“What Empty Eyeballs Knew”: Zen Buddhism in “The Statues” and the Principles of A Vision

  • Matthew Gibson
Part of the Yeats Annuals book series (YA)


Various scholars have proposed sources for the line “Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show” (VP 610), in “The Statues”. That poem was completed by June 1938 and first published in the London Mercury in March 1939 (NC 412). Robert Snukal believes the image is a variation on Coleridge’s “mere quick-silver plating behind a looking-glass”, Yeats’s preferred symbol for the encroaching mechanistic philosophy of the eighteenth century onwards.1 Shiro Naito opts for the mirror from Hui-nëng’s Zen quatrain, written on the monastery walls at Anhui.2 That mirror, which Yeats identified with Berkeley’s immaterialism, and which would be for him the antithesis to Coleridge’s mirror, affirms that “nothing exists”. I suggest that the source is to be found in three passages in Daisetz Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism.3


Ultimate Reality Greek Philosophy Classical Philosophy Mechanistic Philosophy Chinese Painting 
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  1. 1.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria… and Two Lay Sermons etc. (London: George Bell, 1876) p. 57.Google Scholar
  2. Robert Snukal, High Talk: The Philosophical Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973) p. 98.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Shiro Naito, Yeats and Zen: A Study of the Transformation of His Mask (Kyoto: Yamaguchi, 1984) p. 124. (Hereafter Naito.)Google Scholar
  4. Jon Stallworthy, Vision and Revision in Yeats’s Last Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) pp. 125–6,Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    Arthur Waley, An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting (London: Ernest Benn, 1923).Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    James Olney, The Rhizome and the Flower: The Perennial Philosophy in Yeats and Jung (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Cal., and (London: University of California Press, 1980) p. 33. (Hereafter Olney.)Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    S. T. Coleridge, The Friend: A Series of Essays (London: George Bell, 1906), YL 402A. (Hereafter Coleridge.) Yeats marked pp. 102–4, 118n and 138.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew Gibson

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