Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Unicorn and the Lightning-Struck Tower I

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.
("The Gift of Haroun Al-Raschid", 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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Illustrating A Vision 

When we were thinking about a cover image for the book of essays Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, the editors were casting around for a suitable picture that would not incur too much copyright payment. Though the obvious image would be Dulac's illustration of the Great Wheel, it has been used quite a few times already and probably appeals more to the symbolically minded—one of the editors found that type of image off-putting, though I recognize that I myself am a sucker for a mandala! However, there is separate problem here, that Dulac's estate, handled through a publishing company, has been slow to process requests for other writers, and of course we had left the matter slightly late... There is also the Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) plate of hawk, unicorn, fountain and moon that was used for the pastedown on the inside boards of Macmillan editions during the 1920s.

In part this appeals to my sense of the importance to Yeats of the unicorn for the symbolism of A Vision—as I noted in an earlier post, he had originally placed a unicorn at the centre of the Great Wheel.

Publishers regard the most commercial option as a portrait of W. B. Yeats himself, as a more instant form of "branding" and this has plenty of virtues, though we would have wanted a picture of both George and W. B. at the very least. In the end, there were not so many of these that appealed, and we started looking at the work of other artists who had worked with Yeats.

One was W. T. Horton (1864-1919), whose work is out of copyright, in particular his Book of Images, for which Yeats wrote the introduction, and The Way of the Soul, which echoes the fictional title of Kusta ben Luka's work, The Way of the Soul between the Sun and the Moon. A few seemed quite possible, though a little stretched perhaps.
The moon presiding over a split landscape—primary and antithetical?—seemed possible, as did the rocky path to the moon, both from The Way of the Soul, but I also have a certain reluctance to emphasize the moon's place in the system more than it already is. It is such a potent symbol that it slightly overwhelms the concepts it represents, as much for Yeats as for us readers.
Images with sun-moon imagery are visually very appealing, but they also tend to run the risk of feminizing the moon—something that Yeats certainly does in his poetry, but actually goes against to some degree in the system. (Though the Graeco-Roman imagery that dominates Western understanding makes sun masculine and moon feminine, and tends to be viewed as "natural," Germanic, Middle-Eastern, Japanese and other mythologies have a male moon and female sun, and in A Vision the antithetical lunar Tincture, is the one associated more with the masculine.)
John Trinick's designs for A. E. Waite's meditation Tarot, at the British Museum
(I realize that I am taking advantage of a kind of apophasis—including all these images by saying that I couldn't include them...). We considered other artists who had collaborated with Yeats or been associated with him such as Althea Gyles (1868-1949) whose work features in the excellent section on Crafting the Book in the National Library of Ireland's online exhibition on Yeats (and there is also a Japanese gallery featuring her work). Here, there did not seem to be an eminently suitable image, and the situation with her estate was unclear.

To get to this section of the National Library of Ireland's online exhibition,
you need to get to the appropriate part of the exhibition "floor":
probably the simplest way is by Searching on "Crafting the Book,"
then going to "view": this display is on the left-hand side.

This led to Thomas Sturge Moore (1870-1944) who created book covers, book plates and other designs for the Yeatses. His work is in copyright, but with clear family holders, and we hoped that it would not be too expensive. In this case, we ended up favouring the plate created for George Yeats, which is directly inspired by elements associated with A Vision as well as a range of other Golden Dawn associations. In many ways the slightly mandala-ish rose on the cover of Per Amica Silentia Lunae might have been the most appropriate, but it has been used by the Yeats Annual, so might have led to some confusion.

Both of the Yeatses' book plates are rather gnomic, and the big question is whether either of them would attract a browsing reader, or please a reader who had a copy of the book. Yeats's book plate is particularly cryptic, including heraldic elements (the goat's head and the gates=Yeats) as well as personal emblems such as the candle in the waves.

George's is more striking and memorable. Though it is not immediately connected with A Vision, it is relevant to anyone who is interested: I've already commented to some extent on the unicorn and I shall go into the symbolism more in the next post.

