by Shannon Foster Whiteside
William Butler Yeats, the great Victorian poet, was also responsible for the creation of a unique critical theory known as the “gyre theory.” According to the Norton Anthology, history is
a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward. (Abrams 1931)
As we go up the winding staircase, we find ourselves on a landing looking down at where we’ve been and looking up to where we must go. We can see forever, but the experiences we have had since we were on the former landing have altered our outlook and opinions. Time is cyclical, yet also progressive, coiling and spiralling endlessly about the ever-evolving cylinder of linear history. “Life is no series of emancipation from divine reason . . . no orderly descent from level to level, no waterfall but a whirlpool, a gyre” (Yeats 78).
According to Yeats, history can be broken down into repetitive cycles of 2,000 years each; each cycle consists of twenty-eight phases. The philosophical temperament (in terms of unity or diversity) of any one phase can be seen in its literature. However, if we were to analyze an evolution of humankind from one pole to another, we would need a literary text that spans a minimum of a thousand years. For this reason, I will use the Book of Mormon to analyze the development of civilization according to the twenty-eight different gyrical phases.
Each phase is marked by a different hero who stands out as a role model for the others to follow. Within the macroscopic, universal gyre are the microscopic, individual heroes who must confront destiny within their designated phase. Yeats’s heroic figures, as well as those in the Book of Mormon, are powerless against the controlling fates that determine their destiny. The future becomes predictable to the extent that the hero’s general reactions are controlled by the phase to which he belongs (all of the heroes mentioned are male, but the same criteria would apply to female heroes as well). At the same time, the hero is an active participant rather than a passive bystander waiting upon fate’s whim to dictate his life’s path.
Due to limited space and time, I will briefly sketch only the major leaders and their phases, tracing the development of the gyrelike patterns in spiritual as well as literary history.
The Book of Mormon, beginning in 600 B.C., closely follows the phases outlined in Yeats’s Vision, the visionary hero being depicted by the major leaders of each time period.
Nephi, identified as the forerunner, corresponds to the hero of Phase 12. (If the Book of Mormon began 400 years earlier, in 1000 B.C., phases would begin at number one.) He is characterized as “always in reaction, . . . driven from one self-conscious pose to another, . . . full of hesitation” (Yeats 127). As Nephi begins the trek from Jerusalem to the New World, he must evolve from a young boy to a prophet, destined at times to be the only one to embrace his philosophical and religious beliefs. He is attacked mentally and physically by his brothers, and even his father at times doubts his son’s power. In his solitude, Nephi turns to God in 2 Nephi 4, known as the Psalm of Nephi. He is “overwhelmed with the thought of his own weakness” (Yeats 129). In verses 17–18 he exclaims, “Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.”
Nephi clings to the image of an almighty God, which would, according to Yeats’s theory, waver “between the concrete and sensuous” (129). Not surprisingly, then, to exemplify his source of strength Nephi states, “My God hath been my support. . . . He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh” (2 Nephi 4:20–21).
As a solitary man, Nephi is forced into a situation in which he must choose the outcome. Again, the Forces control everything, and agency lies only in one’s reactions to fatalistic circumstances; therefore, Nephi cannot control his brothers’ rebellion nor God’s request that his family leave Jerusalem to begin a new civilization in a new world. God chooses his prophets, and they must choose whether or not to follow.
Phases 13 to 19 are hard to delineate in Book of Mormon history because this is the time from Jarom to Mosiah I when little is written. However, the gyrical pattern still clearly exists. During this time (420 B.C. to 130 B.C.), the prophets begin struggling with the decline of righteousness, even among the church leaders. According to Yeats, this is a time of complete sensuality when “there are moments of triumph and moments of defeat, each in its extreme form, for the subjective intellect knows nothing of moderation” (130). Omni explains “we had many seasons of peace; and we had many seasons of serious war and bloodshed” (Omni 1:3). When remaining close to the Lord, the Nephites maintain their freedom, but the moment they forget who gave them that freedom, the Lamanites win the day.
The animosity between the two tribes increases as they retreat from solitude and objectivity. No one great leader guides them; they fight among themselves. They renounce their responsibility to God, and “this renunciation becomes an instrument of power” (Yeats 132) to dominate the stronger tribe at that time. The Nephites draw away from God and attempt to control the situation independently, which only leads to their destruction.
