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Crazed by the moon: the duality of the heron in Yeats's Calvary.

"Moccasins set in hoar frost, eyes fixed on the bird, Thought: 'On that sky it is black.' Thought: 'In my mind it is white.' Thinking: 'Arden occidentalis, heron, the great one."

--Robert Penn Warren


In 1895, a short story by W. B. Yeats entitled "St. Patrick and the Pedants" appeared in The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement. The story, later called "The Old Men of the Twilight" and included in The Secret Rose (1897), retold an Irish legend about the coming of St. Patrick to Ireland. St. Patrick, the story goes, curses "men of learning" who will not cease their whittling to hear the news of the One True God. A "voice of rapture" announces:
   I shall make you an example for ever and ever; you shall become
   grey herons and stand pondering in grey pools and flit over the
   world in that hour when it is most full of sighs; and you shall
   preach to the other herons until they are also like you; and your
   deaths shall come by chance and unforeseen, for you shall not be
   certain about anything for ever and ever.

(Marcus 59)

Certainly, this is the first instance of Yeats' herons representing, as Alison Armstrong writes in her introduction to The Herne's Egg (1938), "timeless, extra-worldly, pre-Christian attitudes," and this symbolism is perfected in The Herne's Egg itself (xiv). In the story, herons care little for St. Patrick's preaching; they are timeless because they exist with or without human civilization, and they are pre-Christian in that Christianity means nothing to them. To be turned into a heron is to be relegated to the bestial, the primal and unimproved state of humanity. Conversely, Yeats sees this primal nature as somehow better than the Christianity that seeks to usurp it, and this argument of superiority continues in The Herne's Egg. In the play, the herne, or heron, is the avatar of a Celtic god, and consequently represents not only pagan religion but also everything ancient, mystical, and above all non-Christian in human nature. Christianity is the usurper; herons and Celtic mythos have existed for time immemorial without it. Just as in "The Old Men of the Twilight," the heron of The Herne's Egg calls to mind that which Yeats believed to be mystical and wonderful about the Irish past.

Throughout his works, and most especially in A Vision, Yeats differentiates between natural, selfish introspection, which he calls subjectivity, and the concern for others in both a social and religious sense, or objectivity. Quite simply, Yeats' Celtic gods are subjective; they resemble their human worshippers because they are fallible, selfish, and concerned primarily with their own affairs. Objectivity, or the selflessness of a crucified and risen Christ, is an alien philosophy in an alien world. St. Patrick's Christian ideals have no place in a Celtic, prehistoric society, and to force objective love on a human population that is subjective and self-absorbed by its very nature is the height of hypocrisy in Yeats' view of the world. It is akin to attempting to convert the beasts, represented in this case by the heron, to Christianity. The herne is subjective; it opposes St. Patrick's sterilized, objective Christianity and communes with the ancient. It is absorbed in its own thoughts and needs nothing but itself, just like the whittling old men who find themselves transformed. Thus, the heron in A Herne's Egg is the natural world's subjectivity contrasting with the objectivity of Christianity and effectively denying its veracity in the process. This is purely, indisputably Yeatsian philosophy, and therefore this subjective symbolism of the heron is touted over and over in studies of these two works. The assumption is that there is not, and need not be, any more to the heron than this simple juxtaposition.

However, before the heron image makes its final and ostensibly most polished appearance in The Herne's Egg, it passes quickly through Calvary (1920), one of Yeats' Four Plays for Dancers (1921) that has largely been ignored. Peter Ure's declaration that "little attention has ever been paid to Calvary" (172) has not been refuted in the forty years since he wrote it. Though Calvary has since been mentioned in virtually every critical study of Yeats, the tendency of this criticism is to use Yeats' own "Notes" about Calvary to briefly summarize the meaning of the play and then move on to other works. The general consensus is that the heron is placed opposite Christ rather simply and predictably in Calvary. In any case, Yeats follows the text of the play with a postscript explaining its symbolism, and for many critics this explanation is enough. Though the heron is still a symbol of pagan resistance to Christianity, even this aspect is thought to be rendered more completely elsewhere, especially in The Herne's Egg, where the heron exists "as a symbol of antithetical, subjective deity echoing the changeover from a pagan to a Christian era" (Parkin 2). Nevertheless, the simple, predictable heron is not so simple and predictable in Calvary; in fact, there is a complexity to the Calvary heron that transcends its roots as pagan symbol. The postscript does not tell us all there is to know.

