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ROSA ALCHEMICA

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

                                                 I

    A FEW years ago an extraordinary religious frenzy took hold
upon the peasantry of a remote Connemara headland ; and
a number of eccentric men and women, who had turned an
old custom-house into a kind of college, were surprised at
prayer, as it was then believed, by a mob of fishermen, stone
masons, and small farmers, and beaten to death with stones,
which were heaped up close at hand to be ready for the next breach in the
wave-battered pier.  Vague rumours of pagan ceremonies and mysterious
idolatries had for some time drifted among the cabins ; and the indignation of
the ignorant had been further inflamed by a priest, unfrocked for drunkenness,
who had preached at the road-side of the secret coming of the Antichrist.  I
first heard of these unfortunates, on whom the passion for universal ideas,
which distinguishes the Celtic and Latin races, was to bring so dreadful a
martyrdom, but a few weeks before the end ; and the change in my opinions
which has made my writings so much less popular and intelligible, and driven
me to the verge of taking the habit of St. Dominic, was brought about by the
strange experiences I endured in their presence.

    I had just published “Rosa Alchemica,” a little work on the alchemists,
somewhat in the manner of Sir Thomas Browne, and had received many
letters from believers in the arcane sciences, upbraiding what they called my
timidity, for they could not believe so evident sympathy but the sympathy of
the artist, which is half pity, for everything which has moved menʼs hearts in
any age.  I had discovered, early in my researches, that their doctrine was no
merely chemical phantasy but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the
elements, and to man himself; and that they sought to fashion gold out of
common metals merely as part of an universal transmutation of all things into
some divine and imperishable substance ; and this enabled me to make my
little book a fanciful reverie over the transmutation of life into art, and a cry
of measureless desire for a world made wholly of essences.

    I was sitting, dreaming of what I had written, in my house in one of the
old parts of Dublin, a house my ancestors had made almost famous through

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    57

their part in the politics of the city, and their friendships with the famous
men of their generations ; and was feeling an unwonted happiness at having
at last accomplished a long cherished design, and made my rooms an
expression of this favourite doctrine.  The portraits, of more historical
than artistic interest, had gone ; and old Flemish tapestry, full of the blue
and bronze of peacocks, fell over the doors, and shut out all common history
and all unbeautiful activity ; and now, I repeated to myself, when I
looked at my Crivelli, and pondered on the rose in the hand of the
Virgin, wherein the form was so delicate and precise that it seemed more like
a thought than a flower, or at the gray dawn and rapturous faces of my
Francesca, I knew all a Christianʼs ecstasy without his slavery to rule and
custom ; when I pondered over the antique bronze gods and goddesses, which
I had mortgaged my house to buy, I had all a paganʼs delight in various
beauty, and without his terror at sleepless destiny, and his labour with many
sacrifices : and I had only to go to my book-shelf, where every book was
bound in leather, stamped with intricate ornament, and of a carefully chosen
colour ; Shakespeare in the orange of the glory of the world, Dante in the dull
red of his anger, Milton in the blue-gray of his formal calm ; and I could
experience what I would of human passions without their bitterness and with-
out satiety.  I had gathered about me all gods because I believed in none, and
experienced every pleasure because I gave myself to none, but held myself
apart, individual, indissoluble, a mirror of polished steel.  I looked in the
triumph of this imagination at the birds of Hera, glowing in the firelight as
though they were wrought of jewels ; and to my mind, for which symbolism
was a necessity, they seemed the door-keepers of my world, shutting out all
that was not of as affluent a beauty as their own ; and for a moment I thought
as I had thought in so many other moments, that it was possible to rob life of
every bitterness except the bitterness of death ; and then a thought which had
followed this thought, time after time, filled me with a passionate sorrow. All
those forms ; that Madonna with her brooding purity, those rapturous faces
singing in the morning light, those bronze divinities with their passionless
dignity, those wild shapes rushing from despair to despair ; belonged to a
divine world wherein I had no part ; and every experience, however profound,
every perception, however exquisite, would bring me the bitter dream of a
limitless energy I could never know ; and even in my most perfect moment I
would be two selves, the one watching with heavy eyes the other’s moment of
content.  I had heaped about me the gold born on the crucibles of others, but
the supreme dream of the alchemists, the transmutation of the weary heart

