Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

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The interest in matters mystical, and in their relation to destruction, derangement, or apocalypse is a strong element in William Butler Yeats’s poetry, early and late. Owen Aherne, protagonist of “The Tables of the Law,” is an important speaker in poems central to the Yeats canon, as well as playing a prominent part in A Vision (1925, 1937), the poet’s prose summary of his own mystical divinations. The story’s emphasis falls on the protagonist’s daring, longing, loneliness, and ultimate desolation. The elapse of ten years between the close of the first part of the story and the opening of the second underlines a preoccupation with initiation and aftermath, with longing and its consequences. It also suggests that Aherne’s experience will forever remain a mystery. It necessarily remains beyond the realm of collective and typical experience. The remoteness of Aherne’s spiritual adventures is accentuated by the obvious psychological distance between him and the narrator during their second encounter. Reappearing in the second half of the story as a haunted, and haunting, travesty of his original ambitions, Aherne is less a neo-Mosaic legislator than an alarming caution against spiritual overreaching.

The quest for and desire to codify a new spiritual dispensation is a lofty goal, appropriately reserved for Aherne, “the supreme type of our race.” However, for all of his learning, intensity, and commitment, he cannot escape his human limitations. His shockingly misguided but strangely exultant efforts to do so leave him the prisoner of an unending tragic dream, a hell of his own making.

The sense of ardent pursuit, the conception of an extreme, the possibility of swift, temporary uplift followed rapidly by a condition of endless deterioration and damnation—these and various ancillary preoccupations constitute the fabric of “The Tables of the Law.” Such interests lend the story a distinct fin de siècle tinge. Aherne—in effect, a mind at the end of its tether—is reminiscent of such protagonists as the Duc des Esseintes of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s A rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922) and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

Aherne conveys much perturbation of spirit. Despite excellent cultural credentials, he is rootless and disaffected. He is at pains to distinguish himself from “those . . . who have only the world.” However, his radical revision of contemporary orthodoxy in the name of one fabricated by himself and Joachim of Flora leads only to his coming face-to-face with himself. Aherne’s inability to renounce or transcend his own nature, his incapacity to break the bonds of worldliness, his failure to inhabit a realm of pure spirit reveal a mind unable to consolidate its own impulses. “The Tables of the Law,” then, may be seen as a precursor of the vision of cultural and spiritual dissolution central to the Modernist movement, a vision to which the more mature Yeats bore witness even as he abhorred it.

The story also strikes a contemporary note by appearing to create an association between decay of energy and decadence. Aherne is a would-be mythmaker, a seeker of paradise, a trustee of a sacred text, a sage who can declare, but not finally uphold, the belief that “the world only exists to be a tale in the ears of coming generations.” Clearly, he possesses all the qualifications to bring out the revolution in consciousness that he envisages. However, the greater his abilities, the more catastrophic their deployment. The more of himself he puts into his visionary enterprise, the more significant his losses. He ends up in exile, which in this case is a condition of spiritual entropy.

In addition, and perhaps as a corollary, the story offers a covert but elaborate reproof to the imagination. Here Yeats seems to be worrying tacitly about a dictum of one of his own imaginative ancestors, William Blake: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Aherne’s imaginative excess may lead him to a more profound assessment of his human destiny, but his habitation does not have the sense of ease and scope that “palace” and “wisdom” usually connote. However, Aherne has appointed himself seer, visionary, and seeker after strange gods, offices frequently arrogated to themselves by poets, particularly those of the Romantic tradition, as Yeats was. Ultimately, however, the imagination may not overrule the world. To coexist with it is a sufficient challenge.