'Its myself that I remake.' Y B Yeats "Self Construction in Life and Poetry"



Paul Schimmel Previously published in British Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol 17, no. 1, Autumn, 2000.

ABSTRACT W.B. Yeats is one of the pre-eminent poets in English of the twentieth century. His verse is characterised by its accessibility and emotional power, and a meticulous craftsmanship in the service of achieving the desired effect. Yeats paid a similarly workmanlike attention to the task of creating his own identity, in a self-conscious attempt to ‘remake’ himself. This paper examines Yeats’ life and poetry in order to explore the psychological origins of both his artistic creativity and his need to remake himself. It looks beyond his identification with his father’s literary and artistic ideals, to evidence from the poetry for an early developmental experience of absence or failure of the maternal function. The available biographical detail from Yeats’ childhood and family is consistent with this conjecture.

In April 1934, at the age of sixty-eight, William Butler Yeats underwent a new surgical procedure, the Steinach operation. Suffering from impotence, probably depressed, and for some years unable to write any new poetry (Ellmann 1982, p.28), Yeats is said to have stated to a friend that he had no wish to go on living unless he could re-create himself continually, continually compete with himself (Hone 1942, p.436). The friend mentioned the new operation said to result in a physiological rejuvenation.

The Steinach procedure was no more than a modern day vasectomy, but at the time was widely believed to have genuine physiological effects. After the operation Yeats, wishing to make up for what he termed the wasted nights of his youth (Jeffares 1990, p.266), embarked on several late life ‘affairs’, and dubbed this period his ‘second puberty’ (Ellmann 1982). His wife, Georgie Yeats, was aware of, and apparently prepared to tolerate, these liaisons. The little available evidence does not support Yeats’ assertion of a significant beneficial effect on his impotence (Ellmann 1982, p.28; Lock 1983, p.1968); the Steinach operation presumably had no physiological effects in itself, acting rather as a placebo or ‘magic’ cure. The psychological effects, and benefits in engendering Yeats’ creative energies, were however considerable, and he began writing poetry and plays with renewed vigour. The masterful poems written in the remaining five years of Yeats’ life include many of his greatest, exploring his long-standing preoccupation with the dichotomies of life and death, body and soul, meaning and meaninglessness, and developing themes of corporeality and sexuality with new explicitness.

In his magnificent elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote, ‘You were silly like us; your gift survived it all’. The episode of the Steinach operation and the second puberty attests to Yeats’ ‘silliness’, but it equally manifests a self-understanding and, perhaps unconscious, wisdom; Yeats recognised what kind of treatment would be needed to ‘remake’ himself, and lift him out of his paralysis. The episode continued his life-long pattern of reliance on external sources of magic and power, and continued a life-long quest in search of the ideal love experience. It reflects the link, identified by Richard Ellmann (1982, p.28), between ‘versemaking’ and ‘lovemaking’ in Yeats’ mind. Versemaking depended upon access to an intrapsychic source of creative energy that was linked with an ideal of a potent relationship with the feminine. In striving to banish the impotence of age, Yeats was also striving to banish the impotence of youth. Without the sense of vital renewal and the remaking of himself experienced through lovemaking and versemaking, he became vulnerable to depression.

This paper examines Yeats’ life and poetry in an attempt to explore the psychological origins of his prodigious creativity. The gift of poetry and Yeats’ ‘silliness’ are understood as differing but linked expressions of his deeply divided self. Yeats himself was very much aware of the unconscious origin of his own poetic impulse. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley he wrote: ‘We have all something within ourselves to batter down and get our power from this fighting.’ This power, he continues, is a passion that depends upon the ‘beast underneath’, and the ‘conflict is deep in my subconscious, perhaps in everybody’s.’ (Ellmann 1979, p.138)

A Search for the Maternal

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

(The Lake Isle of Innisfree-1888)

Yeats was born in Dublin on 13th June 1865. In writing of Yeats’ childhood biographers have focused on the powerful figure of his father, John Butler Yeats. The father would seem to have been especially attached to his first born child: ‘I think your birth was the first great event in my life,’ he wrote to his son at the time of the birth of Yeats’ first child: ‘I never felt like that afterwards at the birth of the others.’ (Foster 1997, p.15) Although particularly interested in and concerned with William’s well-being, this was frequently expressed from a distance as he was more often than not in London, absent from the family home in Sligo. From the first, the father’s influence would be powerful but erratic. When Yeats was nine his father moved the family, much against his wife’s wishes, to London, and taking note that his son could not read, set about teaching him, sometimes by physical coercion (Ellmann 1979, p.25). He read poetry to him and sought to impose many of his views, including the idea that the highest form of literature was dramatic poetry (Ellmann 1979, p.27). The result of the father’s domination was lifelong tension and quarrelling, but Yeats wrote later that in his teenage years he had admired his father above all men (Ellmann 1979, p.274), and he adopted much of his father’s thinking.

