from Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 103 (April 2011)
In 1926, two books with wildly different themes were published: A Vision by W B Yeats, which purported to be a record of the author's experiments with spiritualism and automatic writing, and the first English translation of the German writer Oswald Spengler's self-explanatorily titled Decline of the West. In both books, however, there was a small similarity; the difference between Greek and Roman thought had been symbolised by both authors in terms of the difference between the blank or painted eyes of ancient Greek statues and the pierced eyeballs of ancient Roman ones. (1)
How could this have happened? Looking at it, most people would regard this similarity as being mere coincidence. Others, more mystically inclined, may prefer to bring in telepathy. To the author of one of those two works, however, W B Yeats, the similarity in imagery was to be explained by nothing less than the fact that both writers must have had access to a kind of 'great mind', existing in some kind of disembodied state in nature, in which the image was stored, entire and complete, before it had actually been written down by them. This 'great mind', to Yeats, was nothing less than the anima mundi, or 'soul of the world' as had been described by the ancient Neoplatonist philosophers, and was conceived of by him as being a great, infinite storehouse of images and ideas just waiting to be tapped into by those who were most attuned to the idea—people like mystics, visionaries ... and poets.
It seems, on first sight, to be an unreasonable explanation for such a minor similarity; but not for Yeats. By the time of A Vision's publication, the poet had long been convinced of the necessity of the anima mundi's existence; indeed, his entire model of what might be termed 'the poetic imagination' had been essentially modelled upon it. But why? For an answer to this, we need to go back to Yeats's youth, when he came under the influence of a strange Scotsman named MacGregor Mathers, a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and a man utterly obsessed with occult matters.
A co-founder of the Dublin Hermetic Society himself in 1885, Yeats initially proved an eager disciple for Mathers, though they later quarrelled, and it was through him that the poet first began to become convinced of the existence of some kind of 'great mind' in nature. Mathers was soon getting Yeats to engage in certain mystical experiments with him, and it was during one of these that he first claimed to have encountered the anima mundi. Holding a wooden mace and making use of a table full of coloured squares and numbers, Mathers proceeded to repeat a form of magical incantation. 'Almost at once,' wrote Yeats later, in his work Magic, 'my imagination began to move of itself and to bring before me vivid images that, though never too vivid to be imagination, as I had always understood it, had yet a motion of their own, a life I could not change or shape ...' (2)
Here, Yeats sounds initially hesitant. He does still seem to think there is a possibility that it was all 'just' imagination that Mathers was inducing in him, even if it did seem to have a life of its own. However, with other sitters, Yeats soon began experiencing shared visions that seemed to have been brought about by Mathers's influence. His initial instinct was to blame telepathy. Other experiments with Mathers changed his mind.
For example, Mathers once handed Yeats a symbol taken from the ancient Jewish Kabbalah and drawn on cardboard, and told him to close his eyes. Apparently, this induced a significant mystical experience in Yeats: 'Sight came slowly ... there rose before me images that I could not control; a desert and black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins. Mathers explained that I had seen a being of the order of Salamanders because he had shown me their symbol'.(3) This is significant as, according to this explanation, it was not Mathers himself who was causing Yeats to have the vision, via telepathic influence, but rather the inherent power of the symbol itself. If the cabalistic symbol had been shown to another person with some kind of visionary capacities, then they too would have seen the salamander-type creature and not some other kind of entity. It seemed now to Yeats, then, that certain images were stored away somewhere, unseen, and could be conjured up in the human mind by the contemplation of certain apparently powerful corresponding symbols.
