When Yeats published ‘The Second Coming’ in book form in 1921, he decided that he needed to explain the source
of some of his imagery and thinking. He couched the account in terms of
the fiction of Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne (see The Fictions of the Two Versions),
giving a succinct summary of some of the main elements in the System
that was emerging in his collaboration with George. Robartes gives
Aherne ‘several mathematical diagrams’, ‘squares and spheres, cones made
up of revolving gyres intersecting each other at various angles,
figures sometimes of great complexity’, but the explanation for these
‘is founded upon a single fundamental thought.
The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a
precise movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be
fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a
mathematical form’ and this form is the gyre.
(See text of the note at the bottom of the page.)
Robartes/Yeats compares the inevitable pattern of this movement to
the growth of a plant or animal, each species having its own variation
of the fundamental paradigm, and each individual within a species being
affected by its resources and circumstances, and he compares the
paradigm to the laws of genetic inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel.
The gyre starts at its origin and moves progressively wider in a
spiral, while time adds another dimension, creating the form of the
vortex or funnel. Once the gyre reaches its point of maximum expansion
it then begins to narrow until it reaches its end-point which is also
the origin of the new gyre. Another way of seeing the same thing, if
time is not taken as being fixed in one direction, is that once the
maximum is reached, the gyre begins to retrace its path in the opposite
The gyre can therefore be seen as a single vortex which grows and
dwindles, but the more commonly used figure is a double vortex, where
two vortices intersect and the apex of one is at the centre of the
Yeats's thought is fundamentally dualistic and, although the single
gyre contains a fundamental dualism in the two boundaries of its form,
the base and the apex, it is more natural for Yeats to use a doubled
form. Since the apex or minimum of one element implies the maximum of
its dualistic opposite, these double cones intersect so that the two
gyres are the complementary opposites of each other.
In this formulation, if each gyre is depicted as a single principle,
then the gyre moves from the total preponderance of one principle over
the other, through increasing admixture of the second principle to
equality at the point where the surfaces cross each other, until the
minimum of the first and the maximum of the second principle are
reached. At this point the reflux starts, so that there is never more
than a momentary predominance of either principle, and the system is
Classically, this is the kind of interrelation depicted in the
Yin-Yang mandala or in any form of wheel expressing two polar opposites.
As in the representation of the Yin-Yang polarity, the maximum of one
gyre contains the minimum of its opposite at its centre, so that, even
as this minimum briefly touches zero, it is still inherent within the
Yeats uses the cycle of the Moon's phases as the visual symbol of the interplay between his two defining principles, the Tinctures, primary and antithetical,
the poles of which are symbolised by the dark of the Moon and the full
Moon. Although this is shown as a disc divided into shaded and white
halves in A Vision (AV B 80), it is more accurate to depict it as a disc where black and white are the extremes, with shades of grey in between.
The two diagrams represent the same idea, of two interacting
principles which increase and decrease in a reciprocal relationship with
each other. There are no fixed stages and the change is gradual rather
than discrete, however once the cycle is applied to human life, death
and birth mark radical changes of state for the human soul, and it
becomes both natural and necessary to mark these divisions, which Yeats
takes as the twenty-eight stages symbolised by the Phases of the Moon
(see the Wheel).
Even within history, where the transitions are not marked and are
clearly gradual, the Phases provide a useful notation to show the point
that the cycle has reached, so that they are maintained, or adapted to a
twelvefold scheme (see the historical gyres).
Especially with regard to history, it can sometimes be clearer to see
the double intersecting cones extended over time, so that they become a
chain rather than an isolated unit. This can appear to minimise the
cyclical nature of the interaction, but can be helpful in disentangling
the various cycles in operation at any one time (see History and the Great Year).
For diagrammatic ease, the gyres are usually integrated into cones in A Vision,
and represented on the page as triangles. This serves very little
purpose beyond simplifying the tangle of lines which would otherwise
dominate any of the diagrams, and making the delineation of the Faculties’ movements clearer (see the Faculties on the Cones).
The intersecting triangles can come to appear as some esoteric form of
slide-rule, if it is not remembered that these represent a
three-dimensional shape, which itself represents a four-dimensional
system, which is in constant movement.
Because of the dominance of this image in Yeats's mind, even when he
comes to refer to the supernatural opposite to mundane reality, he uses
the term the Thirteenth Cone. There may also be some
influence from Renaissance thinking here, where various writers posited
intersecting pyramids of light and dark to represent the
interpenetration of the divine and mundane, and to see in these two
pyramids a ladder of descent from and ascent to the Godhead. Robert
Fludd, the English Rosicrucian, created a fascinating series of diagrams
which show the
relationship of the Macrocosmic world of the divine to the Microcosmic
world of the human.
|from Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi. . . Historia|| ||The Double Cones|
Although the double cone dominates the diagrams found in A Vision,
the more important representation of the gyres in the Automatic Script
was that which was called the ‘Diamond’ and ‘Hourglass’, which is
effectively a doubled form of the double cone. The Instructors objected
to the term ‘Diamond’, but Yeats retained it anyway.
