Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne

The general context of the fictions involving Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne is examined in The Fictions of A Vision, and this page examines a few of the further implications of the characters.

The most useful essays on the two characters are still those in Yeats and the Occult, Michael J. Sidnell’s ‘Mr. Yeats, Michael Robartes and Their Circle’ (225-254) and Warwick Gould’s ‘“Lionel Johnson Comes the First to Mind”: Sources for Owen Aherne’ (255-284).

Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne had featured separately in stories of the 1890s: Robartes, the leader of the Order of the Alchemical Rose in ‘Rosa Alchemica’, had apparently been killed at the end of the story, and Owen Aherne, the discoverer of Liber inducens in Evangelium aeternum in ‘The Tables of the Law’, had departed, broken by his inability to sin and consequent separation from God. Yeats’s decision to resurrect these characters rather than to create new ones points to a certain continuity in his thought and to a desire to use personae which he had already established, partly in order to dispense with character-building and partly to use the two distinctive voices.

Michael Robartes

Robartes was evidently the clearer in his memory, and is the dominant partner. Apart from ‘Rosa Alchemica’, Robartes had also figured in the titles of a few poems in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), though his name was later replaced with ‘He’: ‘Michael Robartes bids his Beloved be at Peace’, ‘Michael Robartes remembers Forgotten Beauty’, ‘Michael Robartes asks Forgiveness because of his Many Moods’. Other poems were ascribed to Aedh and Hanrahan, and Yeats noted that:

  These are personages in ‘The Secret Rose;’. . . . I have used them in this book more as principles of the mind than as actual personages. It is probable that only students of the magical tradition will understand me when I say 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. To put it in a different way, Hanrahan is the simplicity of an imagination too changeable to gather permanent possessions, or the adoration of the shepherds; and Michael Robartes is the pride of the imagination brooding upon the greatness of its possessions, or the adoration of the Magi; while Aedh is the myrrh and frankincense that the imagination offers continually before all that it loves.  
  The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), VP 803  

This elemental attribution is worth remembering, as a central principle which informs the character, and the subsequent change of the poems’ titles to the unspecified persona, ‘He. . .’ makes them appear even more as aspects of Yeats’s own character, and aspects of his own imagination (see below). There are also real-life models which include MacGregor Mathers and George Russell (AE) (see Gould, Yeats and the Occult, 255n), and the biography created in ‘Rosa Alchemica’ was supplemented when Yeats decided to use the character again to fill the intervening years. Robartes has taken advantage of Yeats’s report of his death, to journey to ‘Mesopotamia where he has partly found and partly thought out much philosophy’ (1922 note to Later Poems; VP 821), and these travels bring details drawn from the lives Charles M. Doughty and other Arabian travellers (see Arabia and the Judwalis) as well as Yeats’s own inventions. The character remains essentially unchanged, which points to a clarity in Yeats’s imaginative memory, and indicates why he chose to return to this character.

