William Butler Yeats, Irish playwright and poet, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, has been heralded as arguably one of the greatest English language authors. Yeats was a Symbolist poet in that his work contained symbols or imagery that was designed to evoke some emotion or allude to some idea. His name has also been mentioned among other famous men as being Freemasons, however, there is no record of his having officially joined a Masonic lodge during his life.
Nonetheless, Yeats was a known occultist and student of mysticism and magic. In 1890, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and spent the next 35 years of his life studying magic and Hermeticism. In 1925, he authored A Vision, a philosophical and theosophical tract explaining his views on mysticism. Several years later in 1933, he published a collection of poems titled The Winding Stair, which included a particularly well‐known symbolic poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”1 A Masonic reader of this poem cannot help but see numerous allusions to Masonic themes, symbols, and teachings.
Yeats begins “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” with the Soul calling us “to the winding ancient stair” (1), in order to focus our minds on the challenging road ahead. We begin as rough, unfinished, or even damaged structures, like the ancient battlements referenced in the stanza. But the journey will require man to concentrate and face “that quarter where all thought is done,” in other words: death, is the common equalizer for humanity. The Soul views this as the ultimate destination for humans. It ends by asking a potentially rhetorical question: Who can examine their own soul and determine the dark from the light (the bad from the good)?
For Masons, this first stanza of the poem should remind the reader of the Middle Chamber lecture, where the journey via a winding staircase is laid out before the candidate. Freemasonry consists of many journeys, some short and others last a lifetime. Regardless of the length, however, the Soul in this first section admonishes us that the ascent will require our entire concentration, most notably on what lies beyond life: death and the afterlife. In asking “Who can distinguish darkness from the soul,” (8) Yeats implies God/Deity, but we as Masons should also imagine he is asking if humans ourselves can eventually make this distinction. The duality of the human soul, the darkness and the light, is one of the central teachings of the Craft degrees of Masonry and finds its way into many of the teachings of the appendant bodies as well. The Soul’s question takes on greater significance for Masons as a result.
The Self responds in the second stanza of the poem, arguing that the past of history and present of the material world should not be sacrificed for the benefit of the impossible goals of the Soul’s tomorrow. Yeats uses “Sato’s ancient blade” as the image of a man’s family. Yeats had spent time in Japan, during which a friend named Sato had gifted him a sword that had been in his family for more than half a millennium. We can equate the sword with a man’s inheritance, both material, but also intellectual, “unspotted by the centuries”. The Self argues this legacy is just as important as our spiritual considerations. For some of us, joining the Fraternity was partly driven by family and a desire to continue the tradition. Posterity and tradition can be powerful motivators for many Brethren. This, the Self states, is not something to take lightly and is not necessarily separate from what the Soul is contemplating.
Other portions of this stanza allude to this Masonic link. In referencing the ability of the sword, adorned with the “flowering, silken” embroidery to still provide protection even after all these years, Yeats tells us that the Self and its temporal inheritance, even if imperfect and eventually old and worn, provides a benefit to the Soul of physical encirclement and protection. As Masons, we are taught this link between the spiritual and physical applies to all men in the universe, and that while the Soul may be the entity that exists for eternity, it cannot reach its full potential of enlightenment without the Self.
The third stanza of the poem belongs to the Soul, who responds to the Self by asking which of them is better suited for achieving the ultimate goal: immortality. “Why,” it posits, “should the imagination of a man / Long past his prime remember things that are / Emblematical of love and war?” In other words, how is it the soul can hold these dual memories and reflections at the same time? The physical body cannot do this. While the Self can allow us to enjoy and take advantage of the benefits of material life, the Soul alone can help us contemplate that “ancestral night” and imagine things beyond the physical realm and “deliver from the crime of death and birth.”
To this, the Self says the duality of the human soul occurs in its material existence as well. The prose here juxtaposes symbols of life and light (flowers, embroidery, and the color purple) with allusions to death and the night (the tower). It is this imperfection of human life that makes it worth living, the Self intimates, that we may continue to live perhaps eventually revoking the “charter to commit the crime once more,” and enjoying immortality beyond the physical. This should speak to us as Masons, for this is the essential process whereby we polish and work the rough ashlars of our lives to fashion them into living stones for that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven.
