Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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10 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

10 responses to “Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

  1. I thought of Druidic tree lore rather than Eden, but Yeats may well have intended both. I’m not an expert on Druidic lore, but they had holy trees like the oak, and the elder tree was supposed to be haunted by fairies or demons. Those long-lived fairies could contrast painfully with human mortality. To me, the first verse speaks of embracing love and wisdom, and the second of depression and doubt, and it seems to be addressed to a specific person rather than to the reader. That’s the beauty of Yeats’s poetry. It evokes different things to different readers, the way mythology does. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I love the incantatory power of its lines.

    • Hi Amber. Thanks for sharing your insights. Yes, I totally agree that Yeats was likely alluding to multiple myths. That is what makes his work so interesting. Have an awesome day.

  2. As an interesting aside, my daughter sent me a poem by a “dog” with the conjecture that they view us as we view the long-lived elves. It was as lovely in its own way as this… though obviously on a different level. Makes you think, nonetheless.

  3. Thank you, Jeff. These words evoke deep-sensing, from which words don’t easily arise. Some years ago, I came across the work of Kathleen Raines and The Temenos Academy that she founded. She was greatly and deeply inspired by Yeats (and Blake, too, among others). Reading this reminded me of Raines as well. Always interesting how things spiral around like that. 🙂

    • Yes, and as they get closer to the center of the spiral, things go faster. I was also thinking about Yeats’ Second Coming, where the center of the gyre cannot hold and thing fall apart. We may be entering that phase of our evolution. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment Jamie. TTYS.

  4. Thank s so much for this! Going back to digest. Trees and Yeats fill me up!

  5. The tree is a wonderful image because, as I’m sure you know, many schools of wisdom and self-development say that the higher it grows, the deeper and more extensive become its roots. What a great symbol. To attain the highest we have to ‘dig thru the dirt’ of our personal unconscious (like that Peter Gabriel song). Only by gradually coming to know ourselves better can we go higher. And as we go higher, we’re able to know ourselves even better. And so it goes… a kind of upwardly mobile reciprocity. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. The tree is a very powerful symbol, hence its appearance in so many traditions. Thanks for tying it in with Peter Gabriel. That particular song is important to me and inspired me during a difficult period of transition. Cheers!

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