The Tree of Life in the Vision of W. B. Yeats

One of the most beautiful poems ever written is “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats. The poet was a favourite of his beloved Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and his muse. The visual richness of the poem is informed by the curriculum of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and evokes Kabbalah, astrology, tarot and alchemy. Yeats and his wife Georgie Hyde Lees were both members of the order. Shortly after they got married, Georgie suggested an experiment in automatic writing. This led to a string of fruitful sessions which brought forth A Vision, a meditative study weaving together poetics and the occult. Neil Mann runs an excellent website dedicated to the analysis of A Vision (http://www.yeatsvision.com/Yeats.html).

Yeats and Georgie Hyde-Lees

The celebrated literary critic Northrop Frye observed that the first stanza of “The Two Trees” refers to the symbol of the Tree of Life. To me, the poem is an exhortation to look within, into one’s soul. When one looks within, the heart awakens and the darkness of ignorance is no more. Therein lies eternal beauty and eternal life: the radiant truth about the spiritual (archetypal) roots of manifest reality. The stanza contains references to the Zodiac (“the flaming circle of our days” – you can read more about Yeats’s understanding of the wheel here) and to hermetic knowledge in general, invoking the winged sandals of Hermes himself.

Yeats’s drawing in A Vision

The second stanza seems to convey what happens to the soul when the gaze is fixed outwards, towards the illusions of maya, without anchoring in the soul. In the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 13:12 we read: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.” We look through the dark, dim glass when we turn away from the soul. On his website dedicated to A Vision Neil Mann quotes a significant passage from Yeats’s another poem “The second coming”:

“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.”

Like in “The Two Trees,” it is a sad, unbalanced world where spiritual centre has been lost.

What is the second tree referred to in the title? Critics have suspected that is is the second tree from Eden – the Tree of Knowledge. Eating fruit from that tree brought humans consciousness and mortality. The imagery of death and decay is quite evocative in the second stanza of the poem.

A very beautiful musical rendition of the poem was performed by Loreena McKennitt. The song begins with a sublime solo played by Patrick Hutchinson on the bagpipe. Here’s the poem in its entirety.

“The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.
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15 Responses to The Tree of Life in the Vision of W. B. Yeats

  1. lampmagician says:

    Great post as ever, I love your works ❤ Thank You ❤ ❤

  2. Dewin Nefol says:

    Namaste Monika, how are you? 🙂

    Intriguing as always, thank you. You’ve provided a rounded and succinct analysis of what is a beautiful poem. ‘The Two Trees’ was published in 1893, 3 years after Yeats had been initiated into the Golden Dawn. It is as you suggest evident the poet has assimilated the teachings offered him and promotes ‘inner wisdom’ and not ‘exterior guidance’ – the ‘dim glass’ – as being the favoured path by which to ascend to the tree-top.

    That he writes for his muse, Maud Gonne – do you think it possible he might also be suggesting that whilst she will age, her beauty (as he perceives her) will never fade with time?

    On a personal note, I do think it unfair that Ravens always seem to get such bad press. They have other symbolic characteristics beyond being just carrion and purveyors of prophecy, doom and death.

    You write, ‘Like in “The Two Trees,” it is a sad, unbalanced world where spiritual centre has been lost.’ I couldn’t agree more. It is a world experiencing great pain and ager as a consequence of the choices made by human-kind. But still we turn the Earth on an axis of fool’s gold.

    Enjoy your weekend.

    Namaste 🙂

    DN

    • Hello Dewin

      I think you are definitely right about Yeats referring to inner and outer beauty, which fades away. Perhaps a similar thought to the one from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (But thy eternal summer shall not fade…). Also, I love ravens – they are mercurial magical messengers (http://online.fliphtml5.com/ygur/tprg/#p=1).

      Always great to hear from you 🙂

      Monika

      • Dewin Nefol says:

        Namaste Monika 🙂

        Always enjoyable to visit, thank you.

        I’ve often wondered if the quality of ‘beauty’ from an artist’s/poet’s point-of-view changes over time, or whether in fact their ‘gaze’ remains fixed at a point in time when first they encountered that powerful ‘sense’? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 suggests that ‘beauty will not fade as it is immortalised in rhyme: it will live “as long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” But outside of the rhyme, would his understanding of it change…would he be as ‘intoxicated’ by his ‘beloved’ when they are no longer in the summer of their years? Perhaps ‘beauty’ becomes ”love’ in the eye of the beholder?

        Thank you very much for the Raven script…I shall read and digest and savour its flavour, perhaps even utilise aspects of it for future endeavours. I think it’d delight to walk the void of the non-physical along a different path and encounter deeper mystery…almost as if a whole new journey begins 🙂

        You always leave me a treasure to take away, thank you 🙂

        Enjoy a wonderful week.

        Brightest Blessings. Namaste 🙂

        DN

      • Happy to hear this😊 I like these animal medicine cards and use them regularly.

        Of course you are asking the right questions about beauty and love. But it is not only beauty vs age but all the other everyday, common things that go into love. Yeats, it is said, always longed for Maud Gonne and she always broke his heart. When Yeats told her he wasn’t happy  without her, she replied: “Oh yes, you are,  because you make beautiful poetry out of  what you call your unhappiness, and are  happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull  affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.” (that last quote comes from here: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/wb-yeats-beloved-maud-gonne-knew-that-poets-should-never-marry-a6869771.html).

      • Dewin Nefol says:

        Namaste Monika 🙂

        Love is so very complex – and yet so maddeningly influential – that barely does one know where to begin an understanding of it! 🙂

        Love’s (comedic) travesty – the art of the Muse – remains an enduring feature prominent in the lives of so many artists and poet’s who feel themselves forsaken and their love unrequited. It is at once a despairing and saddening state of affairs as much as it is inspiring in it unrelenting ceaselessness. It appears Maude Gonne knew how to get the best out of Yeats: she must have ‘loved’ him deeply (platonically) to be so influencing in his life and yet remain so remote from him. Her strength in repeatedly rejecting him appears to have been his ( enduring) gain. ‘Poet’s should never marry’ – perhaps because they would cease striving to please, cease to reach beyond their grasp? Yeats had many women in his life and each provided him with inspiration – although none appeared to stir his soul (heart, or mind) like Gonne. One wonders quite what would’ve happened if Maude Gonne had ever ‘left’ Yeats’s life altogether?

        I find the whole concept of the Muse deeply fascinating: always strong passionate women, fiercely independent, self-assured, confident, but yet so vulnerable.

        Have you featured discussion on the Muse here on your Blog?

        Thank you Monika. Enjoy your afternoon.

        Namaste 🙂

        DN

      • I’ve never written about the Muse, though I might have mentioned her more than once here and there… It is really fascinating, I agree.

      • Dewin Nefol says:

        Namaste Monika 🙂

        The muse has appeared in multi-faceted guise within several posts but perhaps not as directly as here with Yeats, or articles written on Kafka.

        A little off tangent perhaps, but I was reading recently about Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick -‘youthquaker’ – as an avatar of his desire. It is at once as sorrowful as it is an inspiring story that foregrounds the Muse as being ‘out of reach and unobtainable’ but yet powerful and influencing; similar perhaps to certain aspects of goddess adoration as a compelling, eloquent symbol with puissance.

        Blessings. Namaste 🙂

        DN

  3. wolfcircle says:

    Yates, a Gemini with Mercury in the 4th House?

  4. inaloveworld says:

    Great post! Thank you for sharing!

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