William Butler Yeats, Apocalyptic Writings

[Click on image to enlarge] Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) lost his Christian faith as a boy, but he was a man of profoundly religious temperament. A passionate celebrant of life on earth, he nevertheless maintained a lifelong search for a world beyond. This led him to various kinds of mysticism, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, and neoplatonism — not in any strict chronological order, for he kept returning to and reworking earlier aspects of his thought.

An immersion in the poetry of William Blake (1757–1827), whose Works (1893) he edited with Edwin Ellis, encouraged his interest in apocalyptic literature, and, in the 1890s, he himself wrote poems on apocalyptic themes.

Yeats provided this note on the poem "The Valley of the Black Pig":

All over Ireland there are prophecies of the coming rout of the enemies of Ireland, in a certain Valley of the Black Pig, and these prophecies are, no doubt, now, as they were in the Fenian days, a political force. I have heard of one man who would not give any money to the Land League, because the Battle could not be until the close of the century; but, as a rule, periods of trouble bring prophecies of its near coming. A few years before my time, an old man who lived at Lissadell, in Sligo, used to fall down in a fit and rave out descriptions of the Battle; and a man in Sligo has told me that it will be so great a battle that the horses shall go up to their fetlocks in blood, and that their girths, when it is over, will rot from their bellies for lack of a hand to unbuckle them. If one reads Rhys' Celtic Heathendom by the light of Frazer's Golden Bough, and puts together what one finds there about the boar that killed Diarmuid, and other old Celtic boars and sows, one sees that the battle is mythological, and that the Pig it is named from must be a type of cold and winter doing battle with the summer, or of death battling with life.

 

The Valley of the Black Pig (1896)


The dews drop slowly and dreams gather: unknown spears
Suddenly hurtle before my dream-awakened eyes,
And then the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
Of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears.
We who still labour by the cromlech >> note 1 on the shore,
The grey cairn >> note 2 on the hill, when day sinks drowned in dew,
Master of the still stars and of the flaming door.

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From A Vision (1925)

[Click on image to enlarge] Yeats returned to the subject of apocalypse shortly after his marriage, in 1917, to Georgiana Hyde-Lees. In the first excerpt from A Vision, he describes his wife's experiment with "automatic writing" and tells how it provided him with his own revelation: a symbolic "system" as he called it, which explained history as a Great Wheel, the discovery of which he credited to a fictional medieval philosopher called Giraldus (whose portrait in A Vision looks like Yeats in a beard). The Great Wheel revolved in two thousand year cycles, each era initiated by an annunciation: Zeus, as a swan, appearing to Leda in 2000 B.C.; the Holy Ghost, as a dove, appearing to the Virgin Mary in A.D.1; and "the rough beast" about to appear in A.D. 2000. The excerpt from Book V of A Vision reflects on the first era in a combination of verse and prose.

 

[Click on image to enlarge] On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife >> note 3 surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. "No," was the answer, "we have come to give you metaphors for poetry." The unknown writer took his theme at first from my just published Per Amica Silentia Lunae. >> note 4 I had made a distinction between the perfection that is from a man's combat with himself and that which is from a combat with circumstance, and upon this simple distinction he built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or the other. He supported his classification by a series of geometrical symbols and put these symbols in an order that answered the question in my essay as to whether some prophet could not prick upon the calendar the birth of a Napoleon or a Christ. A system of symbolism, strange to my wife and to myself, certainly awaited expression, and when I asked how long that would take I was told years.

***

Exposition in sleep came to an end in 1920, and I began an exhaustive study of some fifty copy-books of automatic script, and of a much smaller number of books recording what had come in sleep. Probably as many words had been spoken in sleep as had been written, but I could only summarise and much had been lost through frustration. I had already a small concordance in a large manuscript book, but now made a much larger, arranged like a card index. And then, though I had mastered nothing but the twenty-eight phases and the historical scheme, I was told that I must write, that I must seize the moment between ripe and rotten — there was a metaphor of apples about to fall and just fallen. They >> note 5 showed when I began that they assisted or approved, for they sent sign after sign. Sometimes if I stopped writing and drew one hand over another my hands smelt of violets or roses, sometimes the truth I sought would come to me in a dream, or I would feel myself stopped — but this has occurred to me since boyhood — when forming some sentence, whether in my mind or upon paper. When in 1926 the English translation of Spengler's book >> note 6 came out, some weeks after A Vision, I found that not only were dates that I had been given the same as his but whole metaphors and symbols that had seemed my work alone.

* * *

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Book V: Dove or Swan

I

Leda


A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the terrified girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs,
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
            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?

II

Stray Thoughts

[Click on image to enlarge] One must bear in mind that the Christian Era, like the two thousand years, let us say, that went before it, is an entire wheel, and each half of it an entire wheel, that each half when it comes to its 28th Phase reaches the 15th Phase of the 1st Phase of the entire era. It follows therefore that the 15th Phase of each millennium, to keep the symbolic measure of time, is Phase 8 or Phase 22 of the entire era, that Aphrodite >> note 7 rises from a stormy sea, that Helen could not be Helen but for beleaguered Troy. The era itself is but half of a greater era and its Phase 15 comes also at a period of war or trouble. The greater number is always more primary >> note 8 than the lesser and precisely because it contains it. A millennium is the symbolic measure of a being that attains its flexible maturity and then sinks into rigid age.

[Click on image to enlarge] A civilisation is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this it is like some great tragic person, some Niobe >> note 9 who must display an almost superhuman will or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation — the scream of Juno's peacock. >> note 10

III

2000 B.C. TO A.D. I

I imagine the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda, remembering that they showed in a Spartan temple, strung up to the roof as a holy relic, an unhatched egg of hers; and that from one of her eggs came Love and from the other War. But all things are from antithesis, and when in my ignorance I try to imagine what older civilisation that annunciation rejected I can but see bird and woman blotting out some corner of the Babylonian mathematical starlight. >> note 11


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