Yeatsian Phantasmagoria

Note: This is an extract from a 2500 word essay I wrote on Yeatsian Phantasmagoria. I have chiefly picked out the parts where I have given an explanation to the gyre, with an illustration and the places where I have described the nature of Yeats’ symbols. Quotations have been acknowledged.

Phantasmagoria is defined as a shifting series of real or imaginary figures as seen in a dream. The word phantasmagoria is derived from the word ‘phantasm’ meaning a thing seen in the imagination. A phantasm is an illusion. According to the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary ‘phantasmagoria’ refers to “a changing scene of real or imagined figures for example, as seen in a dream or created as an effect in a film”

Yeats believed that “all art is dream”. At the front of his 1914 volume of poetry named “Responsibilities” Yeats has a quotation which is suspected to be his own and in which he says “In dreams begin responsibilities.” In Yeats’s poetry the phantasmagoria is present in the form of recurring symbols through which the poet wishes to convey the same ideas over and over again, while establishing an oneness in response and interpretation among the readers. Yeats believed that the poet’s responsibility was to unite the world’s consciousness by evoking the same set of symbols from the unconscious universal memory.

From various studies Yeats gathered “a supply of imagery that he drew on for the rest of his life. Stocked with multiple, antithetical, and secret meanings for trees, birds, roses, stars and wells, Yeats delighted in constructing puzzles which had not only clear overt “meanings” but which could as well be rightly interpreted in an almost unlimited number of ways.” Yeats had learnt to think naturally in symbols and to manipulate these symbols to convey “swift transitions and intricate connections of thought.”

As a symbolist poet, Yeats’s poems had a series of recurring images which contained a ‘system’ of symbols. The relationship between the image or symbol and the meaning is arbitrary. The connection between the symbol and its meaning existed only in the mind of the poet. Therefore meaning does not arise out of the context in the poem.

Though Yeats had these symbols with inherent meanings that he alone comprehended he did not wish to explain their meanings until much later. In a letter to Florence Farr he says “….but I shall not trouble to make the meaning clear- a clear vivid story of a strange sort is enough. The meaning may be different with everyone.”

Yeats believed that a poet must have a system of beliefs or abstract thoughts. If not, the poems become “fragmentary and multiple”. All experiences are a bundle of fragments. According to Yeats the poet had the responsibility to “put together” these fragments whereby he could formulate a meaningful framework within which “as the years go by one poem lights up another.”

Yeats considered history as a recurring cycle of events. He developed elaborate theories with this thought. With the help of Irish tales and with facts and legends from Irish history he sought to express his personal views on history and life. His views also echo his belief in the supernatural. Yeats published his theories in A Vision (1925).

Yeats had his confidence in a Universal Humanity which is represented by the stored images in the unconscious. These images are what the world needs and the poet can supply. The poet can bring about an oneness in all the readers by evoking memories and responses from the unconscious. This, the poet does by using various provocative images. The lifelong concentration of thought in a few images thus created an effect of unified, instantaneous vision.

Yeats held that the borders of human minds are constantly shifting so that many minds can flow into one another and create or reveal a single mind and a single energy. The borders of our minds also merge into forming one single memory. This universal mind and universal memory can be evoked through symbols. He drew from this universal memory for his ideas.

“From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged
In rambling talk with an image of air:
Vague memories, nothing but memories”
– Yeats “Broken Dreams”

Through the various philosophies and his interactions with the spiritual realm, Yeats developed an eclectic belief system. He first explained this system in his book, “A Vision II” (1926). He had developed this system with what he explained to be contacts from the spiritual and supernatural world. The spiritual realm also supplied him with innumerable symbols.

In a letter written to Ethel Mannin three months before his death he says, “To me all things are made of a conflict of two states of consciousness, beings or persons which die each other’s life, live each other’s death. This is true of life and death itself.” This was his belief as borne by the system of the gyres. ‘There’ is situated in the exact centre of the gyres. It is the most ideal and impossible state.