Because the father provided the determining influence shaping the son’s conscious mind, biographers have tended to underestimate the importance of the mother[i]. One reason for this is that Susan Yeats is a relatively absent figure from Yeats’ own autobiographical writings, Reveries over Childhood and Youth (in Autobiographies,1955). Within a psychoanalytic frame a sketchy or missing figure may be of the greatest importance, and there is evidence that Susan Yeats struggled to fulfil her maternal role. She was one of a family of twelve children who, at least according to John Butler Yeats, sat together, ‘all disliking each other, at any rate alien mutually, in gloomy silence’ (Murphy 1978, p.37). She has been described by her eldest daughter as ‘not at all good at housekeeping and child-minding,’ and further: ‘She was prim and austere, suffered all in silence. She asked no sympathy and gave none….She endured and made no moan.’ (Murphy 1978, p.215) Yeats’ own childhood memory was that his mother would have considered any display of emotion ‘a vulgarity’ (1955, p.31). John Butler Yeats once wrote to his son that his wife’s affection ‘was a matter that one inferred. No one ever saw it or heard it speak’ (Murphy 1978, p.215), and on another occasion to John Quinn, ‘I used to tell her that if I had been lost for years and then suddenly presented myself she would have merely asked “Have you had your dinner?” All this is very like Willie.’ (Jeffares 1990, p.208)

Susan Yeats appears to have been emotionally undemonstrative, possessing a somewhat passive aggressive personality style. She was also prone to depression which she appears to have experienced increasingly through the course of her life. It seems likely she would not have naturally and easily provided the maternal functions of ‘mirroring’ and ‘affective attunement’ that are understood to be so essential to the integrity of the child’s developing self (Stern 1985, p.138), nor was she likely to have received any help from her often absent husband. Yeats had a nurse as an infant although the major biographers give no indication of her importance. The intensity and completeness of Yeats’ identification with his father in later childhood may in part reflect his inchoate sense of self at the time he came fully under his father’s sway.

As a boy Yeats had a delicate constitution and suffered poor eyesight. In Reveries over Childhood and Youth he wrote that he remembered ‘little of childhood but its pain’, and that he had ‘grown happier with every year of life as though gradually conquering something in myself,...’(1955, p.11). As a young child he sought solace in the countryside of Sligo, and the one positive attribute belonging to his mother as portrayed in his Reveries was her love for that countryside and its folk traditions. ‘She would spend hours listening to stories or telling stories of the pilots and fishing-people of Rosses Point, or of her own Sligo girlhood, and it was always assumed between her and us that Sligo was more beautiful than other places.’ (1955, p.31) Yeats’ own love affair with the Sligo countryside and Irish folklore was a direct and life-giving connection with his mother.

John Butler Yeats may have had his son in mind as much as himself, when he wrote in his unpublished memoirs: ‘If it is deeply enquired into, I think it will be recognised that the foundation of the artistic nature is affectionateness which, denied its satisfaction, as it always is, in real life, turns to the invention of art and poetry.’ (Foster 1997, p.27) In Yeats’ much anthologised early poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1888), Innisfree is a place where mother nature provides for all needs and the poet can ‘live alone in the bee-loud glade’ free from complicating human relationship. There is imagined regression to a state of infantile dependence upon an idealised nurturing maternal function; where ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’ is a lullaby for the ‘deep heart’s core’. The poem suggests the dependency need of the poet, which it is feared cannot be satisfied by any human relationship.

One woman who touched the ‘deep heart’s core’ was Lady Augusta Gregory, who took him under her wing when he visited Coole, her country estate, after breaking off his first consummated love affair, with Olivia Shakespeare. That Lady Gregory became a substitute maternal figure has been recognised by Norman Jeffares, who has written: ‘Yeats had lacked mothering in his youth, and he now got that, in middle age, at Coole.’ (1990, p.91) Lady Gregory was an assertive and independent widow. Alongside her maternal aspect she possessed those qualities Yeats found indispensable in his feminine ideal, and like the poet’s mother, she possessed a passionate interest in the folk traditions of old Ireland.

