William Butler Yeats



The Philosophy of Shelley's Poetry
II. His Ruling Symbols




»   »   »
Texte zur Baudelaire-Rezeption
Texte zur Verlaine-Rezeption
Texte zur Mallarmé-Rezeption
Texte zur Theorie und Rezeption des Symbolismus


At a comparatively early time Shelley made his imprisoned Cythna become wise in all human wisdom through the contemplation of her own mind, and write out this wisdom upon the sand in 'signs' that were 'clear elemental shapes whose smallest change' made a 'subtler language within language' and were 'the key [112] of truths, which once were dimly taught in old Crotona.' His early romances and much throughout his poetry show how strong a fascination the traditions of magic and of the magical philosophy had cast over his mind, and one can hardly suppose that he had not brooded over their doctrine of symbols or signatures, though I do not find anything to show that he gave it any deep study. One finds in his poetry, besides innumerable images that have not the definiteness of symbols, many images that are certainly symbols, and as the years went by he began to use these with a more and more deliberately symbolic purpose. I imagine that, when he wrote his earlier poems, he allowed the subconscious life to lay its hands so firmly upon the rudder of his imagination, that he was little conscious of the abstract meaning of the images that rose in what seemed the idleness of his mind. Any one who has any experience of any mystical state of the soul knows how there float up in the [113] mind profound symbols, 1 whose meaning, if indeed they do not delude one into the dream that they are meaningless, one does not perhaps understand for years. Nor I think has any one, who has known that experience with any constancy, failed to find some day in some old book or on some old monument, a strange or intricate image, that had floated up before him, and grown perhaps dizzy with the sudden conviction that our little memories are but a part of some great memory that renews the world and men's thoughts age after age, and that our thoughts are not, as we suppose, the deep but a little foam upon the deep. Shelley understood this, as is proved by what he says of the eternity of beautiful things and of the influence of the dead, but whether he understood that the great memory is also a dwelling-house of symbols, of images that are living souls, I [114] cannot tell. He had certainly experience of all but the most profound of the mystical states, of that union with created things which assuredly must precede the soul's union with the uncreated spirit. He says in his fragment of an essay upon life, mistaking a unique experience for the common experience of all: 'Let us recollect our sensations as children ... we less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie, feel as if their nature were resolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were resolved into their being,' and he must have expected to receive thoughts and images from beyond his own mind, just in so far as that mind transcended its preoccupation with particular time and place, for he believed inspiration a kind of death; and he could hardly have helped [115] perceiving that an image that has transcended particular time and place becomes a symbol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul.

When Shelley went to the Continent with Godwin's daughter in 1812 they sailed down certain great rivers in an open boat, and when he summed up in his preface to Laon and Cythna the things that helped to make him a poet, he spoke of these voyages: 'I have sailed down mighty rivers and seen the sun rise and set and the stars come forth whilst I sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains.'