Perhaps the reason for the heron's relative obscurity during its brief interlude in Calvary is that it joins numerous other symbols that also seem to be better represented in other plays. Christ is in Calvary, as are the phases of the moon, paganism, and the subjective/ objective interplay that is essential to Yeats' overall philosophy, but these are ubiquitous in Yeats and could retain their effectiveness without this short play. Ure cites Yeats' later play The Resurrection as a superior treatment of Christ, for "in [it] is much more development of the dialectical variety" (177). In The Resurrection, Christ is discussed in depth by those who follow him, and so a more complete picture of his character is presented. In Calvary, Christ barely says anything at all, and there is little if any development of his character. Also, it is not necessary to read Calvary to understand Yeats' belief that Christ represents the primary phase of man; the "transcend[ent] Christ" is contrasted with "antithetical" Lucifer in much of his writings (Whitaker 24). Since Christ is mentioned in dozens of Yeats' poems and plays, his appearance in Calvary is often passed over with little comment. After all, "Calvary's impact," writes M.L. Rosenthal, "is by far the simplest" (xliii) of the Yeats canon of plays.

The same could be said of the bird imagery so essential to the meaning of Calvary. Yeats' "landscape world of images [is] alive with birds," including not only common birds like ravens and woodpeckers but also a halcyon, a phoenix, and a bird made by Grecian goldsmiths (Parrish vi). In his Concordance to the Poems of W.B. Yeats, Stephen Parrish also says, "a full inventory of [Yeats'] birds overwhelms the mind," and then he goes on to list well over three hundred instances in which birds are mentioned (v). In addition, the birds are often assumed to be interchangeable; their importance has long been taken for granted. Yeats himself seems to explain all that is necessary to know about Calvary's birds in his postscript to the play. Discussing possible symbolic relationships to the heron is difficult when the final word on the subject is included at the end: "I have used my bird symbolism in these songs to increase the objective loneliness of Christ by contrasting it with a loneliness, opposite in kind, that unlike His can be, whether joyous or sorrowful, sufficient in itself" (Alspach 790).

On the surface, this could not be simpler. The birds are set up as natural opposites to Christ on the cross.

Christ, as explained in Yeats' "Notes," is completely objective because he is completely selfless; useless though it may be, Christ "only pit[ies] those whose suffering is rooted in death, in poverty, or in sickness" (Alspach 790), and by his very nature never pities or thinks about himself. He goes willingly to the cross and answers Judas with the pathos-inspiring "My Father put all men into my hands" (114) (3) while having no qualms about the sacrifice. No one is more lonely than Christ when he "di[es] in vain"(Alspach 790) and even the Father forsakes him. Yeats goes on to say that "lonely birds [such] as the heron, hawk, eagle and swan, are the natural symbols of subjectivity" (Alspach 789), and therefore the perfect symbols to place in opposition to an objective Christ. While they are solitary, the birds do not die in vain; they just die, and they cannot fail in their quest because they have no interest in saving anyone. The birds are, by Yeats' own admission, interchangeable as "symbols of subjective life" because they "float upon the wind alone, or alight upon some pool or river" (Alspach 789). They are only concerned with their next meal, or their own desires, and so the heron and its fellows are meant to represent the subjective natural world opposing an objective God-man. No matter how much Christ may objectively pity the world, his sacrifice means nothing to those who are essentially subjective, and this includes Judas and Lazarus as well as the birds. This explanation of the symbolism is clear enough, and the unspoken claim is that there is little more to be said. Critics must therefore move on to discuss other birds and other works, birds that are perhaps more complex in their meaning, or birds that are not tailed with a postscript.

This explanation of subjective and objective--a recurring theme in Yeats--might work for the generic term "birds" in Calvary, but the heron cannot and should not be lumped into this category. Yeats' explanatory notes to Calvary are brief, and they can hardly represent the depth to which his bird imagery runs. The symbolism of specific birds is not always the same; they are not all simply subjective opposites. The heron is the clearest example of this in Calvary, but the swan exhibits a duality as well. For example, Yeats mentions the swan as a symbol of subjectivity, a "lonely bird," and yet the swan is clearly more than that in the overall scheme. In "The Wild Swans at Coole," the swans are anything but lonely and selfish; though there is an "odd swan out," so to speak, the rest are "lover by lover" and contrast objectively with a subjective observer (Rosenthal 51). Depending on how they are interpreted, the swans in Calvary can correspond to either of these extremes. The First Musician in Calvary asks "what can a swan need but a swan?" (183) and this ostensibly places it in opposition to Christ, who is not needed by the swan. Yet, the swan is subjective only if it needs only ("but") itself, but objectivity can be read into this statement as well, since swans, including those at Coole, mate for life, live together in flocks, and are far from "lonely birds." In short, an objective swan needs other swans, and so the swan can be much more than what is mentioned in the "Notes" to Calvary.