58                                  THE SAVOY

into a weariless spirit, was as far from me as, I doubted not, it had been from
them also.  I turned to my last purchase, a set of alchemical apparatus, which,
the dealer in the Rue le Peletier had assured me, once belonged to Raymond
Lully, and, as I joined the alembic to the athanor, and laid the lavacrum maræ
at their side, I understood the alchemical doctrine, that all beings, divided from
the great deep, where the spirits wander one and yet a multitude, are weary ; and
sympathized, in the pride of my connoisseurship, with the consuming thirst for
destruction which made the alchemists veil under his symbols of lions and
dragons, of eagles and ravens, of dew and of nitre, a search for an essence
which would dissolve all mortal things.  I repeated to myself the ninth key of
Basilius Valentinus, in which he compares the fire of the last day to the fire of
an alchemist, and the world to an alchemistʼs furnace, and would have us
know that all must be dissolved before the divine substance, material gold or
immaterial ecstasy, awake.  I had dissolved indeed the mortal world, and
lived amid immortal essences, but had obtained no miraculous ecstasy.  As I
thought of these things, I drew aside the curtains and looked out into the
darkness, and it seemed to my troubled fancy that all those little points of
light filling the sky were the furnaces of innumerable divine alchemists, who
labour continually, turning lead into gold, weariness into ecstasy, bodies into
souls, the darkness into God ; and at their perfect labour, my mortality grew
heavy, and I cried out, as so many dreamers and men of letters in our age
have cried, for the birth of that elaborate spiritual beauty which could alone
uplift souls weighted with so many dreams.

                         II

    My reverie was broken by a loud knocking at the door, and I wondered
the more at this because I had no visitors, and had bid my servants to do all
things silently, lest they broke the dream of my inner life.  Feeling a little
curious, I resolved to go to the door myself, and, taking one of the silver
candlesticks from the mantelpiece, began to descend the stairs.  The servants
appeared to be out, for though the sound poured through every corner and
crevice of the house, there was no stir in the lower rooms.  I remembered that
my needs were so few, my part in life so little, that they had begun to come
and go as they would, often leaving me alone for hours.  The emptiness and
silence of a world, from which I had driven everything but dreams, suddenly-
overwhelmed me and I shuddered as I drew the bolt.  I found before me
Michael Robartes, whom I had not seen for years, and whose wild red hair,

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    59

fierce eyes, sensitive, tremulous lips and rough clothes, made him look now
just as they used to do fifteen years before, something between a debauchee,
a saint, and a peasant.  He had recently come to Ireland, he said, and wished
to see me on a matter of importance, indeed, the only matter of importance
for him and me.  His voice brought visibly before me our student years
in Paris, and remembering a mesmeric power he had once possessed over me,
a little fear mingled with much annoyance at this irrelevant intrusion, as I led
the way up the wide staircase, where Swift had passed joking and railing, and
Curran telling stories and quoting Greek in simpler days, before menʼs minds,
subtilized and complicated by the romantic movement in art and literature,
began to tremble on the verge of some unimagined revelation.  I felt that my
hand shook and saw that the light of the candle wavered and quivered more
than it need have, upon the meanids on the old French panels, making them
look like the first beings slowly shaping in the formless and void darkness.
When the door had closed, and the peacock curtain, glimmering like many-
coloured flame ; fell between us and the world, I felt in a way I could not
understand, that some singular and unexpected thing was about to happen.  I
went over to the mantelpiece and set the candlestick upon it, and finding that
a little painted bowl from the workshop of Orazio Fontana, which I used for
holding antique amulets, had fallen on its side, and poured out its contents, I
lingered partly to collect my thoughts, and partly to gather the amulets into
the bowl with that habitual reverence which seemed to me the due of things so
long connected with secret hopes and terrors.  When I turned I saw Robartes
standing in the middle of the room and looking straight before him as though
he saw some one or something I could not, and whispering to himself.  He
heard me move, and coming toward the fire, sat down and began gazing at the
flame.  I turned my chair towards him and sat down also and waited for him to
speak.  He watched the rising and falling of the flame for a moment and began.

