Yeats and Taoism (1): To Maria Motxobe Legarreta

Article excerpt

This essay explores the connections between some of the metaphysical beliefs reflected in the work of W. B. Yeats and the main ideas of Taoist philosophy, paying particular attention to the links between Yin Yang theory and the system of the Gyres developed by Yeats. A brief introduction to the principles of Taoism will be followed by an exploration of A Vision, Yeats's s central philosophical work, which began to take shape in 1917. This will be followed by a brief mention of some examples of Yeats's s work which predate the development of his Gyre theory but suggest the use of related ideas. Two poems written at the time of the composition of A Vision will be considered then in some detail--'An Irish Airman foresees his Death' (written in 1918) will be analyzed in relation to Taoism's approach to mortality, and 'The Second Coming' (written in 1919) will be considered in the light of the connections between Yin Yang theory and Yeats's historicism. This will be further followed by some suggestions of other elements in the work of Yeats that are reminiscent of Taoist imagery and beliefs, focusing on his poetry. Then, a conclusion will be drawn, bringing together all the issues addressed in the essay. Throughout, references will be made to sources of Taoist influence available to Yeats, with an emphasis on the main Taoist texts: Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Chuang Chou's Chuang Tzu.


Taoism is the far-eastern school of philosophy that has been more influential in the West. Its main ideas are centered round a universal energy or life-force, known as Tao, as well as an appraisal of softness, humility, frugality, and indifference to the affairs of the world. Taoism is also associated with the belief in a balance (moral and physical) of interlocked opposites that generate each other through their constant motion. This last idea is connected to the Yin Yang school of thought, which predated Taoism but seems to have been partly absorbed (or adapted) by Taoist philosophy. No specific writings from the original Yin Yang school are extant, (2) but popular perception in the West tends to equate Taoism and Yin Yang theory. Although this is not accurate, (3) it suggests that fin fang theory may have been introduced to Europe through Taoist texts such as the Tao Te Ching, a text from about the third century BCE (4) which remains the single more translated book from Chinese. (5)

The word Tao, most often translated as 'the way [of the world]', refers as we have seen to a universal life-force or energy. On the other hand, fin and Yang originally referred respectively to the sunless and the sunny sides of a mountain, (6) and later came to be associated with pairs of opposites such as female and male, cold and hot, soft and hard. The original concept of Yin Yang possibly developed to encompass every thing and being in existence, as well as its manifestations; each thing and being, in this system, is one side of a binary. By the time the idea is incorporated into the Tao Te Ching, the mere acknowledgement of universal opposites seems to have transformed into a theory about their interaction. According to this view, in terms of physics Tao can be seen as the essential substance, and Yin fang as the description of its properties. However, the main concern of the Tao Te Ching is not science (in the sense that early Greek philosophy can be said to be science), but human behavior, set in harmony with nature. As summarized by D C Lau:

The movement of the tao is described as 'turning back'. This is usually interpreted as meaning that the tao causes all things to undergo a process of cyclic change. What is weak inevitably develops into something strong, but when this process of development reaches its limit, the opposite process of decline sets in and what is strong once again becomes something weak, and decline reaches its lowest limit only to give way once more to development. Thus there is an endless cycle of development and decline. …


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