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.

The Unicorn and The Lightning-Struck Tower II



Part II

Alexandria's was a beacon tower, and Babylon's
An image of the moving heavens, a log-book of the sun's journey and the moon's;
And Shelley had his towers, thought's crowned powers he called them once.


I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.
'Blood and the Moon' (VP 480–81)

It needs no great familiarity with Yeats's work to recognize the importance of towers as a recurrent symbol in his work. There are many influences that contribute to this:
The Round Tower at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow
the towers of myth, legend and history—whether Nimrod's tower at Babel or Babylon's ziggurats for watching the heavens, the lighthouse at Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, or the round towers in Ireland's historic landscape, such as those at Glendalough and Cashel.

Added to these are also important literary influences, most notably Shelley's poetry, as well as Milton's 'Il Penseroso', which inspired a series of engravings by Samuel Palmer. All of these are evoked when Yeats has his fictional characters of Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne arrive at the foot of Yeats's own tower-house at Thoor Ballylee, Gort.
We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower,
And the light proves that he is reading still.
He has found, after the manner of his kind,
Mere images; chosen this place to live in
Because, it may be, of the candle-light
From the far tower where Milton's Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley's visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find. 
'The Phases of the Moon' (VP 372–73)
Samuel Palmer, 'The Lonely Tower'
With the purchase of Thoor Ballylee, Yeats was deliberately embodying a symbol in stone and mortar with a title deed. The first property Yeats had ever owned, it stood close to Augusta Gregory's house, Coole Park, and though he had bought it before his marriage to Georgie Hyde Lees, it became a sort of present to her and a statement of their marriage. He sees it as a representation of friendship and love, when he notes how he:
For an old neighbour's friendship chose the house
And decked and altered it for a girl's love,
And know whatever flourish and decline
These stones remain their monument and mine.
'Meditations in Time of Civil War' V (VP 423)
Ezra Pound viewed it with less romantic embellishment, referring to as Yeats's 'phallic symbol on the Bogs. Ballyphallus or whatever he calls it with the river on the first floor' (in a letter to John Quinn, 24 March 1920, in Reid, The Man from New York, 419).


Ironically, therefore, when Yeats has Robartes and Aherne talking on the road next to his house, he makes Robartes a liar, for if they had seen a light at the window, Mr. Yeats was almost certainly not alone and seeking wisdom in a 'book or manuscript' but rather engaged with his wife in the strange form of inspired communication involved in the Automatic Script. This new wisdom may be expressed in geometrical terms but it comes not from the mysteries of ancient texts, rather from the wisdom of the body:
             The signs and shapes;
All those abstractions that you fancied were
From the great Treatise of Parmenides;
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
(A Vision A 126-27)
The tower occurs with some frequency in the script and it kept recurring in complex sketches along with birds, butterflies, cliffs, hands, water and trees. Apparently, at one point the Instructors prompted a stay in Glendalough, and Yeats asked if this was because of the round tower, to be told gnomically that it was there 'To put in your mind for a purpose' (20 March 1918, YVP1 395). While there, the Instructors agreed when Yeats asked if the tower was a symbol of the Passionate Body (YVP1 394) and antithetical (YVP1 396, though this may refer only to the Glendalough tower). This makes a good deal of sense, insofar as the tower is a natural symbol of isolation and the antithetical is what seeks to divide the individual from others, and is founded at the level of the Principles in the Passionate Body, the vehicle of emotion and love (developed further in Oxford the following year, YVP3 50–51). In A Vision B, Yeats writes of how 'the Celestial Body is a prisoner in a tower rescued by the Spirit' (AVB 189), while in a draft for A Vision B, he contrasts the divine dimension, 'the sphere itself, that which only contradiction can express,' saying that it is'not "the lone tower of the absolute self" but its shattering, "the absolute self" set free, that unknown reality painted or sung by the monks of Zen' (NLI 36,272/12; & cf. 36,272/22). Here the tower represents very much the antithetical separation of the individual soul, while the Sphere is its opposite, the shattered tower, where the absolute self, probably the Ghostly Self, is freed of the tower of the 'lower self': the body, the personality and the emotions.

7 January 1919, cf. YVP2 163: Cashel with symbolic objects
On a personal level, however, both Yeatses were in antithetical incarnations, so it was their natural mode, and the tower also hints at the structure they were building both in terms of the system and their marriage. While they were in Glendalough, they were told that 'The tower is incomplete' with advice to love the natural life, and that 'the tower is not joined' followed by a picture of a tower with a crack down the middle (24 March 1918, YVP1 399). At one stage, one of the Instructors opened a session with the admonition: 'Do not forget that the Tower is still your symbol | In all lives', though even Yeats seems to have wondered 'In what way am I in danger of forgetting' (15 September 1919, YVP2 427)? However, at other times they were told that, possibly as a protective symbol, the tower was more George's emblem than his (15 January 1918, YVP1 257; 28 October 1918, YVP2 102).  'You', of course, is ambiguously singular or plural, and in many ways the tower often seems to represent the relationship or partnership.
November 24, 1919, viz. YVP2 492
There also seem to have been personal rituals involved, as when Yeats was told 'tower tower you' (expanded by the editors of YVP to 'you[r thought]' for no obvious reason; 19 March 1918, YVP1 391) or one Instructor signed off, 'Goodnight | Yes | tower symbol over her' (6 November 1919, YVP2 475). Another evening they were counselled to ask only 'a few questions but build the tower & gild the sun | the moon is cold and worried and nervous and needs plenty of sun and quiet — nervous' (the part about the moon is in mirror-writing, which seems to have been used mainly when the message was meant to by-pass George; 2 November 1918, YVP2 108). Whether this was esoteric ritual or simply conjugal advice couched in symbolic language, it is clear that there is much to the Automatic Script that was a private language and involved at least as much that was unwritten as was written.

19 August 1920, Notebook 6, cf. YVP3 36
One sketch from 19 August 1920 brings together a tower with water, apple trees and flowering trees as well as birds and a unicorn (labelled, on the right-hand side), said to be carrying a mask from a tree with its horn and “Rushing” (YVP3 37). The two sets of trees are labelled apple trees and flowering trees, which may represent the same contrast of flower and fruit that Dulac used in his woodcut of the Great Wheel. But elsewhere in the Automatic Script, the tree is the symbol of the primary and the mask of the antithetical, so that the unicorn's carrying away may represent a temporary triumph of the antithetical or rescue for the antithetical Yeatses, as they build the tower of their antithetical system.
I do not know what my book will be to others — nothing perhaps.  To me it means a last act of defense against the chaos of the world; & I hope for ten years to write out of my renewed security. (letter to Edmund Dulac, 23 April [1924]).
The important thing is the meaning of the tower, both in building and destruction, is also key to the Tarot image as seen by the Golden Dawn, and therefore, I think, to the image used for George Yeats's bookplate. But before moving on to that, in the next post I shall look at the Daimon and the Lightning Flash.

The tower remains probably Yeats's most public and amongst his most recognized symbols, and he regarded it as linked to the system, but independent of it and comprehensible as a symbol without it:
In this book and elsewhere I have used towers, and one tower in particular, as symbols and have compared their winding stairs to the philosophical gyres, but it is hardly necessary to interpret what comes from the main track of thought and expression.  Shelley uses towers constantly as symbols....
A Note to The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933 (VP 831)
Dust jacket of The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), designed by Thomas Sturge Moore