Men dance on deathless feet

Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), William Butler Yeats, unknown woman by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), William Butler Yeats, unknown woman by Lady Ottoline Morrell

William Butler Yeats’s fascination with mysticism and the occult is well documented, particularly the influence of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. Yeats said, “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” WH Auden noted the, “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.”

The Vedanta had a profound influence on Yeats, particularly evident in his prose work A Vision, a twenty year exercise of automatic writing. Through Theosophy Yeats met Mohini Chatterjee, writer of Man: Fragments of a Forgotten History:

Following the mystic idealists, we may divide the whole range of existence into different states of consciousness, with their appropriate objects or functions. According to these philosophers, existence is coextensive with consciousness; absolute unconsciousness is absolute negation. Now, it is within ordinary experience that consciousness manifests itself in three different states, namely, the consciousness of a man awake, the consciousness of a man dreaming, and the consciousness of one in a state of dreamless slumber. The first two states are recognized by all, the last requires a few words of explanation. It is true, in waking moments one has some conception of the dreaming consciousness, but none at all of the consciousness of dreamless slumber; its existence, nevertheless, is proved by the fact that the identity of the ego is never lost, and the beginning and conclusion of such slumber are strung together in consciousness. Had there been a cessation of all consciousness for one moment there is no conceivable reason for its reappearance. Besides these three states, all mystics hold, as no doubt is the case, that there is a fourth state of consciousness, which may be called transcendental consciousness. A glimpse of this state may be obtained in the abnormal condition of exstasis.

Later in his life, Yeats would bring Chatterjee to mind with the eponymous poem:

Chatterji, Mohini Mohun

Chatterji, Mohini Mohun

Mohini Chatterjee

I asked if I should pray.
But the Brahmin said,
‘pray for nothing, say
Every night in bed,
‘I have been a king,
I have been a slave,
Nor is there anything.
Fool, rascal, knave,
That I have not been,
And yet upon my breast
A myriad heads have lain.
That he might Set at rest
A boy’s turbulent days
Mohini Chatterjee
Spoke these, or words like these,
I add in commentary,
‘Old lovers yet may have
All that time denied —
Grave is heaped on grave
That they be satisfied —
Over the blackened earth
The old troops parade,
Birth is heaped on Birth
That such cannonade
May thunder time away,
Birth-hour and death-hour meet,
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.’

2 thoughts on “Men dance on deathless feet

  1. Marvelous! How did we all — people, mystics, poets — become so sickly dull within a mere 100 years? Never mind. I know.

    Terrific photos, and a delightful PDF by “the Two Chelâs,” too: “Strange phantom, freak of fancy perhaps,” was the thought he saw photographed on the brain of his listener, and instantly he pointed to the wall above him, when there appeared sentence in quaint script, which translated,reads thus: – “There is no charity in the West for the unknown doctrine.”

    Love this post. Thank you, Anthony. What brought it to mind?

  2. Thank you, DZ.

    Yes, how immeasurably dull we have all become. It is a heartbreaking and unstoppable decline.

    I’ve been rereading (dipping into) Yeat’s ‘A Vision’, which has long intrigued me. I came across a reference to the influence (unacknowledged) of the Upanishads on this particular poem. It was a short hop from there to the fascinating Chatterjee.

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