King Benjamin breaks the monotony of conglomerated phases in Phase 20. In his discourses, “he no longer seeks to unify what is broken through conviction, by imposing those very convictions upon himself and others, but by projecting a dramatisation or many dramatisations” (Yeats 151). King Benjamin convincingly disarms his people by saying,
. . . open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, . . . But I am like as yourselves. (Mosiah 2:9–11)
He would not impose his ideals on his subjects, but by devising allegories and examples, he convincingly presents his argument in such a logical manner that they willingly obey his counsel. He “delights in concrete images” to convey his message (Yeats 152). “Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you” (Mosiah 2:25; see also 2:29; 3:5–11, 18–19).
While King Benjamin’s personality appears mild and kind, Yeats claims within that “‘sweet’ and ‘gentle’ ” manner lies a creative passion for devising an imaginary world and “compel[ling] it to seem the real world where our lives are lived” (154). King Benjamin’s people, upon hearing his inspiring speech, react by crying, “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins” (Mosiah 4:2). A literary example of Christ’s atoning power has been converted into a physical need to cleanse their sins with his blood.
Phase 21 isn’t much different than Phase 20; the hero, in this case Mosiah II, is noble because his circumstances require him to be so. He is described as “walk[ing] in the ways of the Lord” (Mosiah 6:6) like his father. Abinadi, another hero of Phase 21, is one who “strengthens conflict to the utmost by refusing all activity that is [evil]” (Yeats 156). By refusing to deny his testimony, Abinadi begins the conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites that will end with the conversions of Alma and his followers (Mosiah 18) and the death of King Noah (Mosiah 19).
Alma’s conversion begins the next phase, but not all the conditions are met until he is old and decides to come out of semiretirement. Phase 22 represents one of complete balance between one’s thoughts and desires, but it is also a point to which one can return several times until it is surpassed. Yeats explains, “The Will, engaged in its last struggle with external fact . . . must submit, until it sees itself as inseparable from nature perceived as fact” (158). Alma must not only repent of his sins, which he does at the beginning of his conversion (Mosiah 18:1), but also submit himself to God’s will until both wills are in harmony.
Through his efforts to convert and baptize his people and to keep them unified even at times of dissension, Alma is granted eternal life, the ultimate inseparability from God: “Thou art my servant; and I covenant with thee that thou shalt have eternal life; and thou shalt serve me and go forth in my name, and shalt gather together my sheep” (Mosiah 26:20). The man of Phase 22 has no desire to dominate but rather desires to reach a balance where he rules by an impersonal love and ultimately reaches the level of mere contemplation. He will organize his affairs until his energies are exhausted.
Alma, after receiving the confirmation from God that he will receive eternal life, organizes the impersonal system of excommunication to better govern the affairs of the Church:
And whosoever repented of their sins . . . he did number among the people of the church; And those that would not . . . repent of their iniquity, … their names were blotted out. (Mosiah 26:35–36)
While Alma continues suffering “all afflictions,” not much else is mentioned after this point. We know he ends his life peacefully, having worn himself out in the service of the Lord.
Alma’s son, Alma the Younger, fits the description of his phase exactly. Before entering into Phase 23, the hero is, according to Yeats, “tyrannical, gloomy and self-absorbed.” The clock must be wound again, and when wound the hero will spring back with “explosive joy” (Yeats 164). Before Alma the Younger’s conversion, he is referred to as “a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, . . . he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities” (Mosiah 27:8). His control over the population hindered the progress of the Church and spiritually destroyed many of its followers.
Anyone under the auspices of Phase 23 must undergo some sort of transformation, either religious or aesthetic, to discover his true self. Alma is confronted by an angel who warns him to desist from destroying the Church or else face destruction (Alma 36:8–9). Racked by the “pains of a damned soul” (Alma 36:16), Alma recalls his father’s sermons concerning Christ and His redeeming power and cries out to the Son of God that he once sought to destroy. At that moment his sins are forgiven, and he expresses his joy, saying, “My soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:20). Alma is thus transformed into a believer of Jesus Christ and dedicates his life to teaching redemption to others. He has come to know his true self, a son of God. The events that lead up to Alma’s conversion would be considered startling, in light of Yeats’s theory, because “they elude intellect” (168). Who can logically explain the visitations of angels voiced with thunder?