Owen Aherne

In contrast, Owen Aherne was more shadowy in Yeats’s memory and even his name was at first misremembered as John Aherne, a mistake which led first to the confused statement that ‘John Aherne is either the original Owen Aherne or some near relation of the man that was’ (VP 821), until John finally became a fully-fledged brother in Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1931), the writer of a letter to Mr Yeats (AV B 53-55). Gould’s essay notes Yeats’s use of Lionel Johnson and John O’Leary in creating the original character of Owen Aherne, both memorable figures in Yeats’s life, but Aherne changes significantly in the transition from the stories of the 1890s. The narrator describes him as ‘half monk [originally alchemist], half soldier of fortune’, who ‘must needs turn action into dreaming, and dreaming into action; and for such there is no order, no finality, no contentment in this world’ (VSR 151; Myth 294). He had told the narrator how the philosophy of ‘a secret book of [Joachim of Fiore’s] called the Liber inducens in Evangelium aeternum (VSR 153; Myth 296) had brought him first elation and then misery: ‘in my misery it was revealed to me that man can only come to that Heart [of God] through the sense of separation from it which we call sin, and I understood that I could not sin, because I had discovered the law of my being, and could only express or fail to express my being’ (VSR 162; Myth 296; concerning the actual Liber Introductorius, by a follower of Joachim, see Gould & Reeves, Joachim of Fiore and the Myth of the Eternal Evangel). This anguish appears to have passed, and the discovery to have faded. In one of the drafted dialogues, Aherne claims ‘I have always known that sin is sin & been contrite afterwards’ (YVP 4 131), so that he really does seem to be more a near relation than the same man. In the fictions surrounding A Vision, Aherne is a relatively conventional Roman Catholic, though ‘not perhaps as Orthodox as I once was’ (YVP 4 144), and acts largely as a foil for Robartes, enabling him to expound the system he has pieced together from the Speculum of Giraldus and the doctrines of Kusta ben Luka, as practised by the Arab sect of the Judwalis. Indeed elements of Aherne’s story in ‘The Tables of the Law’ are transmuted into parts of Robartes’s adventures: like Aherne’s Liber inducens in Evangelium Aeternum, Giraldus’s Speculum is the sole surviving copy of ‘a secret book’. In a draft description of the Speculum, among the ‘curious allegorical woodcuts’ were ‘drawings of Noah’s Ark and the Tables of the Law’ (YVP 4 16), and in Aherne’s Liber inducens the ‘first book is called Fractura Tabularum’, the breaking of Tables of the Law in the Age of the Holy Ghost. Aherne’s ivory tables, at first blank and then ‘covered with small writing’ in Latin, ‘an elaborate casuistry’ which apparently expounds the law of his own being, give the story its title (VSR 161; Myth 304). ‘The second book. . . is called Straminis Deflagratio’ (the burning up of the straw), and ‘recounts the conversations Joachim of Flora held in his monastery at Cortale’ (VSR 156) and later; similarly, the theme of drawing together the traditions and sayings of the teacher lies behind Yeats’s projected account of Robartes’s ideas, which is to be drawn ‘from the great mass of his letters and table talk’ (VP 853). This collection can be glimpsed in the drafts of A Vision (YVP Volume 4) and the fragmentary notes to various poems and plays (see the Fictions); in the end, however, the closest approximation in print is Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1931).

Aherne’s name appears in practically every possible variant spelling in the drafts: Aherne, Ahearne, Ahearn, Ahern, A herne and A Hearne (YVP 4 passim), but all of these point to the importance of the ‘herne’ element. Gould notes that the link of the name with the ‘herne’ or heron is etymologically incorrect for an Irish name, but it is probably the strongest ‘hidden’ significance — if Yeats knew, he seems not to have worried, since the purpose was to be evocative rather than an actual description for the reader. There is some affinity with the herons who had been ‘men of learning’, the sole beings to ignore St Patrick’s preaching, in ‘The Old Men of the Twilight’, originally entitled ‘St. Patrick and the Pedants’ (1895-1932; VSR 57; Myth 193), since the Aherne of A Vision is somewhat pedantic. The heron is also one of the solitary creatures that are said to be the form taken by the Daimons of antithetical people according to ‘the superstitions of the Judwalis’: ‘such lonely birds as the heron, hawk, eagle, and swan, are the natural symbols of subjectivity’ (note to Calvary [1921]; VPl 789). This early attribution might be questioned, since within the System an antithetical person has a primary Daimon, and certainly Aherne is in most respects a primary counterpart to the antithetical Robartes. Like the Swan of ‘Leda’, the Great Herne of the play The Herne’s Egg (1938) is a divine form of this Daimon, and it appears to be as much a simurg as a heron (and may even be linked to Herne the Hunter).

Holy Sepulchre, 1910
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem,
from Robert Hichens, The Holy Land (1910).
‘Then turning violently from all sensual pleasure I decided to say my prayers at the Holy Sepulchre’
(AV A xviii)


Though the first interest of critics is often to consider the real-life models for fictional characters, and these certainly exist to lend an aura of verisimilitude, Yeats emphasises Robartes and Aherne’s imaginative status in his 1922 note, as the two men ‘take their place in a phantasmagoria in which I endeavour to explain my philosophy of life and death’ (VP 821; cf. VP 852 & viz YO 260). In 1895 he had maintained that, ‘The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth’ (CL 1 442; L 249).

Yeats’s alter ego in his unfinished novel, The Speckled Bird (started in 1896), is called Michael Hearne, and it is as if the two parts of the name become separate phantasmagoric counterparts. Ellmann, in Yeats: the Man and the Masks proposes that Robartes and Aherne are ‘Two Sides of a Penny’, identifying Robartes with Yeats’s magical interests and Aherne with his nationalist activities; though this is unnecessarily reductive, and even inaccurate with respect to Aherne, there is an extent to which both characters dramatise separate elements of Yeats’s psyche.