In 1909 Lady Gregory became ill and nearly died. Yeats received a letter from her son Robert, whose writing he did not recognise at first. In his Autobiographies he recalls, ‘I thought my mother was ill and that my sister was asking me to come at once: then I remembered that my mother died years ago and that more than kin was at stake. She [Lady Gregory] has been to me mother, friend, sister and brother. I cannot realise the world without her’ (1955, p.477). It would seem Susan Yeats had never been a fully realised presence in her son’s life, at least his conscious life, and thus he was unable to fully realise her death. Yeats recalled that her ‘last fading out’ after long illness made no noticeable change in his life (Jeffares 1990, p.133). In contrast it was Lady Gregory’s death in 1932 that seemed to usher in the uncreative period (Jeffares 1990, p.256; Lock 1983, p.1965) that eventually led Yeats to pursue the Steinach operation.

Poetry and Love

You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attendance upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?

(The Spur-1936)

Whether as a somewhat effete young bard or as Ireland’s eccentric elder poet-statesman, Yeats is often thought of as a poet preoccupied with the possibility of ideal love between a man and a woman. The dreamy romantic verses of his early ‘Celtic Twilight’ period express the fantasy of what was experienced as unattainable in reality. They are suffused with longing, while ‘lust and rage’ remain in the background. His first major poem, The Wanderings of Oisin (1887), is a lengthy romantic epic which reworks Irish folk-lore. In Jeffares’ assessment it ‘shows the poet in love with the idea of love, ready for a goddess to carry him off.’ (Jeffares 1990, p.29) The goddess was personified in 1889 when Yeats, aged twenty-three, met Maud Gonne. She was a striking presence: tall, dark, beautiful, dogmatic and unconventional in thought, she shared Yeats’ interest in the spirit realm, and was a prominent public figure in the cause of Irish nationalism. She served as a suitable figure for the poet’s idealising projections, and Yeats immediately fell in love.

Gonne however was given to extremes. She believed violence an acceptable means to her political ends, and Jeffares has described her as ruthless and revolutionary (1990, p.40). From the beginning she would reject Yeats as a lover, while maintaining their often intimate friendship. In 1891 she wrote to him that she had dreamt of their being sister and brother in a past life (Foster 1997, p.114), and again in 1895 of their travelling to each other astrally (Foster 1997, p.157). What she did not tell Yeats in 1889 was that she was already involved in a relationship with a Frenchman, Lucien Millevoye, by whom she would have two children. Not until after the liaison with Millevoye had ended, in 1898, did she finally tell Yeats about it, at the same time insisting that she wished their relationship to remain a platonic one. She is purported to have given her aversion to sexual love as a reason (Foster 1997, p.203).

Whether or not the aversion was Maud’s, it certainly belonged to Yeats; there was safety in being in love at a distance. Ellmann writes that in relation to Maud he ‘thought of himself as full of weakness, and felt that if she loved him, unaware of his weaknesses, she would be deceived. The only solution was to love her in vain.’ (1979, p.80). Foster also suggests that the ambivalence was not one-sided; that Yeats was more hesitant and uncertain than he could readily acknowledge (1997, p.203). He did however propose to Maud in 1891, and again on subsequent occasions, but was each time refused. Yeats came to think that he failed with Maud because he was not, nor could he style himself as, the assertive man of action. She reflected the hard edge he felt was lacking within himself and from his verse.

Being unable to consummate his passion for Maud was a ‘solution’ that suited Yeats in many respects. As an unattainable ideal she became a powerful muse: ‘A girl arose that had red mournful lips / And seemed the greatness of the world in tears’ (The Sorrow of Love -1891). It was not until 1896, when Yeats was thirty, that he finally abandoned celibate devotion to Maud to embark upon an affair with Olivia Shakespeare who, involved in an unhappy marriage herself, appears to have been the prime mover. Yeats’ ongoing preoccupation with Maud eventually led Olivia to break off the liaison, but she would remain a lifelong friend and confidante.