    “I have come to ask you that question which I asked you in the Café de
la Paix, and which you left Paris rather than answer.”
    He had turned his eyes towards me and I saw them glitter in the firelight
as I replied :
    “You mean, will I become an initiate of your Order of the Alchemical
Rose? I would not consent in Paris, when I was full of unsatisfied desire and
now that I have at last fashioned my life according to my desire, am I likely
to consent ?”
    “You have changed greatly since then,” he answered.  “I have read your
books, and now I see you among all these images, and I understand you

60                                  THE SAVOY

better than you do yourself, for I have been with many and many dreamers at
the same cross ways.  You have shut away the world and gathered the gods
about you, and if you do not throw yourself at their feet, you will be always
full of lassitude and of wavering purpose ; for a man must forget he is miserable
in the bustle and noise of the multitude in this world and time, or seek a
mystical union with the multitude who govern this world and time.”

    For a moment the room appeared to darken, as it used to do when he was
about to perform some singular experiment, and in the darkness the peacocks
upon the doors seemed to glow with a more intense colour.  I cast off the
illusion, which was, I believed, caused merely by memory, for I would not
acknowledge that he could overcome my now mature intellect, and said :

“Even if I grant that I need a spiritual belief and some form of worship,
why should I go to Eleusis, and not to Calvary ?” He leaned forward and
began speaking with a slightly rhythmical intonation, and as he spoke I had to
struggle again with the shadow ; as of some older night than the night of the
sun ; which began to dim the light of the candles and to blot out the little
gleams upon the corners of picture frames and on the bronze divinities, while it
left the peacocks to glimmer and glow as though each separate colour were a
living spirit.  I had fallen into a profound dreamlike reverie, in which I heard
him speaking as at a distance.  “And yet there is no one who communes with
only one god,” he was saying, “and the more a man lives in imagination and in
a refined understanding, the more gods does he meet with and talk with, and
the more does he come under the power of Lear, and Hamlet, and Lancelot,
and Faust, and Beatrice, and Quixote, divinities who took upon themselves
spiritual bodies in the minds of the modern poets and romance-writers, and
under the power of the old divinities, who, since the Renaissance, have won
everything of their ancient worship except the sacrifice of birds and
beasts and fishes, the fragrance of garlands and the smoke of incense.  The
many think humanity made these divinities, and that it can unmake them
again ; but we who have seen them pass in rattling harness, and in soft robes,
and heard them speak with articulate voices while we lay in deathlike trance,
know that they are always making and unmaking humanity, which is
indeed but the trembling of their lips.” He had stood up and begun to
walk to and fro, and had become in my waking dream a shuttle weaving
an immense web whose folds had begun to fill the room.  The room seemed
to have become inexplicably silent, as though all but the web and the
weaving were at an end in the world.  “They have come to us.  They have
come to us,” the voice began, “all that have ever been in your reverie, all

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    61

that you have met with in books.  There is Lear, his beard still wet with the
thunderstorm, and he laughs because you thought yourself an existence 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 that 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.  “In the midst of my dream I saw him hold out his left arm and
pass his right hand over it as though he stroked the wings of doves.  I made a
violent effort which seemed almost to tear me in two, and said with a forced
determination, “Your philosophy is charming as a phantasy, but, carried to the
point of belief, it is a supreme delusion, and, enforced by mesmeric glamour, a
supreme crime.  You would sweep me away into an indefinite world which fills
me with terror ; and yet a man is great, just in so far as he can make his mind
reflect everything with indifferent precision like a mirror.” I seemed to be
perfectly master of myself, and went on, but more rapidly, “I command you to
leave me at once, for your ideas and your phantasies are but the illusions that
eat the world like maggots ; they creep into civilizations when they decline, and
into minds when they decay.”  I had grown suddenly angry, and, seizing the
alembic from the table, was about to rise and fling it, when the peacocks on the
door behind him appeared to grow immense ; and then the alembic fell from
my fingers, and I was drowned in a tide of green and bronze feathers, and as I
struggled hopelessly I heard his distant voice saying, “Our master, Avicenna,
has written that all life proceeds out of corruption.” The glittering feathers
had now covered me completely, and I knew that I had struggled for hundreds
of years and was conquered at last.  I was sinking into the depth when
the green and bronze that seemed to fill the world became a sea of flame and
swept me away, and as I was swirled along I heard a voice over my 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 cry with an exultant cry,
“The mirror is broken into numberless pieces ;” and then a multitude of pale
hands were reaching towards me and strange gentle faces bending above me,
and half-wailing and half-caressing voices uttering words that were forgotten
the moment they were spoken.  I was being lifted out of the tide of flame, and
felt my memories, my hopes, my thoughts, my will, everything I held to be
myself, melting away ; then I seemed to rise through numberless companies of

