Thursday, November 16, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 6

Yeats and the Stars 1; Yeats and the Stars 2; Yeats and the Stars 3; Yeats and the Stars 4; Yeats and the Stars 5

And Yeats concentrates not on stars but on the figures themselves and the human archetypes that they project. The poem “Those Images" speaks of liberating the mind from the cavern of self-absorption and psychologising, not through the external lure of politics but through the masterful images of the archetypes: child and harlot, lion and virgin, and eagle.

What if I bade you leave
The cavern of the mind?
There’s better exercise
In the sunlight and wind.

I never bade you go
To Moscow or to Rome.
Renounce that drudgery,
Call the Muses home.

Seek those images
That constitute the wild,
The lion and the virgin,
The harlot and the child.

Find in the middle air
An eagle on the wing,
Recognise the five
That make the Muses sing.

He gives a slightly different version of the poem in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley in 1937, and he gives a variation on the idea in “An Introduction for My Plays":

I recall an Indian tale: certain men said to the greatest of the sages, “Who are your Masters?” And he replied, “The wind and the harlot, the virgin and the child, the lion and the eagle”.  

(Essays & Introductions 530; Collected Works, vol. 2, 25)

Though a source is indicated, it is not clear, and I have not found any note or commentary that identifies it. This may be because Yeats’s creative mix of memory and forgetting appears to be recasting an account from the Bhagavata Purana, where there are many more masters, whose names may not always match (translations vary quite a lot). 

Krishna tells how an enlightened monk is asked by King Yadu who his masters have been.* He names twenty-four, but not the ones that the king expects:

I have taken shelter of twenty-four gurus, who are the following: the earth, wind, sky, water, fire, moon, sun, pigeon and python; the sea, moth, bumblebee, elephant and honey-thief; the deer, the fish, the harlot Pingala, the fish eagle and the child; the maiden, arrow-maker, serpent, spider and wasp. . . .

(Bhagavata Purana: Canto Eleven: Chapter 7: Slokas 33–35)

The following comments then explain how each of these phenomena or creatures conveyed an important teaching concerning non-attachment and the path to liberation. 

Five of the six masters mentioned in the “Introduction" are found in the Indian source—wind, harlot, child, virgin, and fish eagle (kurara)—with only the lion missing. The selective recollection of this handful from the twenty-four and the addition of the lion may be influenced by the constellations, which would offer four of them: the virgin suggesting the lion, and the eagle, the child, which is often depicted with it. (And there are Blakean echoes as well.)

Ignace-Gaston Pardies, Globi coelestis in tabulas planas redacti descriptio (1674).
Aquila, the eagle, with the child, Antinous or Ganymede.

Yeats does not appear to be concerned with the lessons that each of the masters teaches, focusing instead on the images themselves “that constitute the wild" and “make the Muses sing". When looking at the skies and the stars, Yeats sees them within the symbol—the mind escapes the cavern of its own introspection through the forms it finds in the world beyond and the skies above.

Yeats follows Plotinus, who holds that “The soul bears [the kosmos] up, and it lies within, no fragment of it unsharing" (MacKenna) or “the universe lies in soul which sustains it, and nothing is without having some share in soul. . .” (O'Meara)(Ennead IV:3.9). Plotinus goes on to compare the physical cosmos to a net bathed in the waters of Anima Mundi or All-Soul. And as with the macrocosmic, so with the microcosmic: the body does not have a soul within, the soul encompasses a body. Or as Ezra Pound would put it:

That the body is inside the soul—

                        the lifting and folding brightness
                              the darkness shattered,

                                    the fragment.
That Yeats noted the symbol over that portico


(Canto CXIII/808-9)‡

Yeats sees the symbol in the cathedral or in the universe, and all within the symbol. Soul is not inside matter, animating it; matter is inside soul, which informs and sustains it. The stars may seem far away, “inviolate and fixed", yet, like the whole universe itself, they manifest Soul or soul. We may discern that, at least in part, in the constellations of the heavens.




* Krishna, instructing Uddhava, tells him how knowledge of His nature as Supreme Lord can be learnt, saying “In this regard, sages cite a historical narration concerning the conversation between the greatly powerful King Yadu and an avadhūta" (liberated soul). The avadhuta tradition is connected with Dattatreya, and this teaching is often connected with Dattatreya himself (see, for example, “Self-education: The 24 Gurus of Dattatreya", ).


