Blog Post · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

Happy 156th Birthday Mr Yeats

For Yeats Birthday this year, I recorded a setting of the poem The Two Trees. I purchased Loreena McKennitt’s album The Mask and Mirror very close to when it came out in 1994, but had never realised the lyrics to Cé Hé Mise le Ulaingt?/The Two Trees were directly from the poem.

As with almost all Yeats’ poems, there is a feeling that a deeper magical meaning lies behind the words. When I went looking online, I couldn’t find any good discussion on the meaning of this poem. This one was particularly dreadful (What do they teach them at these schools?). This analysis talks about the two trees in the Garden of Eden and then a loose reference to “pagan rituals, mostly likely Druid or Wiccan”. I can hear Yeats rolling his eyes.

It also irks me that students forced to read Yeats in high school or university are now turning to canned essay responses like this, rather than imbibing the words into their own soul and skimming from the resulting broth. Even worse, I pity the poor postgraduate student armies forced to mark these canned essays against a Rubric.

Here is the poem in full:

The Two Trees

BELOVED, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.

The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with metry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;

The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.

There the Loves – a circle – go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;

Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the winged sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;

For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.

For ill things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.

There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,

Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

I split the poem into four line stanzas for ease of singing, in the original publication the poem is split into the light/dark parts. There is no escaping the duality concept at the heart of this poem, it is even in the title. From the first line it is clear that this isn’t a poem about trees, but about introspection and the human condition.

Yeats had a concept that involves two cones, and the idea that a continuous spiraling of one cone upwards against another cone downwards results in the cyclic nature of all things in the universe, from the spinning of atoms, to the rise and fall of civilizations. Some discussion of the Gyre here and on Niamh Butler’s blog here.

Yeats came to this theory/idea through automatic writing sessions with his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees. I won’t go into detail, but this theory is fully expounded in Yeats 1937 book A Vision.

Yeats and Georgie – 1920s (source)

There are several historical trees which might be relevant to this poem. Some have connected it to Kabbalah of Hebrew esotericism, but this is a single world tree, having the same challenge as the Nordic Yggdrasil.

Pseudo-Lull, Alchemical Treatise, c. 1470

We have a more recent example in the Two Trees of Valinor that form part of Tolkien’s history of Middle Earth. Tolkien is said to have connected these silver and gold trees with the Trees of the Sun and Moon that Alexander the Great encountered when he traveled beyond India. It is well known that members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, that Yeats was a member of, included significant amounts of eastern mysticism in their studies, and it is likely that Yeats would have read this text.

In fact, Yeats references these Silver and Gold trees by their apples in The Songs of Wandering Aengus. I don’t completely discount the connection with the Tree of Life referenced in the biblical Garden of Eden story, and many other cultures, but the evidence in the poem is not clear to me.

Now to the actual poem. The first part describes the growth of a tree from the heart, reaching out its branches, bearing fruit and flowers and shaking its leafy head. The allusion to physics of wave motion cannot be missed, with references to water waves, sound waves in music and even the different colours of light generated by difference in frequency. I cannot find any other references to trees growing out of hearts.

There are three references which confused me ‘Loves – a circle – go’, ‘flaming circle of our days’ and ‘winged sandals dart’. Winged sandals of course being associated with the Roman god Mercury or the Greek god Hermes who is the guider of souls to the afterlife. The caduceus that Hermes carries features wings and two entwined snakes. Sadly in my song I found a copy of the poem which had incorrectly listed the line as ‘Joves – a circle -go’.

In my side-search to try and makes sense of the ‘Loves’ line, I came across an amazing poem by Australian poet Dulcie Deamer, The Last Lover, published in 1922. Aside from this entry in Trove, I cannot find any other reference to it. Given the circles Dulcie moved in, she must have known of Yeats.

There is  book called ‘The Flaming Circle’ by Robin Artisson, and it cannot be chance that this book is about reconstructing the old ways of Britain and Ireland. There is also a reference to the flaming circle in Dante’s Paradiso, and it possibly refers to the idea that the two lights of the sky, being the sun and the moon, chase each other in a circle.

The term ‘flaming circle’ also appears in ritual of the Ordo Templi Orientis, and also as a circle of fire in the song Lily by Kate Bush, associated with the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentgram, discussed in this paper by Robert Moore.

