Yeats’s Vision and William Blake

‘Vision, or imagination,’ writes Blake, ‘is a representation of what actually exists, really and unchangeably. Fable, or allegory, is formed by the daughters of Memory.’ A vision is, that is to say, a perception of the eternal symbols, about which the world is formed, while allegory is a memory of some natural event into which we read a spiritual meaning. In vision the meaning chooses its own symbol by a kind of affinity, while in the case of allegory we choose out some corporeal accident, and build into our memory of it a little vision, for allegory, according to Blake, contains ‘some vision’ always, and lift it up into a personification of a spiritual or natural meaning.
W. B. Yeats, The Works of William Blake Vol. 1 307

The Four Zoas, Milton plate 32

Yeats, Blake and the Critics

Blake and A Vision

Fourfold Symmetries

Twenty-Seven Churches and Twenty-Eight Phases

Yeats, Blake and the Critics

The relationship of William Butler Yeats with William Blake has been well covered in criticism, and almost every study of Yeats will contain some reference to the older poet. If anything the tendency has probably been to overstate Yeats’s debt to Blake, partly because literary critics are most comfortable with literary influences. With respect to A Vision specifically, the most notable contributions are those of Kathleen Raine, Hazard Adams, and Harold Bloom. Raine’s essays ‘Yeats’s Debt to Blake’ (1966), ‘From Blake to A Vision’ (1979), ‘Death-in-Life and Life-in-Death’ (1974) and ‘Blake, Yeats and Pythagoras’ (1982) are collected in Yeats the Initiate (1986), and Blake figures throughout her later collection of papers W. B. Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination (1999), particularly ‘Yeats and the Afterlife’ and ‘Poetry as Prophecy’. Raine’s emphasis has been on the continuity of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’, especially as exemplified in these two poets, and has consistently argued that Yeats needs to be read through an understanding of his philosophical background and standpoint, in defiance of academic trend or cultural fashion. Despite some misunderstandings, for her, Yeats remains the best interpreter of Blake’s diagrams, because ‘Yeats’s natural aptitude for this diagrammatic type of thought qualified him to understand Blake better than any commentator since. . . . for Yeats and Blake were working within the same tradition’ (Yeats the Initiate, 110). In the same way, her fundamental sympathy with this tradition enables her to write with perceptive understanding of the hermetic frame of mind. She adduces important parallels and sources in Platonism, neo-Platonism, Hermetism and Rosicrucian thought, though the essays can therefore sometimes be fascinating collocations of suggestive ideas and similarities, which avoid analysis or conclusions. Adams’s work from Blake and Yeats: The Contrary Vision (1955) to The Book of Yeats’s Vision: Romantic Modernism and Antithetical Tradition (1995) has sought to divest Yeats of the mystical and magical, and he considers that the ‘occult in [A Vision] is subordinate to the book’s literary purposes, one of which is to dramatize the fate of the poetic way of thinking as Yeats saw it in his age’ (The Book of Yeats’s Vision, 4). He takes Blake’s differentiation of ‘negation’ and ‘contrary’ as central to his reading of Yeats’s System and the nature of ‘antitheticality’, which goes beyond Yeats’s own meaning. According to Adams’s interpretation, in negation one side seeks to suppress the opposite, whereas a ‘contrary is a third term that opposes the two-term negation’ and ‘attempts to bring in the force that will make it possible to dispense with cyclicity’ (12-13), which is the essence of the inclusive‘antithetical’.