62                                  THE SAVOY

beings who were, I understood, in some way more certain than thought ; each
wrapped in his eternal moment, in the perfect lifting of an arm, in a little
circlet of rhythmical words, in dreaming with dim eyes and half-closed eyelids :
And then I passed beyond these forms, which were so beautiful they had
almost ceased to be, and, having endured strange moods melancholy, as
it seemed, with the weight of many worlds, I passed into that Death which is
Beauty herself, and into this Loneliness which all the multitudes desire without
ceasing.  All things that had ever lived seemed to come and dwell in my heart
and I in theirs ; and I had never again known mortality or tears, had I not
suddenly fallen from the certainty of vision into the uncertainty of dream, and
become a drop of molten gold falling with immense rapidity, through a night
elaborate with stars, and all about me a melancholy exultant wailing.  I fell
and fell and fell, and then the wailing was but the wailing of the wind in the
chimney, and I awoke to find myself leaning upon the table and supporting my
head with my hands.  I saw the alembic swaying from side to side in the dis-
tant corner it had rolled to, and Robartes watching me and waiting.  “I will
go wherever you will,” I said, “and do whatever you bid me, for I have been
with eternal things.” “I knew you could not help yourself,” he replied, “but
must need answer as you have answered, when I heard the storm begin.  You
must come to a great distance, for we were commanded to build our temple
between the pure multitude of the waves and the impure multitude of men.”

                         III

    I did not speak as we drove through the deserted streets, for my mind
was curiously empty of familiar thoughts and experiences : it seemed to have
been plucked out of the definite world and cast naked upon a shoreless sea.
There were moments when the vision appeared on the point of returning, and
I would half-remember with an ecstasy of joy or sorrow, crimes and heroisms,
fortunes and misfortunes, or begin to contemplate with a sudden leaping of
the heart, hopes and terrors, desires and ambitions, alien to my orderly and
careful life ; and then I would awake shuddering at the thought that some
great imponderable being had swept through my mind.  It was, indeed, days
before this feeling passed perfectly away, and even now when I have sought
refuge in the only definite faith, I feel a great tolerance for those people with
incoherent personalities, who gather in the chapels and meeting-places of
certain obscure sects, because I also have felt fixed habits and principles
dissolving before a power, which was hysterica passio, or sheer madness, if you

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    63

will, but was so powerful in its melancholy exultation that I tremble lest it
wake again and drive me from my new-found peace.

    We were not long in the train before Michael Robartes was asleep, and,
to my excited mind, his face, in which there was no sign of all that had so shaken
me and that now kept me wakeful, was more like a mask than a face.  The fancy
possessed me that the man behind it had dissolved away like salt in water, and
that it laughed and sighed, appealed and denounced, at the bidding of beings
greater or less than man.  “This is not Michael Robartes at all : Michael Robartes
is dead ; dead for ten, for twenty years, perhaps,” I kept repeating to myself.
I fell at last into a feverish sleep, waking up from time to time when we rushed
past some little town, its slated roofs shining with wet, or still lake gleaming
in the cold morning light.  I had been too preoccupied to ask where we were
going, or to notice what tickets Michael Robartes had taken, but I knew now
from the direction of the sun that we were going westward ; and presently I
knew also, by the way in which the trees had grown into the semblance of
tattered beggars flying with bent heads towards the east, that we were
approaching the western coast.  Then immediately I saw the sea between the
low hills upon the right, its dull gray broken into white patches and lines.

