The Semiotics of Race: 
Yeats’s Vision for Ireland

Yeats offers us a physical existential map that prophetically interprets the present moment through a Dantesque use of known archetypes in an effort to achieve metaphoric transcendence. Like Dante’s claims to have been assisted by supernatural means, Yeats insists on having received help from beyond the natural world. Ghostly instructors led Yeats to develop his system by explaining that their central aim was to provide metaphors for poetry. In fact, as Vendler notes, "A Vision is all about…poetry, about the nature and value of symbolism in poetry, about what poetry should include, about the relationship between the poet and his Muse, about how the Muse operates, and finally about literary history" (29). In diagramming the twenty-eight phases of the moon, Yeats casts European writers as archetypes of certain dispositions, like Dante did in The Divine Comedy, and explains through their styles the nature of humanity. He does this as a means by which to express the nature of the human spirit, for the mechanics or the style of poetry is only a conduit by which to reveal the soul. The cryptic nature of his symbolism is, therefore, an impresa drawn not to mask his true meaning but to provide meaning beyond the capability of the artificial construct of language. Like Dante, Yeats had to graph his universe using images to which humanity could relate and provide a common direction or goal for humanity to obtain. That goal rests in the 15th phase of this Great Wheel, which represents beauty, unity of being and complete subjectivity. The ability of The Great Wheel (TGW) to represent the soul of all of humankind makes A Vision problematic as a signifier of Irish national identity because it seems contrary to the nationalistic purposes of both Yeats’s literary works and those of his contemporaries in the Irish Literary Society regardless of how Irish their themes or Gaelic their sentiments.

Because understanding Yeats’s cosmography is essential to an understanding of his art, Vendler makes the assessment that "A Vision...exists to provide a ‘systematic’ background against which Yeats’s poetry and plays must be read to acquire their proper resonance" (Vendler 5). This cartographic explication of humankind is constructed as a lunar calendar that waxes toward and wanes away from the high point of its full moon. The full moon is representative of what Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, terms sweetness and light, or beauty and intelligence, and each of the twenty-eight phases embodies that ideal to some less perfect degree. As it is impossible for humanity to inhabit the ideal of the full moon, to which it aspires in order to break the cycle of the return, or of reincarnation under a different phase of the moon, it is equally impossible to inhabit its opposite, the dark of moon, representative of complete objectivity, or plasticity, passivity and Truth. The reason for the inhabitability of the full moon lies in humankind’s not being a creature of total beauty and intelligence. The full moon, according to Vendler, is the “phase of the attained object, where Sun is consumed in Moon and all is beauty” (8). In relation to this, Vendler adds that no other phase has value in itself except Phase 15, which incarnates the ideal, and in some sense it is true to say that all of A Vision is written to explain the central phase. All other phases are seen in relation to it, whether as struggles to attain it or as recessions from it once achieved. (8)

The dark of moon, opposite in relation to it, can embody none of that ideal, and is likewise uninhabitable because humankind is a creature of at least some degree of beauty and intelligence. That distance between them is, however, spanned by the intermediate phases, and it actually collapses if Keats’s assertion in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” is at all applicable in a system in which Yeats described Keats as embodying the 14th Phase of the Obsessed Man who is hovering on the edge of Complete Subjectivity, or independent intuition of God’s thoughts. Vendler argues that for a collapse like this to occur would be ultimately, and ironically, destructive to humanity’s ability to relate to itself. If the perfect congruence between imagination and reality were to occur, and the world were to end, love would cease to exist—and for Yeats, that is an unthinkable conclusion...Therefore, Yeats insists on the separation of reality and image in Phase 15, to show that creative activity exists only as an attempt to bridge the gap. (24)

We need that gulf to understand the contraries around us as a means by which to better understand the contraries in our own characters. Yeats’s system becomes, therefore, a descriptive metaphor of the yearning of all humanity, not specifically Irish culturalism, for sweetness and light, which is precisely what makes it an appropriate vehicle for the creation of poetry, an art that aspires to the explication of the same ends. The fundamental basis for the pragmatics of TGW are Blakean in the sense that the thirteen waxing phases are indicative of maturing temptation leading the individual out of an innocence and into experience while the thirteen waning phases are indicative of aging violence leading the individual through the various stages of experience this world has to offer . Similar to Dante’s taxonomic rendering of the world beyond this one, the distinctions drawn here are more closely classified according to a specific degree of character within the person, like that described by Alexander Pope in his concept of the ruling passion, and not his degree of guilt. The first half of TGW, therefore, is a coming into identity and learning the measure of where the man ends and the world around him begins. The second half is a reconciling of that identity, of the individual part of the system, to the world around itself, the greater whole to which it belongs. It is the process of understanding the synergy, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, of which the universe is comprised. Without reaching this desired aim, one can never achieve union with the whole and remains a fragment, representative of only part of it.

