Cycle of Life Explained in A Vision

Cycle of Life Explained in A Vision

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Cycle of Life Explained in A Vision

 
      William Butler Yeats' accomplishments as a writer are varied. From his in depth and philosophical poetry to his alarming and enlightening A Vision, his work has been widely read by English scholars and religious philosophers. Although A Vision is extremely hard to understand completely, Yeats' overall concept is easy to fathom. What happens where Christianity leaves off? What is the cycle of life, and where does time begin and end? These are all questions that mankind has continually asked since the beginning of recorded time. The "how" and "why" of life and death has intrigued mankind for thousands of years. Always wanting to know more has been the motivating force in the lives of many great philosophers and thinkers since Plato and Aristotle. Yeats, like his predecessors, tries to answer these questions in A Vision. Through the use of the gyres and the notion that time and the elements of time are forever, Yeats successfully conveys his beliefs on the principles and details of life and death in relation to the ultimate whole of the universe. The cycle of life is explained in excruciating detail, making total comprehension tedious. However, a close look at Yeats and some of his other writings enables the reader to better understand exactly what Yeats tries to say in A Vision.

 

Simplifying A Vision is no easy task. Yeats himself was a complex man with intricate and different ideas on the existence of man. He was born in Sandymount in 1865 while he was raised in London, Dublin and Sligo. In 1884 Yeats studied painting in Dublin for three years before moving to England to pursue a literary career. He married George Hyde Lees in 1917 after having been in love with the Irish patriot Maude Gonne for over thirteen years. "After her marriage to another Irish political leader, Yeats finally admitted defeat in love and turned his full attention to his work" (English Literature, 641). During this time, Yeats was involved in the Irish National Movement which sought to free Ireland from England's rule. Before his involvement in politics, Yeats founded the Irish Literary Society in 1892. In addition, he founded the Irish National Theatre Society where he wrote several plays based on Irish legends.

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For a primarily private man, Yeats was heavily involved in movements both politically and artistically. He became aware of the Irish culture that separated the Irish from the British. His nationalistic attitude led Yeats to take an involved interest in Irish culture and mythology.

 

Yeats' fascination with Irish mythology and the supernatural were significant influences in his writing ( Literature: English Literature, 701). The occult seemed to rule Yeats' world. His time spent in the rural area of Sligo directly impacted his early writings which often involved illusions and descriptions of the natural world. Yeats sought the deeper meaning of life in A Vision. He was not satisfied with Christianity's explanation of life and death. He wanted to develop his ideas on the values of life and death and about the meaning of history. The idea for A Vision came from experiments done with his wife in automatic writing. The ideas that she expressed were "new to him, and suggested answers to problems he did not think he had solved" (Stock, 122). They continued with the experiments for three years. After this period of time starting in 1917, Yeats decided to spend the rest of his life expanding on his and George's ideas.

 

The premise for A Vision is rooted in Yeats' concept of the two interlocking gyres and phases of the moon. These elements are the basis of his work. They are the essential components of life according to Yeats. Understanding them allows us to understand the concepts of life, death and time in Yeats' realm. They explain the meaning of life and history as well as what will happen in the future.

 

The gyres that Yeats refers to in A Vision are two superimposed cones that spiral together. "These cones were imagined as interpenetrating, whirling around inside one another, one subjective, the other objective...The cones were not restricted to symbolizing objectivity and subjectivity; they were also he (Yeats) said, 'beauty and truth, value and fact, particular and universal, quality and quantity'" (Ellman, 231). From one point on one gyre there lies the the infinite aspect of the other. A look at the "Second Coming" allows us to see the roots of the gyres. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falconer cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" (Literature: The British Tradition, 1067). As the falcon gets further and further from the falconer, it cannot hear the falconer. The conical shape of the bird's path is ever widening as it moves away from the earth. This image is important because it symbolizes the ever expanding path that life takes us on as we move to something beyond the scope of life on Earth. In addition, as the gyre widens, the world order is displaced. This sets the stage for Yeats' explanation of how the world will end two thousand years after the birth of Christ. Understanding the concept behind the gyres allows us to see the how the phases of the moon in relation to the gyres is significant.

 

The phases of the moon are influential in understanding Yeats' idea about the history and the future of mankind both in the natural and supernatural realm. Looking down on the gyres gives the image of a single circle. This circle is divided into the twenty-eight phases of the moon.

 

Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,/ The full and the moon's dark and all the crescents,/ Twenty and eight, and yet but six-and-twenty/ The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in;/ For there's no life at the full or the dark/...Too perfect to lie in a cradle,/ Too lonely for the traffic of the world;/ Body and soul cast out and cast away/ Beyond the visible world. (Yeats, 60-61).

