Use of Symbols in Yeats's Work, A Vision
In his 1901 essay "Magic", Yeats writes, "I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist" (p. 28). Later, in his introduction to A Vision, he explains, "I put the Tower and the Winding Stair together into evidence to show that my poetry has gained in self possession and power. I owe this change to an incredible experience" (Vision p.8). The experience he goes on to relate is the preliminary stage of the composition of the work itself. In A Vision, however, Yeats exhibits his poetic power as well, along with his knowledge of mysticism and affinity for symbology to illustrate the behavior of the forces of human consciousness and history. He ties these two cycles together into the overarching symbol of the work: the Great Wheel. This is a symbol that Yeats uses not only to explain the cycles of one individual's life, but also through the same motions, to explain the cyclical movement of the centuries, and the conjunction of certain historical events. When asked about the factual reality of his cosmological descriptions, he replies that they are "purely symbolical ... [and] have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice" (Vision p.25). Though to a large extent obscure and complicated, these symbols are paramount to an understanding not only of the ideas contained in A Vision, also the thought process Yeats conveys in much of his poetry.
The Great Wheel consists of and contains two opposing gyres, the primary and the antithetical, objectivity and subjectivity, which turn in opposite directions, the two opposing forces that govern the workings of the mind, life, and the universe. The two opposing gyres contain four more gyres, which symbolize what Yeats refers to as the four faculties: the Will and the Mask, or what is and what ought to be, and the Creative Mind and the Body of Fate, or the knower and the known. He then adds numbers to the symbol, corresponding to the phases of the moon, and is able to use them to designate every possible action of thought or life. He places these in a circular shape. "The whole system," Yeats writes "is founded upon the belief that the ultimate reality, symbolized by the sphere, falls in human consciousness... into a series of antinomies" (Vision p. 187).
The Byzantium poems are a prime example of the antinomies at work in the individual mind of man. In many of his poems, Yeats idealizes Byzantium, as a symbol of unity in spiritual and everyday life. He writes "I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers... spoke to the few and the multitude alike. The painter and the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator or sacred books, were almost...