This article was originally published in American Astrology, October 1970, and was re-published with permission in Réalta, Vol 3 no.4 1996.
The Key to Yeats
by Ernest Willbie
The time is long due for an astrologer to come to the rescue of the literary critics who have been making unsuccessful attempts to rationalize their aesthetic reactions to W.B. Yeats's poetry in terms of various theories of language, literature and life, but without an adequate understanding of astrology.
This ancient branch of knowledge deals with symbols taken from experience that have become part of the universal memory of man. As primordial images, these have great power because countless millions have believed and worked with them in the past. By consciously applying them to the world around him through his own subjective reactions as blueprinted by his own horoscope - his joys, fears, expectations, disappointments - Yeats gives them a new dimension. The gods, hoary with age and laden with the devotion of multitudes, are no longer confined to heavenly realms, but brought down to where they may beat in men's hearts and illumine their consciousness. On such a psychological level Yeats can address himself to the intuitional faculties as well as to the philosophical mind evoking depths rather than describing surface relationships.
The elements in any individual chart have their invisible counterparts in opposition positions. These form an invisible nativity that makes, as it were, a 7th house relationship position out of the visible one. This principle of polarity is very important in astrology. By harnessing its forces to his poetry, Yeats was able to make his symbols more than mere ghosts of concrete experience.To seek an agonizing balance and set the objective against the subjective, was his primary poetic intuition.
Even in so historical a poem as Leda and the Swan, the personages are not only mythological figures, they are symbols as well for what goes on in the artist's life and mind, the cataclysm in which a violent annunciation, bruising his consciousness and forcing it to reorganize its entire landscape, precedes some movement or birth from above. His Byzantium is not merely an historical city, but the spiritland where his soul may realize something of its perpetual virginity. And A Vision deals just as much with the personality passing through its round of incarnations, and revealed through symbolic commentaries on experience, as it does with a concept of history based on astrological cycles.
As an example of Yeats's use of astrological symbolism we have chosen the following poem:
On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac
Your hooves have stamped at the black margin of the wood,
Even where horrible green parrots call and swing.
My works are all stamped down into the sultry mud.
I knew that horse-play, knew it for a murderous thing.
What wholesome sun has ripened is wholesome food to eat,
And that alone; yet I being driven half insane
Because of some green wing, gathered old mummy wheat
In the abstract dark and ground it grain by grain
And after baked it slowly in an oven; but now
I bring full-flavoured wine out of a barrel found
Where seven Ephesian topers slept and never knew
When Alexander's empire passed, they slept so sound.
Stretch out your limbs and sleep a long Saturnian sleep;
I have loved you better than my soul for all my words,
And there is none so fit to keep a watch and keep
Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds.
This poem, which we will show as stemming right out of Yeats's horoscope, has an air of privacy, as if its symbols were not meant for public currency. As a result it has mystified the critics, who have relegated it to the safety zone of Symbolist unintelligibility. Edmund Wilson, for instance, in his essay on Yeats, quotes the poem in its entirety, and tries to make out a case for him as a Symbolist poet by comparing the poem with the characteristic sonnet by Mallarmé, in which appear such images as swan, lake and frost. He the goes on to say:
"The centaur, the parrots, the wheat and the wine, are, like a swan, the lake and the frost, not real things (except that the centaur is something Yeats has seen in a picture), but merely accidental images, which, by an association of ideas, have come to stand the poet's emotion."
Now in the case of Mallarmé's Symbolist mythology, this may be true. As products of his complex feelings, his images seem to have no objective reality. But in Yeats's poetry we are not dealing with mere accidental images, but with symbols that are objectively recognisable, if only we are willing to recognize the tenets of astrology. The centaur, aiming an arrow at the sky, is the symbol for the sign of Sagittarius which is the opposite sign to Gemini. And since Yeats was born with the Sun in Gemini, in looking at the Black Centaur, he was looking at his opposite sign or mask, his daimon or antithetical self.
In The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats comments on his early desire for personal and national Unity of Being: "I thought that all art should be a Centaur finding in the popular lore its back and strong legs ...". Here the imagery is literary. But considered astrologically and on a personal basis, we can understand why the Centaur, representing as it does his opposite sign, should have had for him a special significance. Now in order to write his poem, he must set up a dramatic framework that would show his oscillation between the qualities of Gemini and Sagittarius. But if the Centaur is the symbol for Sagittarius, what will serve as a counter-symbol to represent Gemini? Such would have to come from the picture itself. Had Dulac, either by intent or coincidence, included such a symbol in his painting? We know from his contribution to Scattering Branches, a book of tributes to Yeats issued by some of his friends right after his death, that he was sympathetic to Yeats's elaborate system and occult symbols, justifying the poet's use of them as a "desire for evidence of some sort of order in the world". At any rate, the picture does have a counter-symbol. Knowing the nature of his own sign, Gemini, what could serve Yeats better than the green parrots as a symbol for it?
The poem can now be set up, held in tension by the conflict between two levels of mental activity: Gemini and Sagittarius. The former is personal, the latter is social. Gemini is the sign of the thinker, the knower, the searcher for knowledge to satisfy the needs of the spirit. It is not yet the understander, through love and compassion, which is Sagittarius. It seeks knowledge for its own sake, whereas Sagittarius seeks to make it the common property of the collective mentality. As air, Gemini deals with the capacity of the intellectual faculties to link sensations and memory- pictures into ideas, those little seeds of mentality called concepts.