Further evidence for this idea came to Yeats when he observed a young Irishwoman who, during her waking state 'thought the apple of Eve was the kind of apple you can buy at the greengrocer's' but, when passing into a mystical trance, saw 'the Tree of Life with ever-sighing souls moving in its branches instead of sap, and among its leaves all the fowls of the air, and on its highest bough one white fowl wearing a crown.' Going home, Yeats cut the pages on an unread copy of Mathers's The Kabbalah Unveiled, and found an account of that same tree which broadly corresponded with the young girl's vision. A bank clerk from the west of Ireland was also witnessed by Yeats having a similar vision; only he saw apples with human faces and found, to his great surprise, that the garden of Eden was walled and sat on top of a great mountain, contrary to his expectations. Yeats later found a medieval diagram which depicted Eden as being just such a place.(4)
These ordinary, common folk could not, Yeats reasoned, have been expected to have been aware of such incredibly obscure pre-existing mystical images which were themselves to be found only in books of correspondingly extreme obscurity. Therefore, he felt, they had to be accessing them from some kind of great mental storehouse such as the anima mundi. But, if this were so, where did these images come from, exactly? How did they get to be in the anima mundi in the first place? Yeats seems to have had mixed ideas about this matter. Sometimes, he appears to have felt that they were simply in there, pre-existing human consciousness entirely, in a manner not unlike Jung's archetypes. At other times, he concludes that 'whatever the passions of man have gathered about' becomes a symbol in the racial memory of mankind, and can thus later be summoned up by those who know how.(5) If this were so, of course, then it would have meant that the storehouse of images could be altered and added to by the truly poetic and imaginative man—a fact which would be of great importance to him later.
However, Yeats's particular conception of the anima mundi was somewhat different from that of certain Neoplatonists in a few key ways. One reason for this was the fact that, after he married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917, his young wife began going into trances and producing reams and reams of occult philosophy from a series of spirit guides who termed themselves 'Instructors', and who seemed to have been living, somehow, within the anima mundi itself. The exact philosophy these entities imparted is far too complex to go into in detail here, but seemed to include as a part of it the notion that certain of the dead themselves still existed somehow within the anima mundi, at least for a while. If this was so, thought Yeats, then perhaps they could be contacted. As he wrote in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 'Communication with anima mundi is through the association of thoughts or images or objects; and the famous dead, and those of whom but a faint memory lingers, can still ... tread the corridor and take the empty chair.'(6)
It is important to realise that Yeats does not just mean this metaphorically. To him, the spirits of the 'famous dead' really could be conjured up from their resting place in anima mundi and made in some sense to live again, if only people would contemplate the correct and necessary symbols to do so. One such set of symbols was that which could be found in poetry. Just like Mathers had conjured up visions in Yeats via magical incantations, the words and symbols in poetry could also be viewed as having magical properties which enabled the dead to be, if not exactly literally resurrected, then at least reaccessed by the living. There is a sense in which poems, then, were a kind of magical spell to Yeats. They could 'call down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions', as he wrote in The Symbolism of Poetry.(7) In this way, he felt that poets, musicians and artists were in fact the modern successors of the old 'masters of magic' of the past, people like Swedenborg and Cornelius Agrippa.(8)
However, there was a problem with accessing the minds of the dead within the anima mundi; once they had passed into it they seemed to become increasingly incoherent and almost, for want of a better word, senile. It was not, then, possible to just 'summon up' Dante for a chat somehow. This is how Yeats described the state of souls stuck in the anima mundi waiting to be reborn in his poem 'The Phases of the Moon':
... they speak what's blown into the mind,
Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,
Insipid as the dough before it is baked.
