In a letter to his friend and fellow poet, John O’Leary, in 1892, the twenty-seven year old William Butler Yeats professed, “The mystical life is the centre of all I do and all that I think and all that I write…I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater reaesance [sic] – the revolt of the soul against the intellect – now beginning in the world” (Ellmann 97-98). This “revolt of the soul against the intellect” is a declaration of Yeats’ impassioned immersion in esoteric traditions. Yeats’ personal, lifelong rebellion against the intellectual and aesthetic conventions of his time inspired him to search for insight into the workings of the universe and the mysteries of the human soul in magic, tarot, cabalism, astrology and other hermetic arts. Each of these traditions found expression in his poetry. However, as William T. Gorski argues in Yeats and Alchemy, it was alchemy that proved to have the greatest influence on Yeats’ poetic vision: “He (Yeats) found in alchemy a pliable discourse that could represent the range of relationships between spirit and matter, whether separate or merged, harmonious or divisive. He also saw in alchemy a multifaceted metaphor for transformation, as it applied to art and to the human psyche” (xi).
It makes sense to me that Yeats should be so drawn to alchemy, as transformation is at the heart of all poetic expression. The poet shifts and deepens the readers’ perceptions by involving them in the act of interpretation. As readers ponder the meanings of a poem’s images, allusions and metaphors, new relationships are illuminated, and new insights are revealed. The revelation of these new relationships and insights are, in part, the result of the readers’ intuitive reconciliations of tensions between the poem’s imagery and the readers’ body of knowledge and life experience. As a result of poetic engagement, the readers are changed, transformed by their new understanding of themselves and their shared human condition.
In Ricorso and Revelation: An Archetypal Poetics of Modernism, Evans Lancing Smith notes “For Yeats, the essence of alchemy was the theme of transfiguration: the breakdown of compounds to the prima materia and transmutation of base metals into gold represented the rhythm of incarnation (spirit into matter) and transfiguration (matter into spirit)” (Smith 90). In “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” an early Yeats’ poem (1899) that embodies his fascination with hermeticism and alchemy, the subject of transformation is the poem’s narrator. Interestingly, Yeats leaves the reader to ponder whether the narrator is Aengus from the poem’s beginning, or if he is transformed into Aengus, the Irish god of love, youth and poetic inspiration, as a result of the magical, psychological and spiritual transformation of the poem’s narrative.
I suggest that both readings are valid. Further, I suggest, that by the poem’s end, the readers, too, may transform into Aenguses themselves. By delving into the carefully crafted container that is the poem, readers’ experience the wonders of hermetic interpretation, which is qualitatively distinct from the joys of simply grasping a poem’s overt narrative meanings and intent. Readers unfamiliar with the many and varied images drawn from Celtic mythology, magic and the alchemical tradition that Yeats wove into the text of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” are easily transfixed by the poem’s seemingly straightforward and poignant recounting of an old man’s reflection on youth, yearning and love. However, Yeats’ crafted the poem itself to reflect the transformational arc of the alchemical process, and readers who undertake to unravel the poem’s skein of interwoven hermetic images and contemplate their complex of meanings in the context of the alchemical tradition, are, like the narrator of the poem, likely to be transformed by the process.
The first stage of the alchemical process is the Nigredo (or blackness). During Nigredo, the object of transformation is reduced to its fundamental elements through a series of clarifying or purifying processes. Gorski describes the Nigredo as also representing a key process in psychological transformation: “It (Nigredo) is a ‘blackening’ of the prima materia, or rather a dimming of the conscious mind that renders the archetypes in the unconscious more apparent via their own luminosity…the nigredo represents a partial surrender of the egos conscious control in order to admit different orders of influence” (86-87). In this poem, the prima materia, the mysterious, ubiquitous, physical and spiritual first material that is the basis of the alchemical opus, is the narrator, and by extension, the readers.
The Nigredo stage is initiated by calcinatio, the fire operation that burns away all impurities (“Because a fire was in my head”). In The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz emphases the importance of calcinatio for transformation: “In alchemy fire is used ‘to burn away all impurities,’ so that only the indestructible nucleus remains. Consequently, the alchemists burn most of their substances first, destroying what can be destroyed. That which resists fire was looked on as a symbol of immortality – the solid kernel which survives destruction. Fire is therefore the great transformer” (104). Additionally, fire is an image associated with the archetypical masculine qualities of action, energy and passion. The phrase “Because a fire was in my head,” also suggests that the narrator, obsessed by thinking, is consumed by the intellect, and consequently, out of balance with his intuitive, feminine side.