The archetypes of humankind, imprinted on each phase of the moon, circumnavigate TGW’s epicenter, the earth in which rest the elements of humankind, and demonstrate the progressive and linear development of the human creature were one to move through each of the phases in the course of one’s life. What Yeats seems to be arguing is that while it is possible for the individual to move through all the phases in the course of his or her life, one tends to embrace in any given incarnation one particular phase as a dominant characteristic of his or her identity. Governed through the Will, one comes to encompass another three aspects of TGW through the corresponding efforts of the Body of Fate, Creative Mind and Mask, each of which elements signifies a portion of that identity held by the Will. To that effect, the Will of a Daimonic Man at Phase 17 carries with it the Creative Mind of the Sensuous Man (thus embodying his opposite), the Body of Fate of the Saint and the Mask of the Beginning of Ambition. This act of encompassing in various aspects of one’s character different characteristics and modes is called Being, which is located not only within human beings, but also within their objects of desire and knowledge (Adams The Book of Yeats’s Vision 73). The craving for more than one already has and the wisdom to distinguish the difference between what one wants and one needs, for example, is as much a part of Being as is the intention and ability to create art. To clarify these terms, Day demonstrates that "the Four Faculties are the result of the four memories of the Daimon (daemon) or the Ultimate Self of the Man" and provides the following definitions:

bulletThe Will (The Is) or the natural ego of man is shaped out of the Daimon's memory of all the events of his present life, whether consciously remembered or not. [drive]
bulletThe Mask (The Ought), the object of desire or idea of the good, is shaped out of the Daimon's memory of the moment of exaltation in his past lives [emotion, desire; what one wishes to become; what one reverences].
bulletThe Creative Mind (Thought, the Knower) is shaped out of the Daimon's memory of ideas--or universals--displayed by actual men in past lives or their spirits between lives. [intellect; the consciously constructive mind]
bulletThe Body of Fate (Object of Thought; the Known) is the series of events forced upon him from without and is shaped out of the Daimon's memory of the events of his past incarnations [environment (both physical and mental)]. (qtd. in Foll, italics his)

The dichotic relationship between the Will and the Mask and between the Creative Mind and the Body of Fate would appear to set up a reductive binary relationship that disallows gradations of Being from manifesting themselves at various points during an individual’s existence, but the system is designed to account for the spirit’s elasticity, for, as Day writes, "every soul (and every civilization) passes through all twenty-eight phases of the wheel" ( qtd in Foll). The dispositions with which we are born, then, while representative of our natural bend, do not own or control us and can be altered through maturity and growth.

The most important aspect of TGW that demonstrates its transcendence of binary codes lies in its interior connective symbol, which is a double set of cones pressed into one another so that whenever one pole dominates to any degree, the other pole submits to the same degree. Like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction, an increase in Primary Thought generates a comparable decrease in the Antithetical Image and vice versa. In this case, the Primary Gyre, that which serves, represents external fate while the Antithetical Gyre, that which creates, represents internal destiny. This "conjunction of opposites as two interpenetrating cones" is represented like this because "Yeats…saw that each individual was composed of warring elements, and that this mingling of opposites held true for each country, and each era" (Day). Both the primary and the antithetical elements revolve centrifugally within one another, grinding physical space against spiritual time and the moral objective against the aesthetic. The use of this symbol within TGW comes about as a means by which to reconcile the degrees of character that lay upon its circumference. Day adds that such efforts at reconciliation come through the concept of the Mask, which he explains as:

Each of Yeats's twenty-eight basic personality types is so arranged that it faces its direct opposite, the personality most different from it. This opposite is its Mask. For every personality there is a Mask, but the objective, primary phase personalities should ignore their Masks or else they will be frustrated and destroyed. The subjective or artistic personalities all must choose a Mask to wear, but they are faced with two to choose from, a True Mask and a False, and it is necessary that they choose correctly.

