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Title: Discoveries - A Volume of Essays
Author: Yeats, W. B. (William Butler), 1865-1939
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  Prophet, Priest and King                            Page 1

  Personality and the Intellectual Essences                5

  The Musician and the Orator                              9

  A Banjo Player                                          10

  The Looking-glass                                       11

  The Tree of Life                                        12

  The Praise of Old Wives' Tales                          15

  The Play of Modern Manners                              16

  Has the Drama of Contemporary Life a Root of its Own    18

  Why the Blind Man in Ancient Times was made a Poet      20

  Concerning Saints and Artists                           24

  The Subject Matter of Drama                             27

  The Two Kinds of Asceticism                             30

  In the Serpent's Mouth                                  32

  The Black and the White Arrows                          33

  His Mistress's Eyebrows                                 33

  The Tresses of the Hair                                 35

  A Tower on the Apennine                                 36

  The Thinking of the Body                                37

  Religious Belief necessary to symbolic Art              39

  The Holy Places                                         41



The little theatrical company I write my plays for had come to a west of
Ireland town and was to give a performance in an old ball-room, for
there was no other room big enough. I went there from a neighbouring
country house and arriving a little before the players, tried to open a
window. My hands were black with dirt in a moment and presently a pane
of glass and a part of the window frame came out in my hands. Everything
in this room was half in ruins, the rotten boards cracked under my feet,
and our new proscenium and the new boards of the platform looked out of
place, and yet the room was not really old, in spite of the musicians'
gallery over the stage. It had been built by some romantic or
philanthropic landlord some three or four generations ago, and was a
memory of we knew not what unfinished scheme.

From there I went to look for the players and called for information on
a young priest, who had invited them, and taken upon himself the finding
of an audience. He lived in a high house with other priests, and as I
went in I noticed with a whimsical pleasure a broken pane of glass in
the fan-light over the door, for he had once told me the story of an old
woman who a good many years ago quarrelled with the bishop, got drunk,
and hurled a stone through the painted glass. He was a clever man, who
read Meredith and Ibsen, but some of his books had been packed in the
fire-grate by his house-keeper, instead of the customary view of an
Italian lake or the coloured tissue-paper. The players, who had been
giving a performance in a neighbouring town, had not yet come, or were
unpacking their costumes and properties at the hotel he had recommended
them. We should have time, he said, to go through the half-ruined town
and to visit the convent schools and the cathedral, where, owing to his
influence, two of our young Irish sculptors had been set to carve an
altar and the heads of pillars. I had only heard of this work, and I
found its strangeness and simplicity--one of them had been Rodin's
pupil--could not make me forget the meretriciousness of the architecture
and the commercial commonplace of the inlaid pavements. The new movement
had seized on the cathedral midway in its growth, and the worst of the
old & the best of the new were side by side without any sign of
transition. The convent school was, as other like places have been to
me--a long room in a workhouse hospital at Portumna, in particular--a
delight to the imagination and the eyes. A new floor had been put into
some ecclesiastical building and the light from a great mullioned
window, cut off at the middle, fell aslant upon rows of clean and
seemingly happy children. The nuns, who show in their own convents,
where they can put what they like, a love of what is mean and pretty,
make beautiful rooms where the regulations compel them to do all with a
few colours and a few flowers. I think it was that day, but am not sure,
that I had lunch at a convent and told fairy stories to a couple of
nuns, and I hope it was not mere politeness that made them seem to have
a child's interest in such things.

A good many of our audience, when the curtain went up in the old
ball-room, were drunk, but all were attentive for they had a great deal
of respect for my friend and there were other priests there. Presently
the man at the door opposite to the stage strayed off somewhere and I
took his place and when boys came up offering two or three pence and
asking to be let into the sixpenny seats I let them join the melancholy
crowd. The play professed to tell of the heroic life of ancient Ireland
but was really full of sedentary refinement and the spirituality of
cities. Every emotion was made as dainty footed and dainty fingered as
might be, and a love and pathos where passion had faded into sentiment,
emotions of pensive and harmless people, drove shadowy young men through
the shadows of death and battle. I watched it with growing rage. It was
not my own work, but I have sometimes watched my own work with a rage
made all the more salt in the mouth from being half despair. Why should
we make so much noise about ourselves and yet have nothing to say that
was not better said in that work-house dormitory, where a few flowers
and a few coloured counterpanes and the coloured walls had made a severe
and gracious beauty? Presently the play was changed and our comedian
began to act a little farce, and when I saw him struggle to wake into
laughter an audience, out of whom the life had run as if it were water,
I rejoiced, as I had over that broken window-pane. Here was something
secular, abounding, even a little vulgar, for he was gagging horribly,
condescending to his audience, though not without contempt.

We had our supper in the priest's house, and a government official who
had come down from Dublin, partly out of interest in this attempt 'to
educate the people,' and partly because it was his holiday and it was
necessary to go somewhere, entertained us with little jokes. Somebody,
not I think a priest, talked of the spiritual destiny of our race and
praised the night's work, for the play was refined and the people really
very attentive, and he could not understand my discontent; but presently
he was silenced by the patter of jokes.

I had my breakfast by myself the next morning, for the players had got
up in the middle of the night and driven some ten miles to catch an
early train to Dublin, and were already on their way to their shops and
offices. I had brought the visitor's book of the hotel to turn over its
pages while waiting for my bacon and eggs, and found several pages full
of obscenities, scrawled there some two or three weeks before, by Dublin
visitors it seemed, for a notorious Dublin street was mentioned. Nobody
had thought it worth his while to tear out the page or block out the
lines, and as I put the book away impressions that had been drifting
through my mind for months rushed up into a single thought. 'If we poets
are to move the people, we must reintegrate the human spirit in our
imagination. The English have driven away the kings, and turned the
prophets into demagogues and you cannot have health among a people if
you have not prophet, priest and king.'