Bloom, in Yeats (1970), also views A Vision as primarily literary: ‘Blake, Shelley, Morris, Pater, Balzac and Nietzsche count for more in A Vision, and in Yeats’s poetry, than do Blavatsky, Mathers, Swedenborg, Thomas Taylor, Agrippa, and the secrets of the Golden Dawn’ (212), and he views A Vision as part of Yeats’s agonistic reinterpretation of Blake (with nods to Shelley and Freud). He maintains that ‘the substance of A Vision is quarried largely out of Blake (or one should say Yeats’s Blake) with a number of structural hints added from Shelley’ (212) and that ‘Yeats’s earliest prose draft of A Vision, in peculiar but valid sense, is Volume One, "The System," of The Works of William Blake’ (216). Bloom specifically sets out to ‘measure Yeats’s book against Blake’s epics, its most direct ancestors, and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, another forerunner’ (212), and finds it wanting. His Blake is not the Blake of diagrams, which he dislikes, but the Blake of luminous vision, so that, for instance, the Four Faculties are thin abstractions next to the vitality of Blake’s Four Zoas, while the antinomies are ‘negations masquerading as contraries’ (261). Despite much that is admirable and thought-provoking, Bloom’s reading is too slanted to give a clear view of the work, mainly because Yeats does not offer the Romantic vision of humanity which he seeks. A significant part of the criticism rests on Yeats’s having failed to understand Blake as Bloom has. However, Bloom does view A Vision in spiritual terms, even if he considers that Yeats’s ‘conception of sainthood is as poverty-striken as his views of God or the soul’ (259), and concludes, ‘That so great and unique a poet abdicated the idea of man to a conception of destiny, however Homeric, is not less than tragic’ (471).

Blake and A Vision

To some extent Bloom is right that Yeats’s exposition of Blake’s system prefigures much of A Vision, though probably more because it represents the meeting of the esoteric and the poetic, reflecting the cast of Yeats’s mind, than because Blake’s writing is the source of A Vision. Yeats himself wrote in 1921, some three years after the advent of the System: ‘I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths that we shall ever find, but as yet we do not know truths that belong to us from opinions caught up in casual irritation or momentary fantasy. As life goes on we discover that certain thoughts sustain us in defeat, or give us victory, whether over ourselves or others, and it is these thoughts, tested by passion, that we call convictions’ (Au 189). Though truths are not the same as information, Yeats implies that these central thoughts of his mind predate the work on Blake, which he started at twenty-four, as much as that on A Vision, which he started at fifty-two.

George Russell (AE) had early been struck by how Yeats’s ‘imagination was dominated by his own myth of duality in self, of being and shadow’, and thought that, ‘somewhere in his boyhood at the first contact of inner and outer he became aware of a duality in his being’, so that, ‘Concealed or unconcealed, this preoccupation of the poet with that dualism of being and shadow is in much that he has written, until at last it becomes self-conscious in the Vision, a gigantic philosophy of self and anti-self’ (Song and its Fountains 10-11). Yeats himself links this polarised vision to Blake:

I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up and I saw the world as a conflict—Spectre and Emanation—and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation. ‘Contraries are positive’ wrote Blake, ‘a negation is not a contrary’, ‘How great the gulph between simplicity and insipidity’, and again, ‘There is a place at the bottom of the graves where contrareities are equally true’.
AV B 72

Whether it came from Blake or from his own natural disposition, he was also attracted towards the idea of inversion or transvaluation of conventional categories, either in the motto he chose in the Golden Dawn, ‘Demon est Deus Inversus’, or in a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell. The antinomy of the tinctures is a formalised version of a long-standing cast of mind, which may well also lie behind his interest in Blake in the first instance.

