The Two Trees

I’ve been brooding over Yeats’s poem “The Two Trees” for several months now, and I thought I might post some of my ideas about it, disconnected though they may be.

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First, for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with it, here is the poem itself. Since it consists of two stanzas which are obviously meant to be contrasted one with the other, often in a direct line-to-line manner, I present them here in columns side-by-side, with some of the more obvious parallels highlighted in boldface.

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart, Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The holy tree is growing there; The demons, with their subtle guile,
From joy the holy branches start, Lift up before us when they pass,
And all the trembling flowers they bear. Or only gaze a little while;
The changing colours of its fruit For there a fatal image grows
Have dowered the stars with merry light; That the stormy night receives,
The surety of its hidden root Roots half hidden under snows,
Has planted quiet in the night; Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
The shaking of its leafy head For all things turn to barrenness
Has given the waves their melody, In the dim glass the demons hold,
And made my lips and music wed, The glass of outer weariness,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee. Made when God slept in times of old.
There the Loves a circle go, There, through the broken branches, go
The flaming circle of our days, The ravens of unresting thought;
Gyring, spiring to and fro Flying, crying, to and fro,
In those great ignorant leafy ways; Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Remembering all that shaken hair Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And how the wingèd sandals dart, And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thine eyes grow full of tender care: Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart. Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

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As a starting point for interpretation, the “two trees” of the title must be assumed to represent the two trees which grew in the midst of the Garden of Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Given that assumption, it is not hard to know which tree is which. The tree of the second stanza, which is offered up to us by “the demons with their subtle guile,” and which is associated with death and with “unresting thought,” is clearly the tree of knowledge. The first tree, with its fruits and flowers and “great ignorant leafy ways,” is the tree of life — which, for Yeats, is also the tree of love. Though I am quite sure that an allusion to Eden is intended, the primary contrast is not so much between life and knowledge as between love and thought. The ignorant Loves go round the first tree; the cruel ravens of thought, round the other.

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The second important thing to notice is that, despite the title, there are not actually two trees in the poem, but only one. The second tree is only a reflection of the first, as seen in the “bitter glass” — externalized. (There is just a hint of this idea in Genesis; Eve refers in the singular to “the tree which is in the midst of the garden,” although we are told that the Lord planted two trees there.) One of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” has it that “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Yeats (a great admirer of Blake)  appears to agree — but he prefers the fool’s point of view! Where the fools sees, the wise man reflects — and instead of a direct presentation of the tree, experiences only a bloodless re-presentation. Reading Yeats in the light of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, we might say that the two “trees” — the two ways of looking at the tree — represent the right- and left-hemisphere views, respectively. The following passage from McGilchrist seems especially relevant:

As things are re-presented in the left hemisphere, it is their use-value that is salient. In the world it brings into being, everything is either reduced to utility or rejected with considerable vehemence, a vehemence that appears to be born of frustration, and the affront to its ‘will to power’. The higher values of Scheler’s hierarchy, all of which require affective or moral engagement with the world, depend on the right hemisphere.

It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as ‘good and evil’, in the Genesis myth of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’.

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The idea of the “bad” tree as the mirror-image of the “good” one brings to mind the motto Daemon est Deus Inversus — which Yeats chose as his “magical name” in the context of his Golden Dawn activities. Yeats is here clearly indebted to H. P. Blavatsky, whom he knew and to whose Theosophical Society he belonged. The following passage is from Mme. Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (Book 1, Part 2, Section 11).

DEMON EST DEUS INVERSUS.

THIS symbolical sentence, in its many-sided forms, is certainly most dangerous and iconoclastic in the face of all the dualistic later religions — or rather theologies — and especially so in the light of Christianity. Yet it is neither just nor correct to say that it is Christianity which has conceived and brought forth Satan. As an “adversary,” the opposing Power required by the equilibrium and harmony of things in Nature — like Shadow to throw off still brighter the Light, like Night to bring into greater relief the Day, and like cold to make one appreciate the more the comfort of heat — SATAN has ever existed. Homogeneity is one and indivisible. But if the homogeneous One and Absolute is no mere figure of speech, and if heterogeneity in its dualistic aspect, is its offspring — its bifurcous shadow or reflection — then even that divine Homogeneity must contain in itself the essence of both good and evil. If “God” is Absolute, Infinite, and the Universal Root of all and everything in Nature and its universe, whence comes Evil or D’Evil if not from the same “Golden Womb” of the absolute? Thus we are forced either to accept the emanation of good and evil, of Agathodaemon and Kakodaemon as offshoots from the same trunk of the Tree of Being, or to resign ourselves to the absurdity of believing in two eternal Absolutes!

I believe that the bolded portions make it clear that Yeats is consciously alluding to Mme. Blavatsky’s ideas in his poem.

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Another text which seems relevant to “The Two Trees” is the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which contrasts love (agape or “charity”) with knowledge — first in the 8th chapter (“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth”) and then, more extensively, in the famous 13th:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. . . . For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

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Though it obviously could not have been an influence, I find Frost’s poem “Bond and Free” to make an excellent companion piece to “The Two Trees.”

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about–
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

Here again love and thought are contrasted, and again there is the suggestion that they offer two views of what is essentially the same thing. Everything that the second tree offers can be possessed by “simply staying” and gazing in one’s own heart.” While Yeats takes an almost entirely negative view of the second tree, allowing only that it might be permissible to gaze on it “a little while,” Frost comes closer to accepting thought as a valid path, granting that “his gains in heaven are what they are.”

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Yeats’s reference to “tender eyes” bring to mind the biblical description of Jacob’s first wife Leah — who, for Dante and others, represents the active life, as contrasted with the contemplative life personified by Rachel. (I don’t pretend to understand the biblical grounds for these associations — Martha and Mary would seem to be much more natural symbols — but this symbolic use of Leah and Rachel is nevertheless well-established, and Yeats would have known about it.) Dante obviously consider’s Rachel’s to be the higher path, though Leah’s is also valid (he explicitly says as much in the Convivio) — but he depicts Rachel as gazing continuously on her own face in a glass, while Leah gathers flowers! Is this another conscious allusion by Yeats — and does he, contra Dante, prefer Leah’s way to Rachel’s?

But perhaps there is meant to be something of both Leah and Rachel in each of the trees — the “tender eyes” appear in both stanzas, after all. The active life appears as direct, concrete engagement with the world in the first stanza; and as the unresting pursuit of fultilities in the second. And two different forms of contemplation — gazing in one’s own heart versus gazing in the bitter glass — of course form the central contrast of the poem.

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