W. B. Yeats, “The Adoration Of The Magi” (1897)

[Source: W. B. Yeats, “The Adoration Of The Magi” [1897], in G. J. Watson, ed., W. B. Yeats: Short Fiction (Harmonsworth: Penguin 1995), pp.212.]

I was sitting reading late into the night a little after my last meeting with Aherne, when I heard a light knocking on my front door; and found upon the doorstep three very old men with stout sticks in their hands, who said they had been told I should be up and about, and that they were to tell me important things. I brought them into my study, and, when the peacock curtains had closed behind us, I set their chairs for them close to the fire, for I saw that the frost was on their great-coats of frieze and upon the long beards that flowed almost to their waists. They took off their great-coats, and leaned over the fire warming their hands, and I saw that their clothes had much of the country of our time, but a little also, as it seemed to me, of the town life of a more courtly time. When they had warmed themselves; and they warmed themselves, I thought, less because of the cold of the night than because of a pleasure in warmth for the sake of warmth; they turned towards me, so that the light of the lamp fell full upon their weather-beaten faces, and told the story I am about to tell. Now one talked and now another, and they often interrupted one another, with a desire, like that of peasants, when they tell a story, to leave no detail untold. When they had finished they made me take notes of whatever conversation they had quoted, so that I might have the exact words, and got up to go, and when I asked them where they were going and what they were doing and by what names I should call them, they would tell me nothing, except that they had been commanded to travel over Ireland continually, and upon foot and at night, that they might live close to the stones and the trees and at the hours when the immortals are awake. [212]
 I have let some years go by before writing out this story, for I am always in dread of the illusions which come of that. inquietude of the veil of the Temple, which M. Mallarmé considers a characteristic of our times; and only write it now because I have grown to believe that there is no dangerous idea, which does not become less dangerous when written out in sincere and careful English.
 The three old men were three brothers, who had lived in one of the western islands from their early manhood, and had cared all their lives for nothing except for those classical writers and old Gaelic writers who expounded an heroic and simple life; night after night in winter, Gaelic storytellers would chant old poems to them over the poteen; and night after night in summer, when the Gaelic story-tellers were at work in the fields or away at the fishing, they would read to one another Virgil and Homer, for they would not enjoy in solitude but as the ancients enjoyed. At last a man who told them he was Michael Robartes came to them in a fishing-boat, like St Brandan drawn by some vision and called by some voice; and told them of the coming again of the gods and the ancient things; and their hearts, which had never endured the body and pressure of our time but only of distant times, found nothing unlikely in anything he told them, but accepted all simply and were happy. Years passed, and one day, when the oldest of the old men, who had travelled in his youth and thought sometimes of other lands, looked out on the grey waters, on which the peasants see the dim outline of the Islands of the Young, the Happy Islands where the Gaelic heroes live the life of Homer”s Phæacians; a voice came out of the air over the waters and told him of the death of Michael Robartes. While they were still mourning, the next oldest of the old men fell asleep whilst he was reading out the Fifth Eclogue of Virgil, and a strange voice spoke through him, and bid them set out for Paris, where a woman lay dying, who would reveal to them the secret names of the immortals, which can be perfectly spoken only when the mind is steeped in certain colours and certain sounds and certain odours; but at whose perfect speaking the immortals cease to be cries and shadows, and walk and talk with one like men and women. [213; See note, infra.]
 They left their island, and were at first troubled at all they saw in the world, and came to Paris, and there the youngest met a person in a dream, who told him they were to wander about at hazard until the immortals, who would guide their footsteps, had brought them to a street and a house, which the person showed him in the dream. They wandered hither and thither for many days until one morning they wandered into some narrow and shabby streets, on the south of the Seine, where women with pale faces and untidy hair looked at them out of the windows; and just as they were about to turn back because Wisdom could not have alighted in so foolish a neighbourhood, they came to the street and the house of the dream. The oldest of the old men, who still remembered some of the modern languages he had known in his youth, went up to the door and knocked, and when he had knocked, the next oldest of the old men said it was not a good house, and could not be the house they were looking for, and urged him to ask for some one who they knew was not there and go away. The door was opened by an old over-dressed woman, who said, “O you are her three cousins from Ireland. She has been expecting you all day.” The old men looked at one another and followed her upstairs, passing doors from which pale and untidy women thrust out their heads, and into a room where a beautiful woman lay asleep in a bed, with another woman sitting by her.
 The old woman said: “Yes, they have come at last, now she will be able to die in peace,” and went out.
 “We have been deceived by Dhouls,” said one of the old men, “for the immortals would not speak through a woman like this.”
 “Yes,” said another, “we have been deceived by Dhouls, and we must go away quickly.”
 “Yes,” said the third, “we have been deceived by Dhouls, but let us kneel down for a little., for we are by the deathbed of one who was beautiful.” They knelt down, and the woman, who sat by the bed and seemed overcome with fear and awe, lowered her head. They watched for a little the face upon the pillow and wondered at its look, as of unquenchable desire, and at the porcelain-like refinement of the vessel in which so malevolent a flame had burned. [214]
