St. Patrick’s Day Yeats Essay

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I was struck by how a book by an Irishman, the poet and magician William Butler Yeats, arrived at my door on St. Patrick’s Day morning: The Tower. I had ordered it through Amazon, realising that my compilation of Yeats’ poetry did not have all of the poems in that book, which I wanted to study.

This gave me the thought of sharing an essay I wrote inspired by a study of Yeats I made and continue to make, that in turn was sparked by surprising dreams of Yeats (especially the first one: I didn’t know anything of Yeats when I had it)  and by the odd fact that I had read of a poet (Wordsworth) who had a habit, beginning in childhood, of repeating his own name until he would reach an exalted state of consciousness. I was very fascinated by his description of this odd ritual, which I read while spending a very creative year living in Vancouver, and upon moving to Germany for a time I decided to use the excellent library available to me there to research this poet more. But I was convinced this name-repeating poet was Yeats. I couldn’t find reference to this process in his works or letters, and after a while realised that I had bizarrely mixed them up, but by then I didn’t care, having discovered a deep resonance with the person of Yeats. The following essay came out of that early study while I was living and studying in Stuttgart, newly edited for 2011 St. Patrick’s Day.

William Butler Yeats appears to have had a strong sense, perhaps especially in the 20’s, of there being an impending change, a change that would entail a massive spiritual shift in the course the world had thus far been taking. He seemed to see this change as not necessarily being disastrous, but nonetheless one that would have very difficult aspects, or which would be traumatic and uncompromising in its effects. What follows is an analysis of The Second Coming[1] and Leda and the Swan[2] in the light of this sense of Yeats’ that the world was entering a new phase. I will also discuss the similarity in attitude, in these two poems, to the ‘divine,’ and try to draw out what this attitude is, chiefly by examining the concept of pity, as it is presented in the automatic writing of Yeats’ wife, George.

One reading of The Second Coming is that in it Yeats is presenting his view that during his time the order of things had become dangerously inverted, and is suggesting that a messiah is awakening, one whose character will be suited to challenging this unwholesome state of affairs. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”(S) When reading these lines it is natural to think of, especially for us looking back, the many wars in the first part of the century, and also of the many revolutions gone wrong. And you have this peculiar fascination, at this time, on behalf of great artists and philosophers, with fascism, as if, experiencing their solitary efforts as futile, or by becoming confused by the confrontation of their complexity of thought with the accelerating change and madness of the world, they took refuge in what seemed to be simple, firm, direct routes. Yeats presents this worldwide turbulence as a process just beginning to unfold—as the gyre revolves the process of inversion of the proper relation of things, of madness, progresses.
But the dominant image of The Second Coming is that of some sort of nightmarish saviour figure. “Surely some revelation is at hand.”(S) For Yeats the chaos he observed, the massive change in culture, suggested or entailed that a shift was taking place on a spiritual level, that a movement into a new phase of the world, like that initiated by Christ, was in a sense being forced. This vision has a feeling of violence, like in Leda and the Swan. It is an inhuman, animal-like divinity, which has no regard for the small cares and temporally bound morality of a selfish humanity. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/ A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”(S)

“How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?”(L) In Leda there is a similar notion as in Second Coming of being helpless before a terrifying, inhuman divine force, ‘announcing’ its arrival, moving inexorably in on the human realm with the intent to bend things to its more powerful will, to impregnate reality with a truth which cuts through all mere ephemeral, human truths (or concerns).

“But now I know/ That twenty centuries of stony sleep/ Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” The turmoil of Yeats’ day is the rocking of the cradle of the new messiah, the signs of the second coming. What comes is a mystery, like the riddle of the sphinx, but Yeats predicts it as being something that will follow the ugliness, and also the hugeness, of the changes he sees; a frightening, powerful beast of a prophet, whose mercilessness is necessary to meet the challenge of announcing authoritatively the advent of a new era.