He may have seen some cave that was the bed of a rivulet by some river side, or have followed some mountain stream to its source in a cave, for from his return to England rivers and streams and wells, flowing through caves or rising in them, came into every poem of his that was of any length, and always with the precision of symbols. Alastor passed in his boat along a river in a cave; and when for the [116] last time he felt the presence of the spirit he loved and followed, it was when he watched his image in a silent well; and when he died it was where a river fell into 'an abysmal chasm'; and the Witch of Atlas in her gladness, as he in his sadness, passed in her boat along a river in a cave, and it was where it bubbled out of a cave that she was born; and when Rousseau, the typical poet of The Triumph of Life, awoke to the vision that was life, it was where a rivulet bubbled out of a cave; and the poet of Epipsychidion met the evil beauty 'by a well under blue nightshade bowers'; and Cythna bore her child imprisoned in a great cave beside 'a fountain round and vast and in which the wave imprisoned leaped and boiled perpetually'; and her lover Laon was brought to his prison in a high column through a cave where there was 'a putrid pool,' and when he went to see the conquered city he dismounted beside a polluted fountain in the market-place, foreshadowing thereby [117] that spirit who at the end of Prometheus Unbound gazes at a regenerated city from 'within a fountain in the public square'; and when Laon and Cythna are dead they awake beside a fountain and drift into Paradise along a river; and at the end of things Prometheus and Asia are to live amid a happy world in a cave where a fountain 'leaps with an awakening sound'; and it was by a fountain, the meeting-place of certain unhappy lovers, that Rosalind and Helen told their unhappiness to one another; and it was under a willow by a fountain that the enchantress and her lover began their unhappy love; while his lesser poems and his prose fragments use caves and rivers and wells and fountains continually as metaphors. It may be that his subconscious life seized upon some passing scene, and moulded it into an ancient symbol without help from anything but that great memory; but so good a Platonist as Shelley could hardly have thought of any cave as a symbol, without thinking of [118] Plato' s cave that was the world; and so good a scholar may well have had Porphyry on 'the Cave of the Nymphs' in his mind. When I compare Porphyry's description of the cave where the Phæacian boat left Odysseus, with Shelley's description of the cave of the Witch of Atlas, to name but one of many, I find it hard to think otherwise. I quote Taylor's translation, only putting Mr. Lang's prose for Taylor's bad verse. 'What does Homer obscurely signify by the cave in Ithaca which he describes in the following verses? "Now at the harbour's head is a long leaved olive tree, and hard by is a pleasant cave and shadowy, sacred to the nymphs, that are called Naiads. And therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there moreover do bees hive. And there are great looms of stone, whereon the nymphs weave raiment of purple stain, a marvel to behold; and there are waters welling ever more. Two gates there are to the cave, the one set towards the North wind, [119] whereby men may go down, but the portals toward the South pertain rather to the gods, whereby men may not enter: it is the way of the immortals."' He goes on to argue that the cave was a temple before Homer wrote, and that 'the ancients did not establish temples without fabulous symbols,' and then begins to interpret Homer's description in all its detail. The ancients, he says, 'consecrated a cave to the world' and held 'the flowing waters' and the 'obscurity of the cavern' 'apt symbols of what the world contains,' and he calls to witness Zoroaster's cave with fountains; and often caves are, he says, symbols of 'all invisible power; because as caves are obscure and dark, so the essence of all these powers is occult,' and quotes a lost hymn to Apollo to prove that nymphs living in caves fed men 'from intellectual fountains'; and he contends that fountains and rivers symbolize generation, and that the word nymph 'is commonly applied to all souls descending into [120] generation,' and that the two gates Homer's cave are the gate of generation and the gate of ascent through death to the gods, the gate of cold and moisture, and the gate of heat and fire. Cold, he says, causes life in the world, and heat causes life among the gods, and the constellation of the cup is set in the heavens near the sign Cancer, because it is there that the souls descending from the Milky Way receive their draught of the intoxicating cold drink of generation. 'The mixing bowls and jars of stone' are consecrated to the Naiads, and are also, as it seems, symbolical of Bacchus, and are of stone because of the rocky beds of the rivers. And 'the looms of stone' are the symbols of the 'souls that descend into generation.' 'For the formation of the flesh is on or about the bones, which in the bodies of animals resemble stones,' and also because 'the body is a garment' not only about the soul, but about all essences that become visible, for 'the [121] heavens are called by the ancients a veil, in consequence of being as it were the of vestments of the celestial gods.' The bees hive in the mixing bowls and jars of stone, for so Porphyry understands the passage, because honey was the symbol adopted by the ancients for 'pleasure arising from generation.' The ancients, he says, called souls not only Naiads but bees, 'as the efficient cause of sweetness'; but not all souls 'proceeding into generation' are called bees, 'but those who will live in it justly and who after having performed such things as are acceptable to the gods will again return (to their kindred stars). For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it came and is eminently just and sober.' I find all these details in the cave of the Witch of Atlas, the most elaborately described of Shelley's caves, except the two gates, and these have a far-off echo in her summer journeys on her cavern river and in her winter sleep in 'an inextinguishable well of crimson fire.' We [122] have for the mixing bowls, and jars of stone full of honey, those delights of the senses, 'sounds of air' 'folded in cells of crystal silences,' 'liquors clear and sweet' 'in crystal vials,' and for the bees, visions 'each in his thin sheath like a chrysalis,' and for 'the looms of stone' and 'raiment of purple stain' the Witch's spinning and embroidering; and the Witch herself is a Naiad, and was born from one of the Atlantides, who lay in 'a chamber of grey rock' until she was changed by the sun's embrace into a cloud.