Sturge Moore's estate, two grand-daughters, was very generous in giving us permission to use the images for a small sum, and we are all very pleased with the outcome. That said, someone involved in publishing criticized it to me as confusing, for including the name of George Yeats on the cover, and as unlikely to attract any readers. I, for one, am delighted to have George's name on the cover, albeit in an odd way, and do not really think that this is the type of book someone is going to stumble upon--if you come upon it, you are probably looking for it or at least have an interest in A Vision and the Yeatses. But I may be wrong, or at least thinking rather uncommercially: I'd love to hear any comments one way or the other, for future reference, and of course I'd be delighted to hear any further suggestions that anyone might have, either for a later edition of this book, or more likely for the next one on A Vision.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Leap Day Extra

To High Spirits
You have taken the vodka
That I was probably
Saving for tomorrow.
Go on and take it
For there's more enterprise
In waking naked.

by Kenneth Koch

(with nods to William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Antithetical Sidelights

Nothing is less real than realism… Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), "I Can't Sing, So I Paint! Says Ultra Realistic Artist; Art is Not Photography—It Is Expression of Inner Life!: Miss O’Keeffe Explains Subjective Aspect of Her Work," interview in the New York Sun, 1922.
The Will looks into a painted picture. The Creative Mind looks into a photograph, but both look into something which is the opposite of themselves. The picture is that which is chosen, while the photograph is heterogeneous. The photograph is fated, because by fate is understood that which comes from without, whereas the Mask is predestined, Destiny being that which comes to us from within. We best express the heterogeneousness of the photograph if we call it a photograph of a crowded street, which the Creative Mind—when not under the influence of the Mask—contemplates coldly; while the picture contains but few objects and the contemplating Will is impassioned and solitary.
                                                                                   (A Vision A, 15; cf. A Vision B, 86–87)

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself.
          To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
e. e. cummings (1894–1962), letter to a high-school student, 1958.
As life goes on we discover that certain thoughts sustain us in defeat, or give us victory, whether over ourselves or others, and it is these thoughts, tested by passion, that we call convictions. Among subjective men (in all those, that is, who must spin a web out of their own bowels) the victory is an intellectual daily re-creation of all that exterior fate snatches away, and so that fate's antithesis; while what I have called 'the Mask' is an emotional antithesis to all that comes out of their internal nature. We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy. 
                                                                                   (Autobiographies, 189; Collected Works III, 163)

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs (1955–2011), commencement address at Stanford, 2005.
The antithetical Mask and Will are free, and the primary Mask and Will enforced ; and the free Mask and Will are personality, while the enforced Mask and Will are code, those limitations which give strength precisely because they are enforced. Personality, no matter how habitual, is a constantly renewed choice, varying from an individual charm, in the more antithetical phases, to a hard objective dramatisation; but when the primary phases begin man is moulded more and more from without.
                                                                                    (A Vision B, 84; cf. A Vision A, 18)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The West Coast Tarot Reading

Train                                                  7.15pm                                       Mar 24 [1920]
on way to San Francisco [from Portland, Oregon]
(past Ashland)

Shuffle & deal out 28 packs
look for medium as Queen of Cups – WB as King of Wands
Then write again
28th pack
now 16th
17 & 18
now gather all up & by short method using medium ask [how]
[upside down writing] successful was Saturday night
Dont read till after judgment
  Yes  Yes
No swords
a predominant receptivity
martial activity
swords indicate Eastern influence – that is lacking here
It looks like a failure
Use Kg of Wands in same way
Yes Yes  that is allright – much better  Sword is yourself and the symbolism is complete – We wanted eastern symbolically incarnation – it looks like it – The sword is the daimon
No influence from medium
I am speaking of nature – not actual conception
That which came from west to east returned to west
Now it must be the reverse
in the multitudinous avatar all symbolism of all people must go from East to west & back to East
                                                                                  (YVP2 536)

En Route
As far as I can tell, the Yeatses were taking Southern Pacific's West Coast train from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco. George noted "past Ashland", one of the last towns in Oregon, so they were probably just crossing into California when they made this reading.

Before they had left Portland, on the night of Saturday 20 March, "A rather wonderful thing happened" (WBY to Edmund Dulac, 22 March 1920). A young Japanese man, Junzo Sato, had given Yeats a 550-year-old samurai sword "wrapped up in a piece of beautifully embroidered cloth, from some ancient lady-in-waiting's dress" (Junzo Sato's description; see Life2 167). This would feature in several of Yeats's later poems, most strikingly "A Dialogue of Self and Soul".

Tarot card back, featuring Golden Dawn's Rose-Cross Lamen
Creating a Spread

The Yeatses were here using a form of tarot reading based on the 28 phases of the moon. Normally in any of the practices associated with the system, we struggle to gather what could have been going on from a few scraps; here what is remarkable is that so much is spelled out on paper, though it is still very fragmentary. In part this would seem to indicate that they had not done this before, or at least not in this form, so that the script is giving fairly full instructions.