† “The kosmos is like a net which takes all its life, as far as ever it stretches, from being wet in the water, and has no act of its own ; the sea rolls away and the net with it, precisely to the full of its scope, for no mesh of it can strain beyond its set place : the soul is of so far-reaching a nature — a thing unbounded — as to embrace the entire body of the All in the one extension ; so far as the universe extends, there soul is ; and if the universe had no existence, the extent of soul would be the same ; it is eternally what it is" (Ennead IV.3.9, MacKenna). MacKenna's translation of Plotinus started to appear in 1917 (the last volume came out in 1930).  Yeats had earlier found similar thought in Henry More, the seventeenth-century Platonist, drawing on his writing in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917) to explain Anima Mundi, and how the “general soul" is “a substance incorporeal but without sense and animadversion pervading the whole matter of the universe and exercising a plastic power therein, according to the sundry predispositions and occasions, in the parts it works upon, raising such phenomena in the world, by directing the parts of the matter and their motion as cannot be resolved into mere mechanical powers". (CW5 22)


‡This reading owes a great debt to the treatment of the relation between Yeats and Pound in Colin McDowell and Timothy Materer, “Gyre and Vortex: W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound". Twentieth Century Literature 31:4 (Winter, 1985).

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 5

Yeats and the Stars 1; Yeats and the Stars 2; Yeats and the Stars 3; Yeats and the Stars 4

I referred earlier to the precession of the equinoxes. Along with the movement of the North Pole, the sun’s position relative to the zodiac at a given season also shifts. This is usually reckoned by looking at key moments in the sun's annual cycle, the equinoxes, hence the name. At the spring or vernal equinox the sun used to be in the constellation of Taurus until about 2000 BCE, when it drifted into Aries, and around the beginning of the Christian era it shifted into Pisces.

The sun’s position at the spring equinox is currently moving from Pisces into Aquarius. One writer in the 1830s thought that it had already happened and nowadays some people still put the transition many centuries in the future (constellations are vague things and had no clear boundaries until 20th-century astronomers needed to create them).* However, the opinion of the Theosophists placed it in the early 20th century. George Russell (Æ) wrote to Yeats in 1896 that, “I agree with you that we belong to the coming cycle. The sun passes from Pisces into Aquarius in a few years. Pisces is phallic in its influence. The waterman is spiritual so the inward turning souls will catch the first rays of the New Aeon” (W.  B. Yeats, Collected Letters, vol. 2, pp. 6–7 n3).

Map from Emmeline Plunket, Ancient Calendars and Constellations (1903). I am not using the illustration for its original purpose, but to show the (hazy) boundary between Pisces on the left of the central line and Aquarius on the right of the central line.

And as the spring equinox moves from Pisces into Aquarius, the autumn equinox moves from Virgo into Leo. Several theosophical writers at the beginning of the twentieth century were speaking of the coming time when the head of Virgo, the virgin, and the body of Leo, the lion, would meet and the sphinx would tell her secret. 

“I am the Sphinx. . . . I am the fabled monster of the desert, having the head of Virgo and the body of Leo. . . . When the finger of time points into the Cycle of Aquarius, then will the Sphinx of the heavens arrive at the Autumnal Equinox. I am the Sphinx and the key to time in the heavens, and thus do I unlock the cycles of time. . . .”

Charles Hatfield, “The Mystery of the Sphinx; or, The Shiloh,” Part II,
The Sphinx 4:2 (February 1902)

Such a “Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw" (“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes") is said to be personification of the forces presiding over the incoming age in A Vision (A Vision B 207–08; Collected Works, vol. 14, 153). She also presided over the age that started over four thousand years ago with the heroic age of Ancient Greece: the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece and the Trojan War (an antithetical dispensation, in Yeats's terminology). This age was replaced when the Roman Empire was in the ascendant, with the rise of Christianity (a primary dispensation), as the autumnal equinox had shifted from Libra into Virgo.

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.