Choosing incorrectly leads to frustration and inauthenticity. That this reconciliation of binaries works, however, is illustrated by the cooperative nature of the Four Faculties and the powers that guide them, the Husk, Passionate Beauty, Spirit and Celestial Body, called the Four Principles, which operate in those who are dead reciprocally to the Four Faculties, which operate in those yet alive. The dynamics of these elements working throughout an era results in human creativity and progress; working throughout the lifetime of an individual, they inspire art and poetry.

The spark that ignites humankind’s creative faculty lies within the illuminated part of itself that communes with Phase 15. Vendler states that

Yeats gives four central ideas concerning poetic inspiration. First, it takes place essentially in a heightened moment; second, the moment is a period in a cyclical process; third, it is a moment of illumination, when the poet is struck by an insight so clarifying that it appears as a bolt of lightning, or as a flooding of the whole being with light; and fourth, the vision comes from outside the poet, the thunderbolt from the hand of Jove. (28)

Yeats, in "Vacillation," describes a moment like this occurring to him in his fiftieth year:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less,
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blesséd and could bless. (40-44)

This is as close as we ever get to Phase 15, and that it happens cyclically means that other phases affect us in ways peculiar to those phases in the same cyclical fashion. Vendler explains this phenomenon in saying, "Phase 15 is, in life, a transitory state experienced by the artist in the moment of illumination and creation (and by the lover and saint in sexual and religious ecstasy). From this momentary joy and knowledge in Phase 15, the artist must return to the ordinary world" (28). Applying this to the developmental phases of TGW, we discover that there is a practical application to this theory. Moving from Artificial Individuality to an Assertion of (Real) Individuality, for example, occurs at various points in our experiences or our careers as we progress through the dozens of institutions we will inhabit over the course of a lifetime. We are at the same time, perhaps, liberal Image Breakers and Burners in one paradigm and conservative persons at the end of our ambitious politics and accepting of livable if not satisfactory conditions in another. This is not a contradiction in our nature, but it does help to explain the contrary purposes to which humanity operates, on the one hand, funding charities for the poor, and on the other aiding in their oppression through continued, if only passive, adherence to capitalist paradigms of accumulation. That we can hold the Primary and the Antithetical in a single thought points more to the functional capacity of Being than it does to any incapacity of Existence. Adams argues that "neither primary nor antithetical has a monopoly on things that we are likely to endorse as good or evil," and he lists some of the dichotomies between them as, respectively, "from without" vs. "from our spirit and history," "looks toward transcendent power" vs. "obeys immanent power," "dogmatic" vs. "expressive," "leveling" vs. "hierarchical," "unifying" vs. "multiple," "feminine" vs. "masculine," and "humane" vs. "harsh" (112). Good and evil become a matter of perspective under this definition, and a man or a country considered bad by one person or population can still experience moments of bliss in which the power to feel blesséd and bless would not be lacking. In short, there is good and bad in all things, but we choose to see or display either based on our predisposition towards them. If Phase 15 is within our historical paradigm, within TGW, then it is within all humanity, regardless of nationality or creed.

The Great Wheel is not a new system, not a system like Blake’s after the development of which he argued that he had to create his own system or be enslaved by that of another man’s. Yeats bases his principles on established paradigms and merely extends and interprets their significance. He does this in two ways. The first is based on the Occult, where Yeats uses the signs of the Zodiac to complement placement of his Phases. In imbedding the terms traditionally used to read one’s character or future into his lunar calendar, Yeats is conjuring all the baggage each of those signs carry. If a Libra, therefore, were to try to interpret his or her disposition through Yeats’s system, that person would automatically be drawn to the space between the first and third phase without a systematic analysis of the position in TGW that he or she would have otherwise classed him or herself. Were the outer rim of the Zodiac turned, allowing the proper astrological sign to be placed against the proper Phase of development, then it would have to be turned again to accommodate the next person. The consistency of the results would then be suspect as the person doing the reading would also have to be aware of the direction in which to lead the individual being read. Such motive power on the part of the medium would be held in question in the same way John Corbet questions Mrs. Henderson’s authenticity in Yeats’s 1934 The Words upon the Window-Pane. That Yeats’s system is superimposed on top of a much older cosmological model lends it stability in some regards and weakens it in others.