The beginning of a deeper psychological rupture was forced in 1903 when Maud, unexpectedly to Yeats, married Major John MacBride. Yeats possessed a low estimation of MacBride, and his idealisation of Maud was correspondingly diminished. He would eventually respond with a measure of rejection towards her; in unpublished lines (Jeffares 1990, p.109) she became the woman who ‘taught me hate / By kisses to a clown’. This conscious awareness of anger, and a lessened idealisation, allowed Yeats to retrieve some of the potency that had been projectively identified in her. He took up the sexual relationship with Olivia Shakespeare again, and other affairs were to follow. Ellmann has identified the consequent change in the verse of the plays he was writing, ‘which for the first time introduces a sexual theme without occult or Pre-Raphaelite camouflage.’ (Ellmann 1979, p.179)

Although weakened, Maud’s hold over Yeats remained. Her marriage proved disastrous, and she eventually separated from MacBride in 1905. Maud and Yeats almost certainly did have a brief sexual liaison late in 1908, (Ellmann 1979, p.xxvi; Foster 1997, p.393) but, at least for Maud, no permanent union was possible.

By 1908, at the time of writing No Second Troy, there was sufficient distance for a less idealised picture of Maud, and Yeats had begun to find a more assertive voice. It is perhaps the best known of the series of poems in which Maud is personified as Helen, whose great beauty gave rise to the Trojan wars. Yeats emphasises her martial aspects, but his idealisation is tempered by ambivalence about the destructive capacities portrayed, and his blame towards her is implicit.

No Second Troy

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

F.A.C. Wilson has commented that throughout Yeats’ courtship with Maud, he responded erotically to her hard and masculine side, adopting himself ‘a passive and studiously feminine stance towards it.’ (1972, p.6) Wilson has identified that Yeats’ poetic representations of Maud, and of his feminine ideal, are consistently impregnated with this masculine or ‘martial’ element, and has formulated this in terms of Yeats’ need to find as the object of his love someone who combined the characteristics of both sexes. Wilson has observed that after Maud’s marriage to MacBride the pattern of submission before the feminine in Yeats’ poems gives way to a ‘semi-sadistic’ one, with the ‘sense of fruitful antagonism between lover and beloved, often expressing itself through animal rape-imagery’ (1972, p.6). Leda and the Swan (1923), portraying the mythical rape of Leda by the God Zeus in the guise of a swan, is the culmination of this development. Rape binds lust and rage, and the development of such themes reinforces the impression that Yeats’ increasing sexual freedom from the time of Maud’s marriage was associated with some weakening of the domination of an unconscious ‘aggressive’ feminine imago, and increased conscious access to his own aggressive energies.

In the aftermath of the abortive 1916 Irish uprising, John MacBride, as one of the ringleaders, was executed by firing squad. In his poem Easter 1916 Yeats recorded his response to these events; MacBride, along with the other rebels, is praised for his valour, but characterised, with good reason (Foster 1997, p.330), as ‘A drunken, vainglorious lout.’ These events opened the way for a final proposal to Maud, but again he was refused. At fifty-two, Yeats was feeling under pressure. He proposed to Maud’s daughter, Iseult Gonne, born from the liaison with Millevoye, and with whom he enjoyed a close relationship. After some hesitation, Iseult refused. He sought council with Lady Gregory, then proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman towards whom he had a genuine attraction, and who he believed would be satisfied with him. She accepted and they married in 1917; Georgie Hyde-Lees was twenty-five.

Yeats was in a state of great agitation during the first days of their honeymoon. Had he made the right choice in not waiting and pursuing the possibility of marriage to Iseult Gonne? Georgie, or George, as Yeats preferred to call his wife, possessed a fine intuition, and moreover she shared Yeats’ interest in the occult. She responded to the crisis by ‘discovering’ in herself a gift for automatic writing that allowed her to receive messages from the ‘spirit world’. Yeats described the events in a letter to Lady Gregory: ‘...she said she felt that something was to be written through her. She got a piece of paper, and talking to me all the while so that her thoughts would not affect what she wrote, wrote these words (which she did not understand), “with the bird” (Iseult) “all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning.” ’ (Jeffares 1990, p.182) Georgie Yeats’ account of events differed in the content of the message, which Ellmann states she remembered years later as approximately: ‘What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare.’ (Ellmann 1979, p.xvi)

According to Georgie Yeats, once she had written the initial message the writing continued irresistibly (Ellmann 1979, p.xvi), and what began as deliberate deception on her part became truly ‘automatic’. Yeats believed the message miraculous and experienced great psychological relief, as well as equally miraculous relief from troublesome fatigue, rheumatic pains and neuralgia (Jeffares 1990, p.182). He subsequently persuaded his wife to spend up to several hours a day over a period of years in this state of suspended consciousness receiving the ‘messages’, and although the material was often obscure, once reworked by Yeats it became the foundation for his eccentric treatise on spirituality and metaphysics entitled A Vision.

