Life and the After-life

from The Man and the Echo
While man can still his body keep
Wine or love drug him to sleep,
Waking he thanks the Lord that he
Has body and its stupidity,
But body gone he sleeps no more,
And till his intellect grows sure
That all’s arranged in one clear view,
Pursues the thoughts that I pursue,
Then stands in judgment on his soul,
And, all work done, dismisses all
Out of intellect and sight
And sinks at last into the night.
(VP 633)


The Stages of the After-life

The Meditation
The Return
The Shiftings
The Beatitude
The Purification
The Foreknowledge
Blake's design of soul leaving body
 ‘The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life’
from The Grave, A Poem by Robert Blair, London, 1808
engraving by Louis Schiavonetti (1765-1810) after Blake.
See Blake’s original drawing at Tate Britain’s website.

Much of the vagueness surrounding the Principles derives from the fact that they are hidden during incarnate life and only dominant during the after-life, where all of Yeats’s information is indirect and fragmentary, largely without the support of observation and reliant upon the Automatic Script. He carried his experience of séances and his knowledge of folklore into his scheme concerning the after-life, but its structure and processes were assembled from the piecemeal revelations of the Instructors, so that he was often uncertain about important elements. Though he writes in the 1937 version, A Vision B, that he had failed to understand the Principles in his earlier version (A Vision A, 1925), it is ironic that he often gives a fuller treatment to the stages of the after-life in the earlier version, which may indicate that his confidence in his earlier conjectures decreased as he understood more. It can be tempting to use the account AV A to fill out the account of AV B, but this is the part of the System that is most significantly revised and reconsidered, so that here even more than elsewhere AV B must be seen as superseding AV A. AV A does, however, give some important clues about Yeats’s views on the nature of consciousness after death, which seem to have persisted later but are not explicitly dealt with.

In many respects AV B’s accounts of the after-life states remain amongst the most impenetrable of the work, and if he felt that the first version was ‘overloaded with detail and not as bold in thought as it should have been’ (L 711-12), it is questionable whether the removal of detail truly remedied the defect in the second version. Reviewing the rewritten version in 1931, he felt that he had ‘done one good deed in clearing out of the state from death to birth all the infinities and eternities, and picturing a state as “phenomenal” as that from birth to death’ (L 781) and, to the extent that infinities and eternities are absent, this is true, but the nature of the phenomena involved remains shadowy. He claimed further that he had ‘constructed a myth, but then one can believe in a myth—one only assents to a philosophy’ (L 781), however myth usually has a certain clarity of narrative and often a multiplicity of meanings. Yeats’s version lacks these and does not even have the allegorical clothing of a Platonic myth such as that of the cave, or the eschatological vividness of Homer or Virgil’s underworld or Dante’s three worlds, having more in common with Swedenborg’s descriptions of process in Heaven and Hell.

When a single life, including both incarnate and discarnate halves, is taken as a Wheel, it must be regarded in terms of the Spirit, since only the Solar Principles, Spirit and Celestial Body, survive throughout the whole cycle and Celestial Body is unmoving. As the permanent Principle that moves, the Spirit’s movement is naturally symbolised by Yeats in terms of the Sun’s cycle through the natural year, which is measured by the signs of the Zodiac. This Wheel can also be viewed through the symbolism of a natural month and a natural day: the year’s summer months correspond to the month’s primary half of the dark Moon and the day’s Solar, diurnal half, and all of these represent the discarnate part of existence between death and birth. Incarnate life, which we might naturally think of as the brighter part of the cycle, is, however, when the Spirit is less apparent, so is symbolised by the winter months of the year, the antithetical half of the bright Moon and the Lunar, nocturnal half of the day. The two major transition points are marked by the equinoxes, the natural year’s transition points, which astrologically determine the starting points of the Zodiac’s Aries and Libra: ‘Death which comes when the Spirit gyre is at Aries is symbolised as spring or dawn; and birth which comes which comes when the Spirit gyre is at Libra, as autumn or sunset’ (AV B 201). The Spirit’s cycle starts symbolically at the Vernal Equinox, when the Sun enters Aries, but which corresponds with physical death. The Spirit dominates during the spring and summer months, represented by the signs of the Zodiac from Aries to Virgo. Its Persephone-like descent into the underworld comes with the Autumnal Equinox or physical birth, the start of Libra, when its power is dormant. These two points also correspond symbolically to sunrise and sunset, in turn mirrored by the symbolic Full Moon’s setting at dawn as the Sun rises and its rising at nightfall as the Sun sets, while, in terms of the Phases, the sunrise corresponds with the phase of the waning half-moon at Phase 22 and the sunset with the waxing half-moon at Phase 8.

Solar and Lunar Wheels with reference to incarnation
AV B 223: Solar and Lunar versions of the Wheel with reference to after-life.

In life, the System identifies ‘light with nature’ so that the ‘instructors make the antithetical or lunar cone of the Faculties light and leave the solar dark’, as symbolically incarnate humanity walks night-bound by the light of the Moon. Within the after-life, when the Principles come to the fore, ‘the solar cone is light and the other dark, but their light is thought not nature’ (AV B 190); more specifically it is the Spirit that is ‘solar light, intellectual light’ opposed to ‘the lunar light, perception’ (AV B 220n) which is linked to the Faculties but also the lunar Principle of Passionate Body, the ‘physical light, as it was understood by mediaeval philosophers . . . the creator of all that is sensible’ (AV B 190). The transference of consciousness at death from Will to Spirit is the move from the light of perception to the light of intellect, so that little or no new material is available, but understanding and wisdom can be attained.