My work in Ireland has continually set this thought before me, 'How can
I make my work mean something to vigorous and simple men whose attention
is not given to art but to a shop, or teaching in a National School, or
dispensing medicine?' I had not wanted to 'elevate them' or 'educate
them,' as these words are understood, but to make them understand my
vision, and I had not wanted a large audience, certainly not what is
called a national audience, but enough people for what is accidental and
temporary to lose itself in the lump. In England where there have been
so many changing activities and so much systematic education one only
escapes from crudities and temporary interests among students, but here
there is the right audience could one but get its ears. I have always
come to this certainty, what moves natural men in the arts is what moves
them in life, and that is, intensity of personal life, intonations that
show them in a book or a play, the strength, the essential moment of a
man who would be exciting in the market or at the dispensary door. They
must go out of the theatre with the strength they live by strengthened
with looking upon some passion that could, whatever its chosen way of
life, strike down an enemy, fill a long stocking with money or move a
girl's heart. They have not much to do with the speculations of science,
though they have a little, or with the speculations of metaphysics,
though they have a little. Their legs will tire on the road if there is
nothing in their hearts but vague sentiment, and though it is charming
to have an affectionate feeling about flowers, that will not pull the
cart out of the ditch. An exciting person, whether the hero of a play or
the maker of poems, will display the greatest volume of personal energy,
and this energy must seem to come out of the body as out of the mind. We
must say to ourselves continually when we imagine a character, 'Have I
given him the roots, as it were, of all faculties necessary for life?'
And only when one is certain of that may one give him the one faculty
that fills the imagination with joy. I even doubt if any play had ever a
great popularity that did not use, or seem to use, the bodily energies
of its principal actor to the full. Villon the robber could have
delighted these Irishmen with plays and songs, if he and they had been
born to the same traditions of word and symbol, but Shelley could not;
and as men came to live in towns and to read printed books and to have
many specialised activities, it has become more possible to produce
Shelleys and less and less possible to produce Villons. The last Villon
dwindled into Robert Burns because the highest faculties had faded,
taking the sense of beauty with them, into some sort of vague heaven &
left the lower to lumber where they best could. In literature, partly
from the lack of that spoken word which knits us to normal man, we have
lost in personality, in our delight in the whole man--blood,
imagination, intellect, running together--but have found a new delight,
in essences, in states of mind, in pure imagination, in all that comes
to us most easily in elaborate music. There are two ways before
literature--upward into ever-growing subtlety, with Verhaeren, with
Mallarmé, with Maeterlinck, until at last, it may be, a new agreement
among refined and studious men gives birth to a new passion, and what
seems literature becomes religion; or downward, taking the soul with us
until all is simplified and solidified again. That is the choice of
choices--the way of the bird until common eyes have lost us, or to the
market carts; but we must see to it that the soul goes with us, for the
bird's song is beautiful, and the traditions of modern imagination,
growing always more musical, more lyrical, more melancholy, casting up
now a Shelley, now a Swinburne, now a Wagner, are it may be the frenzy
of those that are about to see what the magic hymn printed by the Abbé
de Villars has called the Crown of Living and Melodious Diamonds. If the
carts have hit our fancy we must have the soul tight within our bodies,
for it has grown so fond of a beauty accumulated by subtle generations
that it will for a long time be impatient with our thirst for mere
force, mere personality, for the tumult of the blood. If it begin to
slip away we must go after it, for Shelley's Chapel of the Morning Star
is better than Burns's beer house--surely it was beer not
barleycorn--except at the day's weary end; and it is always better than
that uncomfortable place where there is no beer, the machine shop of the


Walter Pater says music is the type of all the Arts, but somebody else,
I forget now who, that oratory is their type. You will side with the one
or the other according to the nature of your energy, and I in my present
mood am all for the man who, with an average audience before him, uses
all means of persuasion--stories, laughter, tears, and but so much music
as he can discover on the wings of words. I would even avoid the
conversation of the lovers of music, who would draw us into the
impersonal land of sound and colour, and would have no one write with a
sonata in his memory. We may even speak a little evil of musicians,
having admitted that they will see before we do that melodious crown. We
may remind them that the housemaid does not respect the piano-tuner as
she does the plumber, and of the enmity that they have aroused among all
poets. Music is the most impersonal of things and words the most
personal, and that is why musicians do not like words. They masticate
them for a long time, being afraid they would not be able to digest
them, and when the words are so broken and softened and mixed with
spittle, that they are not words any longer, they swallow them.


A girl has been playing on the banjo. She is pretty and if I didn't
listen to her I could have watched her, and if I didn't watch her I
could have listened. Her voice, the movements of her body, the
expression of her face all said the same thing. A player of a different
temper and body would have made all different and might have been
delightful in some other way. A movement not of music only but of life
came to its perfection. I was delighted and I did not know why until I
thought 'that is the way my people, the people I see in the mind's eye,
play music, and I like it because it is all personal, as personal as
Villon's poetry.' The little instrument is quite light and the player
can move freely and express a joy that is not of the fingers and the
mind only but of the whole being; and all the while her movements call
up into the mind, so erect and natural she is, whatever is most
beautiful in her daily life. Nearly all the old instruments were like
that, even the organ was once a little instrument and when it grew big
our wise forefathers gave it to God in the cathedrals where it befits
Him to be everything. But if you sit at the piano it is the piano, the
mechanism, that is the important thing, and nothing of you means
anything but your fingers and your intellect.


