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).
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 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
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