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THE TABLES OF THE LAW

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The Database of Ornament

                                                                       I

“WILL you permit me, Aherne,” I said, “to ask you a question,
which I have wanted to ask you for years ; and have not
asked because we have grown nearly strangers. Why did
you refuse the cassock and the berretta, and almost at the
last moment ? I never expected you, of all men, to become
‘a spoilt priest.’ When you and I lived together, you
cared neither for wine, women, nor money, and were absorbed in theological
and mystical studies.” I had watched through dinner for a moment to put
my question, and ventured now, because he had thrown off a little of the
reserve and indifference, which, ever since his last return from Italy, had taken
the place of our once close friendship. He had just questioned me too, about
certain private and almost sacred things, and my frankness had earned,
I thought, a like frankness from him.

When I began to speak he was lifting to his lips a glass of that old wine
which he could choose so well and valued so little ; and while I spoke, he set
it slowly and meditatively upon the table and held it there, its deep red light
dyeing his long delicate fingers. The impression of his face and form, as they
were then, is still vivid with me, and is inseparable from another and fanciful
impression : the impression of a man holding a flame in his naked hand. He
was to me, at that moment, the supreme type of our race, which, when it has
risen above, or is sunken below, the formalisms of half-education and the
rationalisms of conventional affirmation and denial, turns away from practicable
desires and intuitions, towards desires so unbounded that no human vessel can
contain them, intuitions so immaterial that their sudden and far-off fire leaves
heavy darkness about hand and foot. He had the nature, which is half
alchemist, half soldier of fortune, and must needs turn action into dreaming,
and dreaming into action ; and for such there is no order, no finality, no
contentment in this world. At the Jesuit school in Paris he had made one of

80                              THE SAVOY

the little group, which used to gather in corners of the playing field, or in
remote class rooms, to hear the speculative essays which we wrote and read in
secret. More orthodox in most of his beliefs than Michael Robartes, he had
surpassed him in a fanciful hatred of all life, and this hatred had found
expression in the curious paradox, half borrowed from some fanatical monk,
half invented by himself; that the beautiful arts were sent into the world to
overthrow nations, and finally life herself, by sowing everywhere unlimited
desires, like torches thrown into a burning city. This idea was not at the
time, I believe, more than a paradox, a plume of the pride of youth ; and it
was only after his leaving school that he endured the fermentation of belief
which is coming upon our people with the reawakening of their imaginative
life.

Presently he stood up, saying :

“Come, and I will show you, for you at any rate will understand,” and
taking candles from the table, he lit the way into the long paved passage that
led to his private chapel. We passed between the portraits of the Jesuits and
priests, some of no little fame, whom his family had given to the Church ; and
framed photographs of the pictures which had especially moved him ; and the
few paintings his small fortune, eked out by an almost penurious abstinence
from the things most men desire, had enabled him to buy in his travels. The
photographs of pictures were from the masterpieces of many schools ; but in
all, the beauty, whether it was a beauty of religion, of love, or of some
fantastical vision of mountain and wood, was the beauty achieved by
temperaments which seek always an absolute of emotion, and have their
most continual, though not most perfect expression, in the legends and music
and vigils of the Celtic peoples. The certitude of a fierce or gracious fervour
in the enraptured faces of Francesca’s and Crivelli’s Madonnas, and in the
august faces of the sibyls of Michael Angelo ; and the incertitude, as of souls
trembling between the excitement of the spirit and the excitement of the
flesh, in the wavering faces Sodoma made for the churches of Siena, and in
the faces like thin flames, imagined by the modern symbolists and pre-
Raphaelites, had often made that long, gray, dim, echoing passage seem to me
like a vestibule of eternity.

Almost every detail of the chapel, which we entered by a narrow Gothic
door, whose threshold had been worn smooth by the secret worshippers of the
penal times, was vivid in my memory ; for it was in this chapel that I had
first, and when but a boy, been moved by the mediævalism which is now, I
think, the governing influence on my life. The only thing that seemed new

                  THE TABLES OF THE LAW                                     81

was a square bronze box ; like those made in ancient times of more precious
substances to hold the sacred books ; which stood before the six unlighted
candles and the ebony crucifix upon the altar. Aherne made me sit down on
a long oaken bench, and having bowed very low before the crucifix, took the
bronze box from the altar, and sat down beside me with the box upon
his knees.

