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‘Turning and turning’; Yeats’s symbolic gyre.

With the announcement of campus being shut down for the next while I decided to make use of my extra time (with four hours of travelling a day halted) by researching various aspects of W. B. Yeats. Before I got accepted in this MA, I had already decided that I would love to do my thesis on him, but it is proving difficult to commit to just one area. I was absolutely dreading the extreme shift in my routine but so far self-isolation is proving to be quite productive for my academic studies. Something I briefly touched on in my previous post about Yeats’s A Vision was his symbolic use of gyres. ‘Gyre’ is a term used by Yeats to describe the spiraling motion that forms a cone. In a note to the poem ‘The Second Coming’ he defined the forces of history in terms of gyres:

“The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction. At the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ”

(Yeats Poetry 76).

Yeats first mentions this concept in his poem ‘The Second Coming’. It is often vital to cross reference his poetry with his drama and prose to get a clear understanding of his esoteric symbolism.

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand’ (Yeats Poetry 76).

Yeats’s theory, of these conical spirals which determine events in time, is based on concepts from many previous writers including Plato and Blake. ‘A Gyre is a combination of line and plane, and as one tendency or the other must always be stronger, the gyre is always expanding or contracting’ (Henn 185). Yeats uses a diagram of two cones in A Vision to symbolize this and one can see his use of the tensions of life throughout his poetry – a great example is between the ‘self’ and ‘soul’ (See ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ – one of my favourite poems, as a prime example of this conflicting tension). The gyre can be applied not only to history but to each person’s life – both are further controlled by the 28 phases of the moon. (I speak about the phases in more depth here). As each new age reaches its climax it falls apart and a new age emerges.

In A Vision Yeats develops his theory of the gyres in more detail. He notes in the introduction that this book is quite a turn away from his previous work – “Some, perhaps all, of those readers I most value, those who have read me many years, will be repelled by what must seem like an arbitrary, harsh, difficult symbolism” (Yeats A Vision 23). He develops the notion that “all physical reality, the universe as a whole, every solar system, every atom, is a double cone; where there are two poles on opposite to the other, these two poles have the form of cones” (Yeats A Vision 69). He gives reference to Swedenborg’s mystical writings in Principia, where he describes the double cone though Yeats mentions that gyres are “occasionally alluded to, but left unexplored” in Swedenborg’s work (Yeats A Vision 69).


Image result for yeats a vision gyre discord
Image source.
“The gyre of ‘concord’ diminishes as that of ‘discord’ increases, and can imagine after that gyre of ‘concord’ increasing while that of ‘discord’ diminishes, and so on, one gyre within the other always” (Yeats A Vision 68).

Time presents itself as continuously moving in cyclical contraries. Yeats envisions these gyres as being dominate and subordinate. When the dominant gyre reaches its climatic point, it retracts, and the subordinate gyre comes forwards to begin a new era. Yeats attempts to interpret distinct eras in history in relation to cyclical movement.  In history these shifts occur in cycles of every 2000 years and less dramatically every 500 years. “For all the permutations in the system to be enacted, a period of about 26 000 years would be needed, a period similar to the Great or Platonic Year talked of in the Ancient World” (Macrae 153). In his later works, Yeats focuses on the city of Byzantium and its symbolic unity of all aspects of life.

 “Each age unwinds the thread another age had wound…Persia fell, and that when full moon came around again, amid eastward-moving thought, and brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward-moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”

(Yeats A Vision 270-271).

Work Cited/suggested reading.

Henn, Thomas Rice. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Methuen, 1979.

Macrae, Alasdair D. F. W.B. Yeats: a Literary Life. Macmillan, 1997.

Pethica, James. Yeatss Poetry, Drama, and Prose: Authorative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. Macmillan, London, 1937.

Read ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ here.

Read ‘The Second Coming’ here.


4 thoughts on “‘Turning and turning’; Yeats’s symbolic gyre.

Add yours

  1. I love when my reading for the evening starts with a diagram from the deepest corners of Yeats’ later years…
    Seriously, though, I love that you’ve gone into further detail on a particular aspect of an earlier post. I think I’ll need to leave this sit for a bit and read it again later on, so I’m seriously impressed that you’ve described it so clearly here.
    Your Yeats posts are always fascinatin, Niamh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much James your encouragement and nice words mean so much! If it helps, I’ve read a million works on his notion of gyres and I’m still trying to process it fully 😂 I’m glad I conveyed it in a more readable way, thank you!


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