Yeats obviously had "The Wild Swans at Coole" in mind when he penned Calvary, and therefore the swan as more than just a symbol of subjective life is evident. Wayne Chapman writes in his Calvary Manuscript Materials that '"The Wild Swans at Coole' [was] evoked to a fault in the play in draft two" (xl). Yeats went as far as to mention "Coole lake" three separate times and cross it out twice (Chapman 179). Though the swan might act as a subjective "lonely bird" in some respects, numerous objective overtones remain, through the "Coole" reference if no other way. The "lover by lover" swans of Coole are antithetically emotional compared to their presumed Calvary symbolism as "'intellectual intellect' and "intellectual love'" (Chapman xxxvii). In other words, swans can be both subjectively self-absorbed and objectively loving to one another at the same time. In this way, the swan simply does not fit into the purely subjective mold it is given in the 'Notes."

Since the swan has the potential to break this subjective mold, the heron shatters it. If Calvary, as Yeats writes and critics accept, is just a juxtaposition of Christ and subjective birds, if there is nothing more here than the surface interplay of subjective, pagan nature and objective God, then the Musicians who comment on the happenings could have sung about any bird at all, beginning the play as they end it, with the all-encompassing "God has not appeared to the birds" (184). In fact, earlier drafts of Calvary do refer to birds in general terms, as simple symbols of "the isolation of people who cannot surrender to something greater than themselves" (Lutwack 96). So the question remains: why use a heron? Yeats certainly had his choice of generic, subjective birds. The answer to this question lies in the nature of the heron itself, both in folklore and in its relation to Yeats' primary and antithetical symbolism. No other bird could do what the heron does in Calvary, not even the swan.

Unlike the other birds, the heron is mentioned almost as many times as Christ and is therefore placed in the forefront as antithetical to the main character on the cross. However, the heron is not only antithetical; the symbolism of the white heron in Calvary runs much deeper than critics have heretofore discussed, deeper even than Yeats admits in his "Notes." The heron represents a duality that corresponds to the duality of Christ. Christ exists as both God and man, and so the heron represents both objective Christ and subjective anti-Christ, godly and worldly, respected and reviled. The heron is still a Celtic god of nature, but in Calvary and only Calvary it also represents the divinity of Christ. In addition, the heron is inextricably tied to the primary and antithetical phases of the moon Yeats would later describe in A Vision; it exists on both ends of the diagram simultaneously. Yeats was careful in his choice of symbols--in Calvary, the heron is worth a thousand birds.

The genesis of the heron as both antithetical and primary symbol of Christ in Calvary can be traced in the Manuscript Materials edited by Wayne Chapman. In this book it is easy to see Calvary's evolution as it is composed; the play takes shape through three major drafts, all of which are included as photocopies of Yeats' original writings. At first, there are no herons; the action in the first draft (2) is very close to that in Oscar Wilde's "The Doer of Good," which Liam Miller calls the "generally accepted source" of the play (252). In Wilde's story, Jesus is confronted by those he has healed, and he is appalled at how immoral and ungrateful they have become. Jesus meets a healed leper who has fallen to gluttony, a blind man who now lusts after women, and a man who was once dead weeping at the city gates. Wilde's opinion, which Yeats shares, is that the benefits of Christ's miracles are illusory; selfish, subjective humankind will return to its basest instincts no matter whose objectivity tries to save them. "Subjective men," writes Yeats, "[are] seeking always that which is unique or personal" (Alspach 789). Calvary 1 conflates Wilde's characters into Lazarus and Judas, but it shares a similar aim both to show a Christ "confronted with his own failure" and to begin a Yeatsian "quarrel with Christianity [which] is at first a quarrel with its limits" (Good 106,105). After all, Christ came to save the world, and Yeats means to point out that the world, selfish and subjective as it is, cares little if it is saved or not. Yeats reproduces dramatically the same ideas about Christianity that Wilde postulated, with both Lazarus and Judas representing intellectual, subjective despair (Good 108-109). Intellectual subjectivity is anathema to Christ's objectivity--it is useless to help those who do not want to be helped--but Christ cannot do otherwise. It appears that Judas and Lazarus are the only subjective, antithetical symbols needed here, and so neither heron nor bird of any kind is present in Calvary 1.