Death is equivalent to an awakening at sunrise and the regaining of Solar consciousness which has the clarity of knowledge, but it is an understanding gained through reviewing the experience of the foregoing life to discover the patterns and meaning that may lie behind it. In itself it is not creative, and has, at least from the perspective of the living human, something of the quality of dream, reshaping and reusing the mind’s contents. Indeed one of the dominant processes of the period is termed by Yeats the Dreaming Back, as the Spirit relives those moments of life which have touched it most deeply, and since ‘the painful are commonly the more intense’ is likely to have the quality of nightmare. As in dreams, though, there is no action or consequence, only personal exploration, though in Yeats’s conception the individual is far from alone in dreams. In Yeats’s conception the difference between after-life and sleep does not reside in the nature of either state in itself so much as in the temporariness of sleep and the fact that the soul remains in ‘exclusive association with one body’ (AV A 221), which limits it but enables action. The dead inhabit a world that interpenetrates that of the living but, lacking a physical body, and possibly more importantly its concomitant Faculties and ‘living present’, ‘they can create nothing, or, in the Indian phrase, can originate no new Karma’ (Ex 366; 1931) and, without these Faculties, the ‘Principles alone cannot distinguish between fact and hallucination’ (AV B 195). The counterbalance is that the dead can range far more widely through the consciousnesses of their associates, whether living or dead, to discover their ends. For the living or the dead, sleep constitutes the individual’s entry into the communion of spirits, so that the living person is separated temporarily from its body and operates more fully in the realm of the Principles, while the dead are able to seek out information and explore the consequences of their lives. During the waking hours of the incarnate, the Principles subside into the subconscious but the spiritual life continues to operate at the level of the Principles and the dead continue their contact in the dark of the living person’s unconscious mind. If we wish to know about the after-life, therefore, we can seek some clues in our experience of sleep every night in order to reach some understanding of the states involved.

For Yeats, the images of dreams and their content are not personal in a psychoanalytic fashion, and, ‘No concrete image that comes before the mind in sleep is ever drawn from the memory; for in sleep we enter upon the same life as that we enter between death and birth’ (AV A 244). Yet they are ‘associated with the Passionate Body’ of the individual, which draws together images from one of three sources separate from personal memory, whether conscious or subliminal: memory of our previous after-life states; ‘images of our present life that have evaded the memory and entered the Record alone’; or a personal link with elements in the broader Anima Mundi (AV A 245). Sleep involves the separation of Spirit from Passionate Body, held together in the unconscious mind during waking hours, and the rare instance of lucidity or ‘coherence is attained . . . in some philosophical or symbolical dream where a new centre of coherence is discovered in the Celestial Body’ (AV A 245). In this sense it mirrors in miniature the process of the after-life where the Spirit disentangles itself from Passionate Body to find unity with Celestial Body at the Beatitude.

Though AV A’s account of the action of the Principles in sleep is somewhat sketchy, even this little is omitted from AV B, where Yeats chooses instead to draw suggestively on Vedic thought to explore the nature of the different states of consciousness, indicating part of the process through his references, but also leaving much submerged beneath the surface of his allusive style. Introducing ‘The Soul in Judgment’, Yeats refers to ‘[c]ertain Upanishads’ which propose three states of consciousness or soul, though he is vague about which Upanishads he is drawing on because his direct source was A. Berriedale Keith’s digest on ‘The Four States of the Soul’ in The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (AV B 220) as the wording of his quotations indicates. His quotations actually come from one of the oldest, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where the teacher proposes the conditions or states of a person as ‘the condition of being in this world and the condition of being in the other world’ with ‘an intermediate third condition, namely that of sleep’ from which the soul sees both the other conditions. Keith summarises that: ‘In the waking state the man uses all his faculties and is confronted by a real world, but the waking state is in reality merely a dream condition’, since it is itself a form of illusion, and this must have struck a strong chord with Yeats, not least in the choice of the term ‘faculties’. Meanwhile, the dream world is a singularly creative state:

In the case of a dream, however, the outer world is not there: there are no carts, horses, roads, but he makes them for himself; there is no joy, happiness, nor desire, but he makes them for himself; wells, pools, and streams, also he fashions for himself. The spirit serves as light for itself in this condition. (The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, 568)

The stage beyond this is a dreamless sleep, where the sleeper ‘desires no desires and sees no dream’. During this the spirit loses contact with desire (in Yeats’s terms the Passionate Body) to come closer to the archetype of itself in an indifferent ‘state of pure light or of utter darkness, according to our liking’ (AV B 220). The difference between death and sleep appears more one of degree that kind and, like Hamlet, the teacher views death as a sleep in which dreams may come, suggesting that ‘man passes from waking through dreaming to dreamless sleep every night and when he dies’ (AV B 220). The living and the dead therefore inhabit all three worlds, though the waking world dominates life and the dreamless world death. The world that both share more or less equally is the intermediate world of dreams, ‘because all spirits inhabit our unconsciousness or, as Swedenborg said, are the Dramatis Personae of our dreams’ (AV B 227). The dreaming of the living derives not just from the mind of the living individual but comes as much from the dead, who use the living person in order to complete their reviews and extend their awareness of the consequences of their lives.

The dead of our dreams are those still purifying or refining their knowledge, but the living can also have contact with those spirits which have completed this process. The Mândûkya Upanishad exponds a similar group of three states to those described in the Brihadâranyaka Upanishad, and each is symbolised by an element of the sound A-U-M, but in the Mândûkya also posits a fourth state, Turiyâ, corresponding to the whole Aum (Om) (c.f. E&I 456-466), which is reached ‘in contemplation and wakefulness’ (AV B 222). In this state ‘the soul, as much ancient symbolism testifies, is united with the blessed dead’, signifying that the soul of a living meditator shares the state of the purified dead and can be in contact with them. It is because modern or Western man has lost the practice and beliefs of Vedic antiquity that ‘we no longer discover the still unpurified dead through our own and others’ dreams, and those in freedom through contemplation’ and that religion and philosophy fail to satisfy us or to answer our questions about the nature of existence (AV B 222-23). Implicitly Yeats proposes that in the after-life, therefore, the dead pass through all four of these states or conditions, and that the living could have contact with them, particularly in the two states of dreaming and contemplation, but that we have lost the ability.