I have just been talking to a girl with a shrill monotonous voice and an
abrupt way of moving. She is fresh from school where they have taught
her history and geography 'whereby a soul can be discerned,' but what is
the value of an education, or even in the long run of a science, that
does not begin with the personality, the habitual self, and illustrate
all by that? Somebody should have taught her to speak for the most part
on whatever note of her voice is most musical, and soften those harsh
notes by speaking, not singing, to some stringed instrument, taking note
after note and, as it were, caressing her words a little as if she loved
the sound of them, and have taught her after this some beautiful
pantomimic dance, till it had grown a habit to live for eye and ear. A
wise theatre might make a training in strong and beautiful life the
fashion, teaching before all else the heroic discipline of the
looking-glass, for is not beauty, even as lasting love, one of the most
difficult of the arts?


We artists have taken over-much to heart that old commandment about
seeking after the Kingdom of Heaven. Verlaine told me that he had tried
to translate 'In Memoriam,' but could not because Tennyson was 'too
noble, too Anglais, and when he should have been broken-hearted had many
reminiscences.' About that time I found in some English review an essay
of his on Shakespeare. 'I had once a fine Shakespeare,' he wrote, or
some such words, 'but I have it no longer. I write from memory.' One
wondered in what vicissitude he had sold it, and for what money; and an
image of the man rose in the imagination. To be his ordinary self as
much as possible, not a scholar or even a reader, that was certainly his
pose; and in the lecture he gave at Oxford he insisted 'that the poet
should hide nothing of himself,' though he must speak it all with 'a
care of that dignity which should manifest itself, if not in the
perfection of form, at all events with an invisible, insensible, but
effectual endeavour after this lofty and severe quality, I was about to
say this virtue.' It was this feeling for his own personality, his
delight in singing his own life, even more than that life itself, which
made the generation I belong to compare him to Villon. It was not till
after his death that I understood the meaning his words should have had
for me, for while he lived I was interested in nothing but states of
mind, lyrical moments, intellectual essences. I would not then have been
as delighted as I am now by that banjo-player, or as shocked as I am now
by that girl whose movements have grown abrupt, and whose voice has
grown harsh by the neglect of all but external activities. I had not
learned what sweetness, what rhythmic movement, there is in those who
have become the joy that is themselves. Without knowing it I had come to
care for nothing but impersonal beauty. I had set out on life with the
thought of putting my very self into poetry, and had understood this as
a representation of my own visions and an attempt to cut away the
non-essential, but as I imagined the visions outside myself my
imagination became full of decorative landscape and of still life. I
thought of myself as something unmoving and silent living in the middle
of my own mind and body, a grain of sand in Bloomsbury or in Connacht
that Satan's watch fiends cannot find. Then one day I understood quite
suddenly, as the way is, that I was seeking something unchanging and
unmixed and always outside myself, a Stone or an Elixir that was always
out of reach, and that I myself was the fleeting thing that held out its
hand. The more I tried to make my art deliberately beautiful, the more
did I follow the opposite of myself, for deliberate beauty is like a
woman always desiring man's desire. Presently I found that I entered
into myself and pictured myself and not some essence when I was not
seeking beauty at all, but merely to lighten the mind of some burden of
love or bitterness thrown upon it by the events of life. We are only
permitted to desire life, and all the rest should be our complaints or
our praise of that exacting mistress who can awake our lips into song
with her kisses. But we must not give her all, we must deceive her a
little at times, for, as Le Sage says in 'The Devil on Two Sticks,' the
false lovers who do not become melancholy or jealous with honest passion
have the happiest mistress and are rewarded the soonest and by the most
beautiful. Our deceit will give us style, mastery, that dignity, that
lofty and severe quality Verlaine spoke of. To put it otherwise, we
should ascend out of common interests, the thoughts of the newspapers,
of the market-place, of men of science, but only so far as we can carry
the normal, passionate, reasoning self, the personality as a whole. We
must find some place upon the Tree of Life high enough for the forked
branches to keep it safe, and low enough to be out of the little
wind-tossed boughs and twigs, for the Phoenix nest, for the passion
that is exaltation and not negation of the will, for the wings that are
always upon fire.


An art may become impersonal because it has too much circumstance or too
little, because the world is too little or too much with it, because it
is too near the ground or too far up among the branches. I met an old
man out fishing a year ago who said to me 'Don Quixote and Odysseus are
always near to me;' that is true for me also, for even Hamlet and Lear
and OEdipus are more cloudy. No playwright ever has made or ever will
make a character that will follow us out of the theatre as Don Quixote
follows us out of the book, for no playwright can be wholly episodical,
and when one constructs, bringing one's characters into complicated
relations with one another, something impersonal comes into the story.
Society, fate, 'tendency,' something not quite human begins to arrange
the characters and to excite into action only so much of their humanity
as they find it necessary to show to one another. The common heart will
always love better the tales that have something of an old wives' tale
and that look upon their hero from every side as if he alone were
wonderful, as a child does with a new penny. In plays of a comedy too
extravagant to photograph life, or written in verse, the construction is
of a necessity woven out of naked motives and passions, but when an
atmosphere of modern reality has to be built up as well, and the
tendency, or fate, or society has to be shown as it is about ourselves
the characters grow fainter and we have to read the book many times or
see the play many times before we can remember them. Even then they are
only possible in a certain drawing-room and among such and such people,
and we must carry all that lumber in our heads. I thought Tolstoi's 'War
and Peace' the greatest story I had ever read, and yet it has gone from
me; even Lancelot, ever a shadow, is more visible in my memory than all
its substance.


