Friday Fiction: An Extract From Her Secret Rose

Her Secret Rose is about the famous love triangle between the Irish poet WB Yeats, his muse Maud Gonne, and her daughter, Iseult. The extract below is doubly fictionalized, being a summary in my novel of events Yeats related in one of his own short stories The Secret Rose. But I believe it also an accurate depiction, from Yeats's perspective, of his dealings with the occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers. Mathers is was one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ceremonial magic order which still exists today. Yeats had a lifelong devotion to the occult; magic was his creative font.

Mathers’s wild red hair, fierce eyes, sensitive tremulous lips, and rough clothes make him look something between a débauché, a saint, and a peasant. “Table tapping!” he says, spitting out the words with great contempt. He murmurs something WB cannot hear, as though to someone invisible. Again he shakes the censer, three times. The room appears to darken, the light from the candles to dim. And also the little gleams of flame on the corners of picture frames, and the bronze divinities around the room.

Mathers leans forward and begins speaking with a rhythmical intonation, and as he speaks WB has to struggle again with the shadows, as of some older night than the night of the sun, which begins to turn the blue of the incense to a heavy purple and make the peacocks glimmer and glow as though each separate color were a living spirit.

He feels himself fall into a profound, dream-like reverie, through which he hears Mathers continuing to speak, as if at great distance. He has stood up and begun to walk to and fro, and becomes in WB’s waking dream like a shuttle weaving an immense purple web, whose folds have begun to fill the room. The room seems to have become inexplicably silent, as though all but the web and the weaving have gone to the far ends of the world.

“They have come to us; they have come to us,” his friend’s voice begins again, loud, insistent, declamatory. “All that have ever been in your reverie, all that you have met with in books. There is Lear, his head still wet with the thunderstorm, and he laughs because you thought yourself an existence, you who are but a shadow, and him a shadow who is an eternal god. “And there is Beatrice, with her lips half parted in a smile, as though all the stars were about to pass away in a sigh of love.

“And there is the mother of the God of humility who cast so great a spell over men that they have tried to unpeople their hearts that he might reign alone, but she holds in her hand the rose whose every petal is a god. “And there—O swiftly she comes!—is Aphrodite under a twilight falling from the wings of numberless sparrows, and about her feet are the gray and white doves.”

The voice fades. WB sees him hold out his left arm and pass his right hand over it as though he stroked the wings of doves, and he is mortally afraid. He makes a violent effort which seems almost to tear him in two.

“You would sweep me away into an indefinite world which fills me with terror,” he shouts at Mathers, with forced determination.“I command you to leave me at once, for your ideas and phantasies are but the illusions that creep like maggots into civilizations when they begin to decline, and into minds when they begin to decay.”

He is about to rise and strike his friend, it feels necessary for his own survival, when the peacocks on the door behind him appear to grow immense and he is drowned in a tide of green and blue and bronze feathers. As he struggles, hopelessly, against the glittering feathers that now cover him completely, he knows he has struggled for hundreds of years, and is conquered at last.

The green and blue and bronze becomes a sea of flame and sweeps him away, and as he is swirled along he hears a voice over his head cry, “The mirror is broken in two pieces,” and another voice answer, “The mirror is broken in four pieces,” and a more distant voice with an exultant voice cry, “The mirror is broken into numberless pieces.”

Now a multitude of pale hands is reaching towards him and strange, gentle faces are bending over him and half-wailing, half-caressing voices are lifting him. He is being lifted out of the tide of flame, and feels his memories, his hopes, his thoughts, his will, everything he holds to be himself melting away, then he seems to rise through numberless companies of beings, each wrapped in his eternal moment, dreaming with dim eyes or half-closed eyelids.

And now he passes beyond these forms and passes into that Death which is Beauty herself, and into that Loneliness which all the multitudes desire without ceasing.

All things that had have ever lived seem to come and dwell in his heart, and he in theirs. He feels he would never again have known mortality or tears, had he not suddenly fallen from the certainty of vision into the uncertainty of dream. He becomes a drop of molten gold falling with immense rapidity, through a night elaborate with stars, and all about him a melancholy exultant wailing.

He falls and falls and falls, and then the wailing is but the wailing of the wind in the chimney, and he wakes to find himself leaning on the table, supporting his head with his hands.

“I will go where you will,” he says then, to Mathers, “and do whatever you bid me. For I have been with eternal things.”

This is an extract from Her Secret Rose. Read more here.

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