The Double Vision of Michael Robartes

On the grey rock of Cashel the mind’s eye
Has called up the cold spirits that are born
When the old moon is vanished from the sky
And the new still hides her horn.

Under blank eyes and fingers never still
The particular is pounded till it is man.
When had I my own will?
O not since life began.

Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and unbent
By these wire-jointed jaws and limbs of wood,
Themselves obedient,
Knowing not evil and good;

Obedient to some hidden magical breath.
They do not feel, so abstract are they,
So dead beyond our death,
Triumph that we obey.

On the grey rock of Cashel I suddenly saw
A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw,
A Buddha, hand at rest,
Hand lifted up that blest;

And right between these two a girl at play
That, it may be, had danced her life away,
For now being dead it seemed
That she of dancing dreamed.

Although I saw it all in the mind’s eye
There can be nothing solider till I die;
I saw it by the moon’s light
Now at its fifteenth night.

One lashed her tail; her eyes lit by the moon
Gazed upon all things known, all things unknown,
In triumph of intellect
With motionless head erect.

That other’s moonlit eyeballs never moved,
Being fixed on all things loved, all things unloved,
Yet little peace he had,
For all that love are sad.

O little did they care who danced between,
And little she by whom her dance was seen
So she had outdanced thought.
Body perfection brought,

For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?
Mind moved yet seemed to stop
As ’twere a spinning-top.

In contemplation had those three so wrought
Upon a moment, and so stretched it out
That they, time overthrown,
Were dead yet flesh and bone.

I knew that I had seen, had seen at last
That girl my unremembering nights hold fast
Or else my dreams that fly
If I should rub an eye,

And yet in flying fling into my meat
A crazy juice that makes the pulses beat
As though I had been undone
By Homer’s Paragon

Who never gave the burning town a thought;
To such a pitch of folly I am brought,
Being caught between the pull
Of the dark moon and the full,

The commonness of thought and images
That have the frenzy of our western seas.
Thereon I made my moan,
And after kissed a stone,

And after that arranged it in a song
Seeing that I, ignorant for so long,
Had been rewarded thus
In Cormac’s ruined house.
Printings: The Wild Swans at Coole, (London & NY: Macmillan, 1919 & rev. 1920); Later Poems (London: Macmillan, 1922; 1924; 1926; 1931).

The following notes are linked to those on ‘The Second Coming’, and try to show how the poem is linked with the Yeatses’ System. If you are a student and wish to use or cite them, please do, but avoid plagiarism by attributing them.

‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’ was written in 1919 and first appeared as the final poem of The Wild Swans at Coole, published in 1919, a volume which contains poems from both before and after his marriage, and in which the symbolism of the Moon traces a fascinating trajectory. The poem was therefore written in the year or so following the advent of the System, which started when Yeats and his wife, George, experimented with Automatic Writing shortly after their marriage in October 1917 (see Introduction). Written in the first flush of discovery, it is interesting how little it varies from the more systematised versions of the ideas which Yeats put forward in the first edition of A Vision in 1925 (AV A), and also the revised version of 1937 (AV B). One major element did not fit with the scheme as it was developed more fully, since the Buddha should have been the Christ (see below), but Yeats left this unchanged nonetheless.

Michael Robartes is a voice or persona, which Yeats had first used in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and which appears as a character in the story of Rosa Alchemica (1896). In terms of A Vision, he represents the discoverer of and initiated believer in the System, enabling Yeats to distance himself slightly. He is the one who is therefore seen as having been ‘rewarded’ with the vision of the two supernatural Phases, the New Moon (Phase 1) and the Full Moon (Phase 15) on the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. These are the Phases where complete objectivity (New Moon) and complete subjectivity (Full Moon) are attained, but since they represent extremes do not exist in human life, so that the pilgrim soul is reborn into a spiritual incarnation rather than a physical one. Yet within the cycles of life and of history, these Phases come round regularly, zeniths and nadirs in their respective wheels (see the Cardinal Phases).

Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary
Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary (South).

The Rock’s prominence has made it a stronghold since earliest times and it has been, at various times, the seat of the rulers of Munster. The ruins include an ancient cross, an intact round tower (ca. 1100) and Cormac’s chapel (1127-34), built by Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster. A cathedral dedicated to St. Patrick was built over the following century and is the largest of the ruins.