 

This passage is from Phases of the Moon in A Vision. It describes the progression of time in relation to the phase cycle of the moon. The new and full moon are the periods where time begins and ends. The darkness of the new moon is "beyond the world" where phase one starts (Stock, 124). The phases in between the two are the growth and evolution of the human soul over time, or incarnations as Yeats describes them. Yeats adds a new dimension to the phases of the moon by incorporating the four Faculties. They are: Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate. Each one of these aspects of human nature oppose one another at any given time. Will and Mask are linked together, while Creative Mind and Body of Fate are joined together.

 

Yeats developed the notion of "Unity of Being." In this unity there is a moment of self-realization. This self-realization cannot be achieved during life on earth. In order for this to occur, there had to be no conflict between the phases of the moon. The makeup of the four Faculties is important to understand in order to fully comprehend what Yeats was saying about "Unity of Being." Creative Mind is made up of internal aspects of human life; things learned in past lives and power of thought that is inborn (Stock, 124). Body of Fate is made up of external forces that have shaped man's life. "Will is shear vital energy, the drive towards self-realization" (124). Mask is "defensive armour: we wear it, like the light lover, to keep from being hurt" (Ellman, 176). The conflict between the Four Faculties is what prevents us as a human race from realizing the true meaning of life. As we progress through our time on Earth, we learn from each of the prior phases.

 

Will is the dominant aspect of our lives up until phase fifteen. Creative Mind strengthens as Will weakens and vice versa. The same holds true for Mask and Body of Fate. At phase fifteen Mask grows in strength while Body of Fate weakens. As the phases increase over time, we become more in tuned to external reality and the forces that act on that. The completion of the cycle gives us a sense of "phaseless sphere" (Stock, 131). Yeats goes on to further explain the gyres in terms of the four Principles. The gyre of the four Principles explains the cycle between death and rebirth while the gyre of the four Faculties explains the cycle between birth and death.

 

The four Principles are made up of Husk, which relates to Will, Passionate Body, which relates to Mask, Spirit, which relates to Creative Mind, and Celestial Body, which relates to Body of Fate. The aspects of the four Principles are beyond the realm of basic human thought. They are based on a solar cycle as opposed to the lunar cycle of the four Faculties. The four Principles make up the supernatural aspect of A Vision. In this cycle the human soul is reincarnated, hence the notion that this cycle is the period from death to rebirth. The perfection of the human soul is the driving force during these phases.

 

The infinite nature of life and death as well as the continuum of time is prevalent in A Vision.. Yeats discusses his theory that the Second Coming is not the end, but rather the beginning of something new, the four Principles. The rebirth of the world would occur at this point in time. Man's soul would be perfected in death. "To live rightly in phase is not to achieve any specific kind of success, but to keep the true balance of that phase without confusion. For there is a possibility of error, and if a life has been wrongly lived it may be necessary to go through a phase over again" (127). The succession of phases in both the four Faculties and the four Principles allows us to evolve naturally as Yeats believes we should.

 

A Vision is a difficult work to fully understand. "Yeats was being needlessly obscure; but he was moving in an uncertain borderland for which ordinary language is not shaped" (146). Time is infinite in nature. Yeats proves this through the use of the gyres. There is no apparent beginning or end to each of the interpenetrating gyres. This is probably the most difficult notion to understand. As we journey through life in the four Faculties, we see how the affects of Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate are interrelated. In addition, we are able to see the magnitude to which they influence our behavior. In conjunction with the four Principles of Husk, Passionate Body, Spirit, and Celestial Body, the elements of the four Faculties serve to perfect the human being and its soul. The phases cannot truly be completed without the proper steps having been completed. The perfection of the human existence and soul is prevalent in Yeats' writing. We must wade through the difficult language and scenarios in an attempt to achieve comprehension. This is difficult because we have no knowledge of what happens after death. A Vision is merely Yeats personal philosophy based on he believes to be scientific in nature. No one can explain fully the elements of time to include where and when it begins and ends. However, Yeats takes great care in showing what he believes to be the meaning of life, death and time. Maybe someday, when the moon is full in the twenty-eighth phase, we will see Yeats' A Vision as the answer to all the questions we have asked ourselves for thousands of years.

 

Works Cited

Ellman, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979.

English Literature with World Masterpieces. New York: Scribner Laidlaw, 1989

Literature: The British Tradition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Literature: English Literature. Evanston: McDougal Littell and Company, 1989.

Stock, A.G. W.B. Yeats: His Poetry and His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964.

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1956.
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