Transmuting Experience

The links between Yeats and the antithetical Robartes are clearer than those with the primary Aherne, since Aherne is a private side of the man and Robartes a more expansive, public mask.

An anecdote illustrates, in part, how Yeats used his own experience to inform the characters. In a radio interview, Bertie Smyllie gave an (evidently rather hazy) account of an evening when Yeats held forth at the Arts Club in Dublin about ‘this philosophy of his which was connected in some queer way with the phases of the moon’. As Smyllie remembered it (very inaccurately): ‘Number One—the highest phase—is perfect beauty. . . . Number two was Helen of Troy—the nearest approximation to perfect beauty’, and Yeats continued around the Wheel, finishing, apparently with the claim that ‘the lowest form of all is Thomas Carlyle and all Scotsmen’ (Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections [Vol. 2] 329). According to Smyllie, Francis Cruise O’Brien (d.1927, not his son Conor [b.1917], mentioned in the notes I&R 333]) challenged the last statement, asking if Yeats had ‘ever read a word of Carlyle’, and after much bluster, Yeats is said to have conceded, ‘No, I have not read him, my wife, George, has read him and tells me he’s a dolt’. This conversation appears to be the basis of an incident in the drafts of the fictions, some brief fragments of dialogue, where Aherne challenges Robartes’s prejudice against Carlyle. Yeats has Aherne stating baldly in a cancelled passage ‘I doubt if you have read a word of him, since your twentieth year’ (YVP 4, 46-47), but Robartes proceeds to vindicate his bias at least partially. There may be a touch of esprit d’escalier here, or self-justification (he makes it not ‘since your twentieth year’ rather than never), but it indicates that Robartes is, at least in part, the side of Yeats that would pontificate in clubs. Though this element never moved beyond a rough draft, it demonstrates the way in which Yeats cast his quarrels with others into his phantasmagoria.

Interestingly, the fictionalised account also clarifies the apparent slur against Scots in Smyllie’s story: Robartes misquotes a line from James MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ poems, ‘I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate’, commenting that ‘one can forgive that other scotch charlatan [i.e. MacPherson] for the one passage, but why should one forgive Carlyle’ (YVP 4, 47). Yeats placed both these Scotsmen at Phase 7, which is anyway no lower than any other, but not all Scots (AV B 115). (The editors of the Vision Papers note that Yeats wrote to his father that Carlyle was ‘as dead as Macpherson’s Ossian’ [14 March 1916; L 608], but the misquotation, ‘I passed by Balcluthin & behold it was desolate’, is not attributed [YVP 4, 61 nn.169 & 173]. The form is probably influenced by Charles Lamb’s version: ‘I passed by the walls of Balclutha, and they were desolate’ [‘The South-Sea House’, Essays of Elia].)

To some extent, therefore, Robartes is the side of Yeats that could believe in the System of A Vision, and make it the basis for his thought and life, whereas Aherne is the side that treats it as ‘a Platonic myth’ (cit. The Identity of Yeats 322) and who wonders, ‘May not all, even the doctrine of incarnation itself be but a convenient means of classification’, but will still grant to the idea of multiple ‘incarnations that form of belief I grant to a play upon the stage’ (YVP 4, 20). Together they dramatise the ambiguity of Yeats’s own position, which can allow in the same sentence ‘I will never think any thoughts but these’ and ‘there are many symbolisms and none exactly resembles mine’ (PEP 32-33; full passage in the Introduction), or can ask ‘Will some mathematician some day question and understand, as I cannot, and confirm all, or have I also dealt in myth?’ (AV B 213).