Although Yeats certainly uses the Upanishadic parallels to illuminate his anatomy of the after-life, his description of the process is entirely separate, having more kinship with the Theosophic model, but with very distinct features. Like the Theosophists, Yeats views the process of the after-life as one of progressive shedding, firstly of the Faculties and Husk and then of the Passionate Body, until Spirit and Celestial Body are briefly united. In his initial descriptions of the shedding process, Yeats implies that it is only in exceptional cases that the Faculties or Lunar Principles continue to exist more than a short while after death. Later, however, in his descriptions of the Spirit’s processing of the life-experience, particularly during the Return, it appears that the Passionate Body at least must persist for a while. In fact his anatomy of the stages of the after-life is far from lucid in general and it is not always clear how the various states are connected, and it bears out the feeling of dissatisfaction which he expressed with the treatment of ‘The Soul in Judgment’, which ‘because it came when my wife’s growing fatigue made communication difficult and because of defects of my own . . . is the most unfinished of my five books’ and ‘less detailed than I once hoped’ (AV B 23 & note). Though much of the material on the after-life did not come as late as Yeats implies here, the Vision Papers show how concepts shifted and changed, and how the attributions and nomenclature were far from clear throughout the development of this area, which evidently led to confusion and doubt.

The Stages of the After-life

The table below, however, attempts to give a preliminary summary of the essentials of the process he describes, giving a very brief description of the process and purpose of the stages, along with the Principles and other beings which may be involved. Uncertain points have generally been omitted, to focus on the processes involved in the after-life, while apparently distinct stages, which Yeats does not label, have been indicated in square brackets.

Equinox: 0º Aries
DeathPhysical Deathtransfer from Faculties to Principles; consciousness passes from Will to Spirit 
1: Aries
Vision of Blood Kindredvision of all bound to Husk & PBfinishing HuskHusk & PB
Meditationappearance of Spirit & CB; disappearance of Husk & PBtransition to Spirit lifeSpirit & CB; needs help of incarnate
2: Taurus
Returnlife relived according to sequence; exploring causes (& consequences?)converting experience into understanding or knowledge; freeing Spirit from pastSpirit & PB; CB; uses incarnate minds
Dreaming Backlife relived according to intensity; exploring consequencesauxiliary to ReturnSpirit & PB; also incarnate minds
[Amendment]bringing matters to attention of livingamending consequences of actionsSpirit & PB; Teaching Spirits; incarnate minds
Phantasmagoriacompleting life and imaginationexhausting emotionSpirit and Teaching Spirits
3: Gemini
Shiftingsreversal of good and evil in lifetransvaluation of emotional and moral experienceSpirit & CB
   Solstice: 0° Cancer Cancer
4: Cancer
Marriage / Beatitudedisappearance of good and evil; equilibriumunion of Spirit & CBSpirit & CB
5: Leo
Purificationacquiring new Husk & PB, not yet apparent; Spirit chooses aimpreparing for rebirth; selection of appropriate life and overview; tutelage of incarnate or recently deadHusk, PB; Spirit, CB; living minds
6: Virgo*
Foreknowledgevision of coming lifeacceptance of coming lifeHusk, PB & Spirit
Equinox: 0° Libra
BirthPhysical Birthtransfer of focus from Principles to Faculties; consciousness passes from Spirit to Will 

*Wrongly given as Scorpio (AV B 234), probably through confusion of the symbol Scorpio for Virgo; see McDowell, ‘The Six Discarnate States’.

The time-periods involved in the whole process vary greatly, depending upon the person’s life and experiences, but Yeats notes that the Indian Buddhists ‘cease to offer sacrifice for a particular dead person after three generations, for after that time he must, they believe, have found a new body’ and finds that it concurs with a ‘typical series of lives described by my instructors’ (AV B 236). If one takes a generation as twenty-five years this suggests a span of some seventy-five to a hundred years. Yeats notes that the two longest stages proportionally are the second and the fifth: the Return, in the cases of intense soul’s whose lives affect many, may last ‘for centuries’ (AV B 228), and the Purification, since the spirit must await adequate circumstances for rebirth, may also last ‘for centuries’ (AV B 233), though in more typical cases the implied periods must be closer to twenty or thirty years. Conversely the central Beatitude is brief, and the first and last states are also relatively short, while the status of the Shiftings is complicated by its being in some ways outside space and time. The periods are however, roughly equivalent to the periods of natural life and also correspond to the periods of dreaming and dreamless sleep in a given night.

AriesDuring the first stage, at the Meditation, the ‘Husk and Passionate Body disappear’, but disappearance is subordination not erasure. The Husk survives in the Record, cast off like ‘the husk that is abandoned by the sprouting seed’ (AV B 191), and the Passionate Body is involved to some extent in the following stage, and necessary to it. This stage does, however, normally eliminate the Faculties, since Yeats later refers to ‘the Faculties having gone when the Husk and Passionate Body disappeared’ (AV B 227). Even the submersion of the two Lunar Principles may be incomplete, since they ‘may persist in some simulacrum of themselves’, as also may the two Lunar Faculties ‘the Mask and Will in primary phases’ though the reasons are not clear (AV B 224). When the Husk persists in this strong form, its hunger for perception also persists and it traps the Spirit in a sensuous state and together they become the material for ghosts, ‘a fading distortion of living man, perhaps a dangerous succuba or incubus’. As long as the Passionate Body has not disappeared, the Spirit is locked in ‘long and perhaps painful dreams of the past’ (AV B 224) in the Dreaming Back of the Return; the difference between this persistence and the Dreaming Back (which is an inevitable stage for the Spirit to absorb life’s experience properly) seems to lie in whether or not the Passionate Body is subordinated to the Spirit.

