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From: Peter Stephenson <pws@ifh.de>
Subject: (urth) Connections between Wolfe and Yeats
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 1998 11:21:09 +0100

[Posted from URTH, a mailing list about Gene Wolfe's New Sun and other works]

As a fan of both Wolfe and W.B. Yeats, I've been struck by some
parallels.  I could easily be convinced that they are simply
parallels, and not direct influences, but they seem to be close enough
to be interesting.  Here's what I've noticed.

The background seems to be that both Yeats and Wolfe are in some sense
mystics.  For example, Wolfe says, in Nutria's interview, that he
believes the pagan (pre-Christian) powers are real, just less worthy
than the Christian ones.  For Yeats it was perhaps more explicit:  the
more you look at it, the more it seems he believed in everything up to
and including fairies at the bottom of the garden.  I mention this
because, if the things I've noticed are simply parallels, it would
(together with a shared interest in things like the Cabbala) give some
kind of basis for that.

Yeats' mystic scheme, by the way, is detailed in a book he wrote
called `A Vision', which I haven't read, so I'm relying on secondary

Point one (the most tenuous, I would say) is oscillating universes.
It seems one of Wolfe's ideas is that our universe reappears again and
again in different forms, slightly different, and that that may
explain the apparent time-travel aspects in the Book.  This recalls
Yeats' `gyres', which were cycles of nature, alternately good and bad.
They weren't on anything like the same scale, though: in the
well-known poem `The Second Coming' (it was quoted on `Bablyon 5', so
that proves it :-)) he writes of the `rough beast' which is the
equivalent (but antithesis) of Christ in the `contracting gyre' which
brings the current Christian era to a close.  I can't think of an
exact Wolfe parallel for that, but it's clear that the plot is not
explicitly about Christ anyway.

Point two is Byzantium.  Wolfe's world, it is now official, is
Byzantine in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense.  Yeats
made much of Byzantium, too: two of his best known (and most
brilliant) poems are `Sailing to Byzantium' and `Byzantium' itself.
He thought of Byzantium as somehow the place where the soul reaches
its perfection: the first poem describes the soul's journey, and the
second its purification (this is a gross oversimplification, of
course).  He also said that he thought of the Byzantium just before
Justinian closed Plato's academy as in some ways the perfect world.
It's almost as if Wolfe has taken this up (though I certainly don't
pretend he would think of his world as perfect).

Point three is masks.  Yeats had a `Doctrine of the Mask', whose basic
meaning seemed to be that each aspect of a person was reflected in
someone else who was his `mask'; the characters Owen Aherne and
Michael Robartes who occur in his poems are masks for various aspects
of Yeats himself.  He occasionally (but not so often) refers to real
masks; there is a poem called `The Mask'.

In Wolfe, we find plenty of literal masks.  Severian wears one as a
torturer; the hierodules wear masks; at the episode of the ridotto in
Thrax, everyone except Severian is disguised.  But one can think of
all these moments when Severian is compared to other characters as
showing `masks' of him in the Yeatsian sense: apart from Christ, there
is King Arthur in some of the Terminus Est references, Faust when he
is tempted by the undine (with the quotation from Marlowe), and other
potential masks in the characters in the stories in the brown book
(Romulus/Mowgli, Theseus, etc.).  These seem to stand in a very
similar relation to Severian to that in which Aherne and Robartes are
to Yeats.

One final point: the world of Yeats has long seemed to me similar to
Urth in one respect, that neither author makes the full distinction
between symbols and the thing symbolised.  In Yeats, towers don't just
*stand* for strength, for being solitary or pensive, for the
attributes of night --- they actually seem to possess this as an
intrinsic aspect.  Urth seems to be built in a similar way.  The
Botanic Gardens, for example, don't just stand for various aspects of
the progress or non-progress of time, they actually embody it

Anyway, that's what's occurred to me. i) Clutching at straws;
ii) Interesting parallels; iii) something more?


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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