If his mind had been full of Blake from boyhood, he spent years studying the poet in his youth, and in 1889, Yeats and Edwin J. Ellis ‘began . . . four years’ work upon the "Prophetic Books" of William Blake’ (Au 161), leading to the publication of the three-volume Works of William Blake Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical in 1893. It evidently pleased Yeats that the work gave his esoteric studies a respectable outlet, enabling him to justify his studies to sceptics such as his father and John O’Leary. Blake’s philosopy required ‘an exact knowledge for its pursuit’, helping Yeats to trace ‘the connection between his system and that of Swedenborg or of Boehme’. He had also ‘recognized certain attributions, from what is sometimes called the Christian Cabbala, of which Ellis had never heard’ (Au 161), so although Ellis was almost twenty years his senior (b. 1848), having been a friend of his father’s for many years, and was more thoroughly acquainted with Blake’s poetry, Yeats brought his occult expertise to the partnership, enabling some explication of the ‘mysticism’. He could therefore write to his nationalist mentor, John O’Leary: ‘You complain of my mysticism. It has enabled me to make out Blake’s prophetic books at any rate. My book on him will I beleive clear up that riddle for ever. No one will call him mad again’ (7 May 1889; CL 1 163). Subsequent scholars of Blake have found Yeats’s interpretations of Blake idiosyncratic and tendentious, and he certainly read Blake to some extent through his personal interests rather than solely by Blake’s own lights, but the creative effect on him and Blake’s example, both positive and negative, were crucial. Yeats’s dramatis personae never becomes as fully mythic as Blake’s. At one stage some of them are almost elemental beings, so that ‘"Michael Robartes" is fire reflected in water, and that Hanrahan is fire blown by the wind, and that Aedh is fire burning by itself’ (VP 803; see Robartes and Aherne), or mythic characters such as Cuchulain, but like Theotormon or Oothoon, they are human, albeit heroic, rather than divine Zoas, and Yeats never seems to have been tempted to move fully into the archetypal world which Blake’s prophetic books inhabit. The world of the Sidhe, or faery, however fascinating, does not dominate, and the divine Tuatha de Danaan seldom figure in later works. Even the personages of A Vision’s Phase of the Moon are almost all historical people not mythic types.

Blake resources on the web that might be useful.
The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, (an electronic edition of David V. Erdman’s book).
The William Blake Archive and its links.
A useful glossary of Blake’s figures and terms, is available at Joseph Hogan’s site on the Urizen books or Alexander S. Gourlay’s glossary.
A critical survey is available in J. P. R. Wallis’s essay on Blake.

Fourfold Symmetries

Whatever reservations critical opinion may have about Ellis and Yeats’s interpretation of Blake, they did unearth ‘a long mystical poem of his that had never been published or even read’ (CL 1 201), and so published for the first time a poem that is central to the understanding of Blake’s mythic system, Vala, or the Four Zoas. The poem about the fall of Albion into the Four Zoas is centred around a four-fold division of the Eternal Man into Urizen, Urthona, Luvah and Tharmas. In Yeats’s reading, these beings correspond to figures and themes in Agrippa, Hindu cosmology, Theosophy, and the Cabbala, not necessarily because Blake knew or used these sources but because these are part of the pattern of the universe: ‘for all things are fourfold, and repeat in miniature the great fourfold of the universe’ (WWB 1 250). Yeats maintains that ‘Like Boehmen and the occultists generally, [Blake] postulates besides the Trinity, a fourth principle, a universal matrix or heaven or abode, from which, and in which all have life’, which they term the ‘looking-glass’ or ‘mirror’, and ‘God looking into this mirror, ceases to be mere will, beholds Himself as the Son, His love for His own unity, His self-consciousness, and enters on that eternal meditation about Himself which is called the Holy Spirit. . . . This Holy Spirit, or "Council," is the energy which wakes into being the numberless thought-forms of the great mirror, the immortal or typical shapes of all things, the "ideas" of Plato. It and the mirror make up together divine manifestation’ (WWB 1 246-47). Corresponding to ‘division of the Divine Nature into Father, Son, Spirit and, what we have called with Boehmen, "mirror"’, the ‘four kinds of mental states and their corresponding physical symbols are called the four Zoas, or "Lifes". . . . They are identical with the wheels of Ezekiel and with the four beasts of the Apocalypse, and resemble closely Raphael, Michael, Gabriel and Uriel, the Kabalistic regents of the cardinal points, and like them preside over psychic and bodily affairs’ (251). Yeats summarises the correspondences, also including five states of being or humanity, the highest of which, Jerusalem, goes beyond the quaternity or tetrad:

WWB 1 254
Divine FireLightAirWaterEarth (Dark Fire)
HeadHeartLoinsStomach and womb
WWB 1 260, adapted order