In Phase 24, the hero, having freed the self, now turns that knowledge into a personal moral code molded by social and historical traditions. Those subscribing to the code have a “great intolerance for all who break or resist the code” (Yeats 170). The code’s purpose is to compel obedience of everyone in society at the dissolution of personal ambition. Society’s members compare their past against the code to ascertain if they have been as devout as their fathers. Captain Moroni heads the devotion to the moral code and the Nephites follow it strictly in order to better defend themselves against the Lamanites. In Alma 46:12–18, Moroni pleads his cause, appealing to patriotism—”In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children”—to stir the people to adherence. In response, the Nephites rend their clothes and proceed to fight for freedom, putting to death any Amalickiahite unwilling to accept their cause (Alma 46:35).
Moroni also compares the Nephites to their forefathers in two instances. In Alma 46:23-24 he states,
. . . we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren . . . Let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren . . . let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph.
In Alma 60:20 he complains to Pahoran, the governor, saying, “Have ye forgotten the commandments of the Lord your God? Yea, have ye forgotten the captivity of our fathers?” Moroni effectively executes the code of conduct he has set up to keep the Nephites from retrogression. (See also Alma 53–58 for the stripling warriors, another group adhering strictly to a moral code.)
Just as society in Phase 24 clings fiercely to a moral code, it adheres just as fiercely to religious beliefs in Phase 25. Nephi and Lehi, the heroes of this period, strive to “make men better, by making it impossible that they should be otherwise, to so arrange prohibitions and habits that men may be naturally good” (Yeats 173). Their goal is to create a social conscience by imposing a spiritual norm to be met by all. And they succeed. In their first efforts as preachers, they “preach unto the Lamanites with . . . great power and authority . . . unto the great astonishment of the Lamanites, to the convincing them” (Helaman 5:18–19).
Even when the Nephites regress into iniquity, Nephi does not lose sight of his ideal. He is nostalgic for the time of the first Nephi when people were more easily convinced of the truth and willing to repent of their sins. He exclaims, “Then would my soul have had joy in the righteousness of my brethren” (Helaman 7:8). He struggles with converting the masses and is often successful because his is the only phase in which the hero can incite a social conscience within a group of people (Yeats 173).
Phase 26 has no hero. In fact, Yeats himself says this is the hardest phase to find examples for. Society has exhausted its search for morality and belief and now chooses evil simply to prove it can (Yeats 178). The Gadianton robbers fit the description well. Their main purpose is to “murder, and plunder, and steal, and commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God” (Helaman 6:23). They band together, not to destroy the land but to defy God because, according to Yeats, living in a religious society tempts humanity to defy that sense of order and to become creators in their own right (178). Hence, as the Gadianton robbers turn away from society, they contrive secret combinations and covenants to satisfy their own sense of creation and divinity.
As the Nephites continue to reject society and God, we enter into phases 24–26, the phases of nothingness. The goal of the 27th Phase hero is to blend in with humanity without making individual decisions and to follow everyone else to a lemminglike destruction. Nephi reminds us how forgetful the Nephites had become directly before the birth of Christ (7 B.c.):
And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men, . . . they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One . . . except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, . . . they will not remember him. (Helaman 12:1–3)
As Yeats explains, “Man does not perceive the truth; God perceives the truth in man” (181). The Nephites lose touch with the source of strength that led them out of spiritual and carnal captivity; they will not return to God’s grace until the gyre ends.
The Nephites spiral even further downward, by depending solely upon their own strength, reaching low ground in the 28th Phase. Here humanity has “no active intelligence, [it] owns nothing of the exterior world but [the] mind and body” (Yeats 182). When Christ is born and the signs are in the heavens, the people give their conversion no more intelligent thought than they had given their iniquity. When the sun went down but no darkness came, the people “fell to the earth and became as if they were dead” (3 Nephi 1:16). Many are automatically converted, making Nephi II’s job much easier, but peace reigns for only two years before they begin regressing again.