When one turns to Shelley for an explanation of the cave and fountain one finds how close his thought was to Porphyry's. He looked upon thought as a condition of life in generation and believed that the reality beyond was something other than thought. He wrote in his fragment 'On Life,' 'That the basis of all things cannot be, as the popular philosophy alleges, mind, is sufficiently evident. Mind, as far as we have any experience of [123] its properties, and beyond that experience how vain is argument, cannot create, it can only perceive;' and in another passage he defines mind as existence. Water is his great symbol of existence, and he continually meditates over its mysterious source. In his prose he tells how 'thought can with difficulty visit the intricate and winding chambers which it inhabits. It is like a river, whose rapid and perpetual stream flows outward.... The caverns of the mind are obscure and shadowy; or pervaded with a lustre, beautiful and bright indeed, but shining not beyond their portals.' When the Witch has passed in her boat from the caverned river, that is doubtless her own destiny, she passes along the Nile 'by Moeris and the Mareotid lakes,' and sees all human life shadowed upon its waters in shadows that 'never are erased but tremble ever'; and in many a dark and subterranean street under the Nile – new caverns – and along the bank of the Nile; and as she [124] bends over the unhappy, she compares unhappiness to 'the strife that stirs the liquid surface of man's life'; and because she can see the reality of things she is described as journeying 'in the calm depths' of 'the wide lake' we journey over unpiloted. Alastor calls the river that he follows an image of his mind, and thinks that it will be as hard to say where his thought will be when he is dead as where its waters will be in ocean or cloud in a little while. In Mont Blanc, a poem so overladen with descriptions in parentheses that one loses sight of its logic, Shelley compares the flowing through our mind of 'the universe of things,' which are, he has explained elsewhere, but thoughts, to the flowing of the Arne through the ravine, and compares the unknown sources of our thoughts in some' 'remoter world' whose 'gleams' 'visit the soul in sleep,' to Arne's sources among the glaciers on the mountain heights. Cythna in the passage where she speaks of making signs [125] 'a subtle language within language' on the the sand by the 'fountain' of sea water in the cave where she is imprisoned, speaks of the 'cave' of her mind which gave its secrets to her, and of 'one mind the type of all' which is a 'moveless wave' reflecting 'all moveless things that are'; and then passing more completely under the power of the symbol, she speaks of growing wise through contemplation of the images that rise out of the fountain at the call of her will. Again and again one finds some passing allusion to the cave of man's mind, or to the caves of his youth, or to the cave of mysteries we enter at death, for to Shelley as to Porphyry it is more than an image of life in the world. It may mean any enclosed life, as when it is the dwelling-place of Asia and Prometheus, or when it is 'the still cave of poetry,' and it may have all meanings at once, or it may have as little meaning as some ancient religious symbol enwoven from the habit [126] of centuries with the patterns of a carpet or a tapestry.