One could easily read in the anti-Christ image here, but it doesn’t seem to hold given the thrust of Yeats’ work—it seems very uncharacteristic. Really the image again appears very similar to the Swan, Zeus, in Leda: “A sudden blow: the wings beating still/ Above the struggling girl, her thighs caressed/ By the dark webs…” it is a brutal image of divinity being presented here too, and the anti-Christ is nowhere in sight. Yeats has said, when talking of how he began writing Leda, because asked to for a political review, “Nothing is now possible but some movement from above preceded by some violent annunciation.”[3] He thought this when reflecting on the political situation, which is not there in Leda, but is metaphorically sketched in Second Coming.

Yeats went on to say “but as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it.” In a way a similar process is communicated in The Second Coming, in that the initial imagery of disorder on the level of worldly affairs is swallowed by the powerful image of an ominous messiah. In both poems there is a strong implication of the “god influence” overriding everything else, and particularly of it being ‘pitiless;’ perhaps in the same sense that natural forces, like the wind or changing seasons, are pitiless. Yeats forecasts a spiritual tempest.

A similar way of thinking seems to be present in these lines from Byzantium[4]:


A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains/All that man is,/ All mere complexities,/

The fury and the mire of human veins.

Here the divine cuts through all human concepts. This is an unusual way of presenting something that is commonly expressed in spiritual teaching I think. We are often told of the insights, the realisations, the ‘state of enlightenment,’ that is beyond conceptualisation. No words can describe it. It is the peace that passes all understanding. But what does it actually entail for someone who lives in a state like this to be living amongst people who are determined to remain in the kind of happiness (or unhappiness) that only ‘works’ if they continue to operate within their habitual webs of conceptualisation? Yeats seems to say that it might be a rude awakening to encounter someone who completely disregards one’s habitual, conceptual mode of being. And this disregard for the world of human conceptual forms seems necessarily to entail even the subtlest ‘spiritual’ thoughts concocted by the cleverest human mind (such as the mind of Yeats). And so, “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”(S) will not be fooled by even the subtlest facade; those attached to their facades, rather than those who only wear them for convenience, will be rendered uncomfortable.

A whole range of complexities is opened up with this line of thought in fact. For instance, there is also the matter of many—a great many—who are actively engaged in a spiritual path of some kind, like Yeats, who may even understand the implications of leaving behind a conceptually based mode of perceiving (meaning, I suggest, not necessarily being divested of the range of possibility inherent in the mastering of conceptual thinking, but rather becoming a being whose mode of action does not include identifying ‘itself’ with any conceptual clothing—soul, personality, atman, or otherwise)—so even for these spiritual adepts there is the embarrassment of there being nowhere to hide. There then arises for them the paradox of trying to become a no one who does not have to try to hide.

In the midst of being overpowered by the pitiless divine influence, it seems that Yeats suggests a chance of learning or benefiting from the encounter:

Being so caught up/So mastered by the brute blood of the air/Did she

put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could

let her drop?(L)

But it is entirely left to the overwhelmed mortal to take advantage of the encounter; this is not Jesus Christ washing ones feet.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what Yeats aimed at in his thought. It is known that he had a great deal of experience in exploring mystical states, had many spontaneous visionary experiences, and that he became very involved with systematising the information obtained through questioning his wife George, who had the gift of automatic writing. In this body of automatic writing much was said about recurrence of the ‘messiah spirit’ at around our time, which would come in the form of multiple persons each fulfilling the messianic function. The Second Coming was of course influenced by this very large body of information.

So a great deal of information would have to be analysed and synthesised to really get at the precise meaning of Yeats’ later poems. But perhaps a common element can be easily perceived in Leda and Second Coming. It seems the central idea that is present in both is that of divinity being without pity. In Yeats’s Vision Papers[5] the implications of  ‘having pity’ are presented with a peculiar precision:

6. What character of these changes will make this a preparation for this

especial avatar?