Although Yeats begins his new gyre in A.D. 1, I see the 34 years before Christ’s death as a slow melding of Phase 28 into Phase 1 with no specific demarcation between the two. Christ’s presence on the American continent inaugurates Phase 1. The two phases blend well because Phase 1 has no definition other than complete plasticity, i.e., the mindless ability to be molded by another’s whim. The Nephites, upon seeing Christ, let go of any relevant distinctions between thought and inclination, fact and desire. Without any thought as to the consequences of their actions, they come forward to see the prints in his hands and side, and with one voice cry: “Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Nephi 11:17).
During Christ’s entire sojourn, the Nephites listen unquestioningly to his words. Christ’s presence is overwhelming to the multitude, converting them instantaneously. Yeats explains this phenomenon: “The more perfect be the soul, the more indifferent the mind, the more doughlike the body; and mind and body take whatever shape, accept whatever image is imprinted upon them” (183). This spiritual incarnation causes the mind to become willingly pliable, ready to be impressed and formed by a more intelligent being, in this case, Christ. The Nephites never speak directly to Christ as an equal; rather they sit and “look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them” (3 Nephi 17:5). They passively absorb Christ’s teachings, and only after his ascension do they analyze his words and make personal applications to themselves.
Phases 2 to 9 cover the general material found at the end of 3 Nephi and the entire book of 4 Nephi. For two hundred years the Nephites are innocent, like little children strictly following their father’s counsel. Yeats explains that after a spiritual incarnation humankind no longer gives itself to Nature but to God. This is known as a time of rebirth, of beauty and joy:
And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another. And it came to pass that they did do all things even as Jesus had commanded them. (3 Nephi 26:19–20)
From this point, however, the Nephites begin to deteriorate in a desire for “Ambition” (Phase 3) and a desire for the “Exterior World” (Phase 4). They begin to increase in pride and greed; stratification and dissension in the Church occurs (4 Nephi 1:24–26). Pride causes them to fall from their innocent state, and, like Adam and Eve, they begin again the individual search for success through experience.
In their search they lose sight of God, and Phase 10 finds Mormon in the midst of chaos. He is identified as the “Image Maker” and is the only one who attempts to break away from the mire into which the Nephites have plowed themselves. He creates his own personal code of conduct and because of his circumstances, seeks “to free the creative power from mass emotion, but never wholly succeeds, and so life remains troubled, a conflict between pride and race, and passes from crisis to crisis” (Yeats 123). Mormon tries to convince the Nephites to repent but never succeeds.
Although Mormon wishes to unite with the people in triumph, he must separate himself from their company because of their self-destructive wickedness. At one point he refuses to lead them further, saying, “I, Mormon, did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abomination” (Mormon 3:11). He pours out his heart in prayer to God for their sakes, experiencing, according to Yeats’s theory, “less desire of expression . . . and more desire of action and of command” (123). Their hearts, however, have hardened, and they refuse to repent. Mormon’s death ends his thwarted search for peace and a disturbed rage for justice.
Moroni, Mormon’s son, is the final hero of the Book of Mormon, the Phase 11 hero who, according to Yeats, is half-solitary, forced
to seek happiness in submission to something hard and exterior . . . that would destroy exterior popular sanction, [to make] possible for the first time the solitary conception of God. (126)
Moroni explains that his father and kin have been slain and that
he has no idea when he shall share their same fate (Mormon 8:5). He is alone in his belief in God and in his stand in society. He could deny God and return to his people without fear of being put to death, but he refuses, asserting, “And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life” (Moroni 1:3).
Yeats’s theory explains how the conflict in Moroni’s heart is the result of the war between the Nephites and Lamanites, saying,
one divines a quarrel with the thought of his fathers and his kin, forced upon him perhaps almost to the breaking of his heart: no nature without the stroke of fate divides itself in two. (126)
Moroni, alone because of the wickedness of his people, exhorts them nevertheless to return unto Christ. As a Phase 11 hero, he begins again the cycle that began 1000 years earlier at the beginning of the Book of Mormon record. Nephi sees the beginning of a civilization; Moroni witnesses its finish, as the gyre, now in motion, continues without end.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 2nd ed., vol. 5. New York: Norton, 1986.
Yeats, William Butler. A Vision. London: Macmillan, 1937.
Shannon Foster Whiteside, a former English graduate student, currently lives in California.