“You will perhaps have forgotten,” he said, “most of what you have read
about Joachim of Flora, for he is little more than a name to even the best
read. He was an abbot in Corace in the twelfth century, and is best known
for his prophecy, in a book called Expositio in Apocalypsin, that the Kingdom
of the Father was passed, the Kingdom of the Son passing, the Kingdom
of the Spirit yet to come. The Kingdom of the Spirit was to be a complete
triumph of the Spirit, the spiritualis intelligentia he called it, over the dead
letter. He had many followers among the more extreme Franciscans, and these
were accused of possessing a secret book of his called the Liber Inducens in
Evangelium Æternum
. Again and again groups of visionaries were accused
of possessing this terrible book, in which the freedom of the Renaissance lay
hidden, until at last Pope Alexander IV. had it found and cast into the flames.
I have here the greatest treasure the world contains. I have a copy of that
book, and see what great artists have made the robes in which it is wrapped.
This bronze box was made by Benvenuto Cellini, who covered it with gods
and demons, whose eyes are closed to signify an absorption in the inner
light.” He lifted the lid and took out a book bound in old leather, covered
with filigree work of tarnished silver. “And this cover bound for Canevari ;
while Giulio Clovio, the one artist of the later Renaissance who could give to
his work the beauty of a hidden hope, tore out the beginning page of every
chapter of the old copy and set in its place a page, surmounted by an elaborate
letter, and a miniature of some one of the great whose example was cited in
the chapter ; and wherever the writing left a little space elsewhere, he put some
delicate emblem or intricate pattern.”

I took the book in my hands and began turning over the jewel-like
pages, holding it close to the candle to discover the texture of the paper.

“Where did you get this amazing book?” I said. “If genuine, and I
cannot judge by this light, you have discovered one of the most precious things
in the world.”

“It is certainly genuine,” he replied. “When the original was destroyed,
one copy alone remained, and was in the hands of a lute player of Florence,
and from him it passed to his son, and so from generation to generation,

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until it came to the lute player, who was father to Benvenuto Cellini, and from
him it passed to Giulio Clovio, and from Giulio Clovio to a Roman engraver ;
and then from generation to generation, the story of its wandering passing on
with it, until it came into the possession of the family of Aretino, and so to
Giulio Aretino, an artist and worker in metals, and student of the kabalistic
heresies of Pico della Mirandola. He spent many nights with me at Rome
discussing philosophy ; and at last I won his confidence so perfectly that he
showed me this, his greatest treasure ; and, finding how much I valued it,
and feeling that he himself was growing old and beyond the help of its
mysterious teaching, he sold it me for no great sum, considering its great
preciousness.”

“What is the doctrine ?” I said. “Some mediæval straw-splitting about
the nature of the Trinity, which is only useful to-day to show how many things
are unimportant to us, which once shook the world ? ”

“I could never make you understand,” he said with a deep sigh, “that
nothing is unimportant in belief, but even you will admit that this book goes
to the heart. Do you see the tables on which the commandments were
written in Latin ?” I looked to the end of the room opposite to the altar,
and saw that the two marble tablets were gone, and two large empty tablets
of ivory, like large copies of the little tablets we set over our desks, had taken
their place. “It has swept the commandments of the Father away,” he went
on, “and displaced the commandments of the Son by the commandments of
the Holy Spirit. The first book is called Fractura Tabularum. In the
first chapter it mentions the names of the great artists who made them graven
things and the likeness of many things, and adored them and served them ;
and in the second the names of the great wits who took the name of the Lord
their God in vain ; and that long third chapter, set with the emblems of sanc-
tified faces, and having wings upon its borders, is the praise of breakers of the
seventh day and wasters of the six days. Those two chapters tell of men and
women who railed upon their parents, remembering that their god was older
than the god of their parents ; and that, which has the sword of Michael for
an emblem, commends the kings that wrought secret murder and so won for
the people a peace that was amore somnoque gravata et vestibus versicoloribus,
‘heavy with love and sleep and many-coloured raiment ;’ and that with the pale
star at the closing has the lives of the noble youths who loved the wives of
others and were transformed into memories, which have transformed many
poorer hearts into sweet flames ; and that with the winged head is the history
of the robbers, who lived, upon the sea or in the desert, lives which it compares

                  THE TABLES OF THE LAW                                     83

to the twittering of the string of a bow, nervi stridentis instar ; and those two
last, that are fire and gold, are devoted to the satirists who bore false witness
against their neighbours and yet illustrated eternal wrath ; and to those that
have coveted more than other men the house of God, and all things that
are his, which no man has seen and handled, except in madness and in
dreaming.