My simplistic reading of the last two stanzas in the first half of the poem is just that our Loves (our desires and fancies) branch upwards in a wild fashion, like fliting birds or spirits. That we reach out for experience in our ignorance.

I will mention here the interesting thought I had about the two cones that Yeats describes in A Vision, as the two parts of the poem could be thought of as one being the upwards expanding cone, and the other being the downward. Just as the cones describe planets and atoms, they could describe the life of a soul. Incidentally, this amazing video by Derek Muller from Veritasium about the Dzhanibekov Effect talks about the serious consequences of this model at the planetary level.

Intersecting Cones
Star of David

If you look at these two intersecting cones side-on, they look like the Star of David. Maybe the hidden mysteries of the Golden Dawn have been on show in Judaism for centuries.

Incidentally, this symbol was also used by Helen Blavatsky’s Theosophy society, but then again, she seemed to be cobbling together whatever symbols might con wealthy but gullible English men and women out of their money. If you really want to dive down the rabbit hole, have a look at this site.


The second half of the poem has a much more depressing tone, starting off with a ‘bitter glass’ and demons. The verse still speaks of a tree, that has broken boughs and blackened leaves. Some have taken this half of the poem as just an admonition from Yeats to his unrequited love, Maud Gonne, that she should stop looking in the mirror and worrying about her aging appearance. I wouldn’t disgrace Yeats with such a trite and shallow interpretation.

So what is this ‘glass of outer weariness’ that the demons hold up to us? And where do these ‘ravens of unresting thought’ come from? And what was God sleeping for (Odin sleep maybe)? So many questions.

Many of the occultists of the 1800s, in fact many occultists all the way back to Huangdi, were seeking to cheat death, to be immortal. I guess Yeats certainly achieved immortality of a sort. Could it be that this other tree is the mirror tree that grows downwards while our living tree grows upwards. In A Vision Yeats uses the phrase, “all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”.

“As above, so below” is a popular phrase in modern paganism, and was also common among 1800s occultists. It is thought to come from the Emerald Tablet, the foundation of alchemy. The supposed author, Hermes Trismegistus, gives us another link to those winged feet. The epithet is often displayed as a mirrored tree, sometimes the ‘celtic tree of life’, but I’m not sure this isn’t a modern affectation.

Did Yeats think that while our young life was growing and blossoming, another darker tree of death was growing in the mirror. Was his exhortation to ‘gaze no more’ a suggestion that by halting the growth of the dark tree we could live longer, forever even?

We will never know. But I do wish Mr Yeats a very happy 156th Birthday, wherever his winged soul now alights.

Blog Post · Poetry

The Marble Reflecting

In moments of reflection,
does the marble think back to the workshop floor,
where its waste parts lie scattered,
sawn, chiselled and scraped away?

In each finely sculpted finger and lock of hair,
does the trauma of the grinding, cutting and sanding
still seethe, latent, beneath the surface?

Are we, in our becoming, the mirror of our unbecoming?

Raised to the pedestal, in your sublime beauty,
admired by all, you stand in frozen milk-white perfection.
But do you mourn the parts lost?

Perhaps you existed in perfect form, within the stone,
waiting to be released by hand and chisel of the master sculptor.
The discarded parts no more special than the shell to the eaglet.

The discarded, misshapen, marble on the floor might disagree.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Poetry

Who was Ossian Macpherson?

When a certain flavour of fundamentalist Christian has a public and pious rant about the satanic evils of Halloween, I cannot help but feel sympathy and sadness. It isn’t fair to blame people for their ignorance, and in most cases a logical argument about the historical evolution of this and other festivals won’t do much to broaden their view. Having grown up under this ideology, I would have made the same public rants at fifteen.

The key sadness is that this is exactly the type of xenophobia and intolerance of mind which eventually escalates into crusades, racism and killings like the tragic incident in Pittsburgh this week.

Why is this worth blogging about? Well, during the course of a short social media discussion, in an effort to show that Halloween wasn’t ‘just something we imported from America in the last few years’ I found this fabulous poem published in the Hamilton Spectator on 12 November 1864, under the name Ossian Macpherson. Here is the full text of the poem:


By Ossian Macpherson.