They would have known very well that the "significator" for George, the medium, as a mature woman with moderately fair complexion, would be the Queen of Cups, and that W. B. Yeats's darker looks marked him as King of Swords. This is entirely consistent with standard Golden Dawn practice which specified Kings and Knights for men, older and younger, Queens and Pages for women, older and younger, and then divided the suits by complexion with Wands at the fairest end, then Cups, Swords, and Coins as the darkest. It is quite probable that the Yeatses also considered rising signs, with GY's ascendant in the watery sign of Scorpio corresponding to Cups/Water and WBY's Aquarius ascendant corresponding to Swords/Air, (Wands or Staves would show Fire signs and Coins or Pentacles Earth ones). So it seems slightly strange to see this being stipulated by the spirits.

King of Swords, modern Marseilles Tarot
What they were being told to do was to deal the tarot pack or deck into 28 piles, and then look to see in which pile the two significators were found. Each pile would have contained only two or three cards, since there are only 78 cards in the tarot pack (Phases 1 to 22 would have three cards each, the rest only two). This is like a part of the main Golden Dawn tarot reading method called "Opening the Key," particularly the second or third part, where the cards are dealt out into twelve piles based on the houses or the zodiac.

At this point in the script it's difficult to be certain what happens, but it seems that, having looked at the different piles, George, as herself, then wrote down the piles where she found the two significators. One of the significators was found in the 28th pack of the Fool (2 cards) and the other in the 16th pack of "The Positive Man" (3 cards). The next line, "17 & 18", would refer to their own phases — WBY's Phase 17 and George's Phase 18—to broaden the picture (3 cards each). But in neither case can we tell what was done with these packs or groups of cards. Normally the reader would look at the surrounding cards to form an idea of the influences surrounding the person in question, balancing the elements according to the Golden Dawn's rules  to see which supported and which weakened the main cards, and the cards would give views of wife and husband from two separate angles—first significator in context and then the influences on their respective personal phases.  The problem is that without knowing the cards surrounding these or the cards in the other two piles, it is impossible to see exactly how the method might have worked.
Queen of Cups, Marseilles Tarot 1710s
Second Spread

 The next question is whether these 11 cards were kept aside or included when they were told to "gather all up", but it seems probable that they were included.

Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that the reading has to do with whether or not they had conceived a child the previous Saturday. Their daughter Anne had been born in February 1919 and they were evidently considering another baby.

The next instruction to use "the short method using the medium" indicates that they will use the Queen of Cups (medium/George) again, and one the shorter Golden Dawn methods that they preferred. This is hardly surprising since "Opening the Key" involves five separate operations that divide the pack in spread according to the 4 letters of God's name, then 12 houses, then 12 signs, then 36 decanates, then the 10 sephiroth of the Tree of Life. A shorter method would tend to fix on the most pertinent of these stages, or other possible spreads.

Three of Swords, Sola Busca Tarot 1490s
This time we learn that the Queen is found in a group of cards containing no swords. This means either the group of cards itself or that by counting cards and not including all of them (the rules for counting through cards in the GD method are simple enough in their own way, but mean that only certain cards are included in the main reading). The script notes that this indicates an energy that is not outgoing but receptive (probably either Cups/Water or Pentacles/Earth or a combination of both). You might have thought that this was positive for conceiving and nurturing a child, and Swords in tarot are generally the negative suit and one that most readers would be glad to see lacking. However, that does not seem to be the case here.

Martial activity seems to contradict this receptivity—though it might be a misreading here for marital activity—the script is seldom clear. However, it could indicate cards that involve Mars either by sign or decanate (the GD's system included extensive correlations between signs , planets, decanates and cards, and the Yeatses had marked such correspondences on their own cards). And there was a special reason for wanting Martial activity, as we shall see.
The Two of Coins or Pentacles, Italian Tarot
WBY has noted that this corresponds to the Jupiter decanate of Capricorn by the GD system.
At the top, he has noted "Difficulties" and, at the bottom, "pleasant change, visit to friends etc."
(see the National Library of Ireland's Exhibition on W. B. Yeats)
Similar cues are included on the cards that Frieda Harris designed for Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (below) 
It then becomes clear that the spirits want swords, however,— "swords indicate Eastern activity". Now in the Golden Dawn system Air (and therefore swords) is identified with the East (Fire-South; Water-West; Earth-North), so there is some logic in the search for swords within the spread if Eastern influence is important.