This last group is perhaps the most interesting in terms of A Vision, since Yeats specifically introduced the Blakean imagery into the Automatic Script, asking his instructor, ‘do you know Blake terms Head, Heart Loins’ (YVP 1 103). It might be surprising that the Instructor did know this arcane piece of terminology, but this could no doubt be explained by the Instructors’ reliance on the Yeatses’ minds (see What was really happening in the Automatic Script?). Yeats introduced these terms at a very early stage of the automatic sessions, when the emphasis was on a fourfold division of a lunar cycle featuring beauty, ugliness, anger and wisdom, and on the same day that the twenty-eight Phases of the Moon were first mentioned, 21 November 1917. The term ‘Stomach and womb’ was replaced by the more abstract ‘Fall’, apparently by Yeats, though he then asked ‘What do you mean by fall’ and was told that it was ‘The beginning of anger and the departure from wisdom’ (YVP 1 103; unfortunately this is one of the places where the editors decide to summarise diagrams rather than show them). The fourth term had been slightly awkward even in the exegesis of Blake, standing outside the schema: ‘Beulah, Alla, and Al-ulro are symbolical of the triad of personal life—head, heart, loins, or of thinking, emotional, and instinctive existence. Or-ulro and Jerusalem are respectively below and above the limited life of the personality. They are God’s external and internal influences upon the world, the creation from darkness, the influx from the light’ (WWB 1 260). Despite this, the following section on ‘The Fall of the Soul’ takes these as ‘the four states of humanity—Beulah, Alla, Al-ulro, and Or-ulro’, corresponding ‘to head, heart, loins, and womb’, constituting ‘a phase of the correspondence of macrocosm and microcosm. When man is in harmony with the Divine scheme they are continuous with each other and differ alone in that the one series is universal and the other particular’ (WWB 1 262). Yeats’s reading of the symbolism was probably influenced by the importance of elemental attributions in the Golden Dawn’s system, and also by the Cabbalistic teaching concerning humanity’s position with respect to the Tree of Life, which is shifted downwards by the Fall. According to Yeats, in Blake’s symbolism the head should be in the light, the heart in the air, loins in the water and the womb in earth, or raised in regenerated man, so that head is in divine fire, heart in light, loins in air and womb in water, but the Fall of man leads to an inversion of the Divine order, so that ‘the heart is full of water, the head is in the earth, and the loins are in the air and light’ (WWB 1 263).

In the initial dialogue concerning these categories or points in the Automatic Script (YVP 1 103-04), Yeats considered the terms in relation to the fall or to ‘unspiritual man’, but since the non-Blakean ‘fall’ is included within the tetrad, it seems to be an intrinsic element of the whole. In ensuing sessions the symbolism gradually shifted away from that of Yeats’s Blake, as signifying temptations: ‘at fall an instinctive temptation [Venus][Mars] – at heart an emotional [Venus][Saturn] – at head an intellectual [Mars][Mercury] – at loins a spiritual [Moon][Jupiter] (YVP 1 104). The relevance of Head and Heart is relatively straightforward, but ‘instinctive existence’ has been shifted to ‘Fall’ and the link between Loins and the spiritual is less clear.

The four points finally take on a dual role in the System as it appears in A Vision:

  • the first of these is almost a notational convenience, since they fall at the midpoints of the Quarters, between Phases and Phase Triads, and correspond approximately to the Opening and Closing of the Tinctures;
  • the second role is astrological, since these points were linked from the very first to the four cardinal signs of the Zodiac (Aries Aries glyph, Cancer Cancer glyph, Libra Libra glyph and Carpicorn Capricorn glyph), though Yeats revised the positioning between AV A and AV B. They come to be related to the position of the equinoxes (as they will be in ca. 3000 CE), and therefore to the ‘horoscope’ of the Universal Man — thus returning to a form of Blake’s symbolism.

A fuller consideration of this relatively minor but complex element within the System, titled Head, Heart, Loins and Fall, is in preparation.