Hevelius's Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia (1687). The Virgin's star refers to Spica, which marks the sheaf of wheat in the Virgin's hand and is one of the principal stars of the zodiac.

Other theosophically minded writers wrote of a fusion of spring and autumn equinoxes, the water-carrier and the lion, a sphinx with a man’s head. One of these writers was represented in the Yeatses’ library:

The Egyptian Sphinx combines in its form the pictorial symbols of Aquarius and its opposite sign Leo.. . . . The Egyptian colossus has the body of a lion with a bearded man’s head (not a woman’s as in Greece), and upon the forehead is placed the uraeus serpent. . . . In the power and strength of the lion’s body controlled by the human intelligence . . . the Sphinx is seen to be the personification of Aquarius-Leo. The potentialities of Leo, which in their higher aspect, are very great, become manifested in the polar opposite, Aquarius.

J. H. Van Stone, The Pathway of the Soul: A Study of Zodiacal Symbology (1912)

And just as the GD’s card of the Lovers seems to lie behind the scene in “Her Triumph", it’s possible that J. H. Van Stone’s symbol of the coming age of Aquarius remained in Yeats's memory and informed the “shape with lion body and the head of a man" in “The Second Coming". This figure announces the coming new era, the antithetical dispensation in terms of A Vision (A Vision B 207–08; Collected Works, vol. 14, 153), and like the Polar Dragon is shaking off long sleep.

Note how the symbols of the constellations take on their own autonomy and mix and merge as symbols rather than anything objectively in the heavens. There is no sphinx in the sky—the lion’s body points away from the virgin’s head and the water-bearer is on the other side of the sky, but the symbols make their own combinations.



* Godfrey Higgins, in Anacalypsis: An attempt to draw aside the veil of the Saitic Isis; or, An inquiry into the origin of languages, nations, and religions (1836), builds on earlier theorists about the precession of the equinoxes. He takes it as given that the equinox in his time was entering Aquarius, commenting on several occasions to the effect that “any one may see by looking at our common globes, where he will find the Vernal equinox fixed to the 30th of Aquarius" (vol. 2, 139), i.e. entering the sign of Aquarius from Pisces.

Using the International Astr0nomy Union's boundaries, Jean Meeus puts the equinox's transition into Aquarius at 2597 (see “When will the Age of Aquarius begin?").

This book is in a listing of the Yeatses' books from the 1920s, but is not in the library now held at the National Library of Ireland. See Edward O'Shea, “The 1920s Catalogue of W. B. Yeats's Library", Yeats Annual 4, 289.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 4

Yeats and the Stars 1; Yeats and the Stars 2; Yeats and the Stars 3

The Precession of the Equinoxes relates to the very slow wobble of the Earth’s axis, which moves the poles in a circle and, with that motion, the sun’s position relative to the stars at a given season. This would not happen if the Earth’s axis were not tilted, and as Yeats notes, in Paradise Lost Milton actually uses the tilt to illustrate the consequences of the Fall (AVA 149–50). The idea is that in the unfallen world, the sun’s apparent path—the ecliptic and the constellations of the zodiac —would run along the equator and the seasons would not change. The Earth's axis—“the axle. . . That keeps the stars in their round" (“Aedh Hears the Cry of the Sedge")would point not towards the star that marks the North Pole—now Polaris at the end of the Little Bear’s tail— but towards the ecliptic pole, a point encircled by the constellation Draco, “the Polar Dragon".* Thus the prelapsarian “tentpole of Eden" mentioned in “Veronica's Napkin" would point to the dragon rather than the bear.

Albrecht Dürer's map of the northern heavens is centred on the ecliptic pole, surrounded by Draco. (N.B. The perspectives of celestial maps often reverse each other, depending on whether they are taken as “inside looking up" or “outside looking down". )

Many Arab and Renaissance views of the heavens actually put this “different pole" as the true centre of their schemes—in a plan, it has the advantage of putting the zodiac as a circle round the circumference—and the Golden Dawn used this arrangement too.  