Both these forms of persistence produce ghostly phenomena, a subject of perennial fascination for Yeats, considered more fully in AV A than in AV B. Though many phenomena are products of after-life experience, necessary to the progress of the dead soul, these cases are regarded as undesirable, aberrant products of wrong thinking or a violent death which renders the individual incapable of recognising its true state: the Spirit trapped by its Husk is ‘the true ghost . . . . dangerous to the living and a hindrance to the dead’, sometimes witnessed by the living but not really dependent upon them and with no benefit to either party (AV A 228). Even within the normal course of spiritual progress, outworn Husks persist as discarded shells within the Record, incorporated into the fabric of Anima Mundi (AV A 222), and their memories may be retrieved either by the dead spirits or living mediums (AV A 250-51). In contrast to the abnormal adherence of the Husk, the Passionate Body’s persistence is regarded as an imbalanced variation of the natural process of the Dreaming Back (when the Spirit uses the Passionate Body as a memory through which to explore its life) and which accounts for ‘Most of the spirits at séances’ (AV A 226), those summoned or drawn by ties established during life, or who seek to use the living to achieve their catharsis. The scenario for the ‘ghosts’ of Swift and Vanessa in The Words upon the Window Pane appears to derive in part from this latter condition, since the ‘Swift’ ghost relives passion, guilt and memory, appears tied to the place, caught in the image of his body in old age, and the guide spirit comments that the ‘Bad old man does not know he is dead’ (VPl 951).

TaurusThe Return also accounts for more spontaneous phenomena, ‘many hauntings, many inexplicable sights and sounds’ which actually form part of the healthy spiritual economy of interchange between dead and living, since they are provocations to the living to cause inquiries that help ‘the dreamer to perfect its knowledge’ in the Return (AV A 227-28). The object of the Return is the exploration and understanding of the life to its sources, in three connected processes: firstly, the sequential Return itself, which traces cause and consequence through time, and therefore with some objectivity; secondly, the Dreaming Back, which explores the ‘events that had most moved it’, and therefore entirely subjectively; and thirdly, the Phantasmagoria, which seeks to complete the implications of the life, extending them as far as they will go in themselves, without new material. This description of the process in A Vision B is undoubtedly more considered than that in A Vision A, where the Return is seen as comprising two conditions, ‘a Waking State and a Sleeping State which alternate’ (AV A 224), which are given subsidiary names of ‘phantasmagoria’ and ‘Dreaming Back’ respectively, but the nomenclature points to the Upanishadic parallels and emphasises how relatively close the consciousness of the dead is to that of the living.

The dead are reliant on their own memories and the living to achieve the goal of the Return as a whole. They can only achieve a certain proportion of their task through their own Principles, in conjunction with their Daimon and the intervention of Teaching Spirits, however, since there can be no new elements; if the ‘knot’ or equation requires a further element for its resolution, it must be sought through the living. The interrelation of the living and dead is fundamental to Yeats’s thinking, since the dead join the incarnate Daimon in the unconscious mind of the living, but whereas human and Daimon form a permanent symbiotic nexus, the dead are visitors, who come for a specific purpose and can range from mind to mind. During the Return, the living minds that the dead seek out are those which it has affected during life and primarily motivated by the search for data; Yeats considers the plight of a solitary ‘Robinson Crusoe’ without ‘even a Man Friday for witness’, who would be able ‘get the necessary information from his own Husk’ but, deprived of the minds of living associates, ‘his Dreaming Back would be imperfect’ (AV B 228n). Later on, in the fifth stage of the Purification, the links established between the spirits and the living are impersonal and determined by ‘some affinity of aim, or the command of the Thirteenth Cone’ (AV B 234) so that the inspiration offered is more abstract. The dead and the spirits also continue to be attached to their own Daimon during the after-life, and with a variety of other spirits in the non-physical world, ranging from those who are in the non-human lifetimes of the New Moon and Full Moon, the Teaching Spirits and other Spirits of the Thirteenth Cone, the unseen world is crowded with a complex economy of interaction. The living are compassed about not only with a great cloud of witnesses, but also of confederates, abettors and instigators, to run the race that is set before them. It is a fine distinction between inspiring action and originating it, but the inspiration of the dead can certainly lead to actions which would not otherwise have taken place; since the incarnate Daimon controls the access of the dead, it seems that such intervention cannot be harmful to the living person (though the Daimon can certainly bring danger), being at worst innocuous and at best inspiring great art or action.

Once the second stage of the Return is completed, the dead no longer require the aid of living minds, since ‘the events of the past life are a whole and can be dismissed’, the Lunar Principles are entirely purged and their essence is distilled within the Spirit’s intellect. Having drawn on its own memories and the minds of its living associates, however, the life is only whole within the value-system of ‘the code accepted during life’ (AV B 231), so that this must then be set in the wider context, particularly one devoid of good and evil, in the third stage of the Shiftings. However, this stage is analysed in an elusive way that is unsatisfying to the reader.

The first two stages (Meditation and Return) are dealt with in some detail, though the exposition is not always clearly set out and inevitably the subject matter leads to a certain nebulousness of expression. The following two states (Shiftings and Beatitude) are dealt with in a single section in AV B which are extremely compressed. The general tendencies are relatively clear, the shift of the Spirit’s association from the Passionate Body to the Celestial Body and increasing attachment to the latter, but the writing is allusive, often failing to clarify its references, and crabbed in its explanation of the processes envisioned. Yeats was clearly uncertain about the details, and these stages are those furthest removed from incarnate life, since the dead have no contact with the living and, centred on the Solar Spirit and Celestial Body alone, are in some ways the most abstract states. It is evident that Yeats was more concerned with accuracy than fluency, since he had written more fully in AV A, and it is as if these states had previously been marked on the map with the features of travellers’ tales and logical but unconfirmed suppositions but are now marked as largely Terra Incognita.