You may, in some sense, be able to access dead poets and artists and the beautiful images that they carry together with them up there in anima mundi, then, but you can't really expect to, for example, get some full and complete new poetry from out of them. Instead, that is the job of the living poet. By reading great poetry from the past, you might well be able to access some images from anima mundi which were made use of by that poet, or, indeed, get in contact with what little remains of that poet himself in the afterlife, but these dead poets will not in themselves be creative as, apparently, 'even the most wise dead can but arrange their memories as we arrange pieces upon a chess-board and obey remembered words alone'.(9) Therefore, then, it is the job of the living poet to access these 'memories', or images, of the old poets, and then rearrange and combine them in new ways, to work upon them and make them new in some sense, in order to rescue images of beauty from out of the anima mundi and bring them back with him into this world, refashioned anew; like some kind of shaman, perhaps. Yeats's 'Instructors' may well have told him that 'we have come to give you metaphors for poetry'(10), but perhaps it would have been more accurate for them to say that they came to bring him certain symbols which then had to be crafted into metaphors for use in his poetry. This is actually the explanation for the poet's self-imposed hard-labour as famously described by Yeats in 'Adam's Curse':
... A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
He gives an example of the results of this labour in The Symbolism of Poetry, when he speaks of Burns's line 'The white moon is setting behind the white wave' being a metaphor for mortality and the passing of time. Here, various images which take their power ultimately from their existence as images (rather than as the things they actually are) in the anima mundi—the moon, the waves, and whiteness—are combined together creatively in order to generate both a metaphor and an image of beauty. Literally, for Yeats, this is an act of creative magic; together, these symbols have combined to conjure up beauty into our world from out of the immortal realm. (11)
Another way to put this, if you are not a spiritualist, might be to say that it is the poet's job to rescue unconscious contents from the unconscious, consciously alter them in some way, and then make them appear as if they were unconscious again. It is a hard thing to do—I think we can all think of certain poems in which the thought-processes involved in its writing are all-too obvious to the reader—and, for Yeats, it came to seem that it was the level of unconscious quality of the symbolism contained within a work of art which acted as an ultimate arbiter of its quality, providing a kind of path through to a direct experience with the godhead, as he discusses in his work Symbolism in Painting: 'All art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is symbolic,' he says, having the purpose of 'entangling, in complex colours and forms, a part of the Divine Essence.'(12)
That phrase 'mere' is very telling; if something is 'mere portraiture', for example, he means that it is purely representational—a painting of a face which is nothing more than a depiction of a face. A symbolic work of art, however, has by its very nature many meanings attached to it, as it springs ultimately from anima mundi and so the exact nature of its power must remain at least partially unknowable. This quality, of providing access to the unknowable, the numinous, is what makes a great poem, says Yeats in The Philosophy of Shelley's Poetry: 'It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon ... that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature.' (13)
It is significant that this statement was made during a discussion of the symbolism of towers within Shelley's work; because Yeats's own poem, 'The Tower', is one of his works which best exemplifies his quasi-Neoplatonist beliefs. The tower referred to in the piece's title, of course, was Thoor Ballylee, a small Norman castle near Coole where he ended up living after his marriage to Hyde-Lees. This structure was used as a kind of 'living symbol' for Yeats during his occupancy; it was not merely a literal tower of stone and wood, but also, simultaneously, carried all of the resonance of the poetic image of the tower in both literature and the 'great mind'. Indeed, seeing as the literal tower shares to a degree in its simultaneous symbolic existence elsewhere for him, there is a sense in which it actually has a kind of soul. For example, during his poem Yeats speaks of 'certain men-at-arms',
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon the sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
According to Yeats, these ghosts of ancient soldiers playing dice had actually been seen in his own bedroom—but, apparently, they were not merely shades of the unquiet dead, but some kind of phantom embodiment of the tower's potential symbolic contents.(14) If Thoor Ballylee was a kind of 'living symbol', however, then it seems as though Yeats saw himself as being its resident magician. In 'The Phases of the Moon', Yeats has two late-night passers-by look up and see him at work by candlelight through his castle's window—'An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil'—and describe him as being like 'Milton's Platonist' sat up late at night in his own tower. This reference is to Milton's Il Penseroso, which also describes a mystical Neoplatonist-type who is still sat up and hard at work at the midnight hour, the relevant lines of which read:
... let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tow'r,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What worlds or what vast regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook.