Of all artistic forms that have had a large share of the world's
attention the worst is the play about modern educated people. Except
where it is superficial or deliberately argumentative it fills one's
soul with a sense of commonness as with dust. It has one mortal ailment.
It cannot become impassioned, that is to say vital, without making
somebody gushing and sentimental. Educated and well-bred people do not
wear their hearts upon their sleeves and they have no artistic and
charming language except light persiflage and no powerful language at
all, and when they are deeply moved they look silently into the
fireplace. Again and again I have watched some play of this sort with
growing curiosity through the opening scene. The minor people argue,
chaff one another, hint sometimes at some deeper stream of life just as
we do in our houses, and I am content. But all the time I have been
wondering why the chief character, the man who is to bear the burden of
fate, is gushing, sentimental and quite without ideas. Then the great
scene comes and I understand that he cannot be well-bred or
self-possessed or intellectual, for if he were he would draw a chair to
the fire and there would be no duologue at the end of the third act.
Ibsen understood the difficulty and made all his characters a little
provincial that they might not put each other out of countenance, and
made a leading article sort of poetry, phrases about vine leaves and
harps in the air it was possible to believe them using in their moments
of excitement, and if the play needed more than that they could always
do something stupid. They could go out and hoist a flag as they do at
the end of Little Eyolf. One only understands that this manner,
deliberately adopted one doubts not, had gone into his soul and filled
it with dust, when one has noticed that he could no longer create a man
of genius. The happiest writers are those that, knowing this form of
play is slight and passing, keep to the surface, never showing anything
but the arguments and the persiflage of daily observation, or now and
then, instead of the expression of passion, a stage picture, a man
holding a woman's hand or sitting with his head in his hands in dim
light by the red glow of a fire. It was certainly an understanding of
the slightness of the form, of its incapacity for the expression of the
deeper sorts of passion, that made the French invent the play with a
thesis, for where there is a thesis people can grow hot in argument,
almost the only kind of passion that displays itself in our daily life.
The novel of contemporary educated life is upon the other hand a
permanent form because having the power of psychological description it
can follow the thought of a man who is looking into the grate.


In watching a play about modern educated people with its meagre language
and its action crushed into the narrow limits of possibility I have
found myself constantly saying: 'Maybe it has its power to move, slight
as that is, from being able to suggest fundamental contrasts and
passions which romantic and poetical literature have shown to be
beautiful.' A man facing his enemies alone in a quarrel over the purity
of the water in a Norwegian Spa and using no language but that of the
newspapers can call up into our minds, let us say, the passion of
Coriolanus. The lovers and fighters of old imaginative literature are
more vivid experiences in the soul than anything but one's own ruling
passion that is itself riddled by their thought as by lightning, and
even two dumb figures on the roads can call up all that glory. Put the
man who has no knowledge of literature before a play of this kind and he
will say as he has said in some form or other in every age at the first
shock of naturalism, 'What has brought me out to hear nothing but the
words we use at home when we are talking of the rates?' And he will
prefer to it any play where there is visible beauty or mirth, where life
is exciting, at high tide as it were. It is not his fault that he will
prefer in all likelihood a worse play although its kind may be greater,
for we have been following the lure of science for generations and
forgotten him and his. I come always back to this thought. There is
something of an old wives' tale in fine literature. The makers of it are
like an old peasant telling stories of the great famine or the hangings
of '98 or his own memories. He has felt something in the depth of his
mind and he wants to make it as visible and powerful to our senses as
possible. He will use the most extravagant words or illustrations if
they suit his purpose. Or he will invent a wild parable and the more his
mind is on fire or the more creative it is the less will he look at the
outer world or value it for its own sake. It gives him metaphors and
examples and that is all. He is even a little scornful of it, for it
seems to him while the fit is on that the fire has gone out of it and
left it but white ashes. I cannot explain it, but I am certain that
every high thing was invented in this way, between sleeping and waking,
as it were, and that peering and peeping persons are but hawkers of
stolen goods. How else could their noses have grown so ravenous or their
eyes so sharp?


A description in the Iliad or the Odyssey, unlike one in the Æneid or in
most modern writers, is the swift and natural observation of a man as he
is shaped by life. It is a refinement of the primary hungers and has the
least possible of what is merely scholarly or exceptional. It is, above
all, never too observant, too professional, and when the book is closed
we have had our energies enriched, for we have been in the mid-current.
We have never seen anything Odysseus could not have seen while his
thought was of the Cyclops, or Achilles when Briseis moved him to
desire. In the art of the greatest periods there is something careless
and sudden in all habitual moods though not in their expression, because
these moods are a conflagration of all the energies of active life. In
primitive times the blind man became a poet as he becomes a fiddler in
our villages, because he had to be driven out of activities all his
nature cried for, before he could be contented with the praise of life.
And often it is Villon or Verlaine with impediments plain to all, who
sings of life with the ancient simplicity. Poets of coming days when
once more it will be possible to write as in the great epochs will
recognise that their sacrifice shall be to refuse what blindness and
evil name, or imprisonment at the outsetting, denied to men who missed
thereby the sting of a deliberate refusal. The poets of the ages of
silver need no refusal of life, the dome of many-coloured glass is
already shattered while they live. They look at life deliberately and as
if from beyond life, and the greatest of them need suffer nothing but
the sadness that the saints have known. This is their aim, and their
temptation is not a passionate activity, but the approval of their
fellows, which comes to them in full abundance only when they delight in
the general thoughts that hold together a cultivated middle-class, where
irresponsibilities of position and poverty are lacking; the things that
are more excellent among educated men who have political preoccupations,
Augustus Cæsar's affability, all that impersonal fecundity which muddies
the intellectual passions. Ben Jonson says in the Poetaster, that even
the best of men without Promethean fire is but a hollow statue, and a
studious man will commonly forget after some forty winters that of a
certainty Promethean fire will burn somebody's fingers. It may happen
that poets will be made more often by their sins than by their virtues,
for general praise is unlucky, as the villages know, and not merely as I
imagine--for I am superstitious about these things--because the praise
of all but an equal enslaves and adds a pound to the ball at the ankle
with every compliment.

