Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Return of the Old Gods

The Cumæan Sibyl, The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo
Now comes the final age of the Cumæan Sibyl's song;
The great order of the centuries is born anew.
returns the Virgin and Saturn's reign returns;
Now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven.
"Eclogue IV" (42 BCE), Publius Vergilius Maro*

They shall return, those gods you always mourn!
Time will bring back the order of old days;
The land has shivered with prophetic breath . . .

"Delfica" (1845–54), Gérard de Nerval† 

The Delphic Sibyl, The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Bow down before her from whose lips the secret names of the immortals, and of the things near their hearts, are about to come that the immortals may come again into the world. Bow down, and understand that when the immortals are about to 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. . . . After you have bowed down the old things shall be again, and another Argo shall carry heroes over the deep, and another Achilles beleaguer another Troy.

 "The Adoration of the Magi" (1897), W. B. Yeats

See, they return, one and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,

            and half turn back;     

These were the "Wing'd-with-Awe",         

Gods of the wingèd shoe!

With them the silver hounds, 

            sniffing the trace of air!  

"The Return" (1913), Ezra Pound

The Argo, William Russell Flint

Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo's painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.

Song from The Resurrection (1926–31), W. B. Yeats


       . . . Those that Rocky Face holds dear,
Lovers of horses and of women, shall,
From marble of a broken sepulchre,
             [. . .] disinter
The workman, noble and saint, and all things run
On that unfashionable gyre again.

"The Gyres" (1936–37), W. B. Yeats



* Ultima Cumæi venit iam carminis ætas;   
Magnus ab integro sæclorum nascitur ordo.   
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna,   
iam nova progenies cælo demittitur alto.


† Ils reviendront, ces Dieux que tu pleures toujours !
Le temps va ramener l'ordre des anciens jours ;
La terre a tressailli d'un souffle prophétique . . .
The first version of "Delfica", titled "Vers Dorés"
(1845), had the epigraph Ultima Cumeai uenit iam carminis ætas; a later version, titled "Dafne" (1853), had iam redit et Virgo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Pamela Colman Smith, The Green Sheaf, and "Dream of the World's End"

Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951) was the creator, editor, and publisher of The Green Sheaf. A magazine of poetry and art, it came out for a year between 1903 and 1904. There were to be thirteen issues in a year, and each issue cost 13 pence, while a subscription cost 13 shillings, and the thirteenth number declared that it was the last. It included contributions from Cecil French, John Todhunter, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, A.E., John Masefield, W. T. Horton, J. B. Yeats, W. B. Yeats, and herself. It was printed on hand-made paper, with hand-coloured illustrations, and has something in common with the hand-printed books of the Susan Mary and Elizabeth Yeats's Cuala Press (they are better known to readers of Yeats as Lily and Lolly).

Cecil French, "The Fountain of Faithful Lovers", The Green Sheaf, no. 4 

Dreams featured heavily in all numbers of the magazine, but never more so than in the second issue, with "A Prayer to the Lords of Dream" by French, an untitled dream by Colman Smith, "Dream of the World's End" by Yeats,  "A Dream on Inishmaan" by Synge, and "Jan A Dreams" by Masefield.

For some reason, Yeats's "Dream of the World's End" is not collected in any of the volumes of "Uncollected" prose, so tends to be little known. Fortunately the availability of the whole series of The Green Sheaf at means that it is now readily accessible, though you have to know to go and look.