    When we left the train we had still, I found, some way to go, and set out
buttoning our coats about us, for the wind was bitter and violent.  Robartes
was silent, seeming anxious to leave me to my thoughts ; and as we walked
between the sea and the rocky side of a great promontory, I realized with a
new perfection what a shock had been given to all my habits of thought and
of feeling, if indeed some mysterious change had not taken place in the
substance of my mind, for the gray waves, plumed with scudding foam, had
grown part of a teeming, fantastic inner life, and when Robartes pointed to a
square ancient-looking house, with a smaller and newer building under its lea,
set out on the very end of a dilapidated and almost deserted pier, and said it
was the temple of the alchemical rose, I was possessed with the phantasy that
the sea, which kept covering it with showers of white foam, was claiming it as
part of some indefinite and passionate life, which had begun to war upon our
orderly and careful days, and was about to plunge the world into a night as
obscure as that which followed the downfall of the classical world.  One part of
my mind mocked this phantastic terror, but the other ; the part that still
lay half-plunged in vision ; listened to the clash of unknown armies, and
shuddered at unimaginable fanaticisms, that hung in those gray, leaping waves.

    Some half a mile to sea, and plunging its bowsprit under at every moment,
and lifting it again dripping with foam, was a brown sailed fishing yawl.

64                                  THE SAVOY

    “A time will come for these people also,” said Robartes, pointing towards
the yawl, “and they will sacrifice a mullet to Artemis, or some other fish to
some new divinity ; unless, indeed, their own divinities, the Dagda with his
overflowing cauldron, Lu with his spear dipped in poppy juice, lest it rush
forth hot for battle, Angus with the three birds on his shoulder, Bove Derg
and his red swine-herd, and all the heroic children of Dana set up once more
their temples of gray stone.  Their reign has never ceased, but only waned in
power a little, for the shee still pass in every wind, and dance and play at
hurley, and fight their sudden battles in every hollow and on every hill ; but
they cannot build their temples again till there have been martyrdoms and
victories, and perhaps even that long-foretold battle in the Valley of the
Black Pig.”

    Keeping close to the wall that went about the pier on the seaward side to
escape the driving foam and the wind, which threatened every moment to lift
us off our feet, we made our way in silence to the door of the square building.
Robartes opened it with a key, on which I saw the rust of many salt winds,
and led me along a bare passage and up an uncarpeted stair to a little room
surrounded with bookshelves.  A meal would be brought, but only of fruit, for
I must submit to a tempered fast before the ceremony, he explained, and with
it a book on the doctrine and method of the Order, over which I was to spend
what remained of the winter daylight.  He then left me, promising to return
an hour before the ceremony.  I began searching among the bookshelves, and
found one of the most exhaustive alchemical libraries I have ever seen.  There
were the works of Morienus, who hid his immortal body under a shirt of hair-
cloth ; of Avicenna, who was a drunkard, and yet controlled numberless
legions of spirits; of Alfarabi, who put so many spirits into his lute that he
could make men laugh, or weep, or fall in deathly trance, as he would ; of
Lully, who transformed himself into the likeness of a red cock ; of Flamell,
who with his wife Parnella achieved the elixir many hundreds of years ago,
and is fabled to live still in Arabia among the dervishes ; and of many of a
less fame.  There were few mediæval or modern mystics other than the
alchemical ; and because, I had little doubt, of the devotion to one god of
the greater number, and of the limited sense of beauty, which Robartes would
hold its inevitable consequence ; but I did notice a complete set of facsimiles
of the prophetical writings of William Blake, and probably because of the
multitude that thronged his illumination, and were, as he delights to describe
them, “like the gay fishes on the waves when the moon sucks up the dew.”
I noted also many poets and prose-writers of every age, but only those who

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    65

were a little weary of life, as indeed the greatest have been everywhere, and
who have cast their imagination to us, as a something they needed no longer
now that they were going up in their fiery chariots.