The script notes that the venture looks like a failure—and indeed with respect to conceiving a child, it was to prove a disappointment, as their second child Michael was not born until late August 1921.

Yet the reading then proceeds to search for other possibilities, this time using the King of Wands (not Yeats's significator normally).  And the reading continues with positive acclamations for the presence of swords=East. Here we are also told that the Sword=Daimon (and that is another can of worms), and it is worth noting that Yeats's Daimon was said to be "Martial" (YVP3 292), which is probably what lies behind the comment "Sword is yourself and the symbolism is complete" (though George's Daimon was also a Mars influence). There is also a very complex sense in which the Eastern influence was important to the Yeatses themselves: their second child was to be an avatar of the new age.
Ace of Swords, Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, 1910
Okay, so this is getting very involved and grandiose. Those of you who expected a simple tarot spread are getting a picture of parents who were more than ordinarily delusional, and those who find this stuff way too weird gave up at least three paragraphs ago.¡

It has to be said that this is where even the people who can easily cope with the weird in Yeats find that they are a little embarrassed. Basically, the Yeatses thought that they might/would be giving birth to one of the next age's avatars. These avatars of the coming age would be multiple or "multitudinous" and to some extent national, but they would be incarnations of the divine force. It also leads us back to the whole theme of the Conjunctions... (skip to the end if you just want to see how the tarot works).

Conjunctions: East and West

The script seems to imply that the child to be born will not be influenced by the mother's character or "nature", so that the child will be be more like its father, and A Vision includes a rather obscure passage about symbolical East and West as father and mother, though here it seems to work the other way round:
All these symbols can be thought of as the symbols of the relations of men and women and of the birth of children. We can think of the antithetical and primary cones, or wheels, as the domination, now by the man, now by the woman, and of a child born at Phase 15 or East as acquiring a primary character from its father who is at Phase 1, or West, and of a child born at Phase 1, or West, as acquiring an antithetical character from its father at Phase 15, or East, and so on, man and woman being alternately Western and Eastern. Such symbolical children, sealed as it were by Saturn and Jupiter or Mars and Venus, cast off the mother and display their true characters as their cycle enters its last quarter. (AVB 211)

If Yeats, King of Swords, is seen as the Eastern influence, then he is fathering a child who will also be Eastern. Obviously here neither child is  a Phase 1 or 15, since these are not human incarnations, but they embody that principle, though as usual Yeats does not make it clear quite how the two concepts relate to each other precisely.

Seven of Wands and Two of Disks, Thoth Tarot, 1938–43
The Seven of Wands is one of six minor cards that correlates with a Martial decanate.
Indeed the Yeats children were said to have been sealed by the planetary conjunctions in their birth-charts: Anne, a Phase 16, by Mars and Venus, and later Michael, a Phase 14, by Jupiter and Saturn. Yeats reflected on this some fourteen years later:
I was told...that my two children would be Mars conjunctive Venus, Saturn conjunctive Jupiter respectively: and so they were—Anne the Mars-Venus personality.... George said it is very strange but whereas Michael is always thinking about life Anne always thinks of death. (L 827–28; 25 August 1934)
They also embody the Christian dispensation, Mars-Venus, and the coming antithetical dispensation, Jupiter-Saturn, not perhaps as avatars (that seems to have died down), but as symbolic children (still a fairly strange role for them to be playing, however unwittingly). For the primary dispensation at the birth of Jesus: "That which came from west to east returned to west | Now it must be the reverse | in the multitudinous avatar all symbolism of all people must go from East to west & back to East". I'll return to this subject again, I'm sure, but leave it for the moment, in order to conclude about the tarot reading.

Back to the Tarot Spread

So, finally we have a reading that is based on two aspects—a wheel of 28 Phases, where the querents' significators are used as well as their own phasal positions—and secondly, a shorter spread that involves some way in which the significators—in one case apparently a different one—are associated with distinct groups of cards such that GY's card is not located with any Swords, but WBY's is (here I show my ignorance, and would welcome any help or comments).

It's nothing radical—we can only assume that the phasal positions had the same basic meaning as they did in the Great Wheel. But without comment from the Yeatses, all we can tell is that they found a way of working their system into a new spread as they traveled southwards into California.

And it all seems to have an even greater weight, given that their luggage included a samurai sword from the East, given to them by a young man from Japan on the West coast of America.