The first section gives Robartes’ vision of the New Moon, where undifferentiated objectivity is reached. The line ‘Under blank eyes and fingers never still / The particular is pounded till it is man’ echoes a line from ‘On Woman’, where ‘The Pestle of the moon / That pounds up all anew / Brings me to birth again’ (VP 346), and also the kneading of dough, used in ‘The Phases of the Moon’. Within the cycle of a single human life, including after-life, Phase 1 is the point where it will be possible to leave the wheel of reincarnation once all the cycles are completed, but until then is the start of the progress towards being born again, as its numbering indicates. The description of Phase 1 in A Vision also uses the image of dough, and explains the loss of ‘my own will’:
Thought and inclination, fact and object of desire, are indistinguishable (Mask is submerged in Body of Fate, Will in Creative Mind), that is to say, there is complete passivity, complete plasticity. Mind has become indifferent to good and evil, to truth and falsehood; body has become undifferentiated, dough-like; the more perfect be the soul, the more indifferent the mind, the more dough-like the body; and mind and body take whatever shape, accept whatever image is imprinted upon them, transact whatever purpose is imposed upon them, are indeed the instruments of supernatural manifestation, the final link between the living and more powerful beings.
(AV B 183; AV A 116)

The beings know neither good nor evil, in a state where all is objective or external and true, which has echoes of the Edenic state of Adam and Eve before they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yet they are also compared to puppets, fulfilling ‘whatever purpose is imposed upon them’ rather than their own will. Since they are linked to more powerful beings, as Yeats sees it, they are ‘Obedient to some hidden magical breath’, and Yeats certainly considered that some of the inspiration for the System came through Spirits at Phase 1. The souls’ unfeeling state is linked to Plotinus’s treatise ‘The Impassivity of the Unembodied’ in the Third Ennead (group of nine treatises), which Yeats refers to with casual imprecision as ‘the most beautiful of the Enneads, "The Impassivity of the Dis-Embodied"’ (AV B 232) in his treatment of the After-Life state of the Shiftings. Feeling is linked to the two Lunar Principles, Husk and particularly Passionate Body, and since their related Faculties, Will and Mask respectively, are submerged the souls at Phase 1 do not feel, ‘so abstract are they, / So dead beyond our death’. Death, though, must not be viewed in the usual negative way, since for Yeats it is part of the cycle, the day which opposes the night of earthly incarnation, so that it is a ‘Triumph that we obey’. Yeats’s own emotional preference remains with the night of earthly life, but he recognises intellectually that the state out of the body is closer to truth and, the unspoken term, closer to God, who has triumphed over the soul (see ‘The Four Ages of Man’, where ‘At stroke of midnight [i.e. Phase 1] God shall win’ [VP 561]).

In terms of the historical cycles, when he envisioned the approach of the current age to the end of its cycle in A Vision A he quoted the lines ‘Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and unbent / By these wire-jointed jaws and limbs of wood’ to express the Zeitgeist’s movement towards Phase 1. He quoted these lines again at the end of his open ‘Letter to Lady Gregory’, ‘A People’s Theatre’ (see end). His distance from this state is clear in the negative emotional charge that these terms carry and the insistent use of internal rhyme and alliteration, along with the metre’s shift from iamb to trochee and back, creates a decidedly uneasy impression.

The second vision shifts ‘suddenly’ to the Full Moon, symbolised by a girl dancing between two figure, a Sphinx and Buddha. The dancing girl and the idea of dance itself are often linked in Yeats’s poetry with abandonment and perfection, particularly the perfection of the Full Moon, such as ‘To a Child Dancing in the Wind’, the close of ‘Among School Children’ and the purifying dance of ‘Byzantium’. Since the Full Moon is a supernatural rather than a physical incarnation in Yeats’s System, a form of both death and life, he wonders if she ‘had danced her life away, / For now being dead it seemed / That she of dancing dreamed’. The state of the Full Moon is one of dream, trance or vision, an ideal state of beauty beyond striving and thought, and the girl has ‘outdanced thought. / Body perfection brought’:

Thought and will are indistinguishable, effort and attainment are indistinguishable; and this is the consummation of a slow process; nothing is apparent but dreaming Will and the Image that it dreams. . . . The words ‘musical’, ‘sensuous’, are but descriptions of that converging process [of Will submerging Creative Mind, and Mask submerging Body of Fate]. . . . As all effort has ceased, all thought has become image, because no thought could exist if it were not carried towards its own extinction, amid fear or in contemplation; and every image is separate from every other, for if image were linked to image, the soul would awake for its immovable trance. . . . Its own body possesses the greatest possible beauty, being indeed that body which the soul will permanently inhabit, when all its phases have been repeated according to the number allotted: that which we call the clarified or Celestial Body.
(AV B 135-36; AV A 69-70)

On either side sit the still, but moving images, the Sphinx, which gazes ‘upon all things known, all things unknown, /In triumph of intellect’, and the Buddha, whose eyes are ‘fixed on all things loved, all things unloved’, the triumph of heart rather than mind. In A Vision B Yeats gives what amounts to an extended note on these figures. He does not make the matter simple though and in many ways the note is more complicated than the poem.