All energy that comes from the whole man is as irregular as the
lightning, for the communicable and forecastable and discoverable is a
part only, a hungry chicken under the breast of the pelican, and the
test of poetry is not in reason but in a delight not different from the
delight that comes to a man at the first coming of love into the heart.
I knew an old man who had spent his whole life cutting hazel and privet
from the paths, and in some seventy years he had observed little but had
many imaginations. He had never seen like a naturalist, never seen
things as they are, for his habitual mood had been that of a man stirred
in his affairs; and Shakespeare, Tintoretto, though the times were
running out when Tintoretto painted, nearly all the great men of the
renaissance, looked at the world with eyes like his. Their minds were
never quiescent, never as it were in a mood for scientific
observations, always an exaltation, never--to use known words--founded
upon an elimination of the personal factor; and their attention and the
attention of those they worked for dwelt constantly with what is present
to the mind in exaltation. I am too modern fully to enjoy Tintoretto's
Creation of the Milky Way, I cannot fix my thoughts upon that glowing
and palpitating flesh intently enough to forget, as I can the
make-believe of a fairy tale, that heavy drapery hanging from a cloud,
though I find my pleasure in King Lear heightened by the make-believe
that comes upon it all when the fool says: 'This prophecy Merlin shall
make, for I live before his time:'--and I always find it quite natural,
so little does logic in the mere circumstance matter in the finest art,
that Richard's & Richmond's tents should be side by side. I saw with
delight the 'Knight of the Burning Pestle' when Mr. Carr revived it, and
found it none the worse because the apprentice acted a whole play upon
the spur of the moment and without committing a line to heart. When Ben
Bronson's 'Epicoene' rammed a century of laughter into the two hours'
traffic, I found with amazement that almost every journalist had put
logic on the seat, where our lady imagination should pronounce that
unjust and favouring sentence her woman's heart is ever plotting, & had
felt bound to cherish none but reasonable sympathies and to resent the
baiting of that grotesque old man. I have been looking over a book of
engravings made in the eighteenth century from those wall-pictures of
Herculaneum and Pompeii that were, it seems, the work of journeymen
copying from finer paintings, for the composition is always too good for
the execution. I find in great numbers an indifference to obvious logic,
to all that the eye sees at common moments. Perseus shows Andromeda the
death she lived by in a pool, and though the lovers are carefully drawn
the reflection is upside down that we may see it the better. There is
hardly an old master who has not made known to us in some like way how
little he cares for what every fool can see and every knave can praise.
The men who imagined the arts were not less superstitious in religion,
understanding the spiritual relations, but not the mechanical, and
finding nothing that need strain the throat in those gnats the floods of
Noah and Deucalion, and in Joshua's moon at Ascalon.


I took the Indian hemp with certain followers of St. Martin on the
ground floor of a house in the Latin Quarter. I had never taken it
before, and was instructed by a boisterous young poet, whose English was
no better than my French. He gave me a little pellet, if I am not
forgetting, an hour before dinner, and another after we had dined
together at some restaurant. As we were going through the streets to the
meeting-place of the Martinists, I felt suddenly that a cloud I was
looking at floated in an immense space, and for an instant my being
rushed out, as it seemed, into that space with ecstasy. I was myself
again immediately, but the poet was wholly above himself, and presently
he pointed to one of the street lamps now brightening in the fading
twilight, and cried at the top of his voice, 'Why do you look at me with
your great eye?' There were perhaps a dozen people already much excited
when we arrived; and after I had drunk some cups of coffee and eaten a
pellet or two more, I grew very anxious to dance, but did not, as I
could not remember any steps. I sat down and closed my eyes; but no, I
had no visions, nothing but a sensation of some dark shadow which seemed
to be telling me that some day I would go into a trance and so out of my
body for a while, but not yet. I opened my eyes and looked at some red
ornament on the mantelpiece, and at once the room was full of harmonies
of red, but when a blue china figure caught my eye the harmonies became
blue upon the instant. I was puzzled, for the reds were all there,
nothing had changed, but they were no longer important or harmonious;
and why had the blues so unimportant but a moment ago become exciting
and delightful? Thereupon it struck me that I was seeing like a painter,
and that in the course of the evening every one there would change
through every kind of artistic perception.

After a while a Martinist ran towards me with a piece of paper on which
he had drawn a circle with a dot in it, and pointing at it with his
finger he cried out, 'God, God!' Some immeasurable mystery had been
revealed, and his eyes shone; and at some time or other a lean and
shabby man, with rather a distinguished face, showed me his horoscope
and pointed with an ecstasy of melancholy at its evil aspects. The
boisterous poet, who was an old eater of the Indian hemp, had told me
that it took one three months growing used to it, three months more
enjoying it, and three months being cured of it. These men were in their
second period; but I never forgot myself, never really rose above myself
for more than a moment, and was even able to feel the absurdity of that
gaiety, an Herr Nordau among the men of genius but one that was abashed
at his own sobriety. The sky outside was beginning to grey when there
came a knocking at the window shutters. Somebody opened the window, and
a woman in evening dress, who was not a little bewildered to find so
many people, was helped down into the room. She had been at a student's
ball unknown to her husband, who was asleep overhead, and had thought to
have crept home unobserved, but for a confederate at the window. All
those talking or dancing men laughed in a dreamy way; and she,
understanding that there was no judgment in the laughter of men that had
no thought but of the spectacle of the world, blushed, laughed and
darted through the room and so upstairs. Alas that the hangman's rope
should be own brother to that Indian happiness that keeps alone, were it
not for some stray cactus, mother of as many dreams, an immemorial
impartiality and simpleness.