    Presently I heard a tap at the door, and a woman came in and laid a little
fruit upon the table.  I judged that she had once been handsome, but her
cheeks were hollowed by what I would have held, had I seen her anywhere else,
an excitement of the flesh and a thirst for pleasure, but that was, I doubted not,
an excitement of the imagination and a thirst for beauty.  I asked her some
question concerning the ceremony, but, getting no answer except a shake of
the head, saw that I must await initiation in silence.  When I had eaten she
came again, and having laid a curious wrought bronze box on the table, lighted
the candles, and took away the plates and the remnants.  So soon as I was
alone, I turned to the box, and found that the peacocks of Hera spread out
their tails over the sides and lid, and against a background, on which were
wrought great stars as though to affirm that the heavens were a part of their
glory.  In the box was a book bound in vellum, and having upon the
vellum, and in very delicate colours and in gold, the alchemical rose, with
many spears thrusting against it, but in vain, as was shown by the shattered
golden points of those nearest.  The book was written upon vellum, and
in beautiful clear letters interspersed with symbolical pictures and illumi-
nations, after the manner of the Splendor Solis.  The first chapter
described how six students, of whom all but one, who was of Cornish
descent, were Western Irish, Western Scottish, or French, gave themselves
separately to the study of alchemy, and solved, one the mystery of the Pelican,
another the mystery of the green Dragon, another the mystery of the Eagle,
another that of Salt and Mercury.  What seemed a procession of accidents, but
was, the book declared, a contrivance of preternatural powers, brought them
together in the garden of an inn in the south of France, and while they talked
together the thought came to them, that alchemy was the gradual distillation of
the contents of the soul until they were ready to put off the mortal and put
on the immortal.  An owl passed rustling among the vine-leaves overhead, and
then an old woman came, leaning upon a stick, and sitting close to them took
up the thought where they had dropped it.  Having expounded the whole
principle of spiritual alchemy, and bid them found the Order of the Alchemical
Rose, she passed from among them, and when they would have followed, was
nowhere to be seen.  They formed themselves into an order, holding their
goods and making their researches in common, and, as they became perfect in
the alchemical doctrine, apparitions came and went among them, and taught

66                                  THE SAVOY

them more and more marvellous mysteries.  The book then went on to
expound so much of these as the neophyte was permitted to know, dealing at
the outset and at considerable length with the independent reality of our
thoughts, which was, it declared, the doctrine from which all true doctrines
sprang.  If you imagine, it said, the semblance of a living being, it is at once
possessed by a wandering soul, and goes hither and thither working good or
evil, until the moment of its death has come ; and gave many examples
received, it said, from many gods : Eros had taught them how to fashion
forms in which a divine soul could dwell, and whisper what they would into
sleeping ears ; and Ate, forms from which demonic beings could pour madness,
or unquiet dreams, into sleeping blood ; and Hermes, that if you powerfully
imagined a hound at your bedside, it would keep watch there until you
woke, and drive away all but the mightiest demons, but that if your imagina-
tion was weakly, the hound would be weakly also, and the demons prevail,
and the hound soon die ; and Aphrodite, that if you imagined a dove
crowned with silver, and bade it flutter over your bed, its soft cooing
would make sweet dreams of immortal love gather and brood over your
mortal sleep.  And all divinities alike had revealed with many warnings and
lamentations that all minds are continually giving birth to such beings, and
sending them forth to work health or disease, joy or madness.  If you would
give forms to the evil powers, it went on, you were to make them ugly, thrust-
ing out a lip, with the thirsts of Life, or breaking the proportions of a body
with the burdens of Life ; but the divine powers would only appear in beautiful
shapes, which are but, as it were, shapes trembling out of existence, folding
up into a timeless ecstasy, drifting, with half-shut eyes, into a sleepy stillness.
The bodiless souls who descended into these forms were what men call the
moods, and worked all great changes in the world ; for just as the magician or
the artist could call them when he would, so they could call out of the mind of
the magician or the artist, or if they were demons, out of the mind of the mad or
the ignoble, what shape they would, and through its voice and its gesture pour
themselves out upon the world.  In this way all great events were accomplished :
a mood, a divinity or a demon, first descending like a faint sigh into men’s minds,
and then changing their thoughts and their actions until hair that was yellow
had grown black, or hair that was black had grown yellow, or cities crumbled
away and new cities arisen in their places, and empires moved their border as
though they were but drifts of leaves.  I remembered, as I read, that mood
which Edgar Poe found in a wine-cup, and how it passed into France and
took possession of Baudelaire, and from Baudelaire passed to England and the

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    67

Pre-Raphaelites, and then again returned to France, and still wanders the
world, enlarging its power as it goes, awaiting the time when it shall be,
perhaps, alone, or, with other moods, master over a great new religion, and an
awakener of the fanatical wars that hovered in the gray surges, and forget the
wine-cup where it was born.  The rest of the book contained symbols of form,
and sound, and colour, and their attribution to divinities and demons, so that
the initiate might fashion a shape for any divinity or any demon, and be as
powerful as Avicenna among those who live among the roots of tears and
laughter.