The Tree of Life as Projected in a Solid Sphere: Though the constellations are unclear in this reproduction of the northern hemisphere, the Tree of Life is mapped on to the heavens. The small circle at the centre is the Tree's highest sephirah, Kether, surrounded by Draco. Below are Chokmah and Binah, each duplicated across the centre, and below them Chesed and Geburah, also duplicated. Tiphareth is on the central axis, but appears in notional form at four points on the ecliptic, the circumference of this circle, once at the position of Regulus, the heart of Leo, and the other three at ninety-degree intervals (in Taurus, Aquarius, and Scorpio). (Regardie, The Golden Dawn, vol. 4, 219).

MacGregor Mathers superimposed a spherical form of the cabalistic Tree of Life onto the heavens, with Kether the highest point of the Tree surrounded by the dragon’s coils.*  The central pillar from Kether down to Tiphareth, Yesod, and Malkuth is the axis, so only highest and lowest—Kether and Malkuth—are on the surface of the sphere. The pillars on either side—Chokmah, Chesed, and Netzach on the Pillar of Mercy, and Binah, Chesed, and Hod on the Pillar of Severity—are placed on the surface, but doubled across the central axis.

As divine influence pours from higher levels, down into the lower Tree of Life, it is inverted through the double cone of the hour glass (see on the Tree), arriving at Kether of the lower Tree, but convoluted through the coils of the dragon and thence to the zodiac. (Regardie, The Golden Dawn, vol. 4, 252.)

The paths between the sephiroth are also mapped onto the celestial globe, and each path is associated with a Tarot card. The path down from Binah to the central sephirah Tiphareth is attributed to The Lovers. Traditionally that often depicts the force of love or choice, particularly a young man choosing between two women.

Trump VI, The Lovers: (left) is a Marseille version of the type George Yeats owned and (right) an Italian one of the type W. B. Yeats owned. See the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland; unfortunately the online virtual tour is no longer available, but this shot shows the case displaying the Yeatses' Tarot packs.

Like constellations, Tarot cards are subject to some reinterpreation but generally change fairly little. The Lovers is an exception. This card was given a radically different form by the Golden Dawn,  depicting Perseus and Andromeda and a sea dragon, apparently drawing on the constellations.

Bode, Uranographia (1801)
The Golden Dawn Tarot, painted by Robert Wang

In the explanation of “The Tarot Trumps", an unofficial Golden Dawn paper, Harriet Felkin explains that The Lovers shows “The impact of inspiration on intuition, resulting in illumination and liberation—the sword striking off the fetters of habit and materialism, Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the Dragon of fear and the waters of Stagnation” (Regardie, The Golden Dawn, vol. 4, 211). And the Golden Dawn's version of the card and its meaning seem to be influences behind “Her Triumph”:

I did the dragon's will until you came
Because I had fancied love a casual
Improvisation, or a settled game
…. And then you stood among the dragon-rings.
I mocked, being crazy, but you mastered it
And broke the chain and set my ankles free,
Saint George or else a pagan Perseus;
And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.

Giorgio Melchiori and David Clark have explored the sources in western art—the drafts show references to Bellini, Carpaccio, and Titian—and Phillip Marcus has worked on the poem’s genesis and dynamics.  

Edward Burne-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled (Perseus Series), Southampton City Art Gallery.

In Yeats at Songs and Choruses, Clark favours Burne-Jones's paintings of the Perseus legend as the key inspiration because of the monster's coils—but the coils are there in the celestial pictures, as well as the Golden Dawn's cabalistic ones.

Bayer, Uranometria (1603)

Perseus strikes “off the fetters of habit and materialism"—and though Yeats's dragon may not be fear, stagnation may well be part of the “dragon’s will”. The use of “will” is also significant—in Hodos Chameliontos, Yeats uses Perseus and Andromeda to represent the artist’s Mask and Image, respectively, while the sea-dragon is Body of Fate. And all is under the control of “personifying spirits that we had best call but Gates and Gate-keepers” (Autobiographies 272–73) or in Yeats’s terminology, Daimons.

And we may christianise Perseus as St George and Andromeda as a later princess—the shift between pagan hero and Christian knight is similar to the transition of the focus in “Veronica’s Napkin", where Berenice’s Hair is transformed into Veronica’s Napkin by taking “a different pole".