I read this sentence a few days ago, or one like it, in an obituary of
Ibsen: 'Let nobody again go back to the old ballad material of
Shakespeare, to murders, and ghosts, for what interests us on the stage
is modern experience and the discussion of our interests;' and in
another part of the article Ibsen was blamed because he had written of
suicides and in other ways made use of 'the morbid terror of death.'
Dramatic literature has for a long time been left to the criticism of
journalists, and all these, the old stupid ones and the new clever ones,
have tried to impress upon it their absorption in the life of the
moment, their delight in obvious originality & in obvious logic, their
shrinking from the ancient and insoluble. The writer I have quoted is
much more than a journalist, but he has lived their hurried life, and
instinctively turns to them for judgement. He is not thinking of the
great poets and painters, of the cloud of witnesses, who are there that
we may become, through our understanding of their minds, spectators of
the ages, but of this age. Drama is a means of expression, not a special
subject matter, and the dramatist is as free to choose, where he has a
mind to, as the poet of 'Endymion' or as the painter of Mary Magdalene
at the door of Simon the Pharisee. So far from the discussion of our
interests and the immediate circumstance of our life being the most
moving to the imagination, it is what is old and far off that stirs us
the most deeply. There is a sentence in 'The Marriage of Heaven and
Hell' that is meaningless until we understand Blake's system of
correspondences. 'The best wine is the oldest, the best water the

Water is experience, immediate sensation, and wine is emotion, and it is
with the intellect, as distinguished from imagination, that we enlarge
the bounds of experience and separate it from all but itself, from
illusion, from memory, and create among other things science and good
journalism. Emotion, on the other hand, grows intoxicating and
delightful after it has been enriched with the memory of old emotions,
with all the uncounted flavours of old experience, and it is necessarily
an antiquity of thought, emotions that have been deepened by the
experiences of many men of genius, that distinguishes the cultivated
man. The subject-matter of his meditation and invention is old, and he
will disdain a too conscious originality in the arts as in those matters
of daily life where, is it not Balzac who says, 'we are all
conservatives?' He is above all things well bred, and whether he write
or paint will not desire a technique that denies or obtrudes his long
and noble descent. Corneille and Racine did not deny their masters, and
when Dante spoke of his master Virgil there was no crowing of the cock.
In their day imitation was conscious or all but conscious, and while
originality was but so much the more a part of the man himself, so much
the deeper because unconscious, no quick analysis could find out their
miracle, that needed it may be generations to reveal; but it is our
imitation that is unconscious and that waits the certainties of time.
The more religious the subject-matter of an art, the more will it be as
it were stationary, and the more ancient will be the emotion that it
arouses and the circumstances that it calls up before our eyes. When in
the Middle Ages the pilgrim to St. Patrick's Purgatory found himself on
the lakeside, he found a boat made out of a hollow tree to ferry him to
the cave of vision. In religious painting and poetry, crowns and swords
of an ancient pattern take upon themselves new meanings, and it is
impossible to separate our idea of what is noble from a mystic stair,
where not men and women, but robes, jewels, incidents, ancient utilities
float upward slowly over the all but sleeping mind, putting on emotional
and spiritual life as they ascend until they are swallowed up by some
far glory that they even were too modern and momentary to endure. All
art is dream, and what the day is done with is dreaming ripe, and what
art moulds religion accepts, and in the end all is in the wine cup, all
is in the drunken phantasy, and the grapes begin to stammer.


It is not possible to separate an emotion or a spiritual state from the
image that calls it up and gives it expression. Michael Angelo's Moses,
Velasquez' Philip the Second, the colour purple, a crucifix, call into
life an emotion or state that vanishes with them because they are its
only possible expression, and that is why no mind is more valuable than
the images it contains. The imaginative writer differs from the saint in
that he identifies himself--to the neglect of his own soul, alas!--with
the soul of the world, and frees himself from all that is impermanent
in that soul, an ascetic not of women and wine, but of the newspapers.
That which is permanent in the soul of the world upon the other hand,
the great passions that trouble all and have but a brief recurring life
of flower and seed in any man, is the renunciation of the saint who
seeks not an eternal art, but his own eternity. The artist stands
between the saint and the world of impermanent things, and just in so
far as his mind dwells on what is impermanent in his sense, on all that
'modern experience and the discussion of our interests,' that is to say
on what never recurs, as desire and hope, terror and weariness, spring
and autumn recur in varying rhythms, will his mind become critical, as
distinguished from creative, and his emotions wither. He will think less
of what he sees and more of his own attitude towards it, and will
express this attitude by an essentially critical selection and emphasis.
I am not quite sure of my memory but I think that Mr. Ricketts has said
in his book on the Prado that he feels the critic in Velasquez for the
first time in painting, and we all feel the critic in Whistler and
Degas, in Browning, even in Mr. Swinburne, in the finest art of all ages
but the greatest. The end for art is the ecstasy awakened by the
presence before an ever changing mind of what is permanent in the world,
or by the arousing of that mind itself into the very delicate and
fastidious mood habitual with it when it is seeking those permanent &
recurring things. There is a little of both ecstasies at all times, but
at this time we have a small measure of the creative impulse itself, of
the divine vision, a great one of 'the lost traveller's dream under the
hill,' perhaps because all the old simple things have been painted or
written, and they will only have meaning for us again when a new race or
a new civilisation has made us look upon all with new eyesight.


There is an old saying that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere.
If that is true, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and artist to
the ring where everything comes round again. The poet must not seek for
what is still and fixed, for that has no life for him; and if he did his
style would become cold and monotonous, and his sense of beauty faint
and sickly, as are both style and beauty to my imagination in the prose
and poetry of Newman, but be content to find his pleasure in all that is
for ever passing away that it may come again, in the beauty of woman, in
the fragile flowers of spring, in momentary heroic passion, in whatever
is most fleeting, most impassioned, as it were, for its own perfection,
most eager to return in its glory. Yet perhaps he must endure the
impermanent a little, for these things return, but not wholly, for no
two faces are alike, and, it may be, had we more learned eyes, no two
flowers. Is it that all things are made by the struggle of the
individual and the world, of the unchanging and the returning, and that
the saint and the poet are over all, and that the poet has made his home
in the Serpent's mouth?


