W. B. Yeats's Encounters with his Daimon, Leo Africanus: The Daimon and Anti-Self Concepts in Per Amica Silentia Lunae

In July of 1914 Yeats began communicating during seances with a spirit which he called his "daimon," one Leo Africanus, a Renaissance geographer and traveller. At Leo's request, through the voice of the medium, Yeats began a written correspondence in which he would write questions and observations to Leo, and Leo would answer through Yeats's hand. This correspondence would prove influential in Yeats's evolving concept of the sources of artistic inspiration as emanating from the interaction between the physical and the spiritual worlds. This paper will explore the growth of the daimon concept out of Yeats's divided-self theory during his correspondence with Leo Africanus and then its explication in the 1917 Per Amica Silentia Lunae.


From the beginning of his literary career Yeats, like many authors in this age of a dawning awareness of modern psychology and concept of the sub-conscious, had been fascinated with the concept of an divided self or anti-self or a self which is covered by a mask or "pose." In these early John Sherman stories, the the dreamy, unsophisticated John Sherman is tempted by the elegant, citified, and High Church Rev. William Howard. In the Rosa Alchemica stories of 1897, we are introduced to two characters who will remain staples of Yeats's oeuvre: the pious, conventional John Aherne who is "educated" and tempted by the mysterious Michael Robartes, with his secrets of the "Order of the Alchemical Rose." In On Baile's Strand (1904) the instinctive, active warrior Cuchulain struggles against the wiles of the crafty, domesticated ruler Conchubar.

By the 1900's, Yeats is using the metaphor of the mask to portray this dichotomy in man. "The mask," Richard Ellmann says, "had come to occupy in his system during the first decade of this century the position which the rose had held in it during the 'nineties" (190). In 1907 he begins The Player Queen, in which each character seeks an antithetical self, and he introduces it with the explicit song "The Mask." Whatever exactly "the mask" is--an alter-ego, a heroic ideal, a protective shield--it is a metaphor for an internal struggle, a psychological process. The next step would be to give this process more cosmic implications by making the struggle involve an outside force, a representative from the "spirit world" who could put one in contact with the "beyond." This would happen when Yeats discovered his Daimon.

Leo Africanus

In the first decade of the century, Yeats--along with virtually everyone in the artistic world--was still dabbling in the occult, looking for insight and inspiration. In 1906-9 he studied with the Golden Dawn society again and by 1912 he was dabbling in automatic writing and going to seances. In June of 1912, at one of Mrs. Wreidt's (an American medium) seances at Cambridge House in Wimbledon, Yeats began making brief contacts with--among others--a "Leo." In July of 1914, the contact became clearer; this was the voice of Leo Africanus, a geographer and explorer of the Italian Renaissance, offering Yeats insights and advice. If Yeats would write to him, he would respond through Yeats's own hand. A look at this correspondence, published in The Yeats Annual in 1982, gives one an idea of the inception of the daimon theory.

Yeats writes: "[You said] You were my opposite. By association with one another we should each become more complete...if I would write a letter to you...and afterwards answer it in your name you would overshadow me in my turn & answer all my doubts..." (21). Excerpts of Leo's "answer" show where Yeats's thought is evolving: "...now for your good & my own I have chosen to linger near, your contrary mind (28)... If I have been sent to give you confidence & solitude it is because I am a brooding & braggart shade (29)...We are the unconscious as you say or as I prefer to say the animal spirits freed from the will, & moulded by the images of Spiritus Mundi...it is only because I am your opposite, your antithesis because I am in all things furthest from your intellect & your will, that I alone am your Interlocutor"(38).

Yeats's answer opens with "I am not convinced that in this letter there is one sentence that has come from beyond my own imagination..." but he says he will persevere nevertheless: "Nothing has surprised me...Yet I am confident now as always that spiritual beings if they cannot write & speak can always listen. I can still put by difficulties" (38). As with his belief in faeries, he always retains some common sense and skepticism. The important thing is that these materials are being used in ever-evolving theories which nourish the creative impulse. Ellmann's observation about the mask concept holds true for all Yeats's ideas: "Yeats more and more inclined to the use of myth and metaphor which somersaulted over the question of literal belief...Metaphor made irrelevant the questions, was there a mask?" (204-5).

Leo's influence would gradually wane, probably the due to the influence of George Hyde-Lees, who was intriguing her new husband with her automatic writing and immediately (November of 1917) began to get messages about Leo's disreputability and unreliability (Yeats, "...Leo Africanus" 15). The daimon idea was in place however, and began to be systematically worked out as a theory in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917).

Per Amica Silentia Lunae

Yeats's first title for Per Amica was "An Alphabet," to indicate its role as a rudimentary outline of a system of thought which he would continue to work on--and which would reach its culmination (or nadir, some might say!) in A Vision of 1925. His "alphabet" explores the nature of the physical and the spiritual worlds, and the role of the artist in drawing creativity from tension between these two worlds.