In the poem, these seeds are symbolized by the parrots situated at the edge of the wood representing the mind. Their plumage is green because they represent Nature, raw ideas before they become humanized into universal laws (Sagittarius). As mere ideas still operating in the sphere of the personality they cannot move whole groups, cultures or nations. This function is reserved for the Centaur which finds "in the popular lore its back and strong legs". Out of Sagittarius evolve religions, philosophical systems, universal meanings conditioned by social experience. From Gemini comes images the poet links into a poem, images that stem out of personal experience. A time will come, in the last phase of his career, when Yeats will partially reject the personal and the psychological for a poetry of simple emotions common to all men in all ages But in this poem, the conflict is that of a man who seeks to be both poet and thinker.
If we look at Yeats's horoscope we see how the very structure of the poem proceeds out of it from the opposition pattern between Jupiter in Sagittarius and the Sun and Uranus in Gemini. This planetary set-up is like a blueprint which consciously projects the poem in his mind, till he feels himself standing on the complex middle-ground of polarities which constitute his destiny. The cold intellectuality of the parrots strikes him horribly. For if they can bring power through knowledge, enabling the individual to improve himself and to cope with new situations, they can also bring about a worship of formalism which turns every creative act into dead routine and automatism.
On the other hand, the murderous hooves of the Centaur grind his works into the sultry mud of desire to reach the public, desire for communication with the multitudes, which could very easily pull down his standards and cause his verse to deteriorate into sentimental doggerel He must write poetry that is concrete in its images (Gemini) yet has the universality of abstraction (Sagittarius). Art and earth, the aesthetic and the human fact of necessity, these extremes, by their mutual inadequacies, give his verse its emotional appeal.
But the goal is not easily gained. Driven half-insane by some green Gemini wing, he "has gathered old mummy wheat / in the mad abstract dark". But what is "old mummy wheat" if not Egyptian astrology which has continued to sprout down to our own times? And what is the "mad abstract dark" if not the entire field of occult science, in which he has been a devoted student? But he has managed to grind the wheat grain by grain and bake it in an oven. Since Gemini is air, and Sagittarius fire, what is the oven if not a symbol for the burning of Gemini in Sagittarius, of air in fire? That is, Yeats had to experience trial by fire before he could produce system, order, ritual, a traditional discipline, before he could be a philosopher as well as a poet and complete A Vision. It was necessary for him to live in that domain of Sagittarius where man reaches the phase of the joining of minds, where social consciousness finds its own field of operations, and civilization emerges from nature. Here within the framework of logic he could abstract universal concepts from perceptions, as wine and intoxicants are extracted from the fruits of the dark earth, their fermentation held within containers.
Bread and wine, the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. The pagan mixed with the Christian. Yeats did not think it wrong to mix the symbols of world religions. As a heterodox religious thinker, he looked upon all creeds as basically at one, and in a single poem would introduce symbols derived from several faiths. But here, even if the practice were something disparate, it would be forgiven under the circumstances. For the poem is autobiographical, commemorating the completion of A Vision, a work which had necessitated much research over a long period of years. And Yeats's heart is overflowing with thankfulness, as he tells the Centaur: "Stretch out your limbs and take a long Saturnian sleep". Having harmonized and redeemed the two colliding spheres of mental influence, one personal and poetic, the other social and philosophical, into a recorded pattern of integration and successful psychological adjustment, he can now see the genesis of his art as the product of the relationship between cosmic being and human being. But note that the sleep of the Centaur is not to be an eternal one. Obsessed as Yeats was by dialectic, for him the inexhaustible tensions and irresolutions of antitheses could only know temporary respite. Meantime, during the lull, he would be perfectly capable of taking care of the green parrots. And as a poet experienced in his craft, he would know how to keep his poetical ideas and concepts from evaporating into mere abstractions and generalities.
But what is a Saturnian sleep? And why should the Centaur, who represents a sign ruled by Jupiter, be asked to do something Saturnian? We can understand this best if we remember that Saturn and Jupiter are polarities. Saturn stands for structure, pattern, form and refers to the past. It is static, relatively permanent. Jupiter, on the other hand, stands for function as it relates to development, growth. It is dynamic and refers to the future. However, Jupiter's functioning means unfoldment within the boundaries or structure set by Saturn. For in terms of historical development Saturn comes first, restricting Jupiter's influence in the way the past does the future. While Jupiter is the future pulling the present forward, seeking to balance past inadequacies and to fulfil man's destiny by making him whole, Saturn, which is the present in terms of the past, seeks to pull the Jupiterian flights back into old forms.
Remembering then that Saturn represents the past and Jupiter the future, we can understand Yeats' gratitude toward the Centaur at the end of the poem. Seeking a tradition that would enable him to give order to the chaos of the modern world, he has forged, thanks to the Centaur, his own tradition, a mythological system that would serve him for many years as a source of metaphors - A Vision. During that interval the Centaur could take a well earned rest. And when he says, "I have loved you better than my soul for all my words", it is in appreciation of the fact that the Centaur represents his opposite sign, his anti-self, his mask. As such it is more than psychological compensation for weaknesses or inadequacies, it is the creative principle through opposition. As he puts it in Per Amica, where he develops his doctrine of the mask: "The Daemon comes not as like to like, but seeking his own opposite, for man and daemon feed the hunger in one another's heart". As the antithesis of all the artist is in life, he helps him to hold his energies in tension between opposites, and through symbolic experience to know continuous vitality; "Out of the quarrel with the world we make rhetoric, out of the quarrel with the self we make poetry."
Truly a wonderful poem, the most astrological in the English language. Not only does it illustrate the principle of polarity, it confirms the thesis that the planetary picture reproduces itself in a life in the events composing it. or, as in the case of an artist, in his key creative works.
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