W. B. Yeats, "Dream of the World's End", The Green Sheaf, no. 2.

I have a way of giving myself long meaning dreams, by meditating on a symbol when I go to sleep. Sometimes I use traditional symbols, and sometimes I meditate upon some image which is only a symbol to myself. A while ago I came to think of apple-blossom as an image of the East and breaking day, and one night it brought me, not as I expected a charming dream full of the mythology of sun-rise, but this grotesque dream about the breaking of an eternal day.
     I was going through a great city, it had some likeness to Paris about Auteuil. It was night, but I saw a wild windy light in the sky, and knew that dawn was coming in the middle of the night, and that it was the Last Day. People were passing in a hurry, and going away from the light. I was in a brake with other people, and presently the horses ran away. They ran towards the light. We passed a workman who was making a wall in his best clothes, and I knew that he was doing this because he thought the Judge would look at him with more favourable eyes if he were found busy. Then we saw two or three workmen with white faces watching the sky by their unfinished work. Everybody now was a workman, for it seemed to be a workman’s quarter, and there were not many people running past us. Then I saw young workmen eating their breakfast at a long table in a yard. They were eating raw bacon. I understood somehow that they had thought “we may as well eat our breakfast even though this is the Last Day”; but, that when they began to cook it, they had thought, “it is not worth while to trouble about cooking it.” All they needed was food, that they might live through the Last Day calmly.
     After that, and now we seemed to have left the brake, though I did not remember our leaving it, we came to a bridge over a wide river, and the sky was very wild and bright, though I could not see any sun. All in a moment I saw a number of parachutes descending, and a man in a seedy black frock-coat came out of one of them, and began distributing circulars. At the head of them was the name of a seller of patent medicines, and we all understood the moment we saw the name, that he was one of the most wicked of men, for he had put up great posters that had spoiled many beautiful views. Each circular had printed upon it a curse against this man, and a statement that a curse given at the end of the world must of necessity weigh heavily with the Eternal Judge. These curses called for the damnation of the patent medicine seller, and you were asked to sign them at the bottom, undertaking at the same time to pay the sum of one pound to the medicine seller if the end of the world had not really come. I remember that the circular spoke of this “solemn occasion,” but I do not recollect any other of the exact words. I awoke, and was for some time in great terror, for it seemed to me that an armed thief was hidden somewhere in the darkness of my room. Was this some echo of what the Bible has said about “one who shall come as a thief in the night?”
W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats, "The Lake at Coole", The Green Sheaf, no. 4.

This is evidently based on a real dream, and Yeats notes his use of plants to evoke dreams in Per Amica Silentia Lunae:
I had found that after evocation my sleep became at moments full of light and form, all that I had failed to find while awake; and I elaborated a symbolism of natural objects that I might give myself dreams during sleep, or rather visions, for they had none of the confusion of dreams, by laying upon my pillow or beside my bed certain flowers or leaves. Even to-day, after twenty years, the exaltations and the messages that came to me from bits of hawthorn or some other plant seem of all moments of my life the happiest and the wisest. (CW5 17–18; Myth 345)
His plant symbolism was probably related to elements of the Celtic Mysteries that he was working on at this time—in 1898 Maud Gonne had a vision "to get the trees of the cardinal points", of which the only one Yeats remembered certainly was "an apple bough in the East" ("Visions of Old Irish mythology" [NLI 36,261/1], see Yeats, Philosophy, and the Occult 121 and 160n29). Other trees mentioned are oak, hazel, quicken (rowan), and hawthorn, foreshadowing Robert Graves's use of the tree alphabet in The White Goddess. Yeats, however, also associated apple-blossom and its scent with Maud Gonne, so it is perhaps understandable that the symbol had unpredictable results and evoked a city where Yeats had visited her often.

A.E. (George Russell), "A Million Years Hence", The Green Sheaf, no. 2.

A.E. (George Russell) had an engraving in the same issue that was enigmatic and apocalyptic in a rather different way, perhaps more reminiscent of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (or even Planet of the Apes). Human(oid?) figures surround a huge skull, with one perched on top of it, entitled "A Million Years Hence". Is the skull human and the figures minuscule? or are the figures the descendants of humans with a giant's skull?

Pamela Colman Smith, "Once, in a dream...", The Green Sheaf, no. 2.

Saturday, April 4, 2020


 Ecstasy or vision begins when thought ceases, to our consciousness, to proceed from ourselves. It differs from dreaming, because the subject is awake. It differs from hallucination, because there is no organic disturbance: it is, or claims to be, a temporary enhancement, not a partial disintegration, of the mental faculties. Lastly, it differs from poetical inspiration, because the imagination is passive.

William Ralph Inge, by Arthur Norris, c. 1934.
The National Portrait Gallery, London.