The hazel is a sacred tree of the Celts. And hazel nuts are treasured as producers of wisdom. In Celtic mythology, the bards, or poets, carved their magical staffs from hazel wood (Monaghan 240). In magical traditions, one directs one’s will with a wand. In the poem, Yeats suggests that the narrator enters into the process of transformation with volition; his first act upon entering the woods is to “cut and peel a hazel wand” with which he can direct his intention. This mirrors the role of the alchemist in the alchemical process. As the active agent, the alchemist’s physical, psychological and spiritual states influence, and are influenced by, the intended outcome – material, emotional and spiritual transformation. Similarly, I think that Yeats intentionally engaged in the act of poetic expression in order to experience transformation, and that the poems he left us are the carefully crafted artifacts of his journey.
The opening lines of the poem are set in an undetermined past (“I went out…”). However, mid stanza, Yeats shifts timeframes and situates the narrator in a specific moment by conjuring images of dawn (“and when white moths were on the wing, /And moth-like stars were flickering out”). In Celtic mythology, white signifies divinity or sacredness (Monaghan 471), and the nocturnal moth suggests intuition and inner knowledge. With these two lines, Yeats signals both the narrator’s entrance into a new day and a new and deeper state of consciousness. With heightened selfawareness, the narrator is ready to undergo solutio, the next alchemical operation.
During solutio, the ashes derived from the firing of calcinatio are further purified by their immersion in water. A frequent symbol of the solutio operation is fishing (“I dropped a berry in a stream/And caught a little silver trout”). Von Franz observes that fishing is “a common motif in dreams, referring to the process of becoming aware of unconscious attitudes, opinions, and feelings” (231). By fishing, Yeats signifies that the poem’s narrator is delving deeper into what Jung refers to as the collective unconscious, the realm of archetypal symbols and experiences.
The first archetypal symbol that the narrator confronts in the collective unconscious is the “little silver trout” which he catches on his line. Fish, particularly trout or salmon, are symbols of wisdom in Celtic mythology (Monaghan 196) and are traditional symbols of Christ in the Christian tradition. For Jung, Christ is a symbol of the Self, which he defines as “a term on the one hand definite enough to convey the essence of human wholeness and on the other hand indefinite enough to express the indescribable and indeterminable nature of his wholeness” (18). With the closing lines of the first stanza, Yeats has shifted the poem’s focus from the narrator to the narrator’s Self, which now takes center stage as the subject of transformation.
In the second stanza, Yeats portrays a time of quiet reflection in which the lines between the real and the imaginary, the sacred and the profane, blur, and that which had been obscured is now revealed:
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
This stanza can be likened to the “Call to Adventure” in Joseph Campbell’s narrative schema, “The Hero’s Journey.” In the “Call to Adventure,” heros are called forth from their ordinary existence (“When I had laid it on the floor/I went to blow the fire aflame”) and are propelled into magical worlds of adventure where such wonders as fish transforming into girls are the norm. Once heroes answer the call, their lives are irrevocably transformed by the experiences encountered in the worlds of adventure, for it is there that the heros’ true selves are revealed.
In this poem, it is his anima (“a glimmering girl”) who summons the narrator (“And someone called me by my name”). In Jungian terms, the anima represents the narrator’s “realm of fantasy and the way he relates to the unconscious (which) was once integrated in the field of consciousness and had reached a human level, but now, under unfavorable circumstances, has been shut off and repressed into the unconscious” (von Franz 84). The narrator’s brief glimpse of “the glimmering girl” proves to be a pivotal life event poised between stanzas of youth and old age. By dedicating the central, second stanza of the poem to the narrator’s brief encounter with the anima, Yeats emphasizes its significance as a threshold experience and an initiation into manhood. This encounter with the anima, placed mid-poem, suggests that Yeats’ believes that the narrator must integrate the feminine into his psyche before he can progress further through the transformation process.
In alchemical terms, we can understand the departure of “the glimmering girl” as an outcome of mortificatio, the operation during which substances die and seem to be destroyed, yet eventually, magically revive (Hauck 298). That the “glimmering girl…faded through the brightening air,” suggests that the narrator looses his ability to hold onto the “chthonic femininity of unconscious” (Jung 23) as he emerges from the realm of the collective unconscious into the harsh daylight of the masculine-dominated conscious world. With this psychological mortificatio, Yeats suggests that the callow youth narrator who “went out into the hazel wood” in the first stanza has to die in order to be reborn as the wise old man narrator of the last stanza.