But Yeats gives the final word in this section of the poem to the Soul, which belies his own focus on the spiritual and occult during his life. We return to “that quarter” mentioned in the first stanza, an allusion to the afterlife. And like the earlier mention, where “all thought is done” , here Yeats writes that in this quarter a soul is filled with such awe “and falls into the basin of the mind / That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind”. Our journey to the afterlife renders all physical senses, all human material understanding, even our honed intellects, moot. Death, as we Masons know, is the great equalizer.
This is the soul’s ultimate advantage over the human body: one day the human body will cease to exist, yet the soul, if properly prepared, can live on in a more illuminated state. This is intensely Masonic and alchemical prose, as the immortality of the soul is one of the most central teachings within Masonry. If the soul is immortal, then death is merely another transformation of the material into the ethereal, and life is but one small part of a person’s journey toward that perfect state, exemplified by the perfect ashlar.
At this point, the Soul departs and we hear from it no more in the remainder of the poem. Presumably, it has ascended into the spiritual plane, leaving the Self to converse with itself and to contemplate its own existence from this point forward. But we should not view this as the less important section of the poem. Instead, the second half of the poem can be read as a meditation on a man’s Masonic journey from rough ashlar towards perfect ashlar and the illumination gained along the way.
The second section’s first stanza addresses this exact premise. This stanza is essential a series of rhetorical questions. “A living man is blind and drinks his drop. \ What matter if the ditches are impure? \ What matter if I live it all once more?” In other words, every person lives their life in a state of ignorance or blindness. And despite the physical pleasures and material enjoyments available in life, what is the greater point of life if everything lacks permanence thanks to death? And if there is a greater meaning, how do we find it?
Yeats rubs salt in our wound by adding age into the equation. Time is a one‐way journey in the material world and maturation can be an uncomfortable or even painful process for men, especially when physical growth far outpaces spiritual growth. “The unfinished man and his pain / Brought face to face with his own clumsiness”. As Masons, we are tasked with pursuing our own journeys, making our own progress and advancement, and gaining our own Masonic light. It is a lifelong process, and therein lies the rub. Our spiritual journey is limited by our physical lives. This is an issue central to Masonry: giving men the tools to grow beyond the physical limitations imposed by our material existence even as the sands continue to pass through the hourglass. There is no time to waste.
“How in the name of Heaven can he escape / That defiling and disfigured shape” (50‐51) the poem continues. How can we hope to transcend the imperfections of the physical world, when most people remain firmly tethered in it? The pressure to bend to the accepted norms of society, to place consumption and accumulation ahead of spiritual well‐being, and to strive for that perfect ashlar, can be overwhelming. But at the end, when death comes, “…what’s the good of an escape / If honor find him in the wintry blast?”, Yeats asks. Masonry is the answer to this dilemma for many men. Masonry and its teachings make physical life rewarding beyond material pleasures, as it uses our finite time in this physical universe to prepare us for the infinite time after death.
Yeats uses the remainder of the poem to add his own view on these questions. Yeats was clear in his other writing that he was unsure if there was an afterlife, to which all human souls can transcend upon physical death. However, he did believe in reincarnation; that a soul was itself immortal and would transition from one physical form to another over many lifetimes. “I am content to live it all again/ And again” he writes. Masonry espouses the immortality of the human soul as well, and while many Western religious traditions teach an afterlife, not every faith or doctrine does (Buddhism being perhaps the most well‐known). Thus Christian (or Muslim or Jewish) Masons can agree with our Buddhist brethren (and with Yeats) that our souls are immortal, even if we differ in our belief on their ultimate destinations post‐mortem.
The rest of the poem is largely optimistic then, just as the Master’s lecture in the third degree ends on an optimistic note, despite focusing on death. Yeats writes:
In other words, our physical lives should not be seen as sentences to be served, but as time well‐spent learning, adapting, and preparing ourselves for the next phase of existence. We should memento mori and live to the fullest, for we are lucky creatures indeed to be able to experience the beauties of life while knowing there is still more to come beyond the grave.
1 William Butler Yeats. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Poetry Foundation, 1933,
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43294/a‐dialogue‐of‐self‐and‐soul. All line references in this paper are taken from this poem.
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