Bright years, sad years are numbered with the past,
Since, Scotland, I beheld thy green hills last;
My hair is growing grey in manhood's prime,
With painful re-collections, not with time.
But here, once more, if not on Scottish land,
I see around a happy Scottish band.
With hills and dales, till fancy —not in vain.
Has led me back to Scotland's hills again.

Wootong,— I sought upon thy peaceful crest,
For this worn frame, a shelter and a rest.
From many a outstretched hand the welcome kind,
For ever in this heart will be enshrined;
And can I e'er forget, where'er I roam,
Whatever my lot may be, where'er my home,
The hours I passed amid the happy scene;
The mirthful crowd I joined at Halloween.

Tis not for me, too humble is my verse,
The varied fairy mysteries to rehearse;
The varied trials spread before my view,
Each one to seek if some one else was true.
But when I saw the bonny lassies there,
Each for the apple ducking wait her share,
Such laughing faces, rarely to be seen,
Hech! how it thrilled my heart! at Wootong Halloween.

'Tis not for me, else may be I might sing.
Who made the batter, and who found the ring ;
Who found the apples, and whose nuts were cracked,
Who might have stole to where the hay was stacked.
All these and more, perhaps I might unfold.
But they by Scotia's bard have all been told;
Enough for me — the hours were bright and green,
I passed that night at Wootong Halloween.

The poet tried his nuts, with anxious gaze,
And picturing one form amid the blaze;
Perhaps he thought the emblem might be true,
Alas, — his nuts were cracked ere half burnt through.
And when blindfold, before each fairy plate.
He wished— his fond desire— for gentle mate,
His hand thrice grasped the platter that was clean!
No wife for him at Wootong Halloween.

Bard of all coming time, immortal Burns,
When with each coming year that night returns;
That night that thro' all Scotland far and wide,
The midnight fairies still are wont to glide, —
With what bright fire thy spirit would have glowed,
What strains of rapture would have from thee flowed,
Couldst thous have dreamt there ever would have been
Another Scotland here and Halloween.

Thou didst not dream, when burst to life thy strains.
Never to die while Scottish life remains,
That in this land to white men then unknown,
Peopled by hideous barbarism alone,
Thou didst not reck there e'er would come the day
That, distant o'er tie ocean far away.
There, on a lovely hill top, would be seen.
The glorious revelry of Halloween.

Oh! that thy spirit would upon me rest,
And for one lonely moment till my breast;
'Twould be ere from this friendly root I part,
To speak the thanks, warm from the poet's heart
Wootong, farewell! I yet may see the day,
When back my happier footsteps yet may stray,
And treasured up in memory, I ween
'Twill be again to join in Halloween.

Konongwootong, Nov. 1, 1864.

I made a recording of this poem set to my own tune here.

So many questions arise from this find! Who was Ossian Macpherson? What was he doing in a tiny town in the middle of Victoria in 1864? Was there really a Halloween celebration or is this imaginative reverie?

To the first question, Ossian Macpherson, is almost certainly a pseudonym. James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a relatively famous Scottish writer, poet and politician who claimed to have discovered and translated a set of ancient epic poems by the (mythical?) bard Ossian. James was instrumental in the highland clearings and the veracity of his work on the Ossian poems is questioned by scholars. ‘Ossian Macpherson’ would have been a fitting pen name for any aspiring Scottish poet travelling in Australia in the 1860s.

To the second question, we first need to answer “where in the world is Konongwootong?”. I initially assumed this would have been a mining town named by Chinese immigrant miners, but it is a native phrase describing a creek in grassy land. Konongwootong is a place of sadness as the Whyte brothers who owned the pastoral run killed between 55 and 60 men, women and children of the Konongwootong gunditj clan there in April 1840 after they had taken 40 sheep. There is a memorial here. So it is likely that ‘Ossian Macpherson’ was either visiting or working in the Konongwootong on the pastoral property.

A search on Trove shows that the latest poem, A Modest Minister, published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 1874 was a biting piece of political satire directed at a local Minister (political or church?), whose name probably rhymed with Cozey, regarding the way in which he acquired his land. This shows our author remained in the area for at least another ten years and was not afraid to ruffle feathers.