Calvary 1 is a bare-bones rendering which proves Liam Miller's assertion that it is "elemental in its imagery" (254). The "Chorus" of the first draft is similar to a Greek chorus--their song for the unfolding of the cloth merely comments on the arrival of Christ and gives general background information (Chapman 119). Only when the Chorus is split into three Musicians in Calvary 3 does it speak of herons. Judas is the only other character to speak of herons in the final draft--a heron witnesses the formation of the betrayal plot--but in the beginning Judas is alone with his subjective, antichristian thoughts. "I was alone when it came to me," Judas says (Chapman 131). The natural world does not figure into this drama of man and God in Calvary 1, and so the play begins as just a revision of Oscar Wilde.

But simple human interplay is not enough for Yeats; by his own admission in the "Notes" he sought to "surround [Christ] with the images of those he cannot save" (Alspach 790), and this includes examples of the natural world such as birds and beasts. Christ's failure and by extension his "objective loneliness" is exacerbated by Creation's rejection of him. Judas and Lazarus, while rejecting Christ, nevertheless acknowledge his existence, but the birds and beasts are like the torturer's horse in Auden's "MuseE des Beaux Arts"; they could not care less who is on the cross. Yeats writes in his "Notes" that the birds "serve neither God nor Caesar, and await for none or for a different saviour" (Alspach 790). If Christ's death is vanity for Judas, it is vanity of vanities for the birds and beasts.

Therefore, in his second draft of Calvary, Yeats has Judas' thoughts of betrayal witnessed "by an old grey goat & a young magpie" (Chapman 165). Here, the dualism of conflicting forces that will later exist in the heron are taking shape. Indeed, few things are more disparate than an old goat and a young magpie; they represent opposite ends of Judas' own personality. Judas as Apostle is supposed to be objective and Christlike, but Judas the Betrayer rejects this out of hand, saying

"I could not bear to think I lay in your [Christ's] hand And never would be free, & that I thought <begin strikethrough>He<end strikethrough> The man that could betray him would be free Would come into possession of him self."

(Chapman 165)

Quite simply, the goat, old and waning like Yeats' antithetical moon, is what remains of Judas' objectivity, his love for Christ and his fellow men. This corresponds with Yeats' assertion that "the beasts that run upon the ground are the natural symbols of objective man" (Alspach 789). The magpie is young, waxing subjectivity, a bird that acts as Yeats says his birds should act. The symbolism of the magpie is blatant--the medieval French personified the magpie as "vain, gossipy, proud, argumentative, and vengeful, and always looking for personal profit" (Rowland 103). The magpie has an "addiction to pilfering" (Rowland 103), which calls to mind Judas as treasurer and thief, his chief characterization in the gospel of John. Even better, the magpie was known in Scotland simply as "the Devil's bird" (Rowland 104). If Yeats needed subjective aviary to represent a wicked Judas, he found it by Calvary 2 without a doubt.

However, Yeats quickly abandons these seemingly perfect symbols in favor of

"but it was not your thought for when I [Judas] thought it <begin strikethrough>I was alone but for an old heron<end strikethrough> There was no creature by but an old heron that Under a willow in the wet <begin strikethrough>&<end strikethrough> looked So full of himself that he ^was terrified"

(Chapman 207).

Some sudden inspiration compels Yeats to focus on the heron by the end of Calvary 2. The goat and magpie are abandoned, and the manuscript shows Yeats scribbling furiously to give the "Musicians," now no longer called the "Chorus," a new song. Yeats adds a "sea mew" to the end, along with a new refrain "God has not appeared to the birds" (Chapman 177). Then Yeats attempts three separate times to write the last symbol of the play, eventually choosing "last year's cygnets" and the line "what can a swan need but a swan?" (Chapman 179). Finally, almost as an afterthought, Yeats writes, with much crossing-out, the heron stanza that will begin the play, the refrain "God has not died for the white heron," and what I will call the "feather-song" of lines 90-96 (Chapman 182-83). It is as if Yeats had stumbled upon the perfect bird to contrast with the crucified Christ.

Yeats' choice of the heron was no accident. Whereas the "sea mew" can indeed be the symbol of subjectivity needed, and the swan (minus the Coole reference) can at least pass for such, the heron is defined as antithesis to Christ, and a certain amount of dualism is necessary for this role. I can imagine Yeats raiding his coffers for this symbol, a bird that can oppose Christ as God and Christ as man, a bird that can represent Christ and anti-Christ. The herons of "The Old Men in the Twilight" oppose St. Patrick well enough, and so this symbol's subjectivity is ingrained, but the heron we meet in Calvary, standing "up to his feathers in the stream" (2), is also "trapped in the objective cycle" in the same way as Christ (Good 107). Immediately, the heron and Christ are interconnected.

