University of Virginia Library

Yeats's Vision and "The Two Trees"
Robert Mortenson

Much has been written about Yeats's practice of revising his early poetry. Whether we consider this revision a pernicious practice or only the province of the mature poet-craftsman, the fact remains that many of Yeats's early poems have been revised. All this has been faithfully recorded in the valuable Allt-Alspach Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Much also has been written about A Vision: some deny that this esoteric system has any value, while others find it the key to all Yeats's later work.

A study of the early poems, before The Wild Swans at Coole, to discover what influence, if any, the Vision system had on the revision of these poems[1] reveals that only "The Two Trees" (Var., p. 134 or C. P., p. 47), first


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published in 1892, contains a revision clearly influenced by A Vision. Before 1929 the poem read
There, through bewildered branches, go
Winged Loves borne on in gentle strife,
Tossing and tossing to and fro
The flaming circle of our life. (ll. 13-16)
In 1929 this passage was changed to
There the Loves — a circle — go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
(dashes in l. 13 omitted in 1933)
It is not surprising that Yeats wished to change the original lifeless lines to a more startling, precise image in a poem which was Maud Gonne's favorite and which he especially valued on that account. Lines 13 and 14 of the earlier version seem cluttered with adjectives — bewildered, winged, gentle — besides containing a defective image, perhaps even a pathetic fallacy. The later version is clean and concise; "great ignorant leafy ways" seems a more exacting and more highly connotative phrase than "bewildered branches." The former "flaming circle of our life" (with the change of the last word to "days" for purposes of rhyme) becomes identified, in the revised passage, with the Vision's "Great Wheel" and with the system's principal symbol of the double vortex or intersecting gyres. Thus "gyring, spiring" is substituted for the much less effective "tossing and tossing." Even the change in the order of the lines seems to be an improvement. The revision in this instance is a happy one; the sense has not been materially changed, but greater power is achieved in the later version.[2]


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Peter Allt, in his thorough study of the revision of the earlier poetry,[3] does not comment on this particular poem, nor does he seem to provide for this kind of revision in his useful categorizing of the revisions. Russell K. Alspach in an important article, "Some Textual Problems in Yeats," does discuss the revision of "The Two Trees" (ll. 13-20), designating the later version "a clearer statement of the desirability-of-innocence theme so superbly expressed ten years earlier in 'A Prayer for My Daughter.'"[4] Alspach does not, however, relate the revised lines to A Vision.

"The Two Trees," then, is an unusual, even unique, example in the early poetry of a poem revised with A Vision in mind. In addition, the revision helps to reinforce the point that the system is not merely important for interpretation; A Vision provided metaphors or images for Yeats's poetry. His "spirits" had told him they had come to give him "metaphors for poetry," and Yeats himself in a letter to Olivia Shakespeare in 1929 wrote ". . . I believe I shall have a poetical rebirth for as I write about my cones and gyres all kinds of images come before me."[5] In the case of "The Two Trees" the system supplied a revision providing a new and superior image for a favorite poem, an image that most of us would prefer to the original.



The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) forms a convenient stopping point in this case because several of its poems are included in A Vision itself, while others reveal the influence of the system in their genesis. Even certain poems in Responsibilities clearly anticipate the future Vision study.


Two other poems which might possibly belong to the category of Vision changes should be briefly mentioned. Lines 21-22 of "To Ireland in the Coming Times" (Var., p. 137 or C.P., p. 49) were revised in 1925 from

Of the dim wisdoms old and deep,
That God gives unto man in sleep.
Of things discovered in the deep
Where only body's laid asleep.
The revision seems to be a clarification based on his experience of communicating with spirits through the mediumship of his sleeping wife. Probably he also wished to remove any reference to God as inconsistent with his later beliefs. The second possibility is "The Man who Dreamed of Fairyland" (Var., p. 126 or C.P., p. 43). In 1929 ll. 21-23 were changed from
And how beneath those three times blessed skies
A Danaan fruitage makes a shower of moons,
And as it falls awakens leafy tunes;
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
In A Vision the dancer is mentioned in conjunction with the 13th sphere and the concept of freedom. The dancer appears in a few Vision poems (e.g., "Michael Robartes and the Dancer"); thus this revision could be considered a Vision image. "The Two Trees," however, is the only poem which was unquestionably influenced by A Vision in its revision.


G. D. P. Allt, "Yeats and the Revision of His Early Verse," Hermathena, LXIV (November 1944), 90-101; LXV (May 1945), 40-57. For a study of the revision of Yeats's later work see Marion Witt, "A Competition for Eternity: Yeats's Revision of His Later Poems," PMLA, LXIV (1949), 40-58.


Russell K. Alspach, "Some Textual Problems in Yeats," Studies in Bibliography, IX (1957), 60.


The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (1955), p. 764.