A Terrible Beauty is Born

Easter, 1916

William Butler Yeats

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Yeats wrote this poem about his mixed feelings over the Easter Uprising of 1916, in which the Irish clashed with their British oppressors. The Irish failed, and the Irish leaders were executed for treason. Though Yeats disagreed with the means of the uprising and many of the participants, he recognizes and lauds the courage with which the rebels fought. Ambivalence can be the most noble friend.

Dare to Be Idle

But the great artists like Michelangelo and Blake and Tolstoi–like Christ whom Blake called an artist because he had one of the most creative imaginations that ever was on earth–do not want security, egoistic or materialistic. Why, it never occurs to them. “Be not anxious for the morrow,” and “which of you being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?”

So they dare to be idle, i.e. not to be pressed and duty-driven all the time. They dare to love people even when they are very bad, and they dare not to try and dominate others to show them what they must do for their own good (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit).


The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver

Moving On

Individuation means separation, differentiation, the recognition of what’s yours and what is not. The rest has to be left alone. Libido and energy should not be wasted on things which do not belong. Therefore it can be said that there is just as much separation as integration [. . .] (von Franz, 257).

Alchemists were medieval chemists doing science without a scientific method. Like modern-day scientists, they were looking for a deeper understanding of the nature of matter. Although alchemists couldn’t agree on the number, nature, and order of the stages of their work, they agreed that theirs was an obscure art applying esoteric techniques, with goals similar to that of other esoteric traditions, namely the transformation of the soul.

A common misconception is that alchemists were charlatans seeking to transform base matter into gold. Through their work, though, substance and scientist were to be transformed. Their pursuit of transformation brought unexpected results that are still useful to us today. For example, alchemists discovered five elements during their scientific inquiries: zinc, antimony, arsenic, and phosphorus.

Another significant contribution of alchemy was corpuscular theory, proposed in the 13th century by an alchemist called Geber. He postulated that particles that could not be further divided existed as the building-blocks of all matter. Today, we call these particles atoms.

Psychology & Alchemy

If we were to look at our lives as matter, and worked with ourselves the way alchemists worked with matter, what might we learn? What might happen? These are questions Carl Jung seemed to ask during the latter part of his life, when he noticed the similarities between the work of medieval alchemists and modern psychiatrists. Jung first recognized parallels between alchemy and psyche in his analytical work with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics. Many of Pauli’s dreams produced the selfsame symbols used by medieval alchemists, yet Pauli knew nothing about alchemy. From this, Jung drew an analogy between the Magnum Opus, or Great Work, of the alchemists and the process of psychological growth epitomized by the cycle of death and rebirth, or the reintegration and individuation of the human psyche. Jung published his work in 1944 in Psychology and Alchemy, the 12th volume of his Collected Works.

Getting Personal

Supposing we looked at these processes the way the alchemists saw them? What would the separation phase look like? It would be a time that came after the great, fiery, roasting reduction of the calcination phase. After this, some part of the self was reduced to a smoldering, charred lump through an intense conflagration. In the next part of the work, dissolution, this dark, heavy, smoldering lump was taken up and gently washed and simmered in the Bain Marie, the double-boiler—as if one cooking isn’t enough. The first phase was one of trauma, sudden death, quantum leaps into the unknown. We experienced profound changes that threw us out of orbit. It doesn’t matter whether the trauma was a happy one, such as the birth of a baby and advent of parenthood, or a devastation such as the loss of life or limb: it’s a roasting conflagration that reduces us in some way to ashes. Its element is fire, and it burns away all that the ego thought it held together. Every new parent knows this feeling in the middle of the sleepless night, as he or she paces the floor with a howling baby and understands with finality that a 12-pound infant can defeat the most erudite parent.

So we are lumps. I am a lump. You are a lump. There we sit, and sit in our lumpishness. We think we will never come out of this reduction. If we sit in our lumpishness long enough–and we usually do–we become comfortable with it and think to ourselves, “Ah, so this is it, then. I’m reduced. This is me.” We are gently lulled to sleep in a dissipated sort of way. We think we’re “done,” but there’s an unfinished, dissatisfying sense of things when we are lumps.

Just when we think we’ve become used to the gentle dissolution being brought on by the Bain Marie, things change. We’re suddenly removed from the gentle bath, and begin a separation by fission and cutting. The separation stinks of rotten eggs. It cuts with biting blades of iron and steel. It is not an easy process.