The second manner in which Yeats established his paradigms was through a historical perspective. Yeats’s Great Year of 26,000 years, broken into 13 phases of two thousand years each so that the journey from Complete Plasticity to Complete Beauty takes a millennium to complete, begins with the Greek myth of Leda, who was ‘raped’ by a swan. Building on historical context, then, Yeats inaugurates the second phase with the ‘rape’ of Mary by a dove, so that having followed the traditions of the Greeks, he now follows the traditions of the Hebrews. He moves from West to East in order to prepare us for the later move back from East to West. The completion of the second phase imminent at the time of his writing, his system uses the traditional Hellenic (Free Thought) and Hebraic (Orthodox) foundations in order to metonymically advance itself into the third phase, that of the Rough Beast, who will presumably be hatched from the third egg, a description of which begins his book. In each age, he demonstrates, there has been the ascendancy of one hemisphere and comparable descendency of the other based on the same equilibrium as exists between his cones. When Persia was dominant, Greece was subordinate. When Greece and Rome became dominant, Persia became subordinant. When Rome fell, Byzantium took over. When Byzantium declined, the West underwent a cultural Renaissance. This ebb and flow of the East and the West is part of the cycle that moves through every phase with each millennium and simultaneously through only half a phase during that same period. The entire Pagan Era was, according to Adams’s chart, an Antithetical Period, a period of Beauty and Subjectivity and Freedom of Thought, and the entire Christian Era was one of Truth and Objectivity and Enforced Dogma. The next era, the Post-Christian Era of the Rough Beast, likewise, will be another Golden Age of Light, with its own gyres within gyres, and Yeats can make predictions on that one predicated on his understanding of the historical trends of the previous two. Considering the world’s history, in this case, Yeats forfeits any pretense of speaking directly to the Irish themselves or of advancing Irish cultural hegemony in the face of the English ascendancy.

In spite of his being caught between the Irish and English, and between the Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Yeats took upon himself the inheritance of the Young Irelanders of the 1840s. Boyce explains that the unanswered questions of the previous generations of Irelanders struggling to understand "the purpose of a national literature [and] the standards by which it should be judged" (235) were crucial to the development of their own identity and the place they held in this world. He adds that "the relationship between the Yeatsian idea of a national literature, choosing Irish themes (which Yeats did) and the idea that the only true national literature was that which found expression through the medium of the Irish language" (235) were areas of contention within the politically charged atmosphere of Irish Literary Nationalism. Yeats certainly kept close friends with those, like Lady Gregory, who could read and write Gaelic, but he never mastered the language sufficiently to himself write in it, and his dual identity as descendent of England and Irish nationalist would have brought into question his doing so just as much as it had brought into question his not doing so. While it would have been ideal to create a literature based on the native language of Ireland’s people, for it is only through actualizing oneself in one’s own cultural paradigm that one can come to feel authentic in relation to another, Ireland’s people were no longer chiefly speakers of Gaelic, anyway. This circumstance prompted Douglas Hyde to write a treatise on the need to de-Anglicise Ireland, in which he accosted the Irish that

if they were not actively for the [Gaelic] language, then they must be counted against. And if they were against it they were the tools of England, West Britons, not true Irishmen—and yet not even Englishmen: for the English were so racially distinct that the non-Irish Irishman was an unhappy creature, stranded in a no-man’s land between two distinct cultures, two distinct nations. (Boyce 239)

Yeats would certainly not be counted against Ireland, for his work had done a great deal to support the growing awareness of Irish national identity while at the same time helped to achieve Matthew Arnold’s ideal of there being a unified language (English, of course) between the two cultures so that greater fluency of discourse might bring them more together than push them apart. Boyce adds to Arnold’s argument against Hyde that

English was the medium through which nationalist Ireland became a political reality. English language publications carried the gospel even to the most remote parts of the country; Irish nationalist songs, in English, were the political small change of the public…Anglicization, far from destroying nationalist Ireland, made possible its creation. (254)