The two figures represent the influences on either side of the Full Moon. First he looks at the one that follows: he points out that as Will moves away from the Full Moon at Phase 15, Creative Mind is approaching Phase 15 (if this seems strange click here). The Creative Mind is Solar in character and the Sun’s movement is usually measured by the Zodiac and, in terms of the Zodiac, this movement is the passage from Aries to Taurus, ruled by Mars and Venus respectively, ‘that is to say, it is under the conjunction of Mars and Venus’ (AV B 207). Conversely, as Will approaches the Full Moon, Creative Mind is between Aquarius and Pisces, traditionally ruled by Saturn and Jupiter, and ‘it is, as it were, under the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn’ (ibid.). (For further explanation of these details, see Astrological Rulers.) In short, therefore, the influence preceding the Full Moon is a Jupiter-Saturn one, symbolised by the Sphinx, and the influence following is a Venus-Mars one, symbolised by Buddha.

Sphinx These two conjunctions which express so many things are certainly, upon occasion, the outward-looking mind, love and its lure, contrasted with introspective knowledge of the minds’s self-begotten unity, an intellectual excitement. They stand, so to speak, like heraldic supporters guarding the mystery of the fifteenth phase. In certain lines written years ago in the excitement of discovery I compare one to the Sphinx and one to Buddha. I should have put Christ instead of Buddha, for according to my instructors Buddha was a Jupiter-Saturn influence.   (AV B 207-08)Buddha

All of the planets are very complex symbols, and Venus can represent (among many things) love, copper or Friday depending on the frame of reference, so that Yeats is therefore writing with due circumspection in commenting that it is only ‘upon occasion’ that these conjunctions have the meaning he gives. Both Venus and Mars are related to passion and to love, outward-moving impulses, so that Yeats sees this conjunction as symbolic of ‘outward-looking mind, love and its lure’, which he symbolises with the compassionate lover of all things, Gautama Buddha, although he states that the figure should have been Christ. In the later poem ‘Conjunctions’ (1934) he makes this identification clear:

The sword’s a cross; thereon He died:
On breast of Mars the goddess sighed.
(VP 562)

Among other things Jupiter is associated with exploration, inner vision and spirituality, while Saturn is associated with concentration, deep thought and meditation. This conjunction therefore suggests to Yeats the ‘introspective knowledge of the mind’s self-begotten unity, an intellectual excitement’, which he symbolises with the Sphinx and elsewhere with the revivification of wheat from ancient Egypt:

When Jupiter and Saturn meet,
What a crop of mummy wheat.
(VP 562)

The significance of these two conjunctions, and the reason why they are singled out, is that they stand on either side of Phase 15, which, within the timescale of the Great Year, represents the start of a religious dispensation relative to the cycle of a civilisation (see the page Historical Cycles about the conjunctions). The Sphinx and Christ (or Buddha) therefore represent the starts of two different kinds of dispensation, the antithetical heroic, and the primary compassionate.

Colin McDowell’s essay “‘Heraldic Supporters’: Minor Symbolism and the Integrity of A Vision” (YA 10, 1993) goes further into the representation of these symbols flanking the Full Moon, and he has drawn my attention to one of the early typescript drafts of A Vision, which was cast in the form of a dialogue between Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne (see Fictions and Robartes and Aherne). Robartes is explaining the nature of the Wheel to Aherne and why the images of the Full Moon provoke no desire, linking the figures of the Buddha and Sphinx to the Full Moon itself, lost in wonder: ‘The images at fifteen do not effect [sic] the automatic portions of the mind at all for being each one separate and complete they cannot start any sequence of thought and image, the mind in their presence is stationary in a Buddha or Sphinx like trance of wonder’ (‘The Discoveries of Michael Robartes’, YVP 4, 41). This draft, which is of uncertain date (1919 or 1920?) but closer in time to ‘The Double Vision’, therefore sees the contemplation of the Sphinx and Buddha as part of the Full Moon’s trance.