Being Refined

Whenever in our lives we are being separated, we find ourselves leaving much behind—habits, things, places, people. Whatever can’t weather our transformation falls by the wayside. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s part of the growth process. As Saint Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Sometimes we have to move on, because what is no longer necessary or supportive of growth must be let go. This separation is about us as much as it is about the Other. Something within us has changed, and no longer wants or needs the outward prop of an inner reality that is disappearing. What remains is more refined than what was at the beginning, before the great conflagration.


von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Letting Go

In February of last year, I began a series on the topic of alchemy, the medieval science and philosophy used metaphorically by depth psychologists to explain the intentions of the psyche. I most recently wrote about dissolution, the corrosive process whereby what is unnecessary to the work is systematically dissolved away. The application of the effects of this alchemical stage to our own experiences in life is straightforward: Whenever we experience a significant loss or change, additional changes accompany the larger loss like ladies’ maids.


Life changes, and what is no longer necessary or supportive to a new way of life must be sundered. One change begets another, a process the alchemists called separation. In City of God, Saint Augustine wrote that bereavement and calamity are fuels for the fire that burns away all that is not essential. The deaths of my daughter and husband, for example, caused other losses and changes in my life. One of the most obvious immediate changes following a death are those that arise from dealing with your loved one’s things, so changes to my physical environment had to be worked through. The size and shape of my social networks changed, too. Relationships that had once been of importance were corroded by the impact of my losses, and over time came to be less important. Other relationships grew, becoming more influential.

When large changes occur in our lives, the habit patterns we’ve built around the person, place, or circumstances that have changed must, of necessity, change. Creatures of habit, we are anchored in days, weeks, and months that go by with dependability because of them. When the basis of one or more habits decays or disappears, though, we discover we don’t know who we are any more. The widow, so accustomed to her role as a wife, is left standing alone, clothed with the tattered habits that served her only when her husband was alive. The father and husband whose wife leaves with the children finds himself suddenly a bachelor again, clueless about how to handle a life in which he sees his own children only by schedule. Elderly suburban householders sell the home in which they raised their children and move to a condo or retirement community, then feel like exiles in their own lives. All these are examples of what occurs when big changes beget numerous offspring that demand to be fed and kept in order. We are as overwhelmed as new parents, for the squalling demands of this new way of life keep us up nights.

You Can’t Go Home

In his fascinating book, Surviving Survival: the Art and Science of Resilience, Laurence Gonzalez writes that

The bigger the trauma, the more dramatic the requirement for change. In many cases, the necessary adaptation is so extreme that an entirely new self emerges from the experience. In most cases, there is no easy return to the old environment. Sometimes you can’t go home at all (p. 5).

We cross ourselves and pray as we drive by a nasty accident on the freeway. We take a casserole, and write a sympathy card to the bereaved co-worker. We listen sympathetically to the friend whose husband just cheated on her and left with a younger woman. We murmur our distress when a colleague discloses that his business partner embezzled money and left him bankrupt. But most observed losses don’t have much impact for long, because the life-changing impact of loss and dissolution belongs to the person experiencing it. Until we’ve experienced first-hand what it means to be rendered psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, or physically homeless, we don’t understand. Perhaps this is why Solomon wrote that “the heart knows its own bitterness; and a stranger does not share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).

The past two years since my husband’s death have been impossibly painful. One of my sons remarked afterward on my utter brokenness. This brokenness is what the medieval alchemist would call a dissolution, the second stage in the alchemical process. Following on the heels of dissolution is separation, a sifting and filtering of what elements remain after a great sundering. One is already broken and divided, but more cutting and separation remain to be done. We know this truth instinctively, for it’s integrated into our everyday language. After a great change, we “re-group.” When dissolved by crisis, we try to “get our acts together.” Trauma that upsets daily or even life-long routines makes us “scatter-brained.” We strive to “come to our senses” after feeling we’ve “lost our minds.”

To come to our senses and get our acts together means to recognize what belongs, and what does not. One moves to a new home, and finds that the old furniture doesn’t fit, so out it goes. Larger losses require larger realizations about what fits, and what has to be left behind. Even when we want to waste energy and time on what no longer fits, it’s impossible to continue with hands full of broken bits that can’t be fitted back together, and are of no further use. To attempt to carry what is irreparably broken is to prolong suffering that is unnecessary. Separation gently but firmly urges us to let go.

Letting Go

Others want us to get on with our lives after a great loss. To get on with our lives means to integrate our losses and the changes they require. We can’t fully integrate a loss without also separating out what rightly belonged to the way of life associated with the lost person, job, home, era, or circumstance. Put another way, we can’t keep wearing our mini-skirts into our 60s—right, ladies?

Separation allows us to let go of ideals, attitudes, and habits that no longer fit. To find peace is to find the place where nothing remains that is not essential. We are then “redeemed from the constant effort to achieve something in the wrong direction” (von Franz, 257).


Gonzalez, Laurence. (2012). Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. (1980). Alchemy. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

My Alchemy Series

  1. Tending of the Flame
  2. The Affliction of the Soul
  3. From the Darkness
  4. Doing the Work
  5. The Hidden Seed
  6. Slime of the Small World
  7. Hour of Lead
  8. Things Fall Apart

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