Instinct creates the recurring and the beautiful, all the winding of the
serpent; but reason, the most ugly man, as Blake called it, is a drawer
of the straight line, the maker of the arbitrary and the impermanent,
for no recurring spring will ever bring again yesterday's clock.
Sanctity has its straight line also, darting from the centre, and with
these arrows the many-coloured serpent, theme of all our poetry, is
maimed and hunted. He that finds the white arrow shall have wisdom older
than the Serpent, but what of the black arrow. How much knowledge, how
heavy a quiver of the crow-feathered ebony rods can the soul endure?


The preoccupation of our Art and Literature with knowledge, with the
surface of life, with the arbitrary, with mechanism, has arisen out of
the root. A careful, but not necessarily very subtle man could foretell
the history of any religion if he knew its first principle, and that it
would live long enough to fulfil itself. The mind can never do the same
thing twice over, and having exhausted simple beauty and meaning, it
passes to the strange and hidden, and at last must find its delight,
having outrun its harmonies in the emphatic and discordant. When I was a
boy at the art school I watched an older student late returned from
Paris, with a wonder that had no understanding in it. He was very
amorous, and every new love was the occasion of a new picture, and every
new picture was uglier than its forerunner. He was excited about his
mistress's eyebrows, as was fitting, but the interest of beauty had been
exhausted by the logical energies of Art, which destroys where it has
rummaged, and can but discover, whether it will or no. We cannot
discover our subject-matter by deliberate intellect, for when a
subject-matter ceases to move us we must go elsewhere, and when it moves
us, even though it be 'that old ballad material of Shakespeare' or even
'the morbid terror of death,' we can laugh at reason. We must not ask is
the world interested in this or that, for nothing is in question but our
own interest, and we can understand no other. Our place in the Hierarchy
is settled for us by our choice of a subject-matter, and all good
criticism is hieratic, delighting in setting things above one another,
Epic and Drama above Lyric and so on, and not merely side by side. But
it is our instinct and not our intellect that chooses. We can
deliberately refashion our characters, but not our painting or our
poetry. If our characters also were not unconsciously refashioned so
completely by the unfolding of the logical energies of Art, that even
simple things have in the end a new aspect in our eyes, the Arts would
not be among those things that return for ever. The ballads that Bishop
Percy gathered returned in the Ancient Mariner, and the delight in the
world of old Greek sculptors sprang into a more delicate loveliness in
that archaistic head of the young athlete down the long corridor to your
left hand as you go into the British Museum. Civilisation too, will not
that also destroy where it has loved, until it shall bring the simple
and natural things again and a new Argo with all the gilding on her bows
sail out to find another fleece?


Hafiz cried to his beloved, 'I made a bargain with that brown hair
before the beginning of time, and it shall not be broken through
unending time,' and it may be that Mistress Nature knows that we have
lived many times, and that whatsoever changes and winds into itself
belongs to us. She covers her eyes away from us, but she lets us play
with the tresses of her hair.


The other day I was walking towards Urbino where I was to spend the
night, having crossed the Apennines from San Sepolcro, and had come to a
level place on the mountain top near the journey's end. My friends were
in a carriage somewhere behind, on a road which was still ascending in
great loops, and I was alone amid a visionary fantastic impossible
scenery. It was sunset and the stormy clouds hung upon mountain after
mountain, and far off on one great summit a cloud darker than the rest
glimmered with lightning. Away to the south a mediæval tower, with no
building near nor any sign of life, rose upon its solitary summit into
the clouds. I saw suddenly in the mind's eye an old man, erect and a
little gaunt, standing in the door of the tower, while about him broke a
windy light. He was the poet who had at last, because he had done so
much for the word's sake, come to share in the dignity of the saint. He
had hidden nothing of himself but he had taken care of 'that dignity ...
the perfection of form ... this lofty and severe quality ... this
virtue.' And though he had but sought it for the word's sake, or for a
woman's praise, it had come at last into his body and his mind.
Certainly as he stood there he knew how from behind that laborious mood,
that pose, that genius, no flower of himself but all himself, looked out
as from behind a mask that other Who alone of all men, the country
people say, is not a hair's breadth more nor less than six feet high. He
has in his ears well instructed voices and seeming solid sights are
before his eyes, and not as we say of many a one, speaking in metaphor,
but as this were Delphi or Eleusis, and the substance and the voice come
to him among his memories which are of women's faces; for was it
Columbanus or another that wrote 'There is one among the birds that is
perfect, and one perfect among the fish.'


Those learned men who are a terror to children and an ignominious sight
in lovers' eyes, all those butts of a traditional humour where there is
something of the wisdom of peasants, are mathematicians, theologians,
lawyers, men of science of various kinds. They have followed some
abstract reverie, which stirs the brain only and needs that only, and
have therefore stood before the looking-glass without pleasure and never
known those thoughts that shape the lines of the body for beauty or
animation, and wake a desire for praise or for display.

There are two pictures of Venice side by side in the house where I am
writing this, a Canaletto that has little but careful drawing and a not
very emotional pleasure in clean bright air, and a Franz Francken, where
the blue water, that in the other stirs one so little, can make one long
to plunge into the green depth where a cloud shadow falls. Neither
painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the
edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art, whether the Victory
of Samothrace which reminds the soles of our feet of swiftness, or the
Odyssey that would send us out under the salt wind, or the young
horsemen on the Parthenon, that seem happier than our boyhood ever was,
and in our boyhood's way. Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see
the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematic form, from every
abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not
a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of
the body. Its morality is personal, knows little of any general law, has
no blame for Little Musgrave, no care for Lord Barnard's house, seems
lighter than a breath and yet is hard and heavy, for if a man is not
ready to face toil and risk, and in all gaiety of heart, his body will
grow unshapely and his heart lack the wild will that stirs desire. It
approved before all men those that talked or wrestled or tilted under
the walls of Urbino, or sat in the wide window seats discussing all
things, with love ever in their thought, when the wise Duchess ordered
all, and the Lady Emilia gave the theme.


