The Phases of the Moon

Kircher Moon

The Moon as ‘Queen of the skies’ and the archetype, in her different aspects, of all the ancient female deities, as seen by Athanasius Kircher in Obeliscus Pamphilius (1650).

The interplay of the Tinctures expresses itself readily in a cycle of light and dark. The phases of the Moon offer one of the most impressive and atavistically powerful manifestations of such a cycle, with the Moon's waxing from New Moon to Full Moon followed by its waning again to the next New Moon. The cycle can therefore be expressed through the 28 days or separate phases of the Moon (though the natural cycle takes some 29½ solar days; see astronomy).

The Changes of the Moon
The Moon's Phase is
lunar phases

When Yeats introduces the diagram of the lunar phases in the first version of A Vision he comments that: 'Their number is that of the Arabic Mansions of the Moon but they are used merely as a method of classification and for simplicity of classification their symbols are composed in an entirely arbitrary way' (AV A 12). This statement draws attention to two aspects relating to the phases: firstly, that to a certain extent the phases are simply notational ciphers of the two Tinctures and, secondly, that the Moon's lunation cycle is difficult to reconcile with the circle of the Zodiac or its lunar equivalent, the Mansions.

The cycle could theoretically be shown by arrangements of any two interchanging elements, such as the solid lines and broken lines of the I Ching, where the admixtures of Yin and Yang are shown in a purely diagrammatic form. However, the Moon had been a strong symbolic presence in Yeats's imagination for many years and, in particular, the work which was the starting point for the communications of the Instructors, Per Amica Silentia Lunae, ‘through the friendly silences of the Moon’.

Click here for an interactive map of the 28 Phases
Click here for an interactive map of the 28 Phases
or go to the Wheel

One of the problems with using the phases of the Moon as the form of notation, is that it has a decidedly astrological appearance. Since A Vision gives no clear means of assigning an individual to a particular Phase, the temptation is to assume that it must be the phase of the Moon at birth. It is not. The Yeatses were both practised astrologers and A Vision, especially the first version, is peppered with astrological references and symbols. The Yeatses also, no doubt, felt relatively comfortable dealing with the symbolism of Sun and Moon, much of which is linked to astrology, but Sun and Moon remain symbols rather than actual markers of the phase. Yeats told a fellow enthusiast for occult matters, Frank Pearce Sturm, about the new System in 1921, and Sturm's immediate reaction was to cast over three hundred horoscopes to work out the phase at birth. Yeats was however quite clear that the "phases of the Moon in the symbolism I told you of have nothing to do with the horoscope, but with the incarnations only" (April 1921; FPS 80). Evidently Yeats felt that Sturm was still pursuing an astrological link even after the publication of the first version of A Vision in 1926; he wrote again that "You will get all mixed up if you think of my symbolism as astrological or even astronomical in any literal way. . . . Sun glyph [Sun] is a symbol of one state of being, Moon glyph [Moon] of another, that is all" (January 1926; FPS 88). Yeats had in fact taken some time to rid himself of the compulsion to find a link between the horoscope and the Phase, although the Instructors had told them very early in their sessions, on 30 November 1917, that there was "no astrological means of arriving at" a person's Phase or Cycle and that they "must get it by psychology as you divine birth sign" (YVP 1 142), and again on 22 January 1918, that no use was made of the apparent motion of the Sun and Moon and that the Phases were "symbolic & arbitrary only" (YVP 1 275). Yeats continued to search for other links via numerology, such that, after a pressing series of questions on 5 August 1918 about whether there was any number symbolism in the Phases, George's hand wrote "no - please accept no when I say it" (YVP 2 23).

Poetically and esoterically, however, the symbol of the Moon and its phases, was extremely important. Traditionally the Moon is associated with the feminine principle, with water, especially the sea, and with change and growth, while its phases are natural symbol of mutability and impermanence. Madame Blavatsky had taught that the powers associated with the Moon were responsible for the division of the sexes, for generation and for emotion, while the Solar powers were in conflict with them, and responsible for spirit and intellect. The Golden Dawn added other elements, since ‘“Solar” according to all that I learnt from Mathers, meant elaborate, full of artifice, rich, all that resembles the work of a goldsmith . . . and “lunar” all that is simple, popular, traditional, emotional’ (Au 371). That the Moon was rising in the first house of Yeats’s horoscope, the most personal, also influenced his perception of where his bias lay. At times he saw it as a tendency to be overcome, so that in the 1908 introduction of John Sherman and Dhoya, he writes of ‘his struggle with the still all-too-unconquered Moon,’ and ‘the summons of the prouder Sun’. Later, however, he regretted the apparent loss of the lunar, feminine influence in his life.

The poems collected in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) trace a fascinating trajectory from before his marriage and after it, particularly in the symbolism of the Moon. In 1915, Yeats had wondered whether he had permanently lost contact with the lunar principle.

Lines Written in Dejection
When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.
The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished;
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.
VP 343-44

In ‘On Woman’, first published in 1916, Yeats speculates about ‘when, if the tale’s true, / The Pestle of the moon / That pounds up all anew / Brings me to birth again’ (VP 346), and it is clear that even before the advent of the System, his mind associated the Moon with the wheel of reincarnation, here working as a kind of alchemist perhaps. ‘Presences’, from early 1917, implies that the ‘women laughing, or timid or wild’ have returned to his dreams at least, and one of them may be ‘a queen’ (VP 358). The dreamer of ‘Under the Round Tower’, published in 1918, dreams ‘Of sun and moon’, ‘Of golden king and silver lady, / Bellowing up and bellowing round, / Till toes mastered a sweet measure’, so that the queen is united with the king in a circular, spiral dance (VP 331). The theme is repeated in the following poem, one of those to his wife, ‘Solomon and Sheba’, where it is their conversation that goes ‘round and round’ on the theme of love (VP 332).

