Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
“All Souls’ Night” is the last poem in William Butler Yeats’s most important collection of poetry, The Tower (1928). Organized into ten stanzas of ten lines each, it is a meditation, during All Souls’ Night, on several friends who have died. A subtitle indicates that the poem is an epilogue to Yeats’s book A Vision (1925), which is the codification of his theories of magic and history that were given to him by “Unknown Instructors” in the form of automatic writing transcribed by his wife Georgia. As such, the poem is meant to comment on and to celebrate this achievement. The first stanza is primarily descriptive as it sets the scene for the rest of the poem. It is midnight and the “great Christ Church bell” of Oxford University and other lesser bells “sound through the room.” In this special and sacred time, a “ghost may come” to drink of the fumes of the wine that the poem’s speaker has placed there. The ghost is so refined by death that he can only drink the “wine-breath.”
In the next stanza, the speaker explains that he needs a mind that is armed against the “cannon sound” and other intrusions of the world, a mind that “can stay/ Wound in mind’s pondering,/ As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.” The description of souls being wound in the “mummy-cloth” comes from another of Yeats’s important poems, “Byzantium.” He needs this special mind or soul because he has “a marvellous thing to say/ a certain marvellous thing/ None but the living mock.” That “marvellous thing” is contained in his book A Vision.
In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker calls on the spirit of William Thomas Horton, a mystical painter and illustrator who was a casual friend of Yeats a number of years before the poem was written. What he discovers in Horton’s life is a refusal to accept loss and tragedy as something mortals must bear. This refusal to accept such losses is crucial to A Vision, in which Yeats claims to have discovered a system that could explain the mysteries of life and death. Horton refuses to accept the death of his “lady,” and nothing can console him: “Nothing could bring him, when his lady died,/ Anodyne for his love.” The only hope remaining to him is that the “inclemency/ Of that or the next winter would be death.” In the fourth stanza, Yeats amusingly describes how Horton’s thought is “so mixed up” that he cannot tell “Whether of her or God he thought the most.” When Horton turns his mind’s eye upward, it falls “on one sole image,” a vision that makes him “Wild with divinity” and illuminates heaven, “the whole/ Immense miraculous house/ The Bible promised us.” Horton’s vision thus achieves one of the central aims of A Vision: to unite the two disparate worlds of heaven and hell.
The next ghost that Yeats calls up is Florence Farr Emery, an actress of great beauty who, when she grew old and was about to lose that beauty, went to “teach a school” in Africa so those who had known and loved her would not see her decay. She had discovered “the soul’s journey” from a “learned Indian,” in which the soul would find a place where it could be “free and yet fast,/ Being both Chance and Choice.” As Horton had unified heaven and hell, Emery had discovered the final unity that the soul would achieve.
The last ghost called up is a lesser and more controversial one, McGregor Mathers. Yeats describes him as “half a lunatic, half knave.” Although he did not discover any occult knowledge, his “meditations on unknown thought” made “human intercourse grow less and less.” So he, like the others, removed himself from the world to seek occult knowledge. The last part of the poem is Yeats’s celebration of his own achievement in A Vision. He has “mummy truths to tell,” and, wound within these truths, he needs “no other thing.” They stand before the assault of the world and of both heaven and hell.
Forms and Devices
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364
The ten-line stanza is one of the most important formal devices in the poem. The rhyme scheme is abcabcdeed, and the middle lines are iambic trimeter while the first and last lines are iambic pentameter. Yeats maintains this difficult pattern through each stanza and still manages to make the verse appear conversational and casual. Its complex arrangement mirrors that of A Vision to which it is connected. There are a number of sound images in the poem, including “the great Christ Church Bell” and the many “lesser” bells that “sound through the room” in the first stanza. These insistent sound images define the hostile outside world of the living who mock Yeats’s vision; the sounds are contrasted to the quiet of Yeats’s meditation upon the familiar ghosts who, through their quests for occult knowledge, managed to escape the world.
Although “All Souls’ Night” is sparing in its use of the traditional devices of poetry, there are several important metaphors in the poem, the most significant being the comparison of the “mind’s pondering” with being wound “As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.” This suggests that the speaker has knowledge possessed by no one else but the dead. Another metaphor is the “soul’s journey” in the Florence Emery section. She has discovered how the soul whirls around the moon (the cycles of the moon are central to A Vision) and then plunges “into the sun” where it can “sink into its own delight at last.” These metaphors are ways of describing the spiritual truths that these seekers have discovered.
Yeats’s verse portraits of his friends in the middle sections of the poem act as structural parallels and counterpoints to his own visionary achievement. The use of his dead friends in such a manner is a staple that also appears in such poems as “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and “The Municipal Gallery Revisited.” “All Souls’ Night,” then, acts as a meditation on those friends who helped Yeats’s spiritual search in his early life and provided an example of dedication to the occult. However, Yeats outdid those efforts of his friends to discover the system explained in A Vision.