To return to the four-fold symmetries of Blake, Yeats’s Blake and A Vision: as is generally the case with Yeats’s System, if correspondences exist, they are not primarily with the Faculties, as Bloom tabulates, but with the Principles, especially since they too are seen to be related to the Plotinian Trinity, with a fourth term Nature added, very much after the manner of the mirror. The reflection of the Principles into the Faculties is a kind of fall, or reflection through the ‘matrix, "mirror" or feminine principle’ (WWB 1 253), and in terms of Yeats’s System is the transfer of consciousness from the Solar Principles to the Lunar Faculties. The role of the Celestial Body, the Divine Ideas in their unity, in particular expresses some of the characteristics of Urizen both unfallen and fallen, and Los, a fallen form of Urthona, may have some affinities with the Passionate Body, which ‘exists that it may "save the Celestial Body from solitude". In the symbolism the Celestial Body is said to age as the Passionate Body grows young, sometimes the Celestial Body is a prisoner in a tower rescued by the Spirit. Sometimes, grown old, it becomes the personification of evil. It pursues, persecutes and imprisons the Daimons’ (AV B 189). Similarly, the Record is compared to ‘what Blake called "the bright sculptures of Los’s Hall". We may describe them as the Passionate Body lifted out of time’ (AV B 193). Some of this symbolism seems drawn more from Blake than from the geometric absractions of the Principles and a note here refers the reader to Blake’s poem, ‘The Mental Traveller’. Though Yeats would no doubt have considered the comparisons valid, and they do throw up some interesting points, they serve more to underline the differences than the similarities, for instance, showing how the classification of Head, Heart and Loins shifts in Yeats’s usage.

Yeats’s BlakeFatherSonMirrorHoly Spirit
HeadHeartLoinsStomach and womb
A Vision 
PlotinusFirst Authentic ExistentSecond Authentic ExistentThird Authentic Existent
AV A 176The OneThe Intellectual PrincipleNatureThe All-Soul
PrincipleCelestial BodySpiritHuskPassionate Body
AV B 191-2timelessfuturepastpresent
reflection or fall
reflected FacultyBody of FateCreative MindWillMask
AV B 191-2presentpastfuturetimeless
associated QuarterFourthThirdFirstSecond
associated elementFireAirEarthWater
(YVP 1 111)

Twenty-Seven Churches and Twenty-Eight Phases

The fourfold division of human being is the most striking similarity between the systems of Blake and Yeats, and as Yeats notes, ‘In mystical systems, like this of Blake’s, numbers are always of the greatest significance’ (WWB 1 283-84). In this context, another element is worth noting: Blake uses twenty-eight as a perfect number and gives Albion twenty-eight Friends in Jerusalem, in contrast to the imperfect number twenty-seven, which in Milton and Jerusalem is the number of the Churches or Heavens of Beulah. Although imperfect, it is this cycle of twenty-seven which has the closest affinities with the system of the Phases that Yeats developed. In Yeats’s explanation they make up the facets of the Covering Cherub:

The Cherub is divided into twenty-seven heavens or churches, that is to say into twenty-seven passive states through which man travels, and these heavens or churches are typified by twenty-seven great personages from Adam to Luther, by the initiation, progress and close of a religious era; and after Luther, who preached “private judgment,” Adam, its symbol, is said to begin again “in endless circle,” one era closes, another commences. In these twenty-seven great personages, and their lives as set forth in sacred and profane history, Blake found, wrapped up in obscure symbolism, the whole story of man’s life, and of the life of the moods, religions, ideas, and nations.
WWB 1 290

Yeats, possibly in some kind of Bloomian misprision, perfects the number of faces of his own Covering Cherub at twenty-eight, with a rather more haphazard and ahistorical series of great personages to express ‘the whole story of man’s life’. And the historical cyclicity, which Yeats sees as Blake’s great break from Swedenborg’s original linear progression, is set to a slightly different rhythm by Yeats’s successive and endless turnings of the gyre, although, if Blake took contemporary estimates for the epochs of biblical events, the time-scale within recorded history is little different. Each element of the cycle is further like a fractal image, containing versions of infinitely receding reflections: ‘It must be remembered that all these complex symbols contain the others in miniature within them. All is within all, and every one of the twenty-seven churches contains the whole twenty-seven fold in miniature’ (WWB 1 308). Some forty years later Yeats presents a similar formulation: ‘Every phase is itself a wheel’ (AV B 89).

