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Metaphysician as dramatist : the struggle of the spirit in the drama of W.B. Yeats Martin, Heather


W. B. Yeats spent a great deal of his life immersing himself in mystical and philosophic studies in order, as he claimed, to devise a personal system of thought "that would leave [his] ... imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of one history, and that the soul's." This study contends that he succeeded in developing a cohesive metaphysics, and that this metaphysics is by and large original, a synthesis only of those traditions which corroborated his own fledgling beliefs. While he set down the ensuing system in a series of philosophical treatises culminating in A Vision and in what is perhaps the most succinct statement of his philosophy, "The Seven Propositions" of 1937, this same system infiltrates, at times overtly, but more often covertly, virtually all of Yeats's plays. Yeats struggled to devise a symbolic framework for his drama that would incorporate its metaphysical base but would supercede it, and constantly revised his plays to eliminate all abstraction. He considered himself primarily a poet and a dramatist, believing in the greater power of age-old symbols to transmit these truths and, in his drama perhaps more than in his poetry, breathed life and meaning into the rather abstruse statements of the philosophical treatises. When studied together with the latter works, the plays begin to resonate with meaning, and many subtle, even obscure, passages become readily understandable. Studied as a unit, the plays reveal in practice the system that the philosophical works expound in theory. This study will elucidate the underlying system of beliefs in the drama and establish its importance to the aim and execution of the plays, by drawing attention to a few of the central themes, metaphors and symbols through which it is developed in the drama. The manuscript versions and the earliest published versions of the plays are the most useful for this purpose, since they often retain much of the abstract thought which Yeats eliminated from the later versions, and also show the development of the metaphors and images with which Yeats gradually replaced it. All of Yeats's concerns, whether as poet or magician, dramatist or philosopher, revolved around the soul or spirit; as he once wrote, "My own belief is that we know nothing ... but 'spirits and their relations'." It is therefore not surprising that 'spirits and their relations' are a central preoccupation of the drama, and constitute a major thematic link between the different plays. That men are spirits temporarily residing in a human body is one of the most basic tenets of all the plays. Though they centre on mortal protagonists, the struggles they depict are best understood in the context of a hierarchy of being, since many mortals in the plays either know, or are told, or remember that they were once discarnate beings, and that their mortal garb will be "but empty cage and tangled wire" when their soul has escaped. This belief in a hierarchy of being proceeding from man to God, or the One, and connecting all beings within creation, permeates the drama. The plays chart the journey of the spirit from creation (the separation of the One into the Many) through endless phases of being, as it acquires more and more layers of differentiation until it achieves the most extreme form of differentiation possible, as a spirit imprisoned in a human body. Each spirit journeys down this hierarchy and then up again, manifesting itself as every link in the chain in order to experience all knowledge, before it can return to the womb from which it was hurled at creation, the One or complete unity of which it is an integral part. Just as reality is a Sphere, though manifested within creation as a gyre, or even part of a gyre, so the reality of the spirit is a whole of which any manifestation, on any level of the hierarchy of being, is but a small part. The diverse struggles of the multifarious spirits in the drama are thus, in the final analysis, the struggles of one spirit, who works, painfully but surely, to reverse the disintegration brought about by creation.

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