Schematic Characters

As characters, the Robartes and Aherne who appear in the dialogues and the fictions surrounding A Vision remain somewhat schematic, however, aggregates of traits rather than individuals. Robartes is visionary, charismatic, quixotic, passionate, capricious, given to moods and extremes, a quester after arcane knowledge, who also sometimes seeks solace in wine and women. Aherne is ascetic, scholarly, now orthodox, objective, cautious, versed in theological dispute, able to separate philosophical speculation from personal belief. Within the System, Robartes places himself at ‘the declamatory phase Nineteen’ (YVP 4, 31 & 42), along with Wilde and Byron, the Assertive Man, whose true Mask is ‘conviction’ and Creative Mind ‘emotional intellect’. As such he is a Phase later than George Yeats (and Giraldus) and two later than Yeats himself, placed at the turbulent start of the following triad, ‘the beginning of the artificial, the abstract, the fragmentary, and the dramatic’ (AV B 148). According to Aherne’s lights, Robartes’s thinking is obscure, he has no gift for expression and his notes on the System are confused and rambling, but to himself ‘expression is almost too facile’ (YVP 4 31), pointing to an allusive and antithetical way of thought, which contrasts with Aherne’s more conventional logic. Aherne is evidently a primary man of the last Quarter, possibly George Russell’s Phase 25, the position of the Body of Fate of Phase 19, though Aherne never appears to ask the natural question of where Robartes would place him.

These characteristics are also discernible in the later poems where they are used, from Michael Robartes and the Dancer onwards, such as in the dialogue of ‘The Phases of the Moon’, where Robartes holds forth somewhat, while Aherne plays the straight man, feeding him with questions. Character is less important in other poems where the interplay does not figure, such as in ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’, ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ or ‘Owen Aherne and his Dancers’, where the figures’ role is to speak and to voice opinions.

Elemental Characters

In his early note on Robartes, Aedh and Hanrahan, Yeats refers the imagery to magical tradition, and specifically to the subdivision of each element into four further elemental categories: Fire of Fire, Air of Fire, Water of Fire and Earth of Fire, and so on. This is a further element to the phantasmagoria, which contributes to the schematic and almost archetypal qualities of the men: the willed creation of forms through imaginative vision. In their Golden Dawn training both W. B. and George Yeats had learned to evoke visions, using various techniques to create archetypal or angelic forms in their imagination, in order to make contact with appropriate supernatural energies and to explore planes of existence. In the Cabbalistic terms of the Golden Dawn, the elemental attributions were fundamental to the structure of the their methodology, linked to the four worlds of manifestation and the Tattwas (see Regardie, Golden Dawn, Volume 4, 11-49). Hal Sundt correcting some of Regardie’s errors concerning the magic of John Dee and Edward Kelly (in the 1986 edition of The Golden Dawn), notes that ‘the Golden Dawn reduces all occult symbology to an "Elemental-Bias", and then combines elemental attributions quite mechanically to constitute everything into what they took of the Dee System’, though he considers this method valid (RGD Vol 4, 262 [625 of single volume]). The use of elemental and Tattwic symbols, the latter based on an Indian five-fold system of the elements, underlay the practice of clairvoyant and scrying vision as well as astral projection (see ed. Gould, ‘Clairvoyance: A lecture by V. H. Soror Deo Date’, Dorothea Hunter, YA 14, 265-83). Yeats had extended his use of these techniques while pursuing his preparations for the Celtic Mystical Order (see long note CL 2 663-669); collectively with more sensitive seers, he had evoked such figures as Fergus, Connla and Mananaan MacLir (see, for example, letter to Dorothea Hunter, 1 January 1898, CL 2 166-67; L 293-94), and much of the ritual is based upon the four treasures of Ireland and their elemental correspondences.

If Michael Robartes is an evocation of fire and water (specifically the Water of Fire), Owen Aherne shows similar elemental traits; though it might also seem reductive and too neat to see him as the earth and air, the symbolism is apt, specifically the Earth of Air, and it largely works.

Tattwic symbols of Water of Fire and Earth of Air
The Tattwic Symbols of ‘Water of Fire’ and ‘Earth of Air’
After contemplating the selected symbol for about twenty seconds, the student is instructed to look at a white surface to see the complementary colours, then close the eyes to internalise the complementary vision so that it appears to stand ahead, like a gateway, through which to pass with the appropriate signs: ‘Produce the reality of the dream vision by positive will in the waking state. . . Then maintaining your abstraction from your surroundings, still concentrated upon the symbol and its correlated ideas, you are to seek a perception of a scene or panorama or view of the plane’ (Regardie’s summary and instructions of MacGregor Mathers, RGD 4: 15-16).