One of Yeats’s problems in his chapters for the ‘big book on the philosophy of Blake’ (AV A 134) was to account for the absence of zodiacal symbolism in the prophetic books. This he resolved by showing that Blake had ‘found a substitute for [the signs of the Zodiac] by arranging the twenty-seven heavens upon the sun’s path’ (WWB 1 300). Yeats’s own diagram of this process further illustrates the cycle, showing the Zodiac of the Mundane Shell surrounding the heavens, the Solar twelve-month division corresponding with the churches of ‘moony Beulah’ in complementary concentric rings.

Yeats’s schema of Blake’s progression of the churches  WWB 1 301

Yeats’s own alignment of his Phases with the Zodiac is more formalised, with specific allocations of Phases to signs of the Zodiac, and is consequently ‘classification not symbolism’ (AV B 196). Similarly in other areas, themes that seem to show Blake’s inspiration have been given a radically different interpretation in Yeats’s thinking: Blake’s vortexes are negative parodies of Cartesian mechanistic thinking rather than Yeats’s gyres, which are closer to ‘those contraries which give life, such as male and female, active and passive, God and the mirror. . . . Contraries produce imaginative manifestation, whereas life and its negation merely bring forth finite consciousness and physical manifestation, which are death’ (WWB 1 315). Above all, it is in these contraries that Yeats enlists Blake’s support for his form of dualism, whether he is expounding the Tinctures or definining the relationship between the sexes and the historical cycles in terms of ‘The Mental Traveller’.

So he [Urizen] began to dig form of gold silver & iron
And brass vast instruments to measure out the immense & fix
The whole into another world better suited to obey
His will where none should dare oppose his will himself being King
Of All & all futurity be bound in his vast chain
And the Sciences were fixd & the Vortexes began to operate
On all the sons of men & every human soul terrified
At the turning wheels of heaven shrunk away inward withring away
Gaining a New Dominion over all his sons & Daughters
& over the Sons & daughters of Luvah in the horrible Abyss
For Urizen lamented over them in a selfish lamentation
Till a white woof coverd his cold limbs from head to feet
Hair white as snow coverd him in flaky locks terrific
Overspreading his limbs. in pride he wanderd weeping
Clothed in aged venerableness obstinately resolvd
Travelling thro darkness & whereever he traveld a dire Web
Followd behind him as the Web of a Spider dusky & cold
Shivering across from Vortex to Vortex drawn out from his mantle of years
A living Mantle adjoind to his life & growing from his Soul
And the Web of Urizen strechd direful shivring in clouds
And uttering such woes such bursts such thunderingst
The eyelids expansive as morning & the Ears
As a golden ascent winding round to the heavens of heavens
Within the dark horrors of the Abysses lion or tyger or scorpion
For every one opend within into Eternity at will
But they refusd because their outward forms were in the Abyss
And the wing like tent of the Universe beautiful surrounding all
Or drawn up or let down at the will of the immortal man
Vibrated in such anguish the eyelids quiverd
Weak & Weaker their expansive orbs began shrinking
Pangs smote thro the brain & a universal shriek
Ran thro the Abysses rending the web torment on torment
Thus Urizen in sorrows wanderd many a dreary way
Warring with monsters of the Deeps in his most hideous pilgrimage
Till his bright hair scatterd in snows his skin barkd oer with wrinkles
Four Caverns rooting downwards their foundations thrusting forth
The metal rock & stone in ever painful throes of vegetation
The Cave of Orc stood to the South a furnace of dire flames
Quenchless unceasing. In the west the Cave of Urizen
For Urizen fell as the Midday sun falls down into the West
North stood Urthonas stedfast throne a World of Solid darkness
Shut up in stifling obstruction rooted in dumb despair
The East was Void. But Tharmas rolld his billows in ceaseless eddies
Void pathless beat with Snows eternal & iron hail & raint
All thro the caverns of fire & air & Earth, Seeking
For Enions limbs nought finding but the black sea weed & sickning slime
Flying away from Urizen that he might not give him food
Above beneath on all sides round in the vast deep of immensity
That he might starve the sons & daughters of Urizen on the winds
Making between horrible chasms into the vast unknown
All these around the world of Los cast forth their monstrous births
But in Eternal times the Seat of Urizen is in the South
Urthona in the North Luvah in East Tharmas in West
from Vala, Night the Sixth



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.

Page revised: 28/06/04

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