(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.
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.)†
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.
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.
|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.
* 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).