These poems were collected into The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919, which closes with a series of poems linked to the System, including ‘The Phases of the Moon’ and ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’. ‘The Phases of the Moon’ is probably his most schematic and direct treatment of the System in poetry, and when it prefaces the main body of A Vision it is almost as if it is a text, which the book then expounds, in the same way that Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine had purported to expound the ‘Stanzas of Dzyan’.

The Phases of the Moon
An old man cocked his ear upon a bridge;
He and his friend, their faces to the South,
Had trod the uneven road. Their boots were soiled,
Their Connemara cloth worn out of shape;
They had kept a steady pace as though their beds,
Despite a dwindling and late-risen moon,
Were distant still. An old man cocked his ear.

What made that sound?

Robartes. A rat or water-hen
Splashed, or an otter slid into the stream.
We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower,
And the light proves that he is reading still.
He has found, after the manner of his kind,
Mere images; chosen this place to live in
Because, it may be, of the candle-light
From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find.

Aherne. Why should not you
Who know it all ring at his door, and speak
Just truth enough to show that his whole life
Will scarcely find for him a broken crust
Of all those truths that are your daily bread;
And when you have spoken take the roads again?

Robartes. He wrote of me in that extravagant style
He had learnt from Pater, and to round his tale
Said I was dead; and dead I choose to be.

Aherne. Sing me the changes of the moon once more;
True song, though speech: ‘mine author sung it me.’

Robartes. 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 human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred,
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athene takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the hero’s crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after,
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon,
The soul begins to tremble into stillness,
To die into the labyrinth of itself!

Aherne. Sing out the song; sing to the end, and sing
The strange reward of all that discipline.

Robartes. All thought becomes an image and the soul
Becomes a body: that body and that soul
Too perfect at the full 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.

Aherne. All dreams of the soul
End in a beautiful man’s or woman’s body.

Robartes. Have you not always known it?

Aherne. The song will have it
That those that we have loved got their long fingers
From death, and wounds, or on Sinai’s top,
Or from some bloody whip in their own hands.
They ran from cradle to cradle till at last
Their beauty dropped out of the loneliness
Of body and soul.

Robartes. The lover’s heart knows that.

Aherne. It must be that the terror in their eyes
Is memory or foreknowledge of the hour
When all is fed with light and heaven is bare.

Robartes. When the moon’s full those creatures of the full
Are met on the waste hills by countrymen
Who shudder and hurry by: body and soul
Estranged amid the strangeness of themselves,
Caught up in contemplation, the mind’s eye
Fixed upon images that once were thought;
For separate, perfect, and immovable
Images can break the solitude
Of lovely, satisfied, indifferent eyes.

And thereupon with aged, high-pitched voice
Aherne laughed, thinking of the man within,
His sleepless candle and laborious pen.

And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the world's servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task's most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.

Aherne. Before the full
It sought itself and afterwards the world.

Robartes. Because you are forgotten, half out of life,
And never wrote a book, your thought is clear.
Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,
Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,
Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all
Deformed because there is no deformity
But saves us from a dream.

Aherne. And what of those
That the last servile crescent has set free?

Robartes. Because all dark, like those that are all light,
They are cast beyond the verge, and in a cloud,
Crying to one another like the bats;
And having no desire they cannot tell
What’s good or bad, or what it is to triumph
At the perfection of one’s own obedience;
And yet they speak what’s blown into the mind;
Deformed beyond deformity, unformed,
Insipid as the dough before it is baked,
They change their bodies at a word.

Aherne. And then?

Rohartes. When all the dough has been so kneaded up
That it can take what form cook Nature fancies,
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.

Aherne. But the escape; the song’s not finished yet.

Robartes. Hunchback and Saint and Fool are the last crescents.
The burning bow that once could shoot an arrow
Out of the up and down, the wagon-wheel
Of beauty’s cruelty and wisdom’s chatter—
Out of that raving tide—is drawn betwixt
Deformity of body and of mind.

Aherne. Were not our beds far off I’d ring the bell,
Stand under the rough roof-timbers of the hall
Beside the castle door, where all is stark
Austerity, a place set out for wisdom
That he will never find; I’d play a part;
He would never know me after all these years
But take me for some drunken countryman:
I’d stand and mutter there until he caught
‘Hunchback and Saint and Fool,’ and that they came
Under the three last crescents of the moon.
And then I’d stagger out. He’d crack his wits
Day after day, yet never find the meaning.

And then he laughed to think that what seemed hard
Should be so simple—a bat rose from the hazels
And circled round him with its squeaky cry,
The light in the tower window was put out.

in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)
Moon Phases

The Wheel

The Faculties

The Principles



Return to Contents

Go to Site-map

Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.

last revised: 17/12/04

The essay "'Metaphors for Poetry': Concerning the Poems of A Vision and Certain Plays for Dancers," by Wayne K. Chapman in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012), provides further details on this poem. 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.