Despite the shaky start, the marriage was apparently successful, at least in the early years; two children were born, and Yeats began to draw from a deeper well of poetic inspiration and imagery, writing ever more searching and accomplished poetry. The death of Lady Gregory in 1932 seems to have marked the beginning of the unproductive period that culminated with the Steinach operation; following this loss, and in the face of anxieties about loss of potency, failing health, and his own death, Yeats was to return to the elusive pursuit of a feminine ideal in the ‘affairs’ of his ‘second puberty’.

Masterbuilder of the Self.

The friends that have it I do wrong

Whenever I remake a song,

Should know what issue is at stake:

It is myself that I remake.

(Untitled verse)

Yeats’ marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees represented the final relinquishing of the possibility of marriage with either Maud or her surrogate Iseult. Being unable to perceive in Georgie the qualities that conformed to his feminine ideal, he was beset by a crippling doubt, which the automatic writing served to dispel. For Yeats it symbolised his wife’s capacity to access a source of power and authority that in turn energised and reassured him. It is possible to offer this interpretation with some confidence because out of these events Yeats wrote a poem, his long epithalamium entitled The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid.

In this allegorical poem the central figure, Kusta Ben Luka, takes a young bride in his old age. The bride is portrayed as an archetype of modest femininity, but soon she falls into strange night-time trances during which she articulates mysterious truths. Kusta attributes the origin of the trances to the influence of a male Djinn:

Or was it she that spoke or some great Djinn?

I say that a Djinn spoke. A livelong hour

She seemed the learned man and I the child;

Richard Ellmann has speculated that the metapsychological function of the spirit world and magic for Yeats was as a source of legitimising masculine authority and strength compensating for the sense of vulnerability that was the legacy of his father’s domination (1979, p.64). That the voice from the spirit world is a male one is consistent with Ellmann’s hypothesis, however the focus of the poem invites another level of interpretation. Before and after the trances, the bride is portrayed as wholly feminine and naive, in ‘childish ignorance’ of her own transformations. The trances are more than possession by a masculine presence; they reveal a latent masculine and potentially aggressive element within the archetypal feminine ideal. The poem ends:

And now my utmost mystery is out.

A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner;

Under it wisdom stands, and I alone-

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone-

Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost

in the confusion of its night-dark folds,

Can hear the armed man speak.

The singular importance of the ‘utmost mystery’ would seem to be that without this revelation of a masculine, martial element, the archetypal feminine ideal cannot fully engage the Kusta-Yeats figure of the poem. Even the ‘night-dark folds’ of the bride’s sexuality seem to be ambivalently regarded, and are portrayed as inimical to the revelation of the ‘utmost mystery’.

For Yeats the transformation of experience into poetry altered the nature of that experience; it was part of his construction of the myth of himself, and of the creation of what he referred to as the ‘mask’ (Ellmann 1979, p.172); a process exemplified in the transformation of the events of his marriage and Georgie’s ‘discovery’ of the automatic writing into The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid. Just as uncertainty and doubt were dispelled by the automatic writing, so they are absent from the poem, and from the myth of the poet. In A General Introduction to my Work (in Essays and Introductions) Yeats wrote that the poet is ‘never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’ (Yeats 1961, p.509). Poetry served to make the parts cohere.

Yeats claimed that when he was twenty-four the sentence: ‘Hammer your thoughts into unity’ formed in his mind: ‘For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence.’ (Ellmann 1979, p.237) As a young man Yeats experienced his outward self as lacking in potency, as if inhibited and enfeebled by his inward self of contemplation and hesitation (Ellmann 1979, p.75; Foster 1997, p.427). His solution was to strive consciously to remake himself, creating ‘Unity of Being’ within the outward self, which he would later designate the ‘mask’. ‘Unity of Being’ was in fact an ideal originally espoused by John Butler Yeats (Ellmann 1979, p.236).

The remaking Yeats refers to in the untitled verse quoted was the constant rewriting of poems and verse plays with which he had become dissatisfied. These songs, being part of the mask, were part of himself, to be hammered into conformity with his changing conscious attitudes and conceptions. Yeats was indefatigable in his quest for the right word in the right place: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’ (Adam’s Curse 1902). More than the song was at stake.