A John A. Macpherson was running for the seat of Dundas in the 1871 election and appears in several Trove articles relating to property issues in the region, his fellow candidates were James Gardner and David Gaunson, possibly one of them was ‘Cozey’.

The first poem that appears by Ossian Macpherson was published on 23 December 1857 in the Kyneton Observer:


Slaking my thirst beside this cooling rill,
Uncertain what my future lot may be ;
Driven about, the sport of fortune's will
Footsore, I've wandered Ballarat to thee.
My breast is fill'd with many an anxious thought.
A stranger—in this giant infant land;
A wanderer—in these fields with riches fraught
Seeking a crust amid a varied band.
Shall I succeed?

Oh! do not droop, my heart,
Tho'all looks dark—yet fate is sometimes kind;
Do not sink now—all wearied as thou art,
For little mayst thou reck what lurks behind -
Yon sun now hid behind the blacken'd cloud,
Methinks ev'n now its voice is speaking loud,
And bids me yet a little longer wait.

For I have traversed many a spot on earth,
And climb'd full many a dreary hill in life ;
Thought that my star was darken'd at my birth,
Foreboding nought but endless care and strife
But hope is strong—and though the past has been
A chain of trials, I would fain forget;
That star would yet shine brightly and serene
And I will not despair—not yet—not yet.



So this John Alexander MacPherson, who arrived in Ballarat around 1857 seems to be a very strong candidate for Ossian Macpherson. John was born in 1833, so would have been just 24 when writing his first poem. Strangely, the Wikipedia page for John makes no mention of his likely ventures as a brilliant poet. John ended up being the Premier of Victoria for just over a year, Sep 1869-April 1870 and died in England at the age of 60 in 1894.

There are around 90 other poems penned by ‘Ossian Macpherson’, many of which look like they have never been published outside the newpaper they appeared in.

Happy Samhain/Halloween to all, I suspect there will be more to this story!

UPDATE: Since writing this post, you will see in the comments that I have been contacted by a relative of Ossian Macpherson. It looks like the John Alexander link was not to be. I have started publishing the poems of Ossian Macpherson (now under the right name) on, you can read all the poems here.

Blog Post · Poetry

Footprints in the Concrete








They scar us deep, those tracks.
Worn into our backs when we are young.
They don’t fade and change as seasons do.

They protrude from our rolling hills,
Like jagged angry escarpments.
Liable to slice the hand run gently,
over our otherwise smooth surface.

Under the leaf litter of time,
the slow growth of weed and bush,
one could mistake them for something else.
A ripple, a minor blemish on the surface.

But they run deep…cut into our souls.
The deflating word, the doubting voice,
The sharp slap across the face in moments
of fledgling defiance.

Only worn thinner in the grinding of the self,
Cut and polish away at your pieces,
Until the crack doesn’t show.

Blog Post · Poetry

All the Poetry

In the course of wanting access to all of Cicely Fox Smith’s poems, I had to join and submit a piece of my own work.

Once I had access to more of the 600 poems that Cicely wrote, I was able to add this song to my collection of her poems that I have put to a tune. It is probably a little overly romantic in its view of the sailor’s life, but still a beautiful poem. Cicely’s allusion to watery worlds orbiting distant stars was incredibly imaginative for her time.

I have found AllPoetry to be an interesting platform in the way it forces users to comment on other peoples work before posting new poems of your own. Something similar runs on r/OCPoetry but this site is much prettier and the process for commenting far easier to use.

The discussion on the poems I have written in the past but posted in other places before prompted me to think a little more about poems as a form, rather than song. Here is the result of my musings on the recent eruption in Hawaii. Having visited Oahu on many occasions, I am fascinated by the way vibrant life is intermingled with such colossal destruction.

The Building Blocks

What strange contrivance of space-time created this selection of atoms?
How did the primordial plasma soup settle on the Hydrogen atom,
or its twin Helium as the start of the puzzle.

Why was Carbon so perfect a thread to weave into flesh, vine and moss?
Why not Boron or Flourine to fashion this cornucopia of life.

How did this jumble of bits manifest into the sunset over a snow-caped mountain?
Or the distraught child in his bombed-out Syrian ghetto.