GeminiIn the Shiftings the Spirit is alone with the Celestial Body, which manifests directly, and the Husk and Passionate Body, roughly sensation and emotion, have now been shed, so that ‘there is no suffering’ in this exploration of amoral reality (AV B 232). In AV A it is clear that the dead spirit is seen as entering into a Daimonic existence, ‘for all now is intellect and he is all Daimon’ and ‘he thinks not as man thinks but as Daimon thinks’ (AV A 231), and Yeats also writes of the dead spirit communicating with the living through intermediaries. In AV B he appears to have rejected this thinking and confines himself to a truly cryptic sequence of phrases and references, so that the reader feels rebuffed and is probably more than ready to accept the inaccurate clarity of AV A in place of the rebarbative brevity of AV B :

The Spirit lives—I quote the automatic script—‘The best possible life in the worst possible surroundings’ or the contrary of this; yet there is no suffering: ‘For in a state of equilibrium there is neither emotion nor sensation’. In the limits of the good and evil of the previous life . . . [sic] the soul is brought to a contemplation of good and evil; ‘neither its utmost good nor its utmost evil can force sensation or emotion’. I remember MacKenna’s translation of the most beautiful of the Enneads, ‘The Impassivity of the Dis-Embodied’. This state is described as a true life, as distinguished from the preceding states; the soul is free in the sense that it is subject to necessary truth alone, the Celestial Body is described as present in person instead of through ‘Messengers’. (AV B 231-32)

A few points are relatively clear, such as the absence of suffering, which is expanded by the idea of the dead spirit’s having reached a state of equilibrium, and it also follows that if sensation and emotion are dependent upon Husk and Passionate Body no extreme of good or evil can excite these in a being where they are absent. Good and evil must be transvalued, since they are largely dependent upon the Tinctures rather than absolute categories: the ‘antithetical tincture is noble, and, judged by the standards of the primary, evil, whereas the primary is good and banal’ (AV B 155), so that in reversing the polarities, the process is also completing the Tinctures with their opposite, and changing the motivation of or perspective upon action. Furthermore, the soul’s freedom appears to allude to the union of Spirit and Celestial Body, since the Celestial Body can be described as ‘necessary truth’, which may therefore be the definition of ‘a true life’.

Other comments have a vaguer applicability, such as living the ‘best possible life in the worst possible surroundings’, but the meaning of ‘living a life’ in this state is difficult to locate and the phrase ‘best possible’ seems to carry just the moral overtones that the stage is said to transcend, even when the terms are reversed, while ‘best’ and ‘worst’ are ambiguously applicable to morality or opportunity. In the sentence, ‘In the limits of the good and evil of the previous life . . . the soul is brought to a contemplation of good and evil’, the ellipsis indicates that, despite the punctuation, it is also a quotation from the Automatic Script (viz. YVP 3 385 & 1 491), and it is partly because Yeats is stitching together fragmentary quotations that the structure remains obscure; the same is true of the import, not least because we have been told that this stage reverses or cancels whatever limits the previous life has imposed. What is meant by this state’s being ‘a true life’ is unclear, but since it does not seem to follow from Plotinus, any clue must lie in the following part of the sentence, which explains that ‘the soul is free in the sense that it is subject to necessary truth alone’. By implication the soul has not been free in the previous states, but has operated according to compulsion, bound to the processes of understanding its past, and therefore the life has not been true. This may mean that a simple reliving of previous experience is not a true life, whereas in transcending the limits of good and evil the events are transformed and that the Shiftings are therefore effectively new experiences, since ‘origination is the function in life and after’ (YVP 1 325). It may also refer to the Divine Ideas in their unity, present in the Celestial Body, offering a Platonic truth or authenticity. Since Yeats has not previously referred to the Celestial Body’s ‘Messengers’, the contrast of its actual presence in this state is less than helpful, but again appears to imply that the two Solar Principles are increasingly close to one another.

CancerThe same strictures of obscurity apply to Yeats’s treatment of the following state, the Beatitude or Marriage, where again the account of AV A may be inaccurate but is approachable, while that in AV B may be more truthful to Yeats’s imperfect understanding but leaves the reader only perplexed. Harper cites an annotation to the typescript of this section in AV A where Yeats writes: ‘I quote the documents without claiming to understand except vaguely’(CVA notes 74) and he was evidently in a quandary over whether to be accurate to his documents or to present a coherent picture. The Beatitude ‘is said to pass in unconsciousness, or in a moment of consciousness’ (AV B 232), alternatives which appear contradictory, except that, since the ‘instructors identify consciousness with conflict’ (AV B 214), the equilibrium of the Beatitude cannot be conscious in the ordinary sense, but is probably not unconscious in the ordinary sense either. The following sentence is far more explanatory: ‘It is complete equilibrium after the conflict of the Shiftings; good and evil vanish into the whole’, though the reader now learns that the Shiftings were a state of ‘conflict’ when it was earlier described as ‘a state of equilibrium’ itself. However, this central state appears to be the point where ‘the Four Principles finish their circle with man united to that spiritual necessity or truth that cannot be distinguished from freedom’ (draft), prefiguring the spirit’s release from the Cycles of incarnation. It is the resolution of good and evil, which may represent all antinomies, a symbolic Marriage of Spirit and Celestial Body, possibly also a Blakean Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a moment of beatitude or blessedness, which may therefore also be the state of ‘the blessed dead’ met by the meditator in wakeful contemplation (AV B 223). Some of the inference may be uncertain, but Yeats’s style is not explicit, so that only inference is possible.

A typescript draft, intermediate between AV A and AV B , and very close to the final version in most respects, opens treatment of the Beatitude with more confidence: ‘In the Beatitude the Spirit and Celestial Body are completely one, there is no longer a past life, a chain of events separate from the Spirit, nor another existence opposite to those events but a timeless state, a moment, that is not a present because it has "no past and future"’, and Yeats evidently drew back from the identification of the two Principles as unified, with the past absorbed into Spirit and the Spirit united to the Celestial Body, but it is a natural interpolation from the other elements of the System. It would be even more dangerous to place too much reliance upon material from A Vision A with respect to establishing Yeats’s final thoughts upon the subject, but some elements of the rejected thinking are important for the influence which they had upon the poetry of the late 1920s, in particular the Byzantium poems and ‘The Tower’. They also show how Yeats’s concepts about the after-life permeate so much of his creative thinking, including the stages of after-life leading to the Beatitude, which in its role as ‘consummation’ is particularly important. Yeats writes of the Beatitude, in AV A , as the opposite of incarnate life where ‘the Four Faculties and the Husk and Passionate Body constrain all’ so that ‘we are all accident and passion; but now Spirit and Celestial Body constrain all, the one calling up all concrete universal quality and idea, and the other closing it in the unique image’ (AV A 235). He also states that the Beatitude should not be thought of as abstract or inconceivable, but rather:

the presence before the soul in some settled order, which has arisen out of the soul’s past, of all those events or works of men which have expressed some quality of wisdom or of beauty or of power within the compass of that soul, and as more completely human and actual than any life lived in a particular body. (AV A 235)