The poem goes further in characterising the nature of this trance, looking at its subjective reality, the timelessness of a single moment, and the paradoxical meeting of life and death. The whole vision is placed within ‘the mind’s eye’, though entirely solid, and the ‘Mind moved yet seemed to stop /As ’twere a spinning-top’ caught in a gyre of thought, in motion yet still. The moment is ‘so stretched. . . out’ by the three figures that they are out of time, ‘time overthrown’. The nature of timelessness and eternity had long been of interest to him, and Cecil Salkeld recalled a conversation with Yeats in 1920 during a walk at Glenmalure, when, ‘Suddenly, he pulled me up short at a big stone and said: “Do you realise that eternity is not a long time but a short time . . . ?” I just said, I didn't quite understand. “Eternity.” Yeats said, “Eternity is in the glitter on the beetle’s wing . . . it is something infinitely short . . .”’ (Hone, W. B. Yeats, 326; also cited Jeffares, NC 249).

The visions are also ‘dead yet flesh and bone’, in contrast to the New Moon spirits who are ‘so abstract . . . So dead beyond our death’, and Yeats expresses his fascination with these two paradoxical states in ‘Byzantium’: ‘I hail the superhuman; / I call it death-in-life and life-in-death’ (VP 497). Though the names recall Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, they are less the macabre pair of the Mariner’s vision than states beyond what we think of in terms of life and death. They are dead to earthly incarnation, but very much alive, those at the New Moon malleable, abstract and dead beyond our death, while those of the Full Moon are concrete, possessing form and living beyond death.

In the final section, Robartes reflects upon the visions, and recognises the girl from his dreams, the Image of his desire or appreciation of beauty, a form of his Mask, compared to ‘Homer’s Paragon’, Helen of Troy. The dream state and its perceptions are both real and fugitive, leaving their trace in the waking man’s memory. As an incarnate human being, he is inevitable caught between the pull of the two Tinctures, the primary of the New Moon and the antithetical of the Full, with the conflict and vexations of humanity. Whether the stone he then kisses is like the images pressed by ‘Live lips’ in ‘The Statues’ (a far later poem, published in 1939, VP 610) or a sacred rock at Cashel, like the stone pillow which Jacob blessed after his vision of the ladder to heaven, the reality is separate from the dream but imbued with its presence. It is a double vision because of its two elements, but also because it is recognised as coming from the mind’s eye rather than the physical one, and Robartes sees it as a reward after long ignorance, granted more than earned. Although Robartes looks at the two visions from a personal point of view and focuses particularly on the young dancer, Yeats refers to the poem on several occasions and usually within the context of the Historical Cycles.

In a strange instance of distanced self-quotation, Yeats seems to attribute the poem to Robartes when he uses it to look at the coming age in ‘A People’s Theatre’ (published in AE’s Irish Statesman, autumn 1919). He looks to the vision of the New Moon as a characterisation of the approaching Phase 1 of civilisation, at which point a new religious dispensation arrives in the opposite gyre. Echoing ‘The Second Coming’'s phrase of ‘Things fall apart’, he also looks forward to the final section of the historical section of A Vision A (1925), which looks to the near future and was cut from the second version (text here). ‘A People’s Theatre’ is cast in the form of a letter to Lady Gregory, and this is the close:

The two great energies of the world that in Shakespeare’s day penetrated each other have fallen apart as speech and music fell apart in the Renaissance, and that has brought each to a greater freedom, and we have to prepare a stage for the whole wealth of modern lyricism, for an art that is close to pure music, for those energies that would free the arts from imitation, that would ally acting to decoration and to the dance. We are not yet conscious, for as yet we have no philosophy, while the opposite energy is conscious. All visible history, the discoveries of science, the discussions of politics, are with it; but as I read the world, the sudden changes, or rather the sudden revelations of future changes, are not from visible history but from its antiself. Blake says somewhere in a ‘Prophetic Book’ that things must complete themselves before they pass away, and every new logical development of the objective energy intesifies in an exact correspondence a counter-energy, or rather addes to an always deepening unanalysable longing. That counter-longing, having no visible past, can only become a conscious energy suddenly, in those moments of revelation which are as a flash of lightning. Are we approaching a supreme moment of self-consciousness, the two halves of the soul separate and face to face? A certain friend of mine has written upon this subject a couple of intricate poems called The Phases of the Moon and The Double Vision respectively, which are my continual study, and I must refer the reader to these poems for the necessary mathematical calculations. Were it not for that other gyre turning inward in exact measure with the outward whirl of its fellow, we would fall in a generation or so under some tyranny that would cease at last to be a tyranny, so perfect our acquiescence.

Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and unbent
By these wire-jointed jaws and limbs of wood,
Themselves obedient,
Knowing not evil and good;

Obedient to some hidden magical breath.
They do not feel, so abstract are they,
So dead beyond our death,
Triumph that we obey.
(Ex 258-59)

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last revised: 5/06/04