Are we just the palette of some inter-dimensional artist?
Slapped on the canvas of the cosmos with care or indifference as the mood dictates.

What cosmoses float in the eternal ether made of different stuff?
A few more quarks in the Iron, a little less neutrinos in an Oxygen atom.

How can humanity walk through this reality without being stunned,
by the complex intricate nature of this star-stuff we exist in.




Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Lyrics and Chords · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Stolen Rhyme

I have always loved the haunting ethereal beauty of Loreena McKennitt’s setting of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, to music. I tried to practice singing the song before doing this recording for my YouTube channel, but even after 4-5 days I just couldn’t get the verses to flow.

This fired my curiosity, and so I looked a little deeper into the structure of the poem. For reference, here is the complete poem:

The Stolen Child – W.B. Yeats, 1886

    Where dips the rocky highland
    Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
    There lies a leafy island
    Where flapping herons wake
    The drowsy water rats;
    There we’ve hid our faery vats,
    Full of berry
    And of reddest stolen cherries.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand.
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wave of moonlight glosses
    The dim grey sands with light,
    Far off by furthest Rosses
    We foot it all the night,
    Weaving olden dances
    Mingling hands and mingling glances
    Till the moon has taken flight;
    To and fro we leap
    And chase the frothy bubbles,
    While the world is full of troubles
    And is anxious in its sleep.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I realised that what was causing me the problem is that the length of verse and rhyming pattern within the last lines of each verse is not consistent. Note the rhyming structure in the first verse:

Where dips the rocky highland, Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island, Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berry, And of reddest stolen cherries.

Yet in the next stanza we have:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses, The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses, We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

There are an extra three half-lines, and their rhyming doesn’t fit the model. Verse three is similarly muddled, yet verse four goes back to the structure of the first verse.

As a ballad singer, I am acutely conscious of the way that repetition in metre and rhyme makes it much easier to memorise and perform songs. I imagine that William B. Yeats would have been very familiar with the work of the Irish Bards and the use of this style of verse.

It could just be that this poem is intended to be read, not sung, and the discontinuity was intended as part of the work. However, the confusion goes beyond just the rhyme structure. The third verse is about gushing water, which seems to align with the ‘frothy bubbles’ in verse two. This phrase appears to be out of place in verse two, which is about pagan dances in the moonlight.

Yeats purists will probably chide me, but in my ballad version I have restructured the verses so that they are all four line stanzas with a repeated rhyming structure. So verses two and three become:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
By far off furthest rosses we foot it all the night
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight To and fro we leap

Where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-Car         
In pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star            
We seek for slumbering trout, leaning softly out 
Hoping to find Fintan, knowledge for to gain

From ferns that drop their tears, over the young streams
And whisper in their ears, giving them unquiet dreams
And stir the frothy bubbles, whilst the world is full of troubles
Eyes blind but open, and anxious in their sleep.

The bold lines are my own additions. As students of Irish mythology will know, Fintan is the Salmon of Knowledge. I immediately thought of this on first reading of the verse about tickling trout. I have moved the ‘frothy bubbles’ to the line about streams. Interestingly, there was a note with the published version of this poem, indicating that there is a place in The Rosses where those who lay down to sleep may have their souls stolen by the fairies.

This site has a beautiful photo of the waterfall at Glen-Car. It is definitely the type of place in which one could imagine the fairy folk coming to visit. Yeats would have visited this site in his childhood.

On this lovely site there is a story about using the starlight reflected in forests pools to create powerful wands.

A review of the huge tome of work that Yeats has left us here, will show that he was both very well read and from his work A Vision, he was no stranger to the mystic arts. I wonder what other messages he hid in this and other works.

Blog Post · Poetry

The Tower

Standing silent and still,
Steel frame and wires,
A long-dead Christmas Tree,
Baubles of weathered fibreglass,

But your silence is a shroud,
You always speak, share, collect.
Staccato chirping, just beyond human ken.
Passing the fragments of sad existence,
Money, secret love, a family photo,
The blancmange of our lives.

Watching, listening,
Drip feeding the morphine of our stupor,
TV which long since broke with reality.
Carefully manicured data,
constructed for effect,
Twisting and torturing truth.

With a thousand friends,
you stand sentry,
like the guard towers in a
free-range prison.