It is strange enough for a play called Calvary to begin with a song about a heron rather than a song about Christ, but this only strengthens the interchangeable nature of the two. Contrary to what is expected, the parallels of the heron and Christ actually appear before the differences. Above all, the heron is a fisher, a "friend to sailors because its presence was said to signify fish in the sea" (Rowland 80-81). Calvary 3, which after a few minor corrections would become the published version, begins with a heron that cannot catch fish leaping around it because it "shivers in a dumbfounded dream" (4). Jesus himself associates catching fish with saving souls; in Mark 1:17, Jesus tells the apostle-fishermen Peter and Andrew that he will make them "fishers of men." Two of the most recognizable miracles attributed to Jesus involve the catching or distribution of fish; Luke relates an incident in which Jesus nearly causes Peter's nets to break by summoning an abundance of fish (Luke 5:4-7), and all four gospels tell of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes (Matthew 14:17-19 et. al.). However, like the heron, the Christ in Calvary will be tantalized by the fish he cannot catch, the souls that are beyond his power to redeem. The heron unable to catch fish is a pitiful sight akin to that of Christ on the cross, a man who is dying for nothing. They are objective in their desire to catch fish and men, and they both fail at it.

Thus, the heron is a symbol of the objective Christ, Christ as man, the Christ who cannot save all those he wishes to save because he is forced to exist in reality. Christ on the cross cannot even save himself because of his objective nature; he cannot stop thinking of Judas, Lazarus, and the failures of the flesh. Christ on the cross is akin to the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane--in the Garden, Christ admits that "the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" and then surrenders Himself to the will of God (Matthew 26:42). This act is utterly primary and objective, selfless beyond selfless, and in Calvary Christ is insistent that "I do My Father's will" (74). Subjective, selfish Christ does not seem to exist here, and when he tells Judas that "My Father even now, were I but to whisper it, would break the world in his miraculous fury to set me free" (109-112), he knows full well it will not happen.

Christ cannot maintain this objectivity forever; before his death there is a compelling moment of subjectivity. When Christ cries out "My Father, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (169) it is clear that the noble, godly suffering he has experienced has given way to simple human suffering. In the end, Christ finally thinks of himself because he feels abandoned, and the altruism that sustained him is gone. The heron, likewise, suffers in the world. The objective heron cannot "dip or do anything but stare" (7) at its subjective self, the "glittering image" (8) on the water that is a construction of the moonlight and the heron's own mind. Christ also has an ecstasy of self-reflection waiting for him at the end, when his Godhood finally rejects his humanity. Whether objective by choice or by force, both Christ and the heron "would be but fishes' diet soon" (14) with their sudden subjectivity. The heron is eaten by the "fish" it tried so hard to catch in an eerie natural version of the consumption of Christ in the Catholic Eucharist.

To call the heron a symbol of Christ is nothing new; it is favorably compared to him in many ancient texts as well. A Vulgate mistranslation of Psalms 103:17, "Herodii domus dux est eorum" (1) caused Rabanus Maurus to declare that "the heron is Christ because the church, which is Christ's habitation, leads the elected into life" (Rowland 80). In addition, as Beryl Rowland writes, "the bestiaries [of the Middle Ages] extolled the heron for its wisdom, and the Physiologus linked it with the pelican of piety in its attitudes towards its young" (80). In other words, medieval scholars knew the heron as objective and selfless. It was believed to feed its young--like the pelican--by tearing off bits of its own flesh. Again we see a Eucharistic connection, and it is very possible that Yeats knew of these heron-Christ comparisons when he chose his symbol.

However, the heron has a duality of spirit that is as disparate as Christ's own existence as both God and man. Though "Christ' s loneliness upon the cross seems almost to transform him to his antithesis, the solitary heron" (Good 110), his selfless objectivity keeps that from happening until the very end. Christ argues with Lazarus and Judas in a quiet, brooding manner, using pointed phrases such as "I gave you life" (54) and "And yet you have betrayed me" (108). This is the Jesus Christ of the gospels, the compassionate and pitiful martyr who is dying to give life to those who despise him. As Yeats writes in his note, "Objective men, however personally alone, are never alone in their thought" and so Christ's objective loneliness is not a state of loneliness "sufficient to itself" like that of the heron (Alspach 789, 790). As much as the heron is compared favorably to the objective Christ, it also represents the subjective aspects of man. Christ resists subjectivity until the end, when his humanity takes over, but the heron has it ingrained.

