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Towards Break of Day

Dreamed by WB Yeats and Georgie Yeats the same night in Dec.1918; written by WB Yeats

Was it the double of my dream
The woman that by me lay
Dreamed or did we halve a dream
Under the first cold gleam of day?

I thought: 'There is a waterfall
Upon Ben Bulben side
That all my childhood counted dear;
Were I to travel far and wide
I could not find a thing so dear.'
My memories had magnified
So rnany times childish delight

I would have touched it like a child
But knew my finger could but have touched
Cold stone and water. I grew wild,
Even accusing Heaven because
It had set down among its laws:
Nothing that we love over-much
Is ponderable to our touch.

I dreamed towards break of day,
The cold blown spray in my nostril.
But she that beside me lay
Had watched in bitterer sleep
The marvellous stag of Arthur,
That lofty white stag, leap
From mountain steep to steep.


WB Yeats: Selected Poetry. A footnote by A.N. Jeffares says this poem is "an account of dreams experienced by Yeats and his wife while they were staying at the Powerscourt Arms Hotel in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, in December 1918... Mrs Yeats dreamed of the stag in "The Tale of King Arthur" (in Sir Thomas Malory, Works, III. 5).


As Yeats points out, the two dreams share not images but theme: beauty not just untouchable but unwise to touch. It's explicit in his own dream; implicit in the Arthurian myth Georgie dreams. In brief:

Merlin works magic to impress the court, but thus draws the attention of the Sidhe; soon their huntress Nimue chases a white stag through Arthur's hall. Nimue eventually traps Merlin. He made magic ponderable, open; he wanted to impress; he wanted Nimue. He pays.

Gawain is sent to hunt the white deer; his hounds kill it on its owner's doorstep, making magic mere meat. The owner, outraged, fights Gawain, who by accident kills his wife. Merlin's overreach hurt himself, but Gawain hurts all he touches.

Hunting the magical white deer has echoes, as Yeats knew well, of the Hunt of the Unicorn. Modern treatments of this theme: e. e. cummings's lyric poem "all in green went my love riding" (harking back to the legend of Diana and Actaeon, and punning on hart and heart), James Thurber's The White Deer (slyly fusing deer and lady) and Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn (who herself is hunter and hunted). All these, like the Arthurian tale, are at least partly about gender and the treatment of women.

But I bet most of readers care less for Yeats's theme of what to leave untouched, nor for such myths dealing with gender; most will focus on Yeats's claim the two dreams are linked--are the same dream-seed manifesting in different images. Telepathy!

I address it last not because I dismiss it as Yeatsian kookiness; I've had too many shared dreams myself. Yeats isn't out to prove telepathy by noting parallel images, characters, settings, events--the usual approach among those trying to prove or debunk ESP. He takes for granted that experienced dreamworkers know it's real. This poem instead addresses a type of shared dream you can't spot by tallying parallel details. He argues shared dreaming can be too deep and subtle to quantify--tone, mood, issue, theme. The link itself is not "ponderable to our touch".

And such deep subtle links matter--not just to dreamwork or to science, but to Yeats personally. He'd come to marry Georgie, after years of obsession with Maud Gonne, partly because like Yeats, Georgie was highly intuitive and open to this side of his life, where Maude was not. Their marriage went deeper than sex. And I think Yeats wrote this dream-poem partly to say he'd chosen right.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: telepathy and shared dreams - ESP in general - dream-poems - deer - beauty - frustration - hunted! - letting go - soulmates - Yeats - Ireland - two related dreams: The White Deer, Revisited - The White Deer's Experiment

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