So, this is the hybrid ground upon which Yeats stood, neither a part of Ireland nor a part of England, and so his poetry had to reflect a reconciliation of the two cultures and create a third. Boyce describes this contest as

between the Gaelic league idea of Irish Ireland; the Anglo-Irish idea of Celtic literature; and, perhaps in the middle of these mighty opposites, the Davisite idea of a ‘racy of the soil’ literature, in the English language, but catering for the tastes of the nationally minded mass reading public. (235)

Yeats’s only hope of being able to accomplish his purpose in this melange of antipathies was to speak metaphorically about goals outside the conflicting interests of Ireland’s parties that were common to all groups, for metaphor transcends cultural barriers. Since he could not destroy the cultural alignments inherent within each of these groups, he did the next best thing, which was to strive to provide the greatest number with the greatest possible hope of actualizing themselves within the situation into which they were born.

If the expressed purpose of Yeats’s instructors was to provide Yeats with metaphors for poetry, Yeats’s own explicit purpose was to advance Irish artistic expression and reestablish Irish national culture. To this end, he was following the path of Literary Nationalism already created by Thomas Davis and the Young Irelanders. Boyce states that

Davis hoped that the Irish cultural past might be the means of enabling Irishmen to discover their common heritage, of linking contemporary Ireland with its romantic, heroic, bygone age. In so doing he and his colleagues sought to restore to Ireland self-respect and self-confidence; but this self-respect was to be based, not on Ireland’s literary accomplishments, but on what literature could accomplish for Ireland. And what literature could accomplish for Ireland was the justification of Ireland’s claims to a distinctive national existence. (230)

Yeats’s poetry and plays were written so expressly to help generate a distinctive national existence that he even questions the power of his own words in "Man and the Echo" by asking of his influence in the 1916 uprising: "Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?" (11-2). By the publication of Last Poems in 1938 and 39, when he asked this of himself, Yeats’s influence over the Irish national consciousness was almost half a century in the making. He had founded the Irish Literary Society of London in December 1891 and began the National Literary Society in Dublin in August of 1892, aimed, at what Boyce describes, to "realize Davis’s dream of ‘a common Irish tradition, embracing Irishmen of all origins and persuasions’" (234-5). As a literary nationalist, furthermore, Yeats would have "wanted to preserve the heritage, not for primarily literary purposes, but because it might advance the cause of Irish nationality" (Boyce 231), unlike the Literary Patriots who were anxious to save and preserve the heritage, and to secure for Ireland a place in the European tradition" (231). Yeats is conflicted on this point, however, if A Vision is any indication of his natural bend, for all the work that he had done to ensure the reality of Irish cultural nationalism, the very book written as metaphors for his own poetry led him away from promoting the exclusive interests of his people and into glorying in the interests of the greater humanity, of which the cultural imperialism forced upon Ireland by English writers is made evident in his selections of models for each of his Phases in TGW.

This basic sketch is enough for us to read the intent of the system within its historical context and examine Yeats’s intent in assigning certain personalities to various places within TGW. From the Beginning of Energy in Phase 2 to the Separation from Innocence in Phase 5, Yeats provides no human examples. When he does begin to assign these characteristics in Phase 6, Artificial Individuality, he points to Walt Whitman whose opposite in Phase 20 is Shakespeare. To select a name from the rest of the Phases produces a list in which only a minority of those mentioned are Irish. The majority, in fact, is English. Given the apparent paradox between what Yeats avows and what he accomplishes, I think the reconciliation can be achieved through a redefinition of Yeats as something greater than a Literary Nationalist, into what Kearney calls a Civic Nationalist. Kearney draws the distinction between a Civic and a Literary Nationalist in the following way:

Civic nationalism conceives of the nation as including all of its citizens—regardless of blood, creed or colour. Ethnocentric nationalism [akin to the goals of literary nationalism] believes, by contrast, that what holds a community together is not common rights of citizenship (or humanity) but common ethnicity (or race). (57)

Yeats, after all, was a non-Catholic and non-Gaelic speaking Irishman who wanted to create a cultural renaissance within his country. In pursuing this goal throughout his plays and his poetry, he relied not only on themes of the West as instructed him by A Vision, but also on themes of the East through the Japanese Noh tradition, which can be seen represented in plays like At the Hawk’s Well (1917) and The Only Jealously of Emer (1919) and on the Indian traditions of the Upanishads to which he sometimes makes reference in his autobiographical writings. What made his poetry and drama specifically Irish, consequently, rested more on its subject matter than on its packaging.