Yeats ends the middle stanza with a sunrise (“the brightening air”) and begins the last stanza with an allusion to the “sunset” years of the narrator’s life (“Though I am old…”). The narrator’s symbolic progression from day to night and from youth to old age corresponds to the transition through the second and into the third and final stage of the alchemical process.
Having experienced the death to his old self and the rebirth of his new, the poem’s narrator is ready to enter the second stage of the alchemical process, the Albedo (the whitening). During Albedo, the subject of transformation is further purified. The desired outcome of this purification process is the identification and separation of the subject’s essential elements so that, ultimately, the pure essences recombine into a new incarnation or body (Hauck 140). Yeats signals this final level of purification by the arrival of “the glimmering girl,” the narrator’s anima. Additionally, with the presentation of the anima, Yeats alludes to another key characteristic of Albedo, the revelation of the underlying duality of matter. As Hauck observes, it is during the Albedo stage that the alchemist discovers that “The level of purification is so great that the fundamental duality is observed in the experiment…(and that) the essences revealed turn out to have opposing positive and negative qualities. In personal transformation, the opposing essences are the masculine and feminine characteristics of the personality” (140). In alchemy, the operations of purification and separation are prerequisite for the alchemist to apprehend the inherent duality of all matter. Similarly, psychologically speaking, in order for the poem’s narrator to recognize the feminine side of his being, it is necessary for the feminine to appear separate from himself as his anima.
The feminine, in alchemical symbology, is represented by the moon and its associated colors of silver and white, and the Albedo, the White Phase, is often referred to as Luna or the White Queen. Correspondingly, the masculine is likened to the sun and its associated colors of red or gold, and the Rubedo, the Red Phase, is referred to as Sol or the Red King. The successful completion of the alchemical opus depends on the successful and transcendental reunification of these disparate elements. In psychological terms, the successful the reunification of Sol and Luna, the masculine and the feminine, can be understood as “the integration of opposing and rejected elements in the personality and the experience of one’s true self ” (Hauck 150).
In the last stanza, the narrator enters into the third and final stage of the alchemical process, the Rubedo (the reddening). This stanza begins with a shift in both time and perspective (“Though I am old with wandering”). The narrator is now an old man who has wandered many years through a world devoid of wonder (“Through hollow lands and hilly lands”). These years spent in “hollow lands and hilly lands” can be understood in alchemical terms as representing the Rubedo operation of sublimato. During sublimato, the subject is submitted to a difficult, intense and repeated process of dry distillation.
This long and onerous process of distillation is necessary to prepare for the alchemical process of coniunctio, the union of opposites (“The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.”). Hauck observes that through coniunctio, the “body is made spiritual and the spirit is made corporeal. (Coniunctio) produces a new incarnation that can survive in all realms…This fixation of spiritual forces is what creates the Philosopher’s Stone, which embodies the principle of transmutation itself ” (158). Through the operation of coniunctio, the subject is transformed into the Philosopher’s Stone, that mysterious and miraculous substance which transforms the base to the pure, the sullied to the refined, the profane to the divine.
In psychological terms, through the process of coniunctio, and one enters a state of awareness in which all duality is transcended and such distinctions as masculine and feminine, spiritual and material, terminable and eternal are no longer meaningful. Through coniunctio, the trappings of mortality are transcended and one’s soul is realized. This process of psychological transformation is the work of a lifetime, and few will never achieve the physical, emotional and spiritual liberation it promises.
With the final stanza, Yeats offers hope that the narrator will be eventually be successful in his quest to reunite with “the glimmering girl;” however, he suggests that the journey itself will take the narrator, and the readers, “till time and times are done” to complete:
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among the dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
With the last two glorious and ethereal lines of the poem, the reuniting of Sol and Luna is achieved and the alchemical process is completed, transporting the narrator, and the readers, beyond of the confines space and time, and into the boundless potential of infinity, where pursuit of “the silver apples of the moon” and “the golden apples of the sun” has always been, and will always be, the dance of creation. Within the hermetic vessel of “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” Yeats crafts a Philosopher’s Stone – a poetic Ouroboros, through which the readers are transformed, like Aengus, into beings of the infinite for whom words, being finite, no longer have meaning.