Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.
Definition of Spiritus Mundi
Spiritus Mundi is a Latin term that literally means, ''world spirit.'' In Spiritus Mundi, there is, according to William Butler Yeats, ''a universal memory and a 'muse' of sorts that provides inspiration to the poet or writer.'' To Yeats, Spiritus Mundi is the source of all ''images'' and ''symbols,'' a ''collective unconscious.'' Spiritus Mundi is difficult to understand, but we will unpack it as best as we can.
W.B. Yeats married a woman, Georgie (or George) Hyde-Lees, who was thirty years his junior. George was interested in the occult and astrology. One day, in an effort to assure her husband that he had made the right choice in marrying her (he had proposed to two other women before George), she started doing what she called 'automatic writing.' She would sit in a trance and write, often as Yeats asked her questions. Both Yeats and Georgie believed that they were receiving communication from a superior spiritual source, or being. Out of these sessions came Yeats' philosophy of Spiritus Mundi, among other ideas which he published in his book Visions.
The Second Coming
Yeats uses the term Spiritus Mundi in his poem ''The Second Coming.'' Let's take a look at the message of that poem in order to better understand his use of the term. ''The Second Coming'' is a 3-stanza poem with an ominous tone of impending change and doom. Yeats wrote the poem after World War I, when many Europeans were reeling from the devastating violence and effects of the war's destruction. To some, it may have symbolized an apocalypse.
In stanza one, Yeats says:
''Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.''
Yeats presents the vivid picture of a falcon that cannot hear its master's voice. The bird circles wider and wider, but is lost. Yeats sees chaos and a breakdown of order in society. Some moral center is lost, which ''cannot hold.'' He voices an increase in violence and a loss - even a death - of ''innocence.'' The last two lines reveal Yeats' disillusionment as he states: ''The best lack all conviction, while the worst (a)re full of passionate intensity.'' There is purposeless passion.
Stanza two states:
''Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.''
Yeats did not profess to be a Christian, but here he echoes the opinions around him that the end of the world must be near. Even the title of the poem is an allusion to the return of Christ. As he muses about the end of time, Yeats claims that Spiritus Mundi, or this spirit of collective memory and inspiration, gives him a vision of a beast with a lion's body and man's head coming out of the desert. It shows no emotion or empathy. It moves slowly.
In stanza three, Yeats concludes the poem with these words:
''The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?''
When Yeats says ''the darkness drops,'' the vision he has seen from Spiritus Mundi stops. But Yeats believes he has a revelation. Literally, it would seem that Yeats has envisioned some kind of ''Anti-Christ.'' However, Yeats may be attacking Christian beliefs as ''stony sleep'' and predicting a new world order. The question remains as to what kind of order that will be; according to Yeats, perhaps a fearsome one!
William Butler Yeats introduced the theory of Spiritus Mundi, which portrays a spiritual world that inspires and ''remembers'' what happens in the mind of the artist. Perhaps it is simplest to think of it as Yeats' idea of a muse.
Yeats uses the term Spiritus Mundi in his poem ''The Second Coming,'' a 3-stanza poem with an ominous tone of impending change and doom. Yeats wrote the poem after World War I, when many Europeans were reeling from the devastating violence and effects of the war's destruction. To some, it may have symbolized an apocalypse.
After you've reviewed this video lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe William Butler Yeats' theory of Spiritus Mundi
- Summarize Yeats' use of Spiritus Mundi in ''The Second Coming''
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