The soul appears purged of accident and passion, its Passionate Body or heart consumed away in the perning gyres of the earlier states, to be transformed into a state that has the truth of a work of art, and that finally knows what is and what it is, gathered into the ‘artifice of eternity’ (VP 408; 1927). The Return and the Shiftings in particular have loosened the knots of destiny and fate that bind the soul (AV A 234) and purged ‘all complexities of fury’ (VP 498; 1929/1930). The state is ‘superhuman’ (VP 497), since more complete than the partial gyre of an individual life, but still very much an expression of the human; since it contains an intimation of the soul’s release from rebirth in ‘a Vision of our own Celestial Body as that body will be when the cycles end’ (AV A 235), the closest the after-life processes approach to extinction of the living ego, it is called ‘death-in-life’, but it is also the point of the after-life (or death-process) which is ‘more completely human and actual than any life lived in a particular body’ so that it can be termed ‘life-in-death’. In a similar vein Yeats writes of the dreaming stages of the after-life and the following Beatitude in ‘The Tower’ (1927):

. . . being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream.
(VP 415)

The dead create both the fixed stars and the images of after-life (AV A 158), but Yeats knows to prepare for the settled presence of those works which have expressed ideal forms to the compass of his soul: the wisdom of Italy, the power of Greece and the beauty of love, poetry and women’s words, which in the Beatitude are both ‘superhuman’ lofty things, yet also a ‘Mirror-resembling dream’ since they reflect an ideal humanity.

The later formulation and the greater uncertainty which it manifests make a less fruitful poetic source, though still a potent element, so that in ‘The Man and the Echo’ the after-life is seen to start with a continuation of the guilt-racked questioning that keeps the old man ‘awake night after night’ (VP 632). This is however the ‘spiritual intellect’s great work’, to review life, though while the physical body persists, it protects the questioning spirit by its numb stupidity: But body gone he sleeps no more,
And till his intellect grows sure,
That all’s arranged in one clear view,
Pursues the thoughts that I pursue,
Then stands in judgment on his soul,
And, all work done, dismisses all
Out of intellect and sight
And sinks at last into the night.
(VP 633)

The phrase ‘all’s arranged in one clear view’ refers to the result of the Return and Shiftings, when the life has been sifted and followed to its sources and consequences. It also echoes the earlier formulation of the Beatitude’s being ‘the presence before the soul in some settled order . . . of all those events or works of men which have expressed’ some ideal quality (AV A 235), but here the events and works seem less ideal and the Beatitude seems to be viewed as closer to ‘unconsciousness’ than ‘a moment of consciousness’ (AV B 232), sinking into the night. He asks the Delphic Oracle, ‘Rocky Voice’, ‘Shall we in that great night rejoice? / What do we know but that we face / One another in this place?’ so that uncertainty about the Beatitude replaces confidence in the ‘superhuman / Mirror-resembling dream’ and that, as in all existence, we are part of the ‘timeless and spaceless community of Spirits which perceive each other’.

The Beatitude is, therefore, perhaps inconceivable beyond the most general of outlines. One further element of description was retained from AV A to AV B, though removed from the Christian voice of Owen Aherne, which was a condensation of elements from the Automatic Script: ‘ "The Celestial Body is the Divine Cloak lent to all, it falls away at the consummation and Christ is revealed" ’, which Yeats links to Bardesan’s ‘Hymn of the Soul’. The context in the Automatic Script clarifies the point slightly, contrasting ‘the spirit body [which is] the immortal body’ with ‘the celestial body [which] is the cloak of Christ’, so that the Spirit may be seen as the Christ-principle in humanity, ‘the symbolism & not the historical christ’ (YVP 1 326). The falling away of the Celestial Body is the revelation of ‘the true ego’ which has been ‘throughout incarnation subsidiary to CB’ and ‘cannot act alone’. Though it may not illuminate the state particularly for the reader, it resonated strongly with Yeats because it echoed a dream of 1898, in which he heard ‘a ceremonial measured voice, which did not seem to be mine, speaking through my lips. ‘We make an image of him who sleeps’, it said, ‘and it is not he who sleeps, and we call it Emmanuel’’ (Au 379; AV B 233n). Thinking about the experience years later, he ‘took down from the shelf, not knowing what [he] did, Burkitt’s Early Eastern Christianity, and opened it at random’ at Bardesan’s ‘Hymn of the Soul’ from the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas (Au 379). The strangeness of the dream and the coincidences evidently impressed him deeply, in a similar way to those surrounding his vision of the Archer in 1896, and the details of the hymn are helpful. The hymn is an allegorical representation of life from a Gnostic point of view, with the soul’s incarnation represented as an exile in Egypt (text). A child, born in a palace, is given a robe of precious metals and gems by his parents (Yeats’s Solar Principles? or Celestial Body?), but this ‘Glorious Robe’ is taken from him, as is his scarlet tunic (even the Lunar Principles are latent?), when he is sent out on a mission to Egypt to recover a pearl from the toils of a serpent. He is, however, promised that he will regain his robes and will inherit the kingdom along with his brother (the Christ) on his return. He puts on the clothes of the land (the Faculties), and forgets his mission until he is reminded by a letter sent from his father, so that he rescues the pearl and sets out towards his homeland. On his journey home he is met by messengers, who restore his bright garment to him, it is ‘myself that I saw before me as in a mirror’, and the robe speaks, saying that the man is ‘the Champion, he for whom I was reared by the Father’. He then puts on the robe and returns to his Father. In Yeats’s brief retelling, the garment seems to appear in while he is still in Egypt, but this does not greatly change the meaning; less clear, however, is the dual process of divesting and restoration of the robe which is the nub of Yeats’s reference. The general movement of the after-life has been the weaning of the Spirit from the Passionate Body to the Celestial, and its integration with the latter. The putting on of the original vestment is the restoration of the Spirit to itself, since the robe is a transfigured mirror image of its own form, unlike the Passionate Body. The Script’s image of the Divine Cloak falling away portrays this consummation as the apotheosis of Spirit into the Christ-principle, in which it stands forth in itself from the Celestial Body’s spiritual necessity. The Spirit is the true ego or identity, and the falling away of the garment may reveal the essential ‘pilgrim soul’, and Yeats entertains the idea that the Celestial Body is not the ultimate goal, and ‘that we do not in reality seek these [ideal] forms [of the Celestial Body], that while separate from us they are illusionary, but that we do seek Spirit as complete self-realisation’, so that Spirit is the Principle of the future rather than Celestial Body (AV B 191). The extreme allusiveness of the reference in A Vision tends to confuse rather than explain through the symbolism.