Yeats was ultimately in pursuit of a higher goal than nationalism, a cohesion of humanity that would have made nationalism obsolete, but he had to work within the system of his own culture to achieve the perfection of the soul that he had so avidly sought. Arnold writes in Culture and Anarchy that

The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light. He who works for sweetness works in the end for light also; he who works for light works in the end for sweetness also. But he who works for sweetness and light united, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. (69)

That is precisely Yeats’s aim, for sweetness and light are the culminative goal to which A Vision aspires. For Yeats to do achieve this, however, within the machinery of the culture was problematic for him as the institutions of Ireland were divided against themselves. He would have to have chosen a solely Protestant or Catholic machine in which to operate, or a branch thereof, and that would have been reductive to his interests. Arnold validates Yeats’s position on this by stating that working for the machinery and not for the culture is self-limiting and mean. He writes that

he who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light. It has one even yet greater!—the passion for making them prevail. It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man; it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light. (Culture and Anarchy 69)

The culture that Arnold is articulating, however, is one of homogeneity, of sameness, where all its members have a common language and pursue common goals. Yeats deviates from that slightly in his praise of the Gaelic language, but even he opts away from the old language, preferring to disseminate his works in the language that would come more naturally to him and his audience. It is like what Arnold argues about the ability of the individual to more fully experience the advantages offered by this world if that individual is part of the mainstream culture.

It would…have been better for a man, during the last eighteen hundred years, to have been a Christian and a member of one of the great Christian communions, than to have been a Jew or a Socinian; because the being in contact with the main stream of human life is of more moment for a man’s total spiritual growth, and for his bringing to perfection the gifts committed to him, which is his business on earth, than any speculative opinion which he may hold or think he holds. (Arnold Culture and Anarchy 30)

Yeats, charged with bringing together disparate groups in Ireland through the unifying force of his poetry, became a banner around which compatriots of any ethmix background could rally. Coming from a bicultural nation, Yeats would have found it extremely difficult to have created the system of A Vision and not believed in its power to transcend the differences between cultures and erase the borders between nations.

The Four Principles that serve as the motive force behind the Four Faculties are the key to understanding the teleology at stake within this system, for regardless of what we were in our past existence, it is possible for our future existence to be something else. An Irishman, for instance, might be reincarnated as an Englishman, and to hate the Englishman, or the Irish Catholic or Protestant, is ultimately to hate oneself. Rather than invest so much effort in the struggle to gain ascendancy, since that ascendancy is imminent anyway, it would be better to try to reconcile the conflicting passions within oneself so that one can live a better quality of existence regardless of the physical condition in which one lives. The nationalist argument against this is that no man can ever achieve his full potential when suffering under a state of servitude to another, and Yeats’s appreciation for that is manifest in his efforts to maintain Davis’s literary nationalist movement. That Yeats supported Irish nationalism is evident in his works, but his support seems to have been consequential to this higher goal of creating a society in which all people could find actualization for their lives, could attain the light of Phase 15. This brings us to the purpose of those Four Principles: the Husk, the Spirit, the Celestial Body and the Passionate Body, which are to guide the identity of the self in between its carnations. This process of reincarnation comprises six states of Death through which the soul must travel before it can be reborn, with the desired object being to bypass rebirth and proceed directly into the light of the 15th Phase. The first state is the Vision of the Blood Kindred, described by Adams as a meditation, "a vision of a synthesis of ‘all the impulses and images which constitute the Husk" (112), or physical deceased body. Having had one’s life flash entirely before one’s eyes in the first state, the soul is ready to undergo the torturous process of the Return, which is manifested in three cycles: Dreaming Back, Return, and Phantasmagoria. The Dreaming Back is the hard part, a "living over and over, in the order of their intensity, the most passionate events in life until they are purged" (Adams Ibid 170). It is depicted through the images of Jonathan Swift in The Words upon the Window-Pane (1934) and the Old Man of Purgatory (1939), where neither soul can reconcile itself to its past and is condemned to relive its excesses until its purgation. This is followed by the Return proper, "in which events are relived in order of their temporal occurrence" (171), a sort of replay of the entirety of one’s existence after he or she has been reconciled to it. The Return proper is an important editing and revision process of the soul because it is the real beginning of the soul’s readiness to dispassionately recognize its own errors and adjust its attitude towards them to reach the final state of return, the Phantasmagoria, an "exhaustion in death of the emotions accompanying the events of the past life" (171). Having relived the entirety of one’s existence and objectively engaged the psychology of the self, the soul is able to put that awareness in context with the world in which it had lived. This is called the Shiftings, where the "Spirit comes to understand good and evil" (171) and learn to distinguish between them. Culture, at this point, becomes problematic for the purposes of an Irishman who is learning to understand the difference between what is good and what is evil outside of the context of living nations and their struggling ethnic groups, for culture is both the essential thing to be understood and the thing that least matters to the disembodied spirit. If culture is, as Matthew Arnold argues, the greatest good, it also embodies within it its opposite and becomes the greatest evil to those denied it. Marriage, otherwise known as Beatitude, follows this understanding of good and evil by wedding the two concepts into oblivion. The image is conjured of Dante’s swimming across the river Lethe to reach the Garden of Eden, forgetting the evil of his life and amplifying the good. Without knowledge of evil, there is no understanding of good, and the amplification of that good is achieved by proximity to God, or, in this case, Phase 15. The fifth state of Death is the preparation for new life called Purification, "the old Husk having been sloughed off, a new Husk and Passionate Body prepare to appear. The purification is specifically of one’s own aim in the next life" (171). It is through this that one begins the preparatory steps to reentering culture after having just experienced an existence bereft of it. The last state of Death, therefore, is that which immediately precedes life: Foreknowledge, where "one gains knowledge of one’s new life and accepts it" (170). At this point, that person is reborn into perhaps what could be the ascendant culture, in which he or she will perpetuate the values of that culture upon the subordinate one without being aware of doing evil because the cultural norms of the society dictate those actions as standard. Yeats’s works, consequently, could be read as a way of preparing that ascendant world for a change in attitude before he became a part of it, which could be why he used so many English archetypes in peopling TGW.