For example, the heron is renowned in British legend for its cowardice and self-involvement. According to a famous story related in the Reverend Charles Swainson's 1885 Provincial Names and Folklore of British Birds, this reputation causes the Hundred Years' War:
   When Robert of Artois took refuge at the court of Edward III, he
   endeavoured to excite the ambition of that monarch by urging him to
   tear the French crown from the brows of Philip .To effect this, he
   had recourse to the following device. One day he [bore] to the
   palace two silver dishes, each of which contained a roast heron.
   Kneeling before the monarch, he offered them for his acceptance,
   declaring that they, the most cowardly of all birds, were well
   suited as a present to the greatest coward that ever lived.

This, of course, so incensed Edward III that he attacked France immediately. Self-preservation is of primary importance to the legendary heron. Herons were believed to never give fight when attacked by a hawk, instead always trying to escape (Rowland 79). John Swan's 1643 Speculum Mundi declares that the heron is even afraid of the rain: "she doth so abhorre rain and tempests, that she seeketh to avoid them by flying on high" (392). It is no surprise, therefore, that the heron that watches Judas make his fateful decision is "so full of itself that it seemed terrified" (126).

If he is anything, Yeats' Christ is no coward, and in this way the heron is antithetical to him. Christ rejects the idea of whispering to his father to "break the world in His miraculous fury to set me free" (111-112), though we can presume that he changes his mind at the end, when he is asking the Father why he has forsaken him. Christ is portrayed "not as a torture victim but as the pantokrator, Byzantine and unrealistic, rigid like the figure in an icon" (Ure 174). He does not rage at Judas or Lazarus; he says nothing at all to the Roman soldiers who taunt him. There is no representation of fear or apprehension in Calvary as in the Biblical account of the Agony in Gethsemane. However, for all his stoic resignation, Christ is still a man. He is still torn, in Yeats' view, between subjective and objective life, and must suppress the one in order to promote the other. "Yeats draws a distinction," Maeve Good writes, "between love, which he sees as subjective, and pity of this primary [or objective] kind" (108). Thus, even as he dies, Christ struggles to objectively pity mankind.

Consequently, the bird set up as antithetical to Christ is ruled by emotion and subjectivity. The heron's Greek name, erodios, was associated with Eros and erotic love, and some medieval writers "regarded it as a symbol of a man exhausted through too much sex" (Rowland 81). The Speculum Mundi says "in Latin [the heron] is called ardea, of ardeo, to burn: chiefly because she is an angrie creature, or because she is greatly enflamed with lust" (393). In addition, the heron is given the scientific name herodius, which comes from the Latin word herodium (McCulloch 125). This name calls to mind that of King Herod, the man reviled in Matthew 2:16 for his violent and irrational temper, and Herodias, Herod's wicked wife who calls for the head of John the Baptist in Matthew 14:8. According to Thomas Whitaker, Yeats knew of Herodias and her daughters "as the frenzy of destructive passion, the collective nightmare, that ever brings the fall of a civilization" (230). Surely, few characters in the Bible are more in opposition to Christ than these. Herod and Herodias represent everything Christ speaks against, and so herodius the heron symbolizes the anti-Christ, the subjective loneliness.

It is very strange to think of the heron as both a symbol of Christ and as utterly antithetical to him, but I believe this duality to be essential in explaining why Yeats chose the heron out of all other birds to shiver dumbfounded, witness Judas' betrayal, and above all not be the one for whom God has died. The heron in Calvary is both subjective and objective, and another possible explanation for this lies in the relationship between the heron and one of the most ubiquitous symbols in Yeats, the moon. The phases of the moon explain in totality Yeats' ideas about subjectivity and objectivity; he writes "This wheel [of the moon's phases] is every completed movement of thought or life, twenty-eight incarnations, a single incarnation, a single judgment or act of thought" (Finneran 396). The heron's legendary attributes are tied to the phases of the moon and can therefore represent both ends of the cycle, from objective Christ to subjective man.