* The sea dragon of the myth is usually taken as the constellation Cetus, but the coils involved here imply that it is Draco. Note that Yeats made a similar association with the “Polar Dragon" in “Aodh Pleads with the Elemental Powers", where the dragon uncoils in its sleep:

The Powers whose name and shape no living creature knows
Have pulled the Immortal Rose;
And though the Seven Lights bowed in their dance and wept,
The Polar Dragon slept,
His heavy rings uncoiled from glimmering deep to deep:
When will he wake from sleep?

Yeats added a note in The Dome (1898): “The Seven Lights are the seven stars of the Great Bear, and the Dragon is the constellation of the Dragon, and these, in certain old mythologies, encircle the Tree of Life, on which is here imagined the Rose of Ideal Beauty growing before it was cast into the world".

† A completely different take on the Lovers card appears in Pamela Colman Smith’s design for A. E. Waite—does this perhaps reference the tent-pole of Eden?

Pamela Colman Smith's design for the Rider Tarot, conceived by A. E. Waite.
 (Note also a possible influence from Cecil French's Fountain of Faithful Lovers in Colman Smith's Green Sheaf.)

In the manuscript book that Maud Gonne gave him in 1908, Yeats summarised a visionary ritual he conducted alone, noting that he saw “two forms side by side float up as spirits to top of Abiegnus & garden. The influences that lift the initiate above Tiphareth are five – the five paths & the five corresponding Tarot Trumps but it seems as if the [Gemini] Trump [=The Lovers] is the one when two souls ascend." (July 21 [1908], 4r). (The Golden Dawn used the symbols of the astrological elements associated with each Trump as a shorthand for the Tarot cards, so the symbol of Gemini stood for The Lovers. Tiphareth at the centre of the Tree is connected to all the sephiroth except Malkuth, and this path runs from Tiphareth up to Binah in the GD's scheme.)

    Possibly because the card is associated with breaking out of habit and stagnation, the GD design does not give Perseus his most famous weapon, the head of Medusa, which turned anyone who gazed on it to stone.


Thursday, November 9, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 3

 Yeats and the Stars 1; Yeats and the Stars 2.


The sky does not change, but the images projected by the human mind are subject to infinite variation. Even star groups or asterisms that we might think unavoidable to any viewer, like the form of Orion, prove to be surprisingly flexible across cultures (the curious might find Figures in the Sky a useful start). 

Yet these constellations are also a form of symbolic language, passed down through each culture across centuries, with the same resilience shown by folk motifs and myths. Many of the constellations we learn today have hardly changed since the time of the ancient Babylonians and Greeks, as passed on through Arab astronomy, with some of the  “gaps" filled in at later dates, especially at the dawn of the telescopic age.

The Northern Heavens from Andreas Cellarius's Celestial Atlas (1660), centred on the Ecliptic Pole, with a rainbow dragon, menagerie of beasts, and human figures.

The heavens are a symbol of what is beyond the reach of humanity, “inviolate and fixed", yet onto them we project a bestiary of lions, bears, dogs, unicorns, swans, eagles, and dragons; there are anonymous centaurs, a charioteer, and herdsman; and named figures, such as Hercules, Orion, Pegasus, Perseus, Andromeda, and her parents, as well as the Argo. We also have sextant, air pump, telescope, and microscope. If the first ones require some effort of imagination to  “see" them, the last ones are imposed with very little relation to the fundamental stars.

Cetus, the Sea Monster, from Sidney Hall's Urania's Mirror (1824), along with more recent stellar inventions: a chemical furnace, a machine for generating static electricity, and sculptor's apparatus. The harp or psaltery and the electric machine are not recognized in modern astronomy.

Ezra Pound recalls Yeats in Paris in a well-known passage in the Pisan Cantos, where he writes of:

… Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever
                Paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it….


Readers have tended to take this as a form of gentle ribbing of the older poet, but Pound, who was steeped in the lore of the Middle Ages, was also no doubt aware that the cathedral had been created as a great symbol of the universe, both in its general construction and form, and in the details of its carvings and iconography. The cathedral unites the human and the cosmic, bringing together religious vision and human craftsmanship, relating each to the other. The cathedral’s vaulting echoes the vault of heaven—or vice versa: the symbol is within the cathedral, and the cathedral is a realization of the symbol.

The Western Rose Window at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
The zodiac is shown in the lower half of the middle circle of figures (going from Aquarius, just below 9 o'clock, anticlockwise round to Capricorn, just below 3 o'clock); twelve vices are in the upper half.
The outer ring has the months' labours in the lower half, and virtues opposing the vices in the upper half.

The dictum taken from the Emerald Tablet “as above, so below; as below, so above" is often applied to astrology, with the human microcosm a mirror of the macrocosm. Both William and George Yeats were of course regular users of astrology, following the celestial influences in human affairs, at both a personal and a collective level. At a personal level they read the way that the “outrageous stars incline / By opposition, square and trine” (“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory"). Yeats, however, agreed with Plotinus (“Are the Stars Causes?" Enneads II:3) that the cosmic cycles were signs not causes, writing in Rapallo Notebook A, “Astrology does not rely as is generally supposed upon the devine influence of stars but upon that of certain mathematic relation between stars & a point mathematically ascertained" (23r). 

Yet astrology seldom figures in the poetry. Indeed, surprisingly, references to the “dishevelled wandering stars" (“Who Goes with Fergus?") and are very few and tend to lean more on general symbolism—Saturnian melancholy in Under Saturn" or the “Conjunctions" of Mars and Venus or Jupiter and Saturn (see Conjunctions II") based on A Vision (see Conjunctions")—than on any astrological construction or insight.

At a collective level there were the great astronomical cycles that informed long periods of time from decades and centuries to millennia and longer. The Yeatses’ instructors follow the nineteenth-century astrologers in taking the so-called Great Year as the one marked out by the Precession of the Equinoxes. And the coincidence between the two is made clear in A Vision itself, possibly more clearly in the 1925 version:

Certain English and German scholars associate the changes of ancient mythology with the retreat of the Sun through the Zodiacal Signs, and attribute to his passage at the Vernal Equinox through Gemini such double Gods and Worthies as Castor and Pollux, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel; and all Ox-like Deities to his passage through Taurus and so on, and discover in the Zodiac a history of the human soul through life and death, sin and salvation, and consider that Babylonian and other Antiquity meant the Constellations when it spoke of the Book of Life, the zodiacal constituting the text and those to North and South the commentary.

A Vision A, 150; Collected Works vol. 13, 122

Emmeline Plunket, Ancient Calendars and Constellations (1903).
At the time of the spring or vernal equinox, the sun's position relative to the stars has shifted backwards (here rightwards) through the zodiac from Gemini, the Twins, to Taurus, the Bull, to Aries, the Ram, and then to Pisces, the Fishes. Its passage through each sign takes roughly 2,000 years.

When the Sun at the vernal equinox passed from Taurus into Aries, Eternal Man had his Will and Mask at Phase 15 and Phase 1 respectively, and so at Lunar South and North, and his Creative Mind and his Body of Fate at Solar East and West.

A Vision A, 143–44; CW13 116


Monday, November 6, 2023

Yeats and the Stars 2

 (See Yeats and the Stars 1)

In one of his more idiosyncratic perspectives, Yeats seems to view the stars as a net or mesh: “When I think of any great poetical writer of the past… I comprehend… that the work is the man's flight from his entire horoscope, his blind struggle in the network of the stars” (Per Amica Silentia Lunae). Life is woven into a “shivering casting net of the stars” (“The Shadowy Waters") or “nets of night and day” (Aedh Pleads with the Elemental Powers").


Yeats also brings the stars closer, making them ornaments or the embroidery of heaven. There is a literal materiality to the cloths of heaven, “Of night and light and half-light” (“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven") or “the night’s embroidery” (The Gift of Haroun al-Rashid"). Is the use of images based on cloths and hangings, embroidery or needlework drawn from the example of May Morris and Lily’s embroidery? Does he imagine dark velvets with abstact points of gold and silver, or tapestries of rich figures with the images of the constellations? I think actually both, and as the as the focus shifts we move from abstraction to image.

The constellations centered on Leo and Virgo (Google Sky, 1792 Celestial Globe by Giovanni Cassini). Berenice's Hair is in the upper right quarter, while the supposed location of Veronica's Napkin as claimed by Father Rheita is a square made up of lower stars from Leo and stars from Sextans.