The difficulties we have in trying to reconcile the global vision of The Great Wheel with Irish nationalism exist because of our inability as humans trapped within the historicity of the life cycle to see beyond the cultural imperatives that dictate the nature of our existence with ascendant groups. That Yeats struggled with these issues is evident, but that he overcame them to his own satisfaction is difficult to assess. In On the Boiler, written the year of his death in 1939, Yeats admits that his drama "belongs to a dead art and to a time when a man spoke out of an experience and a culture that were not of his time alone, but held his time, as it were, at arm’s length, that he might be a spectator of the ages" (qtd in Finneran 423). He did this, too, becoming at once a spectator of the ages and the revitalizing element in the Irish cultural renaissance, a literary move into the politics of the nation in its struggle with itself and with its English overlords. His literary movement, according to Boyce, therefore

helped shape and release new political forces that threatened Yeats’ hope of an imaginative Irish literature tailored for a critical yet appreciative audience, that would enable Ireland to make a distinctive contribution to the common European cultural heritage. (235)

Yeats was still able, however, to create in the meantime a system that should have helped him to transcend it all, and unless he lost faith in his system, he should not have been alienated by its failures to effect progressive change or his own inability to do likewise. Matthew Arnold explains that the best one can do is

To walk staunchly by the best light one has, to be strict and sincere with oneself, not to be of the number of those who say and do not, to be in earnest,--this is the discipline by which alone man is enabled to rescue his life from thralldom to the passing moment and to his bodily senses, to ennoble it, and to make it eternal. (37)

Yeats should have been able to save, if no one else, at least himself, for his system dictates the means by which to do so. It is in this Great Wheel that humankind finds a rationale behind the contradictions inherent in its character and a hope for attaining beauty and enlightenment through an intimacy with the unity of being the 15th Phase represents.


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Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Ed. by J. Dover Wilson. London: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Arnold, Matthew. "On the Study of Celtic Literature." Lectures and Essays in Criticism. Ed. by R.H. Super. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1962: 291-395.

                Boyce, George D. Nationalism in Ireland. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 1995.

Day, Martin S. History of English Literature: 1837 to the Present. Garden City: Doubleday, 1964: 245-6. Qtd. in Steve Foll’s "Yeats’s System." Masterworks of English Literature II: The Victorians and Beyond. Online. 4 November 2000.

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