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The Two Trees

William Butler Yeats

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Mysticism in "The Two Trees"
Added by: Phaedra
Yeats became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (a society somewhat like the Masons) in 1890. "The Two Trees" was published in 1893, and clearly contains a great number of references to the beliefs and practices of the Golden Dawn. The poem appears to be an invitation to the reader (the "Beloved") to choose between two paths: that of inner spirituality and compassion and that of cynicism and evil, as represented by the Two Trees, which might also represent the Trees of Life and Death. Each stanza contains 20 lines (twice the 10 branches or spheres of the sephiroth, the Tree of Life in the Kabbala). The guide to the first is the "heart" and the guide to the second is the "bitter glass," perhaps referencing a seer's mirror, but in any case an outside source of guidance, contrasted with the inner wisdom which Yeats is clearly promoting. Much of the imagery is self-explanatory; much more is opaque. A few references stand out:

"The flaming circle of our days"

The sword that guards the Tree of Life in Eden is described by Origen in the Gnostic gospels as having the 'diameter of a flaming circle," which was depicted as radiant circle at the top of the tree, representative of reproductive energy, an image also present (urdhava-retas) in some schools of Yoga. The Egyptians described the sun god as sailing in a circle, sometimes of water, sometimes of fire.

"And how the winged sandals dart"

The system of the Golden Dawn was best described as "hermetic Kabbala," that is, the Kabbala as interpreted using a system supposedly taught to man by Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary Egyptian father of hermeticism, astrology and alchemy, sometimes described as the 'god of wisdom' for early Graeco-Egyptian philosophers. Hermes in Greek mythology is, of course, most readily identified by his winged sandals.

"The ravens of unresting thought"

Ravens in Nordic mythology represent thought and memory. In Celtic mythology, they represent foreknowledge (consistent with the "bitter glass" as a scrying glass), bloodshed, and death. In Europe, ravens were generally the harbingers of doom, and sometime associated with Satan. In general, the imagery is appropriate for evil and the "tree of death." Yeats is none too fond of turning to the outer world for wisdom and guidance (the Golden Dawn incorporated some Buddist beliefs, including that of 'maya' or the 'protecting veil') and there is a feeling in the second stanza that mirror is playing the "Beloved" false, leading to self-destruction. Interestingly enough, the Raven in Native American mythology is a trickster, but it is unclear whether Yeats would have known this. Even if he did it is more likely (given his interest in Celtic mythology) that he used the image of the raven in its Irish sense of prophecy, doom and death.

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