This, then, is what Yeats saw himself as being during his stay in Thoor Ballylee—a kind of living symbol himself, both participating in, and also to a degree embodying, the ancient poetic conceit or symbol of the seeker after hidden knowledge, as appears, for instance, in Milton's poem. In fact, these lines of Il Penseroso also relate to Yeats's beloved Neoplatonist-like concepts in other ways, too. Plato himself is here depicted as being able to be conjured back down from out of the anima mundi—'unsphered' meaning that he is called down from the heavens, or 'spheres'—by some kind of magical, hermetic activity, just like Yeats thought could happen with the 'famous dead' through the reading of their poems. Importantly also, the poet (or hermeticist) himself is seen as participating in some way in the anima mundi, even whilst he is still alive; an 'immortal mind' has 'forsook her mansion' in his mind and body, 'this fleshly nook'. There is a sense, then, in which the 'great soul' of the anima mundi finds itself enfleshed within the temporary fleshly body of man whilst he still breathes, and that the two participate in one another thereby.
If this were true, then it might also be the case that a living poet—such as Yeats—might in some way be able to influence his later spiritual form in the anima mundi by the way in which he lives his life or writes his work. He could try, for example, to fill it full of symbols, through whose contemplation future generations might somehow be able to 'bring him back' to them in some sense. As he writes in 'The Tower', 'Now shall I make my soul'; and there is certainly a degree to which his later poetry is an attempt by him to fashion some kind of means of communication between himself and a future generation of (primarily Irish) poets and readers which is to be made use of when he inhabits the anima mundi himself once he is dead. Look, for example, at these lines from 'The Tower':
As at the loophole there
The daws chatter and scream,
And drop twigs layer upon layer.
When they have mounted up,
The mother bird will rest
On their hollow top,
And so warm her wild nest.
Compare this now with a statement Yeats makes in Per Amica Silentia Lunae: 'The dead living in their memories are, I am persuaded, the source of all that we call instinct ... and it is the dream martens that, all unknowing, are master-masons to the living martens building about church windows their elaborate nests'.(15) The inclusion of these lines about the daws is significant in a poem in which Yeats seems to be much-concerned with the legacy he and his work are leaving for the next generation, as the act of building a nest can be seen as a metaphor for many things—continuity, poetic heritage, the continual building and then rebuilding of an entire civilisation, even. It is a comforting image, of unity and wholeness. And yet—how is it that these birds know how to build their nests? Are they taught by older birds or is it just hard-wired into them? For Yeats, the answer is that they know through a kind of instinct inherited from their ancestors, the 'dream martens', living on now in the anima mundi. The symbol of the nest conjures up the ability to build it through the living birds' contemplation of it, apparently.
It is the same with nations, too, and, here, with Irish culture and poetic heritage. For the future generations of Irish poets, Yeats seems to suggest, he will be 'the mother-bird', from his position in the 'great mind', helping them to construct their art from beyond the grave. As long as his poems, and the symbols which he has encoded within them—the rose, for instance, the sidhe, or the 'rough beast' of 'The Second Coming'—are read and engaged with, or, even better, are remade and refashioned as new pieces of work, then he will live on as a source of inspiration for all those artists and word-smiths who follow after him. To Yeats, his poetry seems to have been a means, quite literally, of keeping himself alive through interaction between it and eternity. Of course, the reader may choose not to literally believe this himself—but it is at least true through metaphor. Yeats is still read, and loved, and engaged with, very widely indeed. He has, no doubt, been an inspiration for many other poets who came after him. In this sense at least, then, his strange philosophies really were true, whether in a literalistic sense or not. The great man really does live on still, through his work—and who of us could really hope for any more?
I have made use of the Oxford World's Classics edition, W B Yeats: The Major Works (2001), for access to both the prose works and poems, with occasional reference to the Everyman edition, W B Yeats: The Poems (1992), for further specific details.
Poetry Ireland Review
1 Oxford p.437
2 Oxford p.345
3 Everyman, p.619-620
4 Oxford, p.346
5 Oxford, p.349
6 Oxford, p.421
7 Oxford, p.360
8 Oxford, p.349
9 Oxford, p.420
10 Oxford, p.431
11 Oxford, p.360
12 Oxford, p.356
13 Oxford, p.351
14 Everyman, p.637
15 Oxford, p.420
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