                         IV

    A couple of hours after sunset Robartes returned and told me that I would
have to learn the steps of an exceedingly antique pantomimic dance, because
before my initiation could be perfected I had to join three times in a magical
dance ; rhythm being the circle of Eternity, on which alone the transient and
accidental could be broken, and the spirit set free.  I found that the steps,
which were simple enough, resembled certain antique Greek dances, and having
been a good dancer in my youth and the master of many curious Gaelic
steps, I soon had them in my memory.  He then robed me and himself in a
costume which suggested by its shape both Greece and Egypt, but by its crimson
colour a more passionate life than theirs ; and having put into my hands a
little chainless censer of bronze, wrought into the likeness of a rose, by some
modern craftsman, he told me to open a small door opposite to the door by
which I had entered.  I put my hand to the handle, but the moment I did so
the fumes of the incense, helped perhaps by his mysterious glamour, made me
fall again into a dream, in which I seemed to be a mask, lying on the counter
of a little Eastern shop.  Many persons, with eyes so bright and still that I
knew them for more than human, came in and tried me on their faces, but at last
flung me into a corner with a little laughter ; but all this passed in a moment,
for when I awoke my hand was still upon the handle.  I opened the door, and
found myself in a marvellous passage, along whose sides were many divinities
wrought in a mosaic not less beautiful than the mosaic in the Baptistery at
Ravenna, but of a less severe beauty ; the predominant colour of each, which
was surely symbolic, being repeated in the lamps that hung from the ceiling,
a curiously-scented lamp before each divinity.  I passed on, marvelling exceed-
ingly how these enthusiasts could have created all this beauty in so remote a
place, and half persuaded to believe in a material alchemy, by the sight of so

68                                  THE SAVOY

much hidden mysterious wealth, the censer filling the air, as I passed, with
smoke of ever-changing colour.  I stopped before a door on whose bronze
panels were wrought great waves in whose shadow were faint suggestions of
terrible faces.  Those beyond it seemed to have heard our steps, for a voice cried :
“Is the work of the Incorruptible Fire at an end ?” and immediately Robartes
answered : “The perfect gold has come from the Athanor.” The door swung
open and we were in a great circular room, and among men and women who were
dancing slowly in crimson robes.  Upon the ceiling was an immense rose wrought
in mosaic, and about the walls, also in mosaic, a battle of gods and angels,
the gods glimmering like rubies and sapphires, and the angels of the one grayness,
because, as Robartes whispered, they had renounced their divinity, and turned
from the unfolding of their separate hearts, out of love for a God of humility
and sorrow.  Pillars supported the roof and made a kind of circular cloister,
each pillar being a column of confused shapes, divinities, it seemed, of the winds,
who rose as in a whirling dance of more than human vehemence, and playing
upon pipes and cymbals ; and from among these shapes were thrust out hands,
and in these hands were censers.  I was bid place my censer also in a hand
and take my place and dance, and as I turned from the pillars towards the
dancers, I saw that the floor was of a green stone, and that a pale Christ on a
pale cross was wrought in the midst.  I asked Robartes the meaning of this,
and was told that they desired “To trouble His unity with their multitudinous
feet.”  The dance wound in and out, tracing upon the floor the shapes of
petals that copied the petals in the rose overhead, and to the sound of hidden
instruments, which were perhaps of an antique pattern, for I have never heard
the like ; and every moment the dance was more passionate, until all the
winds of the world seemed to have awakened under our feet.  After a little I
had grown weary, and stood by a pillar watching the coming and going of
those flame-like figures ; until gradually I sank into a half dream, from which
I was awakened by seeing the petals of the great rose, which had no longer
the look of mosaic, falling slowly through the incense heavy air, and as they fell
shaping into the likeness of living beings of an extraordinary beauty.  Still
faint and cloud-like, they began to dance, and as they danced took a more and
more definite shape, so that I was able to distinguish beautiful Grecian faces
and august Egyptian faces, and now and again to name a divinity by the staff
in his hand or by a bird fluttering over his head ; and soon every mortal foot
danced by the white foot of an immortal ; and in the troubled eyes that looked
into untroubled shadowy eyes, I saw the brightness of uttermost desire, as
though they had found at length, after unreckonable wandering, the lost love

