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).

1 comment:

Jaff Seijas said...

Thanks - I love the phrase "cavern of self-indulgence" - really a strong image.