In AV A Yeats indicates that it is after the stage of the Beatitude that the Spirit will potentially pass towards the Thirteenth Cone once the twelve Cycles finish, and certainly it is the closest that the System comes to a point of completion. Even if it is to leave the round of human incarnation, the spirit ‘must receive in the Beatitude—in Cancer—the Cup of Lethe’ (AV A  236), and the Beatitude is one of the few states in which the astrological attribution carries some meaning. Its association with the sign of Cancer is among the sources of one of Yeats’s most famous Hermetic images — the ‘Honey of generation’ which betrays the new-born child in ‘Among School Children’. Yeats’s note to this refers to Porphyry’s De Antro Nympharum and says that he ‘blamed a cup of oblivion given in the zodiacal sign of Cancer’ for the destruction of the child’s ‘ ‘recollection’ of pre-natal freedom’ (VP  444 & n.828). In the poem, however, Yeats changes the element of oblivion to the more mundane idea of a drug, an example of how his System inspired him to the form of an idea which he was then poet enough to transform into a more readily understood image. The Cup of Lethe is symbolic of the transference of ‘all thoughts or images drawn from the Faculties’ to the Ghostly Self, which means that they must ‘be forgotten by the Spirit’ (AV A  236-7). Given the inexorable nature of the cycle, however, this point, like Phase 1 in the cycle of incarnations, is for almost every spirit not a finish, and leads inevitably to the next incarnation, though the presence of the Thirteenth Cone is particularly strong during the last two stages of the after-life, as it intervenes in ways that make it appear very close to a personal God.

LeoThe fifth stage of Purification, is marked by the creation of ‘a new Husk and Passionate Body’, taking ‘the place of the old; made from the old, yet, as it were, pure’, though still quiescent and ‘subordinate to the Celestial Body’ (AV B 233). The Spirit must now move away again from the Celestial Body and select in its place, ‘its own particular aim’, effectively what it requires from its next incarnation, which may therefore entail a long wait until the circumstances of history and culture are appropriate. The acquisition of the Lunar Principles means that the spirit is again in contact with the natural world, and during its wait can manifest as a minor deity, ‘the guardian of well or temple’, or become one of the Teaching Spirits that helps ‘the newly dead’, or as a muse-like figure to inspire a living person who shares ‘some affinity of aim’. It is from such spirits that the Yeatses Instructors are said mainly to have come; since at this stage ‘All memory has vanished, the Spirit no longer knows what its name has been’, any name the Instructors might use is arbitrary and carries no history, and their knowledge comes not from their own past but appears before them in the Ideal form of their own Celestial Body. Similarly, particular differences are erased as the Spirits apprehend reality through Forms, which exist in Unity and therefore their ‘perfection is a shared purpose or idea’, leading to their working as groups, communicating ‘those forms copied in the arts and sciences’. They have achieved the purpose of the dead spirits and entered ‘at last into their own archetype, or into all being’ (Ex 366) and may thus be particularly important to the lyric poet who accepts ‘some one of the traditional attitudes, lover, sage, hero, scorner of life. They bring us back to the spiritual norm’ (AV B 234).

Such spirits may seem to be particularly interested in the creative artist and it is characteristic of Yeats’s System in this as in other areas, that the artist should seem particularly favoured, which is partly a product of his ignoring other aspects and partly an engineering of his cosmology into a personal form of defence. These spirits provide contact with a Platonically perfect realm of essences, and thus also sanctify the poet’s labours with their influence. This contact operates at the level of the human unconscious, which indicates that the archetypes of the unconscious mind are linked through the spirits with the Ideal world, and that unconscious and supraconscious are potentially identical. After the Beatitude the spirits are not tied to any individual or group, except insofar as they seek like minds with shared aims, and thus they also serve to bring living individuals into indirect contact with others as well, creating a nexus between the unconscious minds of living humanity. It is in this sense that the Yeatsian unconscious has affinities with the psychological model of Jung, who viewed the collective aspect of the unconscious as ‘the deposit of mankind’s typical reactions since primordial times to universal human situations . . . . arising from the experience of mankind and consonant with the necessities and laws of man’s inner life’, though for Yeats the essential element lies in the spirits of the dead and the community of all spirits, both incarnate and discarnate.