6. Bitterness.

7. Why will bitterness prepare for him?

7. Because it is impervious to pity & amenable to passion & thought.

8. What kind of event will produce this bitterness?

8. All events are producing it.

10. Why must we grow impervious to pity?

10. If we were not impervious we would have no place for a new avatar.

11. Why is the new Avatar incompatible with pity?

12. Pity destroys passion & thought.

14. Is the new avatar love without pity?

14. Love & understanding instead of pity & help.

By reading through Yeats’s Vision Papers an idea of how pity is understood can be pieced together. It is not necessarily considered to be bad; in fact it seems that the previous Christ is thought to have been characterised by a kind of pity. But the previous Christ came at the wide end of the gyre (the Buddha is seen as the initiator and Christ the finisher of the overall ‘avatar influence’ of that age, or extreme end of a gyre). The new messiah spirit (here interestingly alleged as not being limited to one person) comes at the narrow end of a gyre and thus has a different character—I gather it is to be more stark, clear, stripped of superfluities, and so in this sense, ‘pitiless’.

In support of this, it does seem that our modern age is very exacting, very much occupied with examining things in exhaustive detail, peeling away the layers down to the bare bone, such that no theme is sacred or off limits: morality—think of all the talk shows, which, however melodramatic, are peculiarly liberal in their dealing with all forms of human behaviour or systems of morality; law (when has the topic of law ever been so thoroughly dissected and dramatised?); spirituality (even this well-worn topic has been expanded beyond compare of late); science (wow!), etc. ad infinitum. All of the major and minor concerns of humanity have in our age been both focused in on, in minute detail, and also are being looked at from an ever-widening—cross-cultural, worldwide, universal—point of view. Including war, suffering, pain, death, perversion, cruelty. How long has child rape been going on in the Catholic church but only now is being uncovered in lurid detail, such that the beautiful, elegant outer covering is wearing thin indeed? And the more they resist finally changing, enlightening the stiff, blood-encrusted church dogmas, the thinner and more tragically awkward this covering becomes–and the more bitterness is created. But this is only one example. Their have been massive, televised disillusionments, followed by massive enthusiasm to remedy the corruption, make it change through sheer zeal, but the result, for many—bitter defeat; the momentum of history is too strong; the old selfish, machiavellian ways just change their clothing.

In one passage of the Papers, Yeats questions the control about pity again, wanting to know what was considered to be unproductive about it. The control replied that pity falls short (and this is perhaps meant: ‘in the context of what is now needed’) because it desires that the object pitied become like itself:  Pity attaches the subject to the object according to this dualistic relationship. This appeared to involve something Yeats resisted whenever it came up in these dialogues with his entranced wife George, namely the notion that a more allusive, sensual, romantic approach was no longer enough even for the poetically minded–development of clear thinking, of philosophical precision, was also now necessary. And in fact he did begin in later life a concerted program of hard study inspired by these dialogues, which also informed his poetry. And it seems to entail of course that the old dogmatic, sentimental edifices, no matter how beautifully they may be clothed, will be seen increasingly through due to the ‘bitterness’ produced by how they let us down.

I do not think that Leda and the Swan or The Second Coming, or the information found in Yeats’s Vision Papers can be used to say that William Butler Yeats was not firmly convinced of the utility of compassion, of helping out in the warmest, most genuine fashion one’s spirit allows. I think the message is more complicated than ‘pity versus pitiless’, as those terms are normally understood. It seems to be pointing at a mystery; that ‘to have no pity’ is to be in the strongest position to practice compassion, to move forward toward a fairer, grander spirituality.

Pictures from Yeats’ Golden Dawn magical journal:

[1] “The Second Coming.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Edition, The Major Authors. New York. London. W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. p.2280 All further quotes from this edition and indicated by (S).

[2] “Leda and the Swan.” The Norton etc. pp.2283-2284. All further quotes from this edition and indicated by (L).

[3] From first footnote in above addition of Leda and the Swan. p.2283

[4] “Byzantium.” The Norton etc. p2288.

[5] Yeats’s Vision Papers, Volume Two. Iowa City, University of Iowa Pres. Copyright 1992 by Anne Yeats. pp.

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