In A Vision this form of representation is most important in the discussion of the Principles,
the spiritual constituents of the human being, which come to the fore
in the after-life. In this system the axes of the two shapes do not
necessarily coincide, and they rotate about a common centre, within a
sphere. The Diamond itself represents the original Principle of the Celestial Body, within which the Spirit moves as a single gyre. These together form the Solar element of the system of the Principles, while the Hourglass represents the Lunar element. Both the Passionate Body and the Husk move within this double gyre, one half representing life and the other half the after-life (see the Principles and the After-life).
Note on 'The Second Coming', Michael Robartes and the Dancer (Dundrum: Cuala, 1921).
Wade 127; the book was finished on All
Souls' Day, 1920, and bears the date MCMXX on the title page, but was
actually published in February 1921.
Full text of the note on 'The Second Coming', Michael Robartes and the Dancer:
Robartes copied out and gave to Aherne several mathematical diagrams from the Speculum,
squares and spheres, cones made up of revolving gyres intersecting each
other at various angles, figures sometimes with great complexity. His
explanation of these, obtained invariably from the followers of
Kusta-ben-Luki, is founded upon a single fundamental thought. The mind,
whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise
movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be
fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a
mathematical form. A plant or an animal has an order of development
peculiar to it, a bamboo will not develop evenly like a willow nor a
willow from joint to joint, and both have branches, that lessen and grow
more light as they rise, and no characteristic of the soil can alter
these things. A poor soil may indeed check or stop the movement and rich
prolong and quicken it. Mendel has shown that his sweet-peas bred long
and short, white and pink varieties in certain mathematical proportions,
suggesting a mathematical law governing the transmission of parental
characteristics. To the Judwalis, as interpreted by Michael Robartes,
all living minds have likewise a fundamental mathematical movement,
however adapted in plant, or animal, or man to particular circumstance;
and when you have found this movement and calculated its relations, you
can foretell the entire future of that mind. A supreme religious act of
their faith is to fix the attention on the mathematical form of this
movement until the whole past and future of humanity, or of an
individual man, shall be present to the intellect as if it were
accomplished in a single moment. The intensity of the Beatific Vision
when it comes depends, upon the intensity of this realisation. It is
possible in this way, seeing that death itself is marked upon the
mathematical figure, which passes beyond it, to follow the soul into the
highest heaven and the deepest hell. This doctrine is, they contend,
not fatalistic because the mathematical figure is an expression of the
mind's desire and the more rapid the development of the figure the
greater the freedom of the soul. The figure while the soul is in the
body, or suffering from the consequences of that life, is usually drawn
as a double cone, the narrow end of each cone being in the centre of the
broad end of the other.
It has its origin from a straight line which represents, now time, now
emotion, now subjective life, and a plane at right angles to this line
which represents, now space, now intellect, now objective life; while it
is marked out by two gyres which represent the conflict, as it were, of
plane and line, by two movements, which circle about a centre because a
movement outward on the plane is checked and in turn checks a movement
onward upon the line; & the circling is always narrowing or
spreading, because one movement or other is always the stronger. In
other words, the human soul is always moving outward into the objective
world or inward into itself; & this movement is double because the
human soul would not be conscious were it not suspended between
contraries, the greater the contrast the more intense the consciousness.
The man, in whom the movement inward is stronger than the movement
outward, the man who sees all reflected within himself, the subjective
man, reaches the narrow end of a gyre at death, for death is always,
they contend, even when it seems the result of accident, preceded by an
intensification of the subjective life; and has a moment of revelation
immediately after death, a revelation which they describe as his being
carried into the presence of all his dead kindred, a moment whose
objectivity is exactly equal to the subjectivity of death. The objective
man on the other hand, whose gyre moves outward, receives at this
moment the revelation, not of himself seen from within, for that is
impossible to objective man, but of himself as if he were somebody else.
This figure is true also of history, for the end of an age, which
always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is
represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion
and of the other to that of its greatest contraction. At the present
moment the life gyre is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth
of Christ which was narrowing, and has almost reached its greatest
expansion. The revelation which approaches will however take its
character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre. All our
scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization
belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself
but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will
strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of
the civilization that must slowly take its place. This is too simple a
statement, for much detail is possible. There are certain points of
stress on outer and inner gyre, a division of each, now into ten, now
into twenty-eight, stages or phases. However in the exposition of this
detail so far as it affects their future, Robartes had little help from
the Judwalis either because they cannot grasp the events outside their
experience, or because certain studies seem to them unlucky. '"For a
time the power" they have said to me,' (writes Robartes) '"will be with
us, who are as like one another as the grains of sand, but when the
revelation comes it will not come to the poor but to the great and
learned and establish again for two thousand years prince & vizier.
Why should we resist? Have not our wise men have marked it upon the
sand, and it is because of these marks, made generation after generation
by the old for the young, that we are named Judwalis."'
Their name means makers of measures, or as we would say, of diagrams.
Variorum Edition of the Poems, 823-25. It is given in full in Richard Finneran, ed., W. B. Yeats: The Poems (2nd ed., 1997), 658-60, and (without the diagram) in A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Poet and Man (1949), 197-98, (3rd ed. , 175-77), though with variations of punctuation and sometimes wording.
The essay "'Everywhere that antinomy of the One and the Many': The Foundations of A Vision," by Neil Mann in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts,
edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson
University, 2012), provides useful further exploration of this subject.
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.
Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.