 Suddenly the second oldest of the old men crowed like a cock, and until the room seemed to shake with the crowing. The woman in the bed still slept on in her death-like sleep, but the woman who sat by her head crossed herself and grew pale, and the youngest of the old men cried out: “A Dhoul has gone into him, and we must begone [sic] or it will go into us also.” Before they could rise from their knees, a resonant chanting voice came from the lips that had crowed and said: “I am not a Dhoul, but I am Hermes the Shepherd of the Dead, and I run upon the errands of the gods, and you have heard my sign, that has been my sign from the old days. Bow down before her from whose lips the secret names of the immortals, and of the things near their hearts, are about to come that the immortals may come again into the world. Bow down, and understand that when the immortals are about to overthrow the things that are to-day and bring the things that were yesterday, they have no one to help them, but one whom the things that are to-day have cast out. Bow down and very low, for they have chosen for their priestess, this woman in whose heart all follies have gathered, and in whose body all desires have awaked; this woman who has been driven out of Time and has lain upon the bosom of Eternity. After you have bowed down the old things shall be again, and another Argo shall carry heroes over the deep, and another Achilles beleaguer another Troy.”
 The voice ended with a sigh, and immediately the old man awoke out of sleep, and said: “Has a voice spoken through me, as it did when I fell asleep over my Virgil, or have I only been asleep?”
 “A voice has spoken through you,” said the oldest of the old men. “Where has your soul been while the voice was speaking through you?”
 “I do not know where my soul has been, but I dreamed I was under the roof of a manger, and I looked down and I saw an ox and an ass; and I saw a red cock perching on the hay-rack; and a woman hugging a child; and three old men, in armour studded with rubies, kneeling with their heads bowed very low in front of the woman and the child. While I was looking the cock crowed and a man with wings on his heels swept up through the air, and [215] as he passed me, cried out: "Foolish old men, you had once all the wisdom of the stars." I do not understand my dream or what it would have us do, but you who have heard the voice out of the wisdom of my sleep know what we have to do.”
 Then the oldest of the old men told him they were to take the parchments they had brought with them out of their pockets and to spread them on the ground. When they had spread them on the ground they took out of their pockets their pens, made of three feathers, which had fallen from the wing of the old eagle, that is believed to have talked of wisdom with St Patrick.
 “He meant, I think,” said the youngest of the old men, as he put their ink-bottles by the side of the rolls of parchment, that when people are good the world likes them and takes possession of them, and so eternity comes through people who are not good or who have been forgotten. Perhaps Christianity was good and the world liked it, so now it is going away and the immortals are beginning to awake.”
 “What you say has no wisdom,” said the oldest of the old men, “because if there are many immortals there cannot be only one immortal.”
 Then the woman in the bed sat up and looked about her with wild eyes; and the oldest of the old men said: “Lady, we have come to write down the names of the immortals,” and at his words a look of great joy came into her face. Presently she, began to speak slowly, and yet eagerly, as though she knew she had but a little while to live, and, in English, with the accent of their own country; and she told them the secret names of the immortals of many lands, and of the colours, and odours, and weapons, and instruments of music and instruments of handicraft they held dearest; but most about the immortals of Ireland and of their love for the cauldron, and the whetstone, and the sword, and the spear, and the hills of the Shee, and the horns of the moon, and the Grey Wind, and the Yellow Wind, and the Black Wind, and the Red Wind. Then she tossed feebly a while and moaned, and when she spoke again it was in so faint a murmur that the woman who sat by the bed leaned down to listen, and while she was listening the spirit went out of the body. [216]
 Then the oldest of the old men said in French to the woman who was still bending over the bed: “There must have been yet one name which she had not given us, for she murmured a name while the spirit was going out of the body,” and the woman said, “She was merely murmuring over the name of a symbolist painter she was fond of. He used to go to something he called the Black Mass, and it was he who taught her to see visions and to hear voices. She met him for the first time a few months ago, and we have had no peace from that day because of her talk about visions and about voices. Why! it was only last night that I dreamed I saw a man with a red beard and red hair and dressed in red standing by my bedside.” He held a rose in one hand and tore it in pieces with the other hand, and the petals drifted about the room, and became beautiful people who began to dance slowly. When I woke up I was all in a heat with terror.”
 This is all the old man told me, and when I think of their speech and of their silence, of their coming and of their going, I am almost persuaded that had I gone out of the house, after they had gone out of it, I should have found no footsteps on the snow. They may, for all I or any man can say, have been themselves immortals: immortal demons, come to put an untrue story into my mind for some purpose I do not understand. Whatever they were, I have turned into a pathway which will lead me from them, and from the Order of the Alchemical Rose. I no longer live an elaborate and haughty life, but seek to lose myself among the prayers and the sorrows of the multitude. I pray best in poor chapels where frieze coats brush against me as I kneel, and when I pray against the demons I repeat a prayer, which was made I know not how many centuries ago to help some poor Gaelic man or woman who had suffered with a suffering like mine.