The complex system, which he developed, understood and used in his poems, justifies all historical events, human personalities and conflicts in the world with the help of ‘the gyre’. The converging gyres represented the primary and antithetical states of the entire universe. Yeats wished to arrive at a place called “there”, a centre where all minds are one; all memories are one and all of time came together. He fought for a Unity of Being, Unity of Image and a Unity of Culture.

“There all the barrel-hoops are knit,
There all the serpent-tails are bit,
There all the gyres converge in one,
There all the planets drop in the Sun.”
– Yeats “There”

Yeats wished to explain significant historical events with the help of the gyre and visions. In his introduction to “The Words upon the Window-pane” he says “ I can see a sort of nightmare vision the ‘primary qualities’ torn from the side of Locke, Johnson’s ponderous body bent above the letter to Lord Chesterfield, some obscure person somewhere inventing the spinning-jenny, upon his face the look of benevolence kept by painters and engravers…” This highlights the fact that he had a system of thought to apply to every event and behaviour and justify them as primary or antithetical trying to construct “a pattern of reality”.

Yeats’s effort was to unify life and art into a single colossal whole. His poetry was a “complex, organic interconnected whole, which, real microcosm, could contain in image all the universe…” In a letter written to Edmund Dulac in 1937 he mentioned that his book “A Vision”, to him, “means a last act of defense against the chaos of the world”

Yeats’s works would keep assuming new meanings and dimensions as new generations would interpret his complex system of symbols in newer ways. His belief system had however accommodated for accepting the chaos of the world as natural. His was the “poetry of dream” in the sense of a phantasmagorical connection of disparate events and ideas with the help of carefully manipulated symbols. In that he had a dream to unify the entire system, all eras, cultures, nations and people into a coherent cosmos. One is reminded of his lines from the poem “He wishes for Cloths of Heaven”

“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”


Primary Text:
1. Yeats, W.B. Selected Poems.
Folio Society, London. 1998.

Secondary Texts:
1. Stock, A.G. W.B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought.
Cambridge University Press, London. 1961.
2. Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats.
Thames and Hudson, UK. 1959.
3. Stallworthy, John. Vision and Revision in Yeats’s Last Poems.
Oxford University Press, London. 1969.
4. Bullough, Geoffrey. The Trend of Modern Poetry.
Oliver and Boyd, London. 1949.
5. Ellman, Richard. The Identity of Yeats.
Faber and Faber, UK. 1963.
6. Donaghue, Denis. Yeats.
Fontana/Collins, London. 1971.
7. Alavarez, A. The Shaping Spirit: Studies in Modern English and American Poets.
Chatto & Windus, London. 1972.
8. Hollander, John. Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form.
Oxford University Press, New York. 1975.
9. The World Book Encyclopedia. Volume 18 Article: Symbolism
Volume 21 Article: Yeats, W.B. World Book Inc., U.S.A. 1992.

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6 thoughts on “Yeatsian Phantasmagoria

  1. Dear Phoenix,
    Thanks a lot for putting your quite informative essays in your website;I did learn a lot.I have a question about the study of phantasmagoria in Yeats’s The Wild swans at Coole;I have actually decided to write a thesis on this subject about the poems in this collection of poems.I’d be really grateful if you could possibly let me know about your opinion.Very many thanks in advance.By the way,may I be allwed to ask how it is possible for one to have access to the full text of your invaluable essay?Thanks a lot again.

  2. Hi Ariana
    First I would like to thank you for the appreciation. By “Wild Swans at Coole” do you mean the single poem or the collection with that title? I have the whole essay with me. I’ll put it up somewhere and give you the link. Please remind me to do so. My email id would be sharadtriyama(at)gmail(dot)com

  3. Hi Phoenix,
    Thanks a lot for your prompt reply.I meant the collection actually;I forgot to put it in italics,sorry.Very many thanks for the essay;I will e-mail you for that(if I may of course).

  4. Yes. I just received your mail. I will send you the essay when I get home. I am at my workplace now. 🙂 I cannot claim to have read all the poems in “Wild Swans at Coole”. I may have to read it before I can give you any suggestions.

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