As Shelley sailed along those great rivers and saw or imagined the cave that associated itself with rivers in his mind, he saw half-ruined towers upon the hilltops, and once at any rate a tower is used to symbolize a meaning that is the contrary to the meaning symbolized by caves. Cythna's lover is brought through the cave where there is a polluted fountain to a high tower, for being man's far-seeing mind, when the world has cast him out he must to the 'towers of thought's crowned powers'; nor is it possible for Shelley to have forgotten this first imprisonment when he made men imprison Lionel in a tower for a like offence; and because I know how hard it is to forget a symbolical meaning, once one has found it, I believe Shelley had more than a romantic scene in his mind when he made Prince Athanase follow his mysterious studies in a lighted tower above the sea, and when he made [127] the old hermit watch over Laon in his sickness in a half-ruined tower, wherein the sea, here doubtless as to Cythna, 'the one mind,' threw 'spangled sands' and 'rarest sea shells.' The tower, important in Maeterlinck, as in Shelley, is, like the sea, and rivers, and caves with fountains, a very ancient symbol, and would perhaps, as years went by, have grown more important in his poetry. The contrast between it and the cave in Laon and Cythna suggests a contrast between the mind looking outward upon men and things and the mind looking inward upon itself, which may or may not have been in Shelley's mind, but certainly helps, with one knows not how many other dim meanings, to give the poem mystery and shadow. It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious [128] arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature. The poet of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth, all that the epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental circumstance of life.



[Fußnote, S. 113]

1 'Marianne's Dream' was certainly copied from a real dream of somebody's, but like images come to the mystic in his waking state.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

William Butler Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil.
London: Bullen 1903, S. 90-141.

PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015005324457

Unser Auszug: S. 111-128.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).



Kommentierte Ausgabe






Wade, Allan: A Bibliography of the Writings of W. B. Yeats.
3. Aufl. London: Hart-Davis 1968.

Yeats, William Butler:The Death of Oenone.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 3, 1892, Nr. 15, Dezember, S. 84.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: The Message of the Folk-lorist.
In: The Speaker.
Bd. 8, 1893, 19. August, S. 188-189.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008900379

Yeats, William Butler: A Symbolical Drama in Paris.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 6, 1894, Nr. 31, April, S. 14-16.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: Irish National Literature. Contemporary Prose Writers.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 8, 1895, Nr. 47, August, S. 138-140.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: Irish National Literature. III. Contemporary Irish Poets.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 8, 1895, Nr. 48, September, S. 167-170.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: Verlaine in 1894.
In: The Savoy. An Illustrated Quarterly.
1896, Nr. 2, April, S. 117-118.
URL: https://1890s.ca/savoy-volumes/
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009663152

Yeats, William Butler: William Blake.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 10, 1896, Nr. 55, April, S. 21.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: William Blake and His Illustrations to the Divine Comedy.
In: The Savoy. An Illustrated Monthly.
Nr. 3, Juli, S. 41-57.
Nr. 4, August, S. 25-41.
Nr. 5, September, S. 31-36.
URL: https://1890s.ca/savoy-volumes/
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009663152
W. B. Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil. London: Bullen 1903, S. 176-225.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h

Yeats, William Butler: Mr. Arthur Symons' New Book.
In: The Bookman (London).
Bd. 12, 1897, Nr. 67, April, S. 15-16.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008883383

Yeats, William Butler: Academy Portraits. XXXII. – William Blake.
In: The Academy. A Weekly Review of Literature, Science, and Art.
1897, 19. Juni, S. 634-635.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006791517
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000529050
URL: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=theacademy
W. B. Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil. London: Bullen 1903,
S. 168-175 (u.d.T. "William Blake and the Imagination").
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h

Yeats, William Butler: Introduction.
In: A Book of Images, Drawn by W.T. Horton & Introduced by W.B. Yeats.
London: Unicorn Press 1898, S. 7-16.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t00002d9b
Aufgenommen in:
W. B. Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil. London: Bullen 1903,
S. 226-236 (u.d.T. "Symbolism in Painting").
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h

Yeats, William Butler: John Eglinton and Spiritual Art.
In: Daily Express (Dublin).
1898, 29. Oktober, Second Edition, S. 3.
URL: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

Yeats, William Butler: The Autumn of the Flesh.
In: Daily Express (Dublin). 1898, 3. Dezember.
URL: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Aufgenommen in:
W. B. Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil. London 1903;
hier: S. 296-305 (u.d.T. "The Autumn of the Body").
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h
URL: https://archive.org/details/ideasofgoodevil00yeatrich [Second Edition 1903]

