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.


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