The title "Per Amica..." comes from a tag from the Aeneid (A Tenedo tacitae per amica silentia lunae) which Yeats quotes just after describing his quest--through studies and using mediums--to penetrate the Anima Mundi, or spirit world (Yeats, "Per Amica... 343). The context is when the Greek ships are sailing "from Tenedos, through the friendly silence of the peaceful moon" to attack the sleeping Troy. Why Yeats uses this phrase, which would have been familiar to anyone who had done his fourth form Latin, is unclear--perhaps it evokes mystery, or the help of the friendly moon (well, friendly to the Greeks anyway!) whose role would be so prominent later in A Vision. That this quest is mysterious and of great moment to the artist is clear.

There are five parts to Per Amica: a prologue and epilogue addressed to "Maurice" (Iseult Gonne), the poem "Ego Dominus Tuus," a poetic version of his Anti-Self theory with hints of the Daimon, (which was also included in 1917 edition (Rosenthal 192) of The Wild Swans at Coole), and--most prominently--the prose explications of the Anti-Self/Daimon: "Anima Hominis" and "Anima Mundi." The prologue and epilogue are whimsical, although we should note Yeats's closing comment in the epilogue about his long poetic quest to penetrate the trembling "veil of the temple" (in Mallarme's words), and how he feels he has found a solution "more universal and more ancient" than the religious answers of contemporary French poets.

In "Anima Hominis," Yeats defines the soul/psyche/mind of the creative individual by means of his Anti-self/double/mask theory and then adds a Daimon element. The focus is on artistic creativity, and how it is served by the tension between self and anti-self: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry" (331). It is to poets that the other "self" comes--not to "practical men who believe in money": "The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality" [reality, in a Platonic sense] (331). This anti-self is demanding, and accepting its strictures is different from passively accepting the mores of society: "If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are, and try to assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves... Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask..." (334).

In Part VII of "Anima Hominis" he brings in the Daimon, making explicit the feeling one already had above that this anti-self descends upon one ("comes to those who") from the outside. He has already heard from sources as various as Plutarch and "old women in Soho" that "a strange living man may win for Daimon an illustrious dead man" but now he adds "another thought: The Daimon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite, for man and Daimon feed the hunger in one another's hearts" (335). That this relationship involves a struggle, a bit of a love-hate relationship is important: the Daimon "would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny and why man loves nothing but his destiny." Also, there is a sexual side to this concept (a fact that is evident in the imagery of later poems): "it may be 'sexual love,' which is 'founded upon spiritual hate,' is an image of the warfare of man and Daimon" (336 ).

"Anima Mundi" describes the soul-of-the-world/transcendent /universal mind and the artist's efforts to penetrate this world. Yeats begins by describing his long quest "to immerse [my mind] in the general mind where that mind is scarcely separable from what we have begun to call 'the subconscious...and that I might so believe I have murmured evocations and frequented mediums...and have put myself to school where all things are seen" (343). He describes a vaguely Platonic universe, where "Our daily though was certainly but the line of foam at the shallow edge of a vast luminous sea" where "minds" sway "fluid images" which seem "mirrored in a living substance whose form is but change of form" (346), and "forms existing in the general vehicle of Anima Mundi [are] mirrored in our particular vehicle" (352).

There are two important points in this difficult prose. One, a system of imagery is developing which will be prominent later in his poetry and in A Vision, such as in the passage: "one thought of one's own life as symbolised by earth...the images as mirrored in water, and the images themselves one could divine but as air; and beyond it all there were ...certain aims and governing loves, the fire that makes all simple" (346).

The other important point is the Daimon's role as mediator between the individual and spirit world, which is developed in XV and XVI. To reach the "Condition of Fire," most of us must take "the winding path called the Path of the Serpent" and arduously work our way upwards. Saints and sages have a direct line, the "straight path" of a Pauline-type revelation. The third path is that made possible by the Daimon, whose "descending power is neither the winding nor the straight line but zigzag." If he is helping us, it is intermittent and sudden: "all his acts of power are instantaneous. We perceive in a pulsation of the artery, and after slowly decline" (361)--a cyclical activity which will be developed as part of the lunar phases in A Vision.