“The second book, which is called Straminis Deflagratio, recounts the
conversations Joachim of Flora held in his monastery at Corace, and after-
wards in his monastery in the mountains of Sylae, with travellers and pilgrims,
upon the laws of many countries ; how chastity was a virtue and robbery a
little thing in such a land, and robbery a crime and unchastity a little thing
in such a land ; and of the persons who had flung themselves upon these
laws and become decussa veste dei sidera, ‘stars shaken out of the raiment of
God.’

“The third book, which is the finish, is called Lex Secreta, and
describes the true inspiration of action, the only Eternal Evangel ; and ends
with a vision, which he saw among the mountains of Sylae, of his disciples
sitting throned in the blue deep of the air and laughing aloud, with a laughter
which it compares to the rustling of the wings of Time.”

“I know little of Joachim of Flora,” I said, “except that Dante set him
in Paradise among the great doctors. If he held a heresy so singular, I
cannot understand how no rumours of it came to the ears of Dante ; and
Dante made no peace with the enemies of the Church.”

“Joachim of Flora acknowledged openly the authority of the Church,
and even asked that all his published writings, and those to be published by
his desire after his death, should be submitted to the censorship of the Pope.
He considered that those, whose work was to live and not to reveal, were
children and that the Pope was their father ; but he taught in secret that
certain others, and in always increasing numbers, were elected, not for life’s sake,
but to reveal that hidden substance of God which is colour and music and
softness and a sweet odour ; and that these have no father but the Holy
Spirit. Just as poets and painters and musicians labour at their works,
building them with lawless and lawful things alike so long as they embody
the beauty that is beyond the grave ; these children of the Holy Spirit labour
at their moments with eyes upon the shining substance on which Time has
heaped the refuse of creation ; for the world only exists to be a tale in the
ears of coming generations ; and terror and content, birth and death, love and
hatred and the fruit of the Tree are but instruments for that supreme art

80                              THE SAVOY

which is to win us from life and gather us into eternity like doves into their
dove-cots.

“I shall go away in a little while and travel into many lands, that I may
know all accidents and destinies, and when I return, will write my secret law
upon those ivory tablets, just as poets and romance writers have written the
principles of their art in prefaces ; and will gather pupils about me that they
may discover their law in the study of my law, and the Kingdom of the Holy
Spirit be more widely and firmly established.”

He was pacing up and down, and I listened to the fervour of his words
and watched the excitement of his gestures with not a little concern. I had
been accustomed to welcome the most singular speculations, and had always
found them as harmless as the Persian cat, who half closes her meditative eyes
and stretches out her long claws, before my fire. But now I longed to battle
in the interests of orthodoxy, even of the commonplace : and yet could find
nothing better to say than :

“It is not necessary to judge everyone by the law, for we have also Christ’s
commandment of love.”

He turned and said, looking at me with shining eyes :

“Jonathan Swift made a soul for the gentlemen of this city by hating his
neighbour as himself.”

“At any rate, you cannot deny that to teach so dangerous a doctrine is to
accept a terrible responsibility.”

“Leonardo da Vinci,” he replied, “has this noble sentence, ‘The hope
and desire of returning home to one’s former state, is like the moth’s desire for
the light ; and the man, who with constant longing awaits each new month
and new year—deeming that the things he longs for are ever too late in coming
—does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction.’ How then can
the pathway which will lead us into the heart of God be other than dangerous ?
why should you, who are no materialist, cherish the continuity and order of the
world as those do who have only the world ? You do not value the writers who
will express nothing unless their reason understands how it will make what is
called the right more easy ; why then will you deny a like freedom to the
supreme art, the art which is the foundation of all arts ? Yes, I shall send out
of this chapel saints, lovers, rebels, and prophets : souls which will surround
themselves with peace, as with a nest made of grass ; and perhaps others over
whom I shall weep. The dust shall fall for many years over this little box ;
and then I shall open it ; and the tumults, which are, perhaps, the flames of
the last day, shall come from under the lid.”

                  THE TABLES OF THE LAW                                     85

I did not reason with him that night, because his excitement was great
and I feared to make him angry ; and when I called at his house a few days
later, he was gone and his house was locked up and empty. I have deeply
regretted my failure both to combat his heresy and to test the genuineness of
his strange book. Since my conversion I have indeed done penance for an
error which I was only able to measure after some years.