                                 ROSA ALCHEMICA                    69

of their youth.  Sometimes, but only for a moment, I saw a faint solitary
figure with a veiled face, and carrying a faint torch, flit among the dancers,
but like a dream within a dream, like a shadow of a shadow, and I knew, by an
understanding born from a deeper fountain than thought, that it was Eros
himself, and that his face was veiled because no man or woman from the
beginning of the world has ever known what Love is or looked into his eyes ;
for Eros alone of divinities is altogether a spirit ; and hides in passions not of
his essence, if he would commune with a mortal heart.  So that if a man love
nobly he knows Love through infinite pity, unspeakable trust, unending
sympathy ; and if ignobly, through vehement jealousy, sudden hatred, and
unappeasable desire; but unveiled Love he never knows.  While I thought these
things, a voice cried to me from the crimson figures, “Into the dance, there is
none that can be spared out of the dance ; into the dance, into the dance, that
the gods may make them bodies out of the substance of our hearts ;” and
before I could answer, a mysterious wave of passion, that seemed like the soul
of the dance moving within our souls, took hold of me and I was swept,
neither consenting nor refusing, into the midst.  I was dancing with an
immortal august woman, who had black lilies in her hair, and her dreamy
gesture seemed laden with a wisdom more profound than the darkness that is
between star and star, and with a love like the love that breathed upon the
waters ; and as we danced on and on, the incense drifted over us and round
us, covering us away as in the heart of the world, and ages seemed to pass, and
tempests to awake and perish in the folds of our robes and in her heavy hair.

    Suddenly I remembered that her eyelids had never quivered and that her
lilies had not dropped a black petal, or shaken from their places, and under-
stood with a great horror that I danced with one who was more or less than
human, and who was drinking up my soul as an ox drinks up a wayside pool,
and I fell, and darkness passed over me.

                         V

    When I awoke I was lying on a roughly painted floor, and on the ceiling,
which was at no great distance, was a roughly painted rose, and about me on
the wall a half-finished painting.  The pillars and the censers had gone ;
and about me, wrapped in disordered robes, lay a score of sleepers, their
upturned faces looking to my imagination like hollow masks ; and a chill
dawn was shining down upon them, from a long window I had not noticed
before ; and outside the sea roared angrily.  I saw Michael Robartes lying at

70                                  THE SAVOY

a little distance, and beside him an overset bowl of wrought bronze which
looked as though it had once held incense.

    I had no thought but to get away, and to forget all.  The door of the
room opened with a push, and hurrying along the passage, where the bare
boards clattered under my feet, I found the front door by the light of a single
oil lamp, that hung from the ceiling, mingling its yellow flame with the
morning light.  I hurried along the pier, between brown nets and old spars,
the spray driving in my face ; but had not gone far before I met a group of
stonemasons going to their morning work. They went a few yards past me
and then one of them, an old man with iron-gray hair, turned and cried :
“Idolater, idolater, go back to your she dhoules, go down to hell with
your she dhoules !” I scarcely heard them, for other voices were in my ears.
Voices uttering reproaches that were forgotten the moment they were spoken,
as a dream is forgotten on waking.

    From that day I have never failed to carry the rosary about my neck, and
whenever the indefinite world, which has but half lost its empire over my
heart and my intellect, though my conscience and my soul are free, is about to
claim a new mastery, I press the cross to my heart and say : “He whose name
is legion is at our doors, deceiving our intellects with subtlety and flattering
our hearts with beauty, so that we have no trust but in Thee.” And then the
war that wages within me at all other times is still and I am at peace.

                                                                                                W. B. Yeats.

MLA citation:

Yeats, W. B. “Rosa Alchemica.” The Savoy, volume 2, April 1896, pp. 56- 70. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv2-yeats-rosa/