Yeats, William Butler: The Wind Among the Reeds.
London: Mathews 1899.
URL: https://archive.org/details/windamongreeds00yeatrich

Yeats, William Butler: The Literary Movement in Ireland.
In: North American Review.
Bd. 169, 1899, Nr. 517, Dezember, S. 855-867.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/004528837
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000677725
URL: https://www.unz.com/print/NorthAmericanRev/

Yeats, William Butler: The Symbolism of Poetry.
In: The Dome.
An Illustrated Magazine and Review of Literature, Music, Architecture, and the Graphic Arts.
N.S., Jg. 6, 1900, April, S. 249-257.
URL: https://modjourn.org/journal/dome/
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000058201
Aufgenommen in:
W. B. Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil. London 1903, S. 237-256.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h
URL: https://archive.org/details/ideasofgoodevil00yeatrich [Second Edition 1903]

Yeats, William Butler: Ideas of Good and Evil.
London: Bullen 1903.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h
URL: https://archive.org/details/ideasofgoodevil00yeatrich  [Second Edition 1903]

Yeats, William Butler: The Philosophy of Shelley's Poetry.
In: William Butler Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil.
London: Bullen 1903, S. 90-141.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t6k07824h

Yeats, William Butler: Poems, 1899-1905.
London: Bullen; Dublin: Maunsel 1906.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015019354714
URL: https://archive.org/details/poems01yeatgoog

Yeats, William Butler: Poems.
London: T. Fisher Unwin 1912.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t0xp6z20t
URL: https://archive.org/details/yeatspoems00yeatrich

Yeats, William Butler: The Cutting of an Agate.
New York: The Macmillan company 1912.
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015012193317
URL: https://archive.org/details/cuttingofagate00yeat

Yeats, William Butler: Essays and Introductions.
London: Macmillan and C. 1961.

Yeats, William Butler: The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats.
Edited by John Kelly u.a.
Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.
Bd. 1ff. 1986ff.

Yeats, William Butler: Die Gedichte.
Hrsg. von Norbert Hummelt.
Übers. von Marcel Beyer u.a.
München: Luchterhand 2005.

Larrissy, Edward (Hrsg.): The First Yeats.
Poems by W.B. Yeats, 1889 – 1899.
Manchester: FyfieldBooks 2010.





Arrington, Lauren / Campbell, Matthew (Hrsg): The Oxford Handbook of W.B. Yeats. Oxford 2023.

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Campbell, Matthew: The English Romantic Symbolists. In: W. B. Yeats in Context. Hrsg. von David Holdeman u. Ben Levitas. Cambridge 2010, S. 310-319.

Fogarty, Anne: Yeats, Ireland and modernism. In: The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Poetry. Hrsg. von Alex Davis. Cambridge u.a. 2007, S. 126-146.

Haughton, Hugh: The Irish Poet as Critic. In: The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Poetry. Hrsg. von Fran Brearton u. Alan Gillis. Oxford 2012, S. 513-533.

Jochum, Klaus P.: The Reception of W. B. Yeats in Europe. London u.a. 2006.

Kim, Jooseong: Yeats and the World Soul: Yeats Reading Blake, Shelley, Honoré de Balzac. In: The Yeats Journal of Korea 48 (2015), S. 75-92.

Lipking, Lawrence: Poet-critics. In: The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Bd. 7: Modernism and the New Criticism. Hrsg. von A. Walton Litz. Cambridge u.a. 2000, S. 439-467.

Longley, Edna: Yeats and Modern Poetry. New York 2013.

Schmid, Susanne: Shelley's German Afterlives 1814 – 2000. New York u.a. 2007.

Schmid, Susanne / Rossington, Michael (Hrsg.): The Reception of P. B. Shelley in Europe. London u.a. 2008.

Warner, Eric / Hough, Graham (Hrsg.): Strangeness and Beauty. An Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840–1910. 2 Bde. Cambridge u.a. 2009.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer