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).


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