In his Autobiographies Yeats wrote: ‘I think all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed.’ (1955, p.503) For Yeats the creative life of poetry was a means of perpetual renewal, and this renewal as something ‘not oneself’, from somewhere that has ‘no memory’, suggests the source of poetic inspiration in the timeless unconscious. Access to this source was essential; ‘all happiness’, and ‘all joyous or creative life’ Yeats insists depend upon it, but it is also an energy employed to ‘assume the mask of some other self’; a ‘rebirth as something not oneself’. That this ‘other self’ can be revealed only as a ‘mask’, that it is in some essence ‘not oneself’, suggests something less than achievement of ‘Unity of Being’. It also suggests Yeats’ ambivalence towards this unconscious wellspring of creative energy. His concept of the ‘mask’ designated the outward self and action, but it also contained the idea of the consciously adopted role, and as such suggests something of Winnicott’s ‘false self’ (1960).

For Yeats the mask, and the poems as part of the mask, would seem to have constituted a kind of compromise. It reflected and expressed another self, but as a creation, or even disguise, under the conscious control of its author, it was maintained at a necessary distance from that other self. Poetic inspiration, by providing access to an unconscious source, energised the mask and the outward life, but at the same time the source of energy was felt to be dangerous and in need of tight control.

A Divided Self

The Second Coming (1919)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming is the one poem in Yeats’ oeuvre which seems to address itself to the question of the nature of the subterranean and threatening force in the psyche; the ‘beast underneath’, that Yeats refers to in his letter to Dorothy Wellesley.

Harold Bloom has identified ‘something in the power of The Second Coming that persuades us of our powerlessness.’ (1970, p.324) Like many commentators he explores the origin of the poem in a socio-historical context, but comments ‘what I hear in the poem is exultation on the speaker’s part as he beholds his vision, and this exaltation is not only an intellectual one. (1970, p.321) A psychoanalytic approach is required in order to conceptualise the nature of the poem’s peculiar inherent power, which Richard Wheeler has argued arises out of its ability to access, ‘a deeply repressed fantasy of omnipotent, destructive rage, called into service to master an experience of intolerable, infantile helplessness.’(1974, p.234)

The ‘revelation’ of the second stanza, after which ‘the darkness drops again’, has the quality of a dream. The vision itself invites symbolic interpretation, and is presented as of potential universal relevance in its origin from Spiritus Mundi, the collective storehouse of images which represented for Yeats something akin to Jung’s collective unconscious. The conflict is ‘deep in my subconscious, perhaps in everybody’s’, Yeats wrote to Wellesley.

As Wheeler suggests, the ‘ceremony of innocence’ is surely the benign state of experienced satisfaction and fusion between mother and infant. This is the deepest need expressed in the poem, but it is a ‘centre’ that ‘cannot hold’. The measured loss of control of the first four lines serves as a representation of, and invitation to, regression to the point where ‘anarchy is loosed’ and the benign state of symbiosis is split, the good elements becoming impotent, and the ‘worst’ full of destructive energy. The split suggests the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position of infancy (Klein 1952), with a feared outcome of annihilation. Wheeler speculates that the terror originates in the oral-sadistic stage when ‘good and bad potentialities...are created out of the dissolving symbiosis of infant and mother.’ (1974, p.236) The intensity of the aggression created by the withholding of the nurturing mother/breast, and the dissolving symbiosis, is a ‘ “blood dimmed tide” which threatens to overwhelm or swallow up the aggressor.’ (1974, p.237)

Release comes as the ruthless and intolerable aggression of the first stanza is projected into the representation of the beast in the second with its gaze ‘blank and pitiless as the sun’. As differentiation of self and object begins, the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ drama of stanza one is maintained in stanza two, and a ‘depressive’ synthesis is not achieved. The object that comes into existence, the beast, like an Egyptian Sphinx, has the body of a lion and the head of a man. It has human features but is less than human. In Winnicott’s language, a ‘capacity for concern’ (1963) has not emerged out of the state of infantile ruthlessness.

The hybrid Sphinx is also sexually suggestive. Wheeler comments that the image of the beast moving its slow thighs, ‘concentrates and conveys the threatening power which the child associates with parental sexuality’, and he offers an Oedipal dimension of interpretation of the Sphinx as a primal scene fantasy (1974, p.242). The Sphinx is a symbol of knowledge, and the knowledge of the ‘rough beast’ that is achieved in the revelation of stanza two is a knowledge of forces both malevolent and sexual. The hybrid nature of the sphinx seems suggestive of the blurring of identity that results when projective and introjective mechanisms prevent sufficient differentiation of self and object.

