“What is the explanation of it all?”: Nothing and Something

  • Deirdre Toomey
Part of the Yeats Annual book series (YA)


Richard Ellmann concludes Yeats’s Second Pubery1 with a powerful discussion of an unpublished quatrain of May 1938: “What is the explanation of it all?” He interprets the verse as a black vision of nothingness at the end of life, “the obverse of the beatific vision”, “the image of life as an empty shell”, an apocalypse of the void.

What is the explanation of it all?

What does it look like to a learned man?

Nothings in nothings whirled, or when he will.

From nowhere unto nowhere nothings run.2

This makes for a grand if depressing conclusion to Yeats’s life, with the poet seen as struggling between the beatific vision and darkness. Such a reading of the poem discounts Yeats’s whole belief system: it is a vision of dreadful oblivion more appropriate to a rationalist agnostic than to a man who believed in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul. When Dorothy Wellesley examined Yeats on this question, in about July–October 1938, he made clear his continuing belief in a period of purgation after death and even specified the term: “perhaps some twenty years” (LDW 177). The type of fear that Yeats experienced when close to death is dramatised in “Cuchulain Comforted”, the subtext of which might be, “if a hero and warrior must consort with cowards after death, what must a poet undergo?” The terrors and humiliations of the Phantasmagoria (AV B 230–1) are anticipated in that Dantesque poem of purgation and transformation. The noble vision of Yeats’s Second Puberty, with its emphasis on the fragility and mortality of man, is Ellmann’s, not Yeats’s.


Belief System Female Genitalia Fine Bond Empty Shell Grand Vision 
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© Deirdre Toomey 1992

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  • Deirdre Toomey

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