Given the profusion of correspondences and ‘referrals’ in the Golden Dawn’s methodology, there are further ideas which could be used to enrich the image, among which are the planetary correspondences noted by Mathers in Flying Roll XXVI, that Jupiter is referred to the ‘Water of Fire’ with Spirit, while Saturn to the ‘Earth of Air’ with Spirit (RMGD 93), and Robartes has some of the expansive and exploratory Jovial qualities, while Aherne has the more cautious, pensive Saturnine qualities. In the Golden Dawn’s Tarot attributions both the Water of Fire and the Earth of Air are represented by female figures, though the sex only really applies to divination. Water of Fire is the Queen of Wands or Sceptres, representing: ‘Adaptability, steady force applied to an object. Steady rule; great attractive power, power of command, yet liked notwithstanding. Kind and generous when not opposed. If ill-dignified: obstinate, revengeful, domineering, tyrannical and apt to turn suddenly against another without cause’. The Earth of Air is the Princess (conventionally Knave) of Swords: ‘Wisdom, strength, acuteness, subtleness in material things, grace and dexterity. If ill-dignified, she is frivolous and cunning’ (RGD 4, 146-47 & 152). Robartes shows most of the characteristics of the former, Aherne a few of the better characteristics of the latter.

The elemental combinations can also be viewed astrologically where, in the wording of a modern study, a fire-water combination ‘expresses everything emotionally, excitedly, and rather impulsively’ with ‘a marked lack of self-restraint’ and ‘severe swings of mood’, whereas the combination of air-earth shows ‘forethought, detachment, practical intelligence, and fairly dry logic’ (Astrology, Psychology and the Four Elements, 125-26). The astrological facet also indicates the ways in which Yeats’s masks both dramatise himself and seek to supply what he lacked. Yeats knew that in his own horoscope the elements of Fire and Air predominated, with only one planet in an Earth sign, and none in Water (of the planets which he knew; see the astrological elements). If the characters are seen as representing facets of Yeats himself, then the Fire element, impulsive and enthusiastic, is mainly represented by Robartes, while the Air element, analytical and logical, is clearer in Aherne. If they are seen as attempts to evoke elements that are lacking in Yeats’s own character, then the emotional charge of Water is seen partially in Robartes and the practical caution of Earth in Aherne.

It has also been proposed that Robartes’ being ‘fire reflected in water’ represents theunion of the astrological symbols for fire and water , into the magicians’ Seal of Solomon (or Star of David), which symbolises among many other things the mage’s balance, control of the elements, and the dictum, ‘As above, so below’ (see also Anna Kingsford’s esoteric explanations of the symbol). This is attractive in some respects, but fails to give any meaning to the Air () of Fire and Fire of Fire combinations, and seems to attribute too much balance and even power to Robartes, implying that he is the complete mage, though the Robartes who emerges in Rosa Alchemica is certainly the most compelling magus in Yeats’s works. All three figures are only partial projections of aspects of the imagination, however, evocations of Yeats himself and possibly also invocations of external forces.

Such elemental attributions may seem potentially rather grandiose and out of keeping with realistic characters, more appropriate to Djinns than human beings and, in his representation of the characters, Yeats progressively retreats into ‘"the modesty of nature"’ (letter to Edmund Dulac, 14 October 1923; L 700). The original conception of the story of Robartes and Aherne, where the System would be presented through their dialogues, is pared away into the fictions of A Vision A's introduction, and Mr Yeats is no longer the unseen antagonist (as in the poem ‘The Phases of the Moon’), but acts as a kind of middle term between the two. Their argument over the interpretation of the System still dramatises certain elements of the System itself and its ambiguity, with Robartes as the antithetical viewpoint and Aherne, the primary. Even this vanishes when they appear in their final form in Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends. They are brought further down to earth and Aherne is less Robartes’s sparring partner than his dogsbody, and, while Robartes still commands respect and affection from his students, they are a motley collection. The proposed expedition of Robartes, Aherne and Mary Bell to the desert with Leda’s third egg, hints at more mythic dimensions, but remains absurd, in keeping with the generally comic tone of the stories. William H. O’Donnell’s treatment in A Guide to the Prose Fiction is rather jejune and censorious, but makes the useful point that this work was not polished in the way that Yeats had reworked his earlier prose fiction, proceeding relatively unchanged from first draft to printed version, and it is possible that, after working with the characters over many drafts which never reached publication, Yeats was becoming slightly tired of them.

Revised for accuracy, with additions, April 2009



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.