In Veronica’s Napkin", at least, Yeats seems to view the heavens as a tent with drapery: indeed the tabernacle described in Exodus is the dwelling  place of God, both literally and symbolically. These hangings bear the image of the Heavenly Circuit—a phrase from Plotinus—and specifically Berenice’s hair (which had a special symbolism in the Yeatses' automatic script).* 

Yet part of the poem’s central conceit is how a shift of focus can reform that image into another one, so that the tresses sacrificed and dedicated to by Berenice/Verenike can refocused as the cloth stained with the face of the suffering Christ, Veronica’s Napkin. (These are actually different groups of stars, but Veronica and Berenice are effectively the same name, so Yeats seems to take the shift referring to the same constellation or close.)†

 Veronica's Napkin

The Heavenly Circuit; Berenice's Hair;
Tent-pole of Eden; the tent's drapery;
Symbolical glory of the earth and air!
The Father and His angelic hierarchy
That made the magnitude and glory there
Stood in the circuit of a needle's eye.
Some found a different pole, and where it stood
A pattern on a napkin dipped in blood.

Berenice's Hair is a late classical addition to the constellations. Queen Berenice sacrificed her beautiful tresses to ensure her husband's safe return from war. There was consternation when it appeared that the locks had been stolen from the temple, until the astronomer pointed to the heavens to show that the sacrifice had been taken up by the gods.

Thus images shift into abstractions of half lights and can refocus as something completely different. Veronica's Napkin is only mentioned in the title, yet when the focus shifts to a different pole", it is clearly the image of a face that was supposedly imprinted on the cloth with which Veronica wiped Jesus's face on the route to Calvary.

The Bedford Catalogue: A Cycle of Celestial Objects by W. H. Smyth (1844)

There are indeed various schemes that substitute the pagan myths and animals of Graeco-Arab astronomy with a Christianized sky, as well as all the different patterns created in different cultures. 

Julius Schiller's Chrisitianized heavens in Andreas Cellarius's Celestial Atlas (1660).
The twelves apostles take the zodiac, and Berenice's Hair becomes the whip that was used in Christ's passion.

It is not just in the official schemes that constellations may have meaning, but in personal experience or myth. Coma Berenices seems to have had particular resonance for Yeats, as he wrote a poem specifically about the theft of Berenice's locks (titled Berenice" in the draft in Rapallo Notebook C).

Her Dream

I dreamed as in my bed I lay,
All night's fathomless wisdom come,
That I had shorn my locks away
And laid them on Love's lettered tomb;
But something bore them out of sight
In a great tumult of the air,
And after nailed upon the night
Berenice's burning hair.

The personal perspective of a woman lying in bed recalls the poem Chosen," where again the cosmic is also personal and the lover's movement follows that of a planet or the sun that appears to whirl around earth with the zodiac, sinking in the west, coming to the northern nadir at its midnight, to dawn.


The lot of love is chosen. I learnt that much
Struggling for an image on the track
Of the whirling Zodiac.
Scarce sank he from the west
Or found a subterranean rest
On the maternal midnight of my breast
Before I had marked him on his northern way,
And seem to stand although in bed I lay.

I struggled with the horror of daybreak,
I chose it for my lot! If questioned on
My utmost pleasure with a man
By some new-married bride, I take
That stillness for a theme
Where his heart my heart did seem
And both adrift on the miraculous stream
Where—wrote a learned astrologer—
The Zodiac is changed into a sphere.

Ultimately there is the private miracle of love and choice, a form of union out of time or Beatific Vision, that is figured in cosmic terms by the whirling zodiac turning into a sphere as it crosses the plane of the Milky Way (see “Invoking the Daimon").





* According the automatic script, different myths were associated with the Moments of Crisis of women and men:

The myth of Berenice the first Critical Moment of woman
The myth of Glaucus the first Critical Moment of man
The myth of Persephone is the second Critical Moment of woman
The myth of Meleager the second Critical Moment of man

AS 16 November 1919, later summarized on Card C57, Yeats's 'Vision' Papers 3, 268–69.


† It is possible that Yeats drew the connection because of comments in Richard Hinckley Allen's book on Star-Names and Their Meanings (1899).