has the likeness of a unicorn and is most unlike man of all living things, being cold, hard and virginal. It seemed to be born dancing; and was gone from the room wellnigh upon the instant, for it of the nature of the unicorn to understand the shortness of life... When the Immortals would overthrow the things that are to-day and bring the things that were yesterday, they have no one to help them, but one whom the things that are to-day have cast out. (Mythologies 312)
These three magi, simple peasants from the west of Ireland, are placed in counterpoint to the magi of the St Matthew's Gospel, who the god Hermes in a vision scorns for abandoning the Magian wisdom of the stars for "The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor" ("The Magi," 1914). In their befuddled adoration, they fail to see the new avatar (if it exists), and they seem closer to the shepherds than the magi, yet such is the reversal of the ages: virgin and whore, magi and shepherds, compassionate and pitiless, Christ mourning "over the length of time and the unworthiness of man's lot to man" while "his successor will mourn over the shortness of time and the unworthiness of man to his lot" (A Vision B, 136-37).


Only one poem by Yeats features unicorns, "I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart's Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness", the seventh part of "Meditations in Time of Civil War", where they are rather more conventional in their iconography, "Their legs long, delicate and slender, aquamarine their eyes / Magical unicorns bear ladies on their backs" (Variorum Poems 426). The atmosphere is far more reminiscent of a painting by Gustave Moreau than the harder traits in the plays, yet even these "cloud-pale unicorns" nod to this aspect when they "give place / To brazen hawks", implacable and pitiless. These hawks also recall the "brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction" that haunted Yeats's imagination in the early 1900s, and which he said was "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming'" (Explorations 393, VPl 932).

In contrast with the unicorn, the place of the tower in Yeats's personal symbolism is far larger and more complex but also far better known and better covered more generally. It stands, among other things, as a symbol of personal achievement, isolation, and historical continuity, deliberately given worldly presence as Thoor Ballylee and creative presence in such collection titles as The Tower and The Winding Stair.

Towers also figure recurrently in the automatic script, the subject of the next part, as do lightning flashes and a few unicorns.

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