Seacht b-páidreacha fó seacht
Chuir Muire faoi n-a Mac,
Chuir Brighid faoi n-a brat.
Chuir Dia faoi n-a neart,
Eidir sinn ”san Sluagh Sidhe,
Eidir sinn ”san Sluagh Gaoith. [

[Seven Paters seven times,
Send Mary by her Son,
Send Bridget by her mantle,
Send God by his strength,
Between us and the faery host,
Between us and the demons of the air.


A variant, and presumably later, version of this sentence is given in Richard J. Finneran, ed., The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose (NY: Scribner 1997), 527pp. [copyright Anne Yeats], pp.436-41, as follows:

While the were still mourning [...; &c.] a dying woman would give them secret names and thereby transform the world that another Leda would open her knees to the swan, another Achilles beleaguer Troy. They wandered hither and thither for many days [.] on the south side of the Seine .. [113]

Finneran describes the publishing history - viz., exclusion from The Secret Rose and separate printing with “The Tables of the Law” - but does not indicate which copy-text he is using. The Finneran version gives ‘devils” for ‘Dhouls” and appears to be silently using the text included in the 1908 Collected Works, which incorporates subsequent changes to The Secret Rose made by Yeats.

Compare also the following passages:

A: ‘Bow down and very low, for they have chosen for their priestess, this woman in whose heart all follies have gathered, and in whose body all desires have waked; this woman who has been driven out of Time and has lain upon the bosom of Eternity. After you have bowed down the old things shall be again, and another Argo shall carry heroes over the deep, and another Achilles beleaguer another Troy” [Watson, 215].

B: ‘Bow down and very low, for they have chosen for their priestess, this woman in whose heart all follies have gathered, and in whose body all desires have waked; this woman who has been driven out of Time and has lain upon the bosom of Eternity. / The voice then ended with a sign” [Finneran, 439]

- a difference accounted by the relocating of the Achilles sentence in the earlier passage. The subsequent passage in which the woman sits up a speaks the secret names is condenses to the exclusion of any specific names - least of all evocative of the Celtic Twilight - and substitutes ‘strange names” with more universal overtones such as ‘harsh sweetness”, ‘dear bitterness”, O solitude”, &c. (including the name of a symbolist painter, as in the other version.) The reference to the ‘man with a red beard” [&c.] - who is Robartes as Mercurius - is elminated also.

(Watson quotes Putzel to the effect that ‘the now immortal Robartes hovers over” the story and ‘explicitly becomes alchemy”s ‘red man” or Mercurius, messenger of the god”s in the nurse”s dream. (Putzel, Reconstructing Yeats, Dublin 1986, pp.125-26.)

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