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Occult Correlations in “He Bids His Beloved Be At Peace” by William Butler Yeats

I hear the Shadowy Horses, their long manes a-shake,
Their hoofs heavy with tumult, their eyes glimmering white;
The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night,
The East her hidden joy before the morning break,
The West weeps in pale dew and sighs passing away,
The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire:
O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay:
Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.

Yeats was a member of the Golden Dawn, and therefore very familiar with Hermeticism and occult philosophy. This poem contains a weaving of occult correlations, and to begin to understand the poem, you need to be aware of the connections.

Four is the key number in this poem: four directions, four elements, four vanities, and four horsemen. Yeats establishes a correlation between elements, directions, and emotions, and then implies a symbolic connection with the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

In Western Hermetic thought, the four directions are associated with the four elements as follows:

  • North – Earth
  • East – Air
  • West – Water
  • South – Fire

Next, we need to factor in the four associated emotional states:

  • North – Earth – Sleep
  • East – Air – Hope
  • West – Water – Dream
  • South – Fire –Desire

It appears that Yeats viewed these emotional states as ills, states of being that are detrimental to the development and advancement of humanity.

Finally, let’s connect these with the four horsemen:

  • North – Earth – Sleep – Third Horseman (Famine) on black horse
  • East – Air – Hope – First Horseman (Pestilence) on white horse
  • West – Water – Dream – Fourth Horseman (Death) on pale horse
  • South – Fire –Desire – Second Horseman (War) on red horse

At this point we see the pattern emerge, and the pattern is reflected in the lines of the poem.

The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night,
The East her hidden joy before the morning break,
The West weeps in pale dew and sighs passing away,
The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire:

So what does all this mean? What was Yeats ultimately trying to convey? I think he was attempting to provide us with a map delineating the progression of the apocalypse, both on an individual level as well as a global level. We begin our journey with hope, but this leads us to desire, then we become tired and sleep, and ultimately, we pass away and slip into the eternal dream.

I hope that you found this post interesting and that it helped you to form some of your own interpretations of this poem. Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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