Yeats and the Occult

Seamus Deane

  • The Mystery Religion of W.B. Yeats by Graham Hough
    Harvester, 129 pp, £15.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0603 5
  • Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the Politics of Poetry by Cairns Craig
    Croom Helm, 323 pp, £14.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 85664 997 X
  • Yeats. Poems 1919-1935: A Selection of Critical Essays edited by Elizabeth Cullingford
    Macmillan, 238 pp, £14.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 333 27422 9
  • The Poet and his Audience by Ian Jack
    Cambridge, 198 pp, £20.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 521 26034 5
  • A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares
    Macmillan, 543 pp, £35.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 333 35214 9
  • Poems of W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares
    Macmillan, 428 pp, £17.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 333 36213 6

The first three of the four chapters in Graham Hough’s book were the Lord Northcliffe Lectures in Literature given at University College London in February 1983. The audience was general and the lectures were pitched accordingly. Yet all Yeatsian specialists will profit from this book and the ‘radical simplification’ of Yeats’s occult philosophy which it so lucidly achieves. Professor Hough takes Yeats’s beliefs seriously, but is neither a dévot nor sceptic. He demonstrates the ‘ancient lineage’ of the claims of the modern occultist fraternities, suggesting an analogy between the world of late Antiquity in which these beliefs first crystallised into recognisable forms and the period between 1890 and 1939 in which they underwent a revival. Against this background, enriched by the contributions of modern scholars from Denis Saurat to Frances Yates and Gershom Scholem, there emerge the first outlines of Yeats’s spiritual biography. As Professor Hough rightly remarks, this remains to be written. Should it ever be completed, this short book will be among its most important harbingers.

The various stages of Yeats’s involvement with the occult philosophy are well-known, but the continuity of his interests over more than half a century is so precisely traced here that we are not, as so often happens, bewildered by the specialised language and arcane beliefs to which the poet was endlessly hospitable. All through his commitments to the Theosophical Society, under Madame Blavatsky, to the Order of the Golden Dawn and to Spiritualism, and up to the formulation of his philosophy in the two versions of A Vision in 1925 and 1937, Yeats remained faithful to ‘mundane things’, as his father had told him he was. It is the combination of this particular fidelity to the actual world with his belief in the world beyond the stars that lends to his poetry and prose the double effect of being both immanent and transcendent. In Yeats we are constantly aware of a powerful, generative disorder upon which is exercised an equally potent control. The battle between them is fought out with a weaponry imported from the occult tradition. Sometimes the controls are so domineering that there is no battle at all. Instead, we get a dance of geometric shadows, a sort of metaphysical shadow-boxing. In other instances, the fertility of the actual experience is so abundant that the rage for order is reduced to nothing more than rage itself. Professor Hough, in his fourth chapter – ‘A Vision: Queries and Reflections’ – is satisfied that the symbolism of the Great Wheel, with its incarnations and antinomies, is effective just as long as we stay clear of some of the problems raised by Yeats’s notion of the Daimon and of the 13th Cone (or Sphere, Cycle or Gyre). I agree with this, but believe that it has a more sinister implication than Professor Hough would allow. The 13th Cycle may be the realm of an ultimate freedom. It may be the realm into which the Cuchulainn of the plays would pass were he to offer his history as legend to the world. It may be the God that is locked up in the Bastille of anthropomorphic history. But Yeats’s great gift for the embodiment of his thought in an image or a reference abandons him when he faces the 13th Cycle. It is an empty space. If everything else in A Vision is symbolic, close enough to apocalyptic literature to be irradiated by its light, the 13th Cycle is merely imaginary, too distant to be much more than the idiosyncrasy of a mind which could apprehend conflict in terms far richer than it could ever apprehend unity. It is at this point that Yeats’s occult belief passes into his social and political beliefs. It is quite unfair of me to wish that Professor Hough had said something about this. That would have meant a different and much longer book. Nevertheless, I wish it.

The wish is almost gratified by Cairns Craig. He does not write with the clarity and panache of Graham Hough and his subject is less clearly focused. But it is an engrossing one. He sets out, in the footsteps of John Harrison, Harvey Gross, William Chace and others, to explain and explore the connections between Modernist literature, as practised by Pound, Eliot and Yeats, and reactionary politics. Others – Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis – could have been included, but the three poets in question are sufficiently daunting to require no other company. Indeed, I wonder if they need one another’s company in this instance. The chapters on Pound are less interesting than those on Yeats and Eliot, largely because Pound was a do-it-yourself thinker who wrote books about Kulchur in the same spirit as others wrote books about Business and Making Friends. His prose is very much a home-made world but is not nearly so much at home in the world as that of his great contemporaries. At any rate, the key word and concept in Dr Craig’s book is memory. Its family set is not Romanticism, but Associationism, the 18th-century psychological theory developed by Archibald Alison in his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790). David Hartley is denied his usual prominence here because his theories were materialist; Alison’s, deriving from Hume, were Platonist and therefore more hospitable to later theories of the ‘Great Memory’. It is pleasant to see one of the great works of the Scottish Enlightenment resituated as an influence on the anxieties of modern poetic theory and fascinating to see how Alison’s idea of association is linked up with Yeats’s idea of reverie and thence to his and Eliot’s praise of the kind of memory upon which that reverie can exercise its rapt, unpragmatic force. Such memory belongs, of course, to the leisured and cultured classes – which can be anyone, from the unlettered peasantry and lower classes to the gentlemanly and cultured aristocracy. Thus Associationism helps us to see that a theory of memory involves a theory of culture which, in turn, involves a vision of political destiny with strong authoritarian impulses locked in with powerful nostalgic longings. The demonic – or, to use R.P. Blackmur’s distinction, the diabolic – element in all this is part of the writer’s escape from the inane platitudes of the Huxley-Tyndall universe which Yeats found so dispiriting. Yeats’s mystery religion and Eliot’s Christianity (as well as Pound’s Fascism) founded themselves on the memory of what has been forgotten or demoted by modern scientism. Malatesta, Donne and Cuchulainn are symptoms of the energies repressed and dislocated by the Laodicean world of secular democracy. Memory, thus, was to become identified with power in poetry and in politics. What was to be remembered could be confidently asserted if there was a firm belief in a Great Memory of a Great Tradition which lay, dormant maybe, below the nonce mutations of the memoryless modern world. The deep structures of memory inaugurated belief; belief sought symbolic presentation of those structures. Poetry became an early-warning system for politics, and the various arts of memory and memories of art which provided the Modernist impulse to formal innovation also provided the Modernist impulse to recall old forms of political solidarity and cohesion.

This is a complicated story, illustrated by Craig with such well-chosen and well-timed quotations that it is difficult to resist. The final chapter on Fascism is a valuable analysis of that political theory as it was before the Second World War and a reasonable account of its attraction. But what is missing is