This interpretation of the poem, as depicting a process of entering into and emerging from a regressive fragmentation, suggests a latent potential within the poet. The loss of the self, and the rough beast that might be confronted in such a process, are ambivalently regarded. Such a potential is threatening, but the poem also suggests the possibility that regression into the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ organisation, and restitution of the beast within, are a means towards restoration of the self. The ‘rough beast’ is to be born at Bethlehem, the antithesis of the birth of Christ, and Christianity represents ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep’ in its inability to incorporate the beast, or shadow side, within the self. Yeats found common ground with Nietzsche in asserting the value of ‘passionate intensity’, even if destructive, against the impotence that results when ‘the best lack all conviction’.

Wheeler (1974, p.250) has also pointed out the significant placement of the poem A Prayer For My Daughter (1919) immediately after The Second Coming in the volume Michael Robartes and The Dancer. In this poem Yeats contemplates the threat of a storm raging outside to his young daughter sleeping peacefully inside. She becomes a symbol of ‘radical innocence’, and as the poet wishes for her well-being he imagines her life’s possible future directions and false turns, and reflects upon his own hard-won knowledge that ‘to be choked with hate / May well be of all evil chances chief’:

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,

The soul recovers radical innocence

And learns at last that it is self-delighting,

Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,

And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;

She can, though every face should scowl

and every windy quarter howl

Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

The ‘ceremony of innocence’ that could not hold in The Second Coming is recovered, as ‘radical innocence’ in this companion poem through the driving out of the beast of hatred. Division and limitation within the poet’s self are transcended through vicarious participation in his daughter’s apparent innocence and unity.

The compulsive quality of Yeats’ lifelong need to recreate himself; to achieve ‘Unity of Being’, suggests a divided self. Although the manner of its expression changed through time, the need to create unity out of division is both an insistent and consistent theme in Yeats poetry. Many of the late poems work through a dialectical process of thesis and antithesis, based on the antinomy of active participation in life versus the withdrawal inherent in the spiritual and intellectual position, towards moments of synthesis, whereby division is transcended, often through acceptance of the limitations and suffering inherent in the human condition. At such moments of synthesis Yeats’ poetry achieves great emotional intensity, distinct from the exaltation of power felt in The Second Coming. In the final stanza of Among School Children (1926):

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

and in the final line synthesis is for a moment complete, precluding division:

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

A persisting inner ‘paranoid-schizoid’ split offers a possible psychological formulation of the ultimate source of division and ambivalence that pervades things Yeatsian: outward physical objective reality juxtaposed to inward psychical subjective reality; body juxtaposed to spirit or soul; the participation of the active life against the withdrawal of the contemplative life; idealism versus realism. All these antinomies may be understood, in part, as reflecting the opposition between an aggressive participation in life and fearful withdrawal towards schizoid isolation. The moments of epiphany in Yeats’ poetry are those when such dichotomies are transcended and a ‘depressive’ synthesis achieved, but in a psychological sense the unity thus created was a centre that could not hold; it had to be remade again and again.

Where all the ladders start

When a man grows old his joy

Grows more deep day after day,

His empty heart is full at length,

But he has need of all that strength

Because of the increasing Night

That opens her mystery and fright.

(The Apparitions)

The Second Coming has been read as a representation of the ruthless rage and persecutory anxiety belonging to the unintegrated or ‘paranoid-schizoid’ state, that occurs when the capacities of the self are overwhelmed by experiences of frustration and trauma. To the extent that such experience cannot be satisfactorily encompassed by, and integrated into, the developing self, it remains split off from consciousness as a latent vulnerability or potential. In his Journal (published in Memoirs) Yeats comments on his own powerful aggressive impulses and their inhibition: ‘The feeling is always the same: a consciousness of energy, of certainty, and of transforming power stopped by a wall, by something one must either submit to or rage against helplessly. It often alarms me; is it the root of madness?’ (Yeats 1972, p.157) To a greater or lesser extent the persecutory anxieties of the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ are a universally latent human experience, and this resonance in the collective unconscious, the origin out of ‘Spiritus Mundi’, has been suggested as a reason for The Second Coming's particular power and fascination for readers. In relation to Yeats himself the poem suggests that the ‘beast underneath’ has its origins in his own early experience.

The ‘beast’ was a source of energy and fascination, but also something to be ‘battered down’, with a resulting experience of depletion of the conscious self. In order to become successfully engaged in a love relationship Yeats needed to be able to recognise, and draw upon, a compensatory source of potency within the feminine. A consequent pattern of idealisation in his relationships with women can be discerned in the poetry as in life. At the same time it was only by risking involvement in a love relationship that a possibility for the restitution of this projected potency was created. Thus the breakdown of Yeats’ idealisation in relation to Maud was accompanied by greater access to his capacity to ‘hate’, and a consequent increase in psychic freedom and creative potency.