The poetic explication of this Anti-Self theory, "Ego Dominus Tuus," is concise, didactic, and succinctly develops the ideas in the two prose sections. The title, with the stern words "I am your Lord" of Dante's "Lord of Terrible Aspect," (Hoffman 67) evokes the domineering side of the anti-self, the part that can cause "a deep enmity between a man and his destiny" (Anima Hominis 336). Two voices, Hic ("this one") and Ille ("that one") argue about the sources of artistic inspiration, with Ille propounding the ideas from Per Amica. Hic, a more conventional soul, wants self-knowledge and believes it a source of inspiration for others, and we recall Yeats admonition in "Anima Hominis": "Some years ago I began to believe that our culture, with its doctrine of sincerity and self-realization, made us gentle and passive..." (333). Ille looks for his Anti-Self--"I call to my own opposite, summon all / That I have handled least, leas looked upon"--and sees this quest as the source of poetic inspiration for others, such as Dante and Keats.

Ille's theory of Dante's and Keats's creativity arising from the opposition of self with anti-self are a poetic restatement of the beginning of "Anima Hominis," and are familiar to us as a continuation of Yeats's mask/anti-self theories. It is only with Ille's final statement that we get a hint of the developing Daimon idea, an appeal to an outside force:

I call to the mysterious one who yet

Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream

And look most like me, being indeed my double,

And prove of all imaginable things

The most unlike, being my anti-self,

And standing by these characters disclose

All that I seek; and whisper it...

Although this can also be viewed as just metaphorical statement of the anti-self concept, and therefore another interior, psychological process, the argument can be made that it is to his Daimon that Ille is calling.

For one thing, the poem is a quintessence of Per Amica and the introduction to it; so it follows that the Daimon would be included in the same way in prose and poem. Also, what Ille says about whatever he is summoning evokes closely what Leo Africanus "wrote" to Yeats: "...it is only because I am your opposite, your antithesis because I am in all things furthest from your intellect & your will, that I alone am your Interlocutor" (38). Richard Ellmann sees this as a call at least to something outside an internal psychological process: "In both instances [Dante and Keats] the opposite seems to be the artist's own creation, but in the concluding lines of the poem Yeats leans towards a more supernatural hypothesis" (201).


It is easy to dismiss Leo Africanus as another wacky bohemian experiment and Per Amica as an obscure "alphabet" to an even obscurer work, A Vision. However, Yeats himself considered Per Amica important, and in June of 1917 wrote to his father:

[It] is part of a religious system more or less logically worked out, a system which will I hope interest you as a form of poetry. I find the setting it all in order has helped my verse, has given me a new framework and new patterns. One goes on year after year gradually getting the disorder of one's mind in order and this is the real impulse to create . . . . (Lickendorf 41)

We too need to pay attention to Leo and Per Amica; Yeats's observations aside, it is clear that working from looking at his poems that the new theorizing has given him "a new framework and new patterns." This side of the "impulse to create" was immediately evident in the 1919 edition of Wild Swans at Coole, especially in the complicated "The Phases of the Moon" and "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes." "The Phases" is an intermediate step in the development of the new ideas between Yeat's "Alphabet" of Per Amica and the 1925 A Vision, with Robartes tying in the stages of a soul's development to the twenty eight phases of the moon, while "The Double Vision" explores the poles of Intellect (Sphinx) vs. Affection (Buddha), with the dancer fusing the two through creative activity. "The Cat and the Moon" offers a humourous version of all this serious matter, as "The pure cold light in the sky" troubles poor Minnaloushe's "animal blood" and the "two close kindred" meet in a "dance."

Yeats will continue throughout his career to draw on the concepts of the divided self, anti-self, artistic creation as a result of warring elements between selves, and possession of the self from an outside force connected with another world. One immediately thinks of "Among Schoolchildren" with its age-youth, body-soul dichotomies and the question "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Or "A Dialogue of Self and Soul," where one questions how much of a balance is achieved, or if the aging poet comes down firmly on the side of the Body. Or "Leda and the Swan," an explicitly sexual image of invasion of the daimonic spirt which recalls Yeats's words in Per Amica, that maybe "'sexual love,' which is 'founded upon spiritual hate,' is an image of the warfare of man and Daimon" (336). Or "Crazy Jane," with her comic version of the body/soul dichotomy: "Love has pitched its mansion in a place of excrement"! Yeats was a poet of dichotomies, from the initial pull to the faerie world to the final struggles against his aging body; his encounter with his Daimon and the writing of Per Amica was a crucial stage in this long development.

Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. Yeats; The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton, 1979.

Hoffman, Bryant E. "All Imaginable Things: Yeats's Per Amica Silentia Lunae." Irish Renaissance Annual 1 (1980): 56-72.

Lickindorf, Elizabeth. "W. B. Yeats's 'Per Amica Silentia Lunae.'" English Studies in Africa. 25:1 (1982): 39-52.

Rosenthal, M. L. Running to Paradise; Yeats's Poetic Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

Yeats, William Butler. "Per Amica Silentia Lunae." Mythologies. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Yeats, William Butler. "The Manuscript of 'Leo Africanus.'" Ed. Steve L. Adams and George Mills Harper. Yeats Annual 1 (1982): 3-46.

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September 1, 1998