All art is sensuous, but when a man puts only his contemplative nature,
and his more vague desires into his art, the sensuous images through
which it speaks become broken, fleeting, uncertain, or are chosen for
their distance from general experience, and all grows unsubstantial &
fantastic. When imagination moves in a dim world like the country of
sleep in Love's Nocturne and 'Siren there winds her dizzy hair and
sings' we go to it for delight indeed but in our weariness. If we are to
sojourn there that world must grow consistent with itself, emotion must
be related to emotion by a system of ordered images, as in the Divine
Comedy. It must grow to be symbolic, that is, for the soul can only
achieve a distinct separated life where many related objects at once
distinguish and arouse its energies in their fullness. All visionaries
have entered into such a world in trances, and all ideal art has trance
for warranty. Shelley seemed to Matthew Arnold to beat his ineffectual
wings in the void, and I only made my pleasure in him contented pleasure
by massing in my imagination his recurring images of towers and rivers,
and caves with fountains in them, and that one star of his, till his
world had grown solid underfoot and consistent enough for the soul's

But even then I lacked something to compensate my imagination for
geographical and historical reality, for the testimony of our ordinary
senses, and found myself wishing for and trying to imagine, as I had
also when reading Keats' Endymion, a crowd of believers who could put
into all those strange sights the strength of their belief and the rare
testimony of their visions. A little crowd had been sufficient, and I
would have had Shelley a sectary that his revelation might have found
the only sufficient evidence of religion, miracle. All symbolic art
should arise out of a real belief, and that it cannot do so in this age
proves that this age is a road and not a resting place for the
imaginative arts. I can only understand others by myself, and I am
certain that there are many who are not moved as they desire to be by
that solitary light burning in the tower of Prince Athanais, because it
has not entered into men's prayers nor lighted any through the sacred
dark of religious contemplation.

Lyrical poems even when they but speak of emotions common to all need,
if not a religious belief like the spiritual arts, a life that has
leisure for itself, and a society that is quickly stirred that our
emotion may be strengthened by the emotion of others. All circumstance
that makes emotion at once dignified and visible, increases the poet's
power, and I think that is why I have always longed for some stringed
instrument, and a listening audience not drawn out of the hurried
streets but from a life where it would be natural to murmur over again
the singer's thought. When I heard Ivette Guilbert the other day, who
has the lyre or as good, I was not content, for she sang among people
whose life had nothing it could share with an exquisite art that should
rise out of life as the blade out of the spearshaft, a song out of the
mood, the fountain from its pool, all art out of the body, laughter from
a happy company. I longed to make all things over again, that she might
sing in some great hall, where there was no one that did not love life
and speak of it continually.


When all art was struck out of personality, whether as in our daily
business or in the adventure of religion, there was little separation
between holy and common things, and just as the arts themselves passed
quickly from passion to divine contemplation, from the conversation of
peasants to that of princes, the one song remembering the drunken miller
and but half forgetting Cambynskan bold; so did a man feel himself near
sacred presences when he turned his plough from the slope of Cruachmaa
or of Olympus. The occupations and the places known to Homer or to
Hesiod, those pure first artists, might, as it were, if but the
fashioners hands had loosened, have changed before the poem's end to
symbols and vanished, winged and unweary, into the unchanging worlds
where religion only can discover life as well as peace. A man of that
unbroken day could have all the subtlety of Shelley, & yet use no image
unknown among the common people, and speak no thought that was not a
deduction from the common thought. Unless the discovery of legendary
knowledge and the returning belief in miracle, or what we must needs
call so, can bring once more a new belief in the sanctity of common
ploughland, and new wonders that reward no difficult ecclesiastical
routine but the common, wayward, spirited man, we may never see again a
Shelley and a Dickens in the one body, but be broken to the end. We have
grown jealous of the body, and we dress it in dull unshapely clothes,
that we may cherish aspiration alone. Moliere being but the master of
common sense lived ever in the common daylight, but Shakespeare could
not, & Shakespeare seems to bring us to the very market-place, when we
remember Shelley's dizzy and Landor's calm disdain of usual daily
things. And at last we have Villiers de L'Isle Adam crying in the
ecstasy of a supreme culture, of a supreme refusal, 'as for living, our
servants will do that for us.' One of the means of loftiness, of
marmorean stillness has been the choice of strange and far away places,
for the scenery of art, but this choice has grown bitter to me, and
there are moments when I cannot believe in the reality of imaginations
that are not inset with the minute life of long familiar things and
symbols and places. I have come to think of even Shakespeare's journeys
to Rome or to Verona as the outflowing of an unrest, a dissatisfaction
with natural interests, an unstable equilibrium of the whole European
mind that would not have come had Constantinople wall been built of
better stone. I am orthodox and pray for a resurrection of the body, and
am certain that a man should find his Holy Land where he first crept
upon the floor, and that familiar woods and rivers should fade into
symbol with so gradual a change that he never discover, no not even in
ecstasy itself, that he is beyond space, and that time alone keeps him
from Primum Mobile, the Supernal Eden, and the White Rose over all.

Here ends Discoveries; written by William Butler Yeats. Printed, upon
paper made in Ireland, by Elizabeth C. Yeats, Esther Ryan and Beatrice
Cassidy, and published by Elizabeth C. Yeats, at the Dun Emer Press, in
the house of Evelyn Gleeson at Dundrum, in the County of Dublin,
Ireland. Finished on the twelfth day of September, in the year 1907.

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