The relationship between heron and moon often occurs in British legend, which might explain why the heron is inseparable from the moon in Calvary. Charles Swainson writes "the fat of a heron, killed at the full of the moon, is believed in the north of Ireland to be an excellent cure for rheumatism" (145). Secondly, "in Angus there is a popular superstition that this bird [the heron] waxes and wanes with the moon; that it is plump when the moon is full and so lean at the change that it can scarcely raise itself, so that it can almost be taken with the hand" (Swainson 145). It is this second legend that is most telling when compared with Calvary because the heron waxes and wanes like a werewolf under Yeats' moon. The first stanza of Calvary ties this journey towards subjectivity to the moon and its phases. The First Musician sings,

"But that the full is shortly gone And after that is crescent moon, It's certain that the moon-crazed heron Would be but fishes' diet soon." (11-14)

As the full moon wanes, the objectivity Yeats assigns to it wanes as well. The heron sees itself in the stream and is fixated; its hunger gives over to self-reflection. Whereas Christ has willingly given himself to suffering, the heron is "half-famished" (6) and might eventually starve because it can't "do anything but stare" (7) at its subjective self. The heron gets its power from the primary phase of the moon, and during the crescent moon it wastes away into nothingness, becoming so very subjective and self-involved that it cannot interact with the world around it. In fact, the heron is never mentioned without a corresponding allusion to the moon, and only when the moon is full does the heron exist at all. Under a crescent moon, the heron is but "fishes' diet" (14).

Helen Vendler theorizes that the whole of Calvary takes place under the full moon, the subjective phase fifteen of Yeats' cycle, despite the play's objective nature (103, 104). This seems plausible, because the heron is first described as "motionless under the moon-beam" (1) and is then called "moon-crazed" (13), both of which refer to a full moon that greatly affects earthbound creatures with its light. Despite its similarity to the objective Christ discussed earlier, the heron is so swayed by the moon's fifteenth phase that it is as white as the moon above. In addition, the heron is so subjective that God has not died for it, meaning that objective love is useless for a bird that looks only at itself. When Christ enters as Yeats' symbol of objective loneliness, the voices of his mockers are compared to
   A flute of bone
   Taken from a heron's thigh,
   A heron crazed by the moon,
   Were cleverly, softly played. (34-37)

Here, the moon-crazed heron is antithetical to Christ and is, predictably, Yeats' symbol of subjective loneliness.

However, the heron soon waxes again toward objectivity, even though it is getting thinner and thinner like the heron in the Angus legend. When Martha and "those three Marys" (84) arrive to clean with their hair "[Christ's] dirty, blood-dabbled feet" (88-89), they are returning the objective pity Christ has for them. Here we have the "feather-song":
   Take but His love away,
   Their love becomes a feather
   Of Eagle, swan, or gull,
   Or a drowned heron's feather
   Tossed thither and thither
   Upon the bitter spray
   And the moon at the full. (90-96)

The moon has changed phases again, and so has the heron. A drowned heron, a heron wasted away until only a feather is left, symbolizes the objective love of Martha and the Marys. Their objective love cannot save Christ, Christ's objective love cannot save them, and even the heron, which seemingly has nothing to do with this interplay, is mentioned again as yet another drowned and helpless creature that objective love could not save.

To cement this failure of Christ's objectivity, and prove once again that Yeats is surrounding the crucified Lord with those "for whom He has died in vain" (Alspach 790), Judas appears directly after Martha and the Marys. Christ is deserted completely; his objective love is as lonely as it has ever been. He laments,

"I felt their [Martha and the Marys] hair upon my feet for a moment And then they fled away--why have they fled? Why has the street grown empty of a sudden As though all fled in terror?" (97-100)

Judas comes onto a stage that is empty except for Christ, and so is clearly the reason for their fear. Judas is the ultimate subjective intellectual, and he arrives for a final parley with the objective, giving Lord he has betrayed. He is not ashamed of his deed; he announces, "I am Judas, that sold you for the thirty pieces of silver" (100-101) and then admits that he does believe that Christ is God and this, amazingly, is the very reason he betrayed him in the first place. Judas' reasoning is absolute, he says "I have betrayed you because you seemed all-powerful" (108-109). To admit that Christ has power over all men is to be like the women, objective and genuflecting, and Judas will have none of that. The key here is that Christ seemed all-powerful, and the fact that he was able to be betrayed at all contradicts this, much to the satisfaction of Judas. The objective love must be destroyed if Judas is to have any control over himself, and if his subjective nature is to be verified. For this reason Judas is triumphant in his betrayal,

"For thirty pieces and no more, no less, And neither with a nod nor a sent message, But with a kiss upon your cheek. I did it, I, Judas, and no other man, and now You cannot even save me." (136-140)

Judas has affirmed his independence and his power by betraying the greatest of all objective minds. Christ's response to this is "Begone from me" (140), and of course Judas does not obey. He is subjective, making his own decisions and regarding no one but himself. Christ cannot objectively tell him what to do. Judas appears to finalize his victory in a stage direction, because it is he that "holds up the cross while Christ stands with his arms stretched out upon it" (141-142).

