"O Divine Rose of Intellectual Flame, let the Gates of thy peace be opened to me at last!"
"Out of the Rose," from The Secret Rose
Never having been much of a poetry person, I was a bit taken aback when I discovered that WB Yeats also wrote some pretty strange fiction. The truth is that he wouldn't have even come up on my reading radar had it not been for the essays about him I read in The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors
by Roger Dobson (ed. Mark Valentine), where I learned about his work The Secret Rose.
originally published by Macmillan, 1914
I picked up the Dover edition containing The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica,
but never one to read just part of a book, I began with Yeats' Stories of Red Hanrahan,
which starts like this:
"Hanrahan, the hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man, came into the barn where some of the men of the village were sitting on Samhain Eve."
I knew with just that opening sentence that something supernatural or at least strange was about to happen -- it's Samhain Eve after all.
I wasn't wrong: after a card game with some of the fellows and an "old mountainy man" who owns the deck, Hanrahan is told to follow the "great hunt" that ensues when a hare leaps out of the cards, quickly followed by a dog and then an entire pack of hounds. Hanrahan leaves the barn, but in the darkness quickly loses the hounds. What he does find, however, as he sits in the heather "in the heart of Slieve Echtge," is a door with a light behind it. Judging by what happens next, it seems that this itinerant schoolmaster has discovered an entrance to the Otherworld (here in the form of "big shining house"); on entering within, he notices a woman, "the most beautiful the world ever saw," with "the tired look of one that had been waiting." Unbeknownst to Hanrahan, on entering this doorway he has entered into the realm of immortals -- the beautiful woman is "Echtge, the Daughter of the Silver Hand;" aka daughter of Nuada, one-time king of the Tuatha dé Danann and therefore a goddess. Four old women appear, and with each appearance he is presented with a sort of test which he promptly fails. He is found "weak," and wanting, but even worse, his failure causes this goddess to remain asleep. His failure also has personal consequences; Hanrahan must somehow make up for his fault; throughout his wanderings, he is bound to never know "content for any length of time..." This first tale is key to what follows, a series of short tales that contain a blending of traditional, political, and mystical elements that weave their way through an entire Hanrahan story cycle. It also seems to have elements of the traditional Romantic quest, albeit one that is interior and suffused throughout with the occult.
The Secret Rose
is described by the author himself
as having "but one subject, the war of spiritual with natural order." In his dedication of this group of stories to A.E., aka George William Russell
, Yeats notes that
"If a writer wishes to interest a certain people among whom he has grown up, or fancies he has a duty towards them, he may choose for the symbols of his art their legends, their history, their beliefs, their opinions.."
and goes on to say that "as this book is visionary, it is Irish for Ireland, which is still predominantly Celtic" and that it preserves "a gift of vision, which has died out among more hurried and more successful nations."
One of my favorite stories in this group of tales that illuminates all of this is "The Wisdom of the King," which begins with the "High-Queen of Ireland" having died in childbirth. Her son was given in the care of a woman who lived in the woods, and who one night was visited by a "grey-clad woman, of great age.." who had grey feathers on her head instead of hair. Calling herself a "crone of the grey hawk," she places herself at the head of the baby's cradle. The hut soon fills with a number of these women, and they proceed to mix their grey blood, a drop at a time, with the baby's; he is now imbued with their
wisdom. As he gets older, his head begins to sport grey hawk feathers; when he is old enough to rule in the place of his now-dead father, "the poets and the men of law" decreed that everyone (even visitors outside the realm who come to seek his wisdom) "upon pain of death" had to weave into his or hair the feathers of the grey hawk. Furthermore, anyone who told the boy the truth was to be "flung from a cliff into the sea." You can only imagine what happens when he learns of the deception.
These nine stories are like taking a mythical/mystical spin through history and tradition and they speak to an older wisdom, the knowledge of which only few are gifted and thus live a rather isolated life; sacrifices are made, and individuals take part in their own spiritual or mystical quests for the ideal. They were also my favorite part of this book.
After finishing The Secret Rose
, I started researching what to look forward to in Rosa Alchemica,
and realized that this Dover edition did not include either "The Tables of the Law" or "The Adoration of the Magi," so I picked up Mythologies,
Simon and Schuster, 1998
originally published 1959
It also contains Celtic Twilight
and the mind-bending (and patience-expending) Per Amica Silentia Lunae,
but I won't comment on either here.
With these last three stories, we delve deep into the realm of the alchemical, the mystical, and the apocalyptic. The narrator of "Rosa Alchemica", who reminds me a bit of Huysmans' Des Esseintes because of his need to "fashion" his life according to his desire, is sitting in quiet reverie in his Dublin home when he is interrupted by a knock at the door. His visitor is a certain Michael Robartes, who is there to ask him yet again if he would join Robartes' Order of the Alchemical Rose. He had declined earlier in Paris, and now asks Robartes why he would say yes when he'd already refused him? But become an initiate he does, or at least he's on the way to doing so at a temple on the coast when it seems as though all hell breaks loose. It's the inner
workings of the ceremonies at the Temple of the Alchemical Rose which are fascinating here, but the ending speaks volumes as well.
The same narrator appears again in "The Tables of the Law" and "The Adoration of the Magi." In the first story, rather than Robartes, it is Owen Aherne who appears to introduce his own mystical/spiritual philosophy. Based on the writings of Joachim of Flora, an abbot of the twelfth century, his proposed system picks up Joachim's more heretical beliefs (from a secret book) that will displace "the commandments of the Son by the commandments of the Holy Spirit," and usher in a new age. Things, of course, go terribly wrong. In the second, our narrator is once again in the company of visitors, three elderly brothers who tell him that they were there to reveal "important things." Their strange story begins as one of the brothers fell asleep while reading Virgil and a "strange voice spoke through him," bidding them to
set out for Paris, where a dying woman would give them secret names and thereby so transform the world that another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleaguer Troy."
Their travels take them to a brothel where a prostitute has just given birth; it seems that now "the Immortals are beginning to awake." Or at least one that can "take many forms."
I have to say that this has been my first Yeats experience, and I do not claim to understand all of it, but I do have a newly-found reverence for Yeats scholars who do. Still, it was absolutely a trip to read, and this book was definitely an experience most fascinating and one I'll never forget. It took me a long time to go through this one, stopping to check on various references here and there, but even with my limited understanding it is a book that I can certainly recommend.