                                                                       II

I was walking along one of the Dublin quays, about ten years after our
conversation, stopping from time to time to turn over the books upon an old
bookstall, and thinking, curiously enough, of the destinies of the little group
of fellow-students who had shared so many speculations at the school in
Paris, and particularly of the terrible destiny of Michael Robartes and his
disciples, when I saw a tall, bent man walking slowly in front of me. He
stopped presently at a little shop, in the window of which were blue and white
statues of the Virgin, and gilded statues of St. Patrick and his crozier. His
face was now half turned towards me, and I recognized in the lifeless mask
with dim eyes what had been the resolute, delicate face of Owen Aherne. I
walked towards him, but had not gone many yards before he turned away, as
though he had seen me, and went hastily down a side street.

During the next few weeks I inquired of all who had once known him,
but he had made himself known to no one, and knocked without result
at the door of his old house. I had nearly persuaded myself that I was
mistaken, when I saw him again, and this time in a back street behind
the Four Courts, and followed him until he stopped at the door of his
house.

I laid my hand upon his arm ; he turned round, and quite without sur-
prise ; and, indeed, it is possible that to him, whose inner life had soaked up
the outer life, a parting of many years was a parting from forenoon to after-
noon. He stood holding the door half open, as though he would keep me
from entering, and would, perhaps, have parted from me with no further words
had I not said :

“Aherne, you trusted me once, will you not trust me again, and tell me
what has come of the ideas we discussed ten years ago ? but perhaps you have
long forgotten them.”

“You have a right to hear,” he answered ; “for having told you the ideas,
it is necessary that I tell you the terrible danger they contain ; but when

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you have heard, we part for good and all : I must be hidden away, for I am
lost.”

I followed him through the paved passage, and saw that its corners were
choked with dust and cobwebs ; and that the pictures were shrouded with
cobwebs and gray with dust ; and, when he opened the door of the chapel, I
saw that the dust and cobwebs which covered the ruby and sapphire of the
saints in the window had made it very dim. He sat down wearily, not
seeming to notice whether I was standing or sitting, and pointed to where the
ivory tablets glimmered faintly in the deep gloom. I saw that they were
covered with very small writing, and went up to them and began to read
them. The writing was an elaborate casuistry, illustrated apparently with
many examples, but whether from his own life, or from the life of others, I do
not know. Before I had done more than read a sentence here and there, I
turned from them, for Aherne had begun to speak in a low monotonous
voice.

“I am outside the salvation of Him who died for sinners, because I have
lost the power of committing a sin. I found the secret law of my life, and,
finding it, no longer desired to transgress, because it was my own law. What-
ever my intellect and my soul commanded, I did, and sin passed from me, and
I ceased to be among those for whom Christ died.” And at the name of
Christ he crossed himself with that involuntary gesture which marks those
who have crossed themselves from childhood. ” At first I tried to sin by
breaking my law, although without desire ; but the sin without desire is
shadowy, like the sins of some phantom one has not visited even in dreams.
You who are not lost, who may still speak to men and women, tell them that
it is necessary to make an arbitrary law that one may be among those for
whom Christ has died.”

I went over and stood beside him, and said :

“Prayer and penance will make you like other men.”

“Not,” he replied, “unless they can take from me my knowledge of the
secret law.”

I used some argument, which has passed out of my memory, but his
strong intellect, which seemed all the stronger and more active from contrast
with the weary monotony of his voice, tore my argument in pieces. I had
gone on to heap argument on argument, had he not risen and led me from the
chapel, repeating, “We part for good and all ; for I must be hidden away.”

I followed, intending to come to him again the next day ; but as I stood
in the door of the house a sudden hope came into my mind, and I said :

                  EPILOGUE                                     87

“Will you lend me the Liber Inducens in Evangelium Æternum for a few
days, that I may have it examined by an expert ?”

“I have burned the book and flung the box into the sea.”

When I came the next day with a Jesuit Father from the College of St.
Francis Xavier, the house was locked up and apparently empty once more.

                                                                         W. B. YEATS.

MLA citation:

Yeats, William Butler. “The Tables of the Law.” The Savoy vol. 7, November 1896, pp. 79-87. 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/savoyv7-yeats-tables/