A second freeing up of his creative energies followed his marriage. As well as being able to ‘magically’ conform to Yeats’ feminine ideal, Georgie Yeats provided a maternal and holding function which served to stabilise Yeats’ narcissistically vulnerable self, in a way that would have been impossible with Maud. The episode of the automatic writing reflects both Yeats’ ongoing need to draw upon a source of power outside of himself, and Georgie’s intuitive capacity for understanding that need. R.F. Foster has titled the first of his two volume Yeats biography The Apprentice Mage, and magic was one of Yeats’ enduring preoccupations; he was involved with spiritualism and magic societies throughout his adult life, particularly the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Magic and spiritualism provided a further source of idealised power to draw on, when he experienced himself as vulnerable or threatened by depression. Perhaps without the psychological boost of the Steinach operation we might have been denied the magnificent poems of Yeats’ ‘second puberty’. In this regard Stephen Lock has wryly suggested, ‘we should perhaps be thankful that Yeats escaped modern medicine.’ (Lock 1983, p.1967)

The writing of poetry might be conceptualised as providing dual, and paradoxically opposed, functions for Yeats. As a means of access to unconscious potentials and energies, it facilitated growth and development within his self; while as part of the construction of an identity or ‘mask’ it provided a defensive or idealising function which, through the achievement of unity in art, protected against breakdown or fragmentation of the self. In the journal entry commenting on his inhibition of his own aggressive impulses, Yeats goes on to link his development of style to the transformation of this energy: ‘There was a time when they [his writings] were threatened by it; I had to subdue a kind of Jacobin rage. I escaped from it all as a writer through my sense of style. Is not one’s art made out of the struggle in one’s soul? Is not beauty a victory over oneself?’ (Yeats 1972, p.157)

Yeats’ need for the transforming magic of poetry remained undiminished throughout his life. Not only lust and rage, but death too, became a potent spur, and as he looked towards the end, he wrote. He had always hoped for evidence from his occult studies for the survival of the soul after death, but for Yeats as poet, the pursuit of the question and of a vision was more important than any certain answer: ‘and yet when all is said / It was the dream itself enchanted me’, he reflects in The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1938). But the anticipation of death was also a powerful foil to enchantment, and it is concrete and corporeal reality that comes to have the increasingly powerful claim. In A Dialogue of Self and Soul (1927), the Self has the final and more convincing voice:

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,

A blind man battering blind men;

In The Circus Animals’ Desertion Yeats ostensibly laments the loss of his ‘ladder’ which gave access to fantasies and images of enchantment, his ‘circus animals’, but the power of the poem’s final and heroic couplet is born from the recognition that true creativity lies in the embrace of what cannot be avoided:

Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Yeats’ compulsive need to remake himself, and by implication his sense of himself as incomplete, has been identified. At the deepest level, this lifetime striving for ‘Unity of Being’ might be understood as an expression of the need to heal the violence of a ‘paranoid-schizoid’ division within the self, and to reaffirm the possibility, at least intrapsychically, of an non-conflicted union with the maternal. The interpretation of Yeats’ poetry as reflecting an intrapsychic experience of maternal failure or loss must stand on the poetry alone. Nevertheless it seems significant that available biographical information about Yeats’ childhood and family, suggests an atmosphere of emotional attenuation, where maternal preoccupation was at a premium, and linked to Susan Yeats’ passion for the folk traditions of old Ireland.

At the end of Reveries over Childhood and Youth, Yeats expressed poignantly his sense of an unfinished life, and linked this sentiment with his childhood experience. He wrote that thinking about his childhood had left him ‘sorrowful and disturbed’, and his final sentence concludes: ‘all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.’ (1955, p.106) Could it be that the need to remake himself, by transcending division and incompleteness within, was a necessary source of Yeats’ artistic creativity, and that without it we would not have received the gift of his poetry?


[1] Subsequent to writing this paper I have read Brenda Maddox’s recent (1999) biography, George’s Ghosts: A New Life of W.B. Yeats (London: Picador).

Maddox also identifies the tendency of biographers to overlook the importance of the mother, and gives detailed consideration to the biographical evidence as to Susan Yeats’ influence upon her son’s life. It is of note that her analysis leads to similar formulations to those put forward in this paper.


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