Were this play simply a triumph of human, subjective will over the failed objectivity of a loving God, Judas would be the undisputed victor in this situation. However, Yeats does not let him off so easily, and the problem with Judas' plan is foreshadowed by Christ. Judas says,

"'Whatever man betrays Him will be free'; And life grew bearable again. And now Is there a secret left I do not know, Knowing that if man betrays a God He is the stronger of the two?" (118-122)

This is an affirmation of all Judas has wrought. His subjectivity has become God in itself, because with it he has beaten a God. Yet, Christ has a retort for this, saying "But if 'twere the commandment of that God Himself, that God were still the stronger" (122-124). With this, Judas becomes a pawn again in a larger, objective plan. His sense of self is denied by Christ, and there is a scary moment for Judas in which he fears his original idea might not have been so original after all. Here is Yeats' argument against Christianity laid bare--prediction means a lack of free will. If all is a part of a divine plan, there is no room for human choice, nor is their room for subjective thought. If Judas' betrayal is original, subjectivity has triumphed, and if not, Christ wins the argument even as he dies.

At this the moment of highest tension, the white heron appears for a final time, exhibiting its duality in a way that is both beautiful and infuriating. Judas is adamant that the choice to betray was his alone, "When I planned it there was no live thing near me but a heron so full of itself that it seemed terrified" (124-126). There was no goat or magpie near him as in earlier drafts--these animals might have tipped the balance too far in either direction. The heron is a truly neutral observer. For Judas, the heron is an ally because it is a purely subjective being; it is "full of itself," it should not listen to or care about his betrayal plan, and "God has not died for [it]" (15). In short, the heron cannot or will not tell on him, and the purity of his subjective thought, as Judas sees it, is assured.

However the heron could be the symbol of objective Christ just as easily, and Yeats leaves this up to interpretation. Christ is everywhere, even in the heron, and an objective love that is professed to extend into infinity could very well do just that. Judas cannot be assured of subjective superiority if the heron is not subjective and self-absorbed as well. Christ's argument that his "betrayal was decreed that hour when the foundations of the world were laid" (127-128) could very well be true. The heron is in the middle of the subjective/objective struggle, simultaneously representing Judas in humanity and Christ in nature. The question of who is right is never answered.

It is no surprise, therefore, that all three players in this dialogue disappear from the play immediately. Judas holds up the cross but never says another word; Christ is also silent except for his death-cry of "My Father, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (169). The heron is likewise nowhere to be found. It has fulfilled its purpose, and so Yeats returns to the bit-part players of the avian world and uses the gull, "ger-eagle," and swan as his subjective symbols. The heron is so bonded to Christ and Judas, to the two poles of its duality, that it falls silent when they do. The heron has followed the cycle of the moon, appearing as both primary and antithetical, wheeling about like the Roman soldiers who dance around the cross. Just as Christ is God and man, the heron is also both poles of Yeats' cyclic vision. The heron is subjective, "full of itself," and objective, full of Christ. Thus, when heron and Savior are no more, the rest of the birds are left alone at last, and not even God appears to them in their frightful new world.


Alspach, Russell K. and Catherine C. Alspach, eds. The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats. New York: MacMillan, 1966.

Armstrong, Alison, ed. The Herne's Egg Manuscript Materials by W. B. Yeats. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Chapman, Wayne K., ed. "The Dreaming of the Bones" and "Calvary" Manuscript Materials by W. B. Yeats. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

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Rowland, Beryl. Birds with Human Souls: A Guide to Bird Symbolism. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.

Swainson, Rev. Charles. Provincial Names and Folklore of British Birds. London: Tr,bner and Company, 1885.

Swan, John. Speculum Mundi, or a Glasse Representing the Face of the World. Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1643.

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(1.) Here, and throughout the paper, I refer to lines in the final, published text of Calvary using the numbering system in Alspach's The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats.

(2.) Drafts of Calvary in Chapman's edition will be referred to as Calvary 1,2 and 3 respectively.

(3.) "Their leader is of the house of the heron" (Trans. by Beryl Rowland).


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Title Annotation:William Butler Yeats
Author:Showers, Zac
Publication:Yeats Eliot Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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