VirgoThe final stage of the after-life, the Foreknowledge, is entered once the time appointed for the selected life approaches: the Spirit is ‘almost united to Husk and Passionate Body’, and, consequently no longer impassive, it ‘may know the most violent love and hatred possible’ (AV B 235). The incarnation must be accepted, but the Spirit sees ‘the most remote consequence of the most trivial acts of the living, provided those consequences are part of its future life’ and may try to intervene in order to prevent them. The Phase of its incarnation is largely inevitable, and with it the disposition of the Faculties, since, even if some particular Phases may be omitted or repeated, the fundamental sequence cannot be changed; nor, ‘without the assistance of the Thirteenth Cone’ can the spirit affect the circumstances in the world of the living; what can be changed is the timing of birth, by delay, which affects the horoscope that the spirit will acquire and may therefore significantly affect the way in which the life is lived. In the ‘Seven Propositions’, Yeats proposed that the spirit’s emotional character ‘reflects itself as its position in time’ and its intellectual character ‘as its position in space’ so that the ‘position of a Spirit in space and time therefore defines character’. This is shown in the birth-chart, where the time aspect is expressed by the planetary positions in the Zodiac, while the space aspect is expressed in the Earth’s rotation, which produces the Ascendant and the mundane houses of the horoscope. Broadly in traditional astrology, the planets in the Zodiac can be said to represent the psychic drives and forces, which could be summarised as the emotional character, while the structure of the Ascendant and houses represents the spheres of activity in which these forces are most readily deployed, which could be called the social or, very loosely, intellectual character. Implicitly the Spirit will try to seek an appropriate hour and place for birth to express itself most effectively, though this may be sought without conscious awareness and without clear astrological election.

If the Thirteenth Cone consents to assist the spirit to influence circumstances surrounding the prospective birth, Yeats imagines that this may ‘make possible the rebirth of a unique nature’ or group of natures, since he also supposes ‘such spirits gathered into bands’ and collectively ‘playing a part resembling that of the ‘censor’ in modern psychology’ (AV B 235). By the censor, Freud meant an agent which stops the emergence of dangerous or unwelcome experience into the conscious psyche, except in disguised form, or more commonly the transference of dream content, usually sexual, into a more acceptable dream image, but the trope does not seem to offer an equivalent in the situation that Yeats proposes. If the reference to a band of spirits seeking to shape their rebirths is related to personal experience and specifically to the circumstances surrounding the births of their own children, Anne and Michael, and the attendant spirits such as Anne Hyde, his allusions may refer to the conception of Anne before it had been planned and similar facts, though it could as readily be related generally to cultural movements where the combination of a critical number of individuals with the Zeitgeist leads to artistic or scientific advances.

The actual transition from the sphere of the Principles into the world of the Faculties is adumbrated but never made explicit, apparently taking place at birth with a shift of the consciousness from Spirit to the new Husk, which has been gathered together like Osiris’s body from the fragments of the old by the Celestial Body and which ‘begins very small & grows with life’ (YVP 3 11; c.f. YVP 3 386). This ‘new still unopened Husk’ (AV B 192) dominates the first quarter of the life-cycle Wheel, with the Faculties taking over as the child’s awareness and self-consciousness increase. The infant is thus still largely under the sway of the Principles, though now the two Lunar Principles, as body and desire dominate. As a gradual process the Husk gives place to the Will during waking hours, and the Principles remain as the informing elements of ‘spiritual life and, while Natural life continues, of subconscious life’ (AV A 159). As the archetypal life progresses this subconscious life moves under the sway of the Passionate Body roughly at adolescence, as desire and sensual awareness grows, then under Spirit as maturity develops and the pursuit of individual understanding dominates, until Celestial Body dominates the final quarter when there may be a general preparation for the wisdom and explorations of the life after death.

Throughout life the human passes regularly into the realm of the subconscious, the dark of the mind, however this is not only the Solar cones of the Principles but also of the Daimon:

The opposite state of his being, that which is the activity of his Daimon, meets him at the centre, and contact with it is now death and now creation. After death, or in a trance or in ordinary sleep, he enters into that state, as man is always antithetical in relation to his Daimon whatever his own phase may be, or whatever that of his Daimon, and to die or to sleep is to pass from the Lunar to the Solar cones. (AV A 159)

The passage from the Lunar to the Solar cones is the passage from the world of the Faculties to that of the Principles, and also releases Spirit and Celestial Body from the control of Husk and Passionate Body, also the state of the Daimon.

The majority of the Instructor spirits seem to have come from the Shiftings or the Purification: those with historical names or identities, such as Thomas of Dorlowicz, retain earthly traits and are more recently dead, whereas the 'guides', such as Apple and Leaf, have lost human character during the processes of the after-life. However, Yeats remained relatively unsure about the details and the Script and particularly some of the later Sleeps show his attempts over a long period of time to understand exactly what the nature of his visitors was, but the explanations they themselves offered are elusive and liable to change over time. As well as the after-life there also appear to be two other sources of spirit help: the Thirteenth Cone and the discarnate Phase One; further, linked to these, but rather like an eminence grise, stands the Daimon. Each of these spirits apparently has distinct roles and strengths, reflecting their distance from human complexity. Some of the lowlier spirits from the Thirteenth Cone, beyond space but within time, can communicate directly, although those that are more powerful are also more remote and therefore need an intermediary from one of the other sources (YVP 3 98); a month later, however, he was told that none of the ‘spirits of the 13th Cone use Spirits at 1 or any other agents when communicating’ (YVP 3 102). Apparently, however, the spirit Frazzlepat was one such. The spirits at Phase One are entirely plastic to their ‘supernatural environment’ (AV B 183) and act as ‘the instrument of communication between men and all orders of Spirits, where the communication also shows an automatic element, and they are also said to give the "Kiss of Life"’ (AV A 241), in contrast to the spirits at Phase Fifteen which have more of their own individuality, being at the most subjective phase, and impose an image upon a living man or woman. See also: The Automatic Script: What was really happening?.

See further: Colin McDowell “ ‘The Completed Symbol’: Daimonic Existence and the Great Wheel in A Vision (1937)”, Yeats Annual 6 (1988) and The Six Discarnate States of A Vision (1937)”, Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies 4 (1986).
See also, the essay "'The Spiritual Intellect's Great Work': A Discussion of the Principles and A Vision's Account of Death," by Graham A. Dampier in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012).
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.