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.
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.
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.
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.