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).
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.
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 fruitHave dowered the stars with merry light;The surety of its hidden rootHas planted quiet in the night;The shaking of its leafy headHas 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 froIn those great ignorant leafy ways;Remembering all that shaken hairAnd 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 growsThat the stormy night receives,Roots half hidden under snows,Broken boughs and blackened leaves.For all things turn to barrennessIn the dim glass the demons hold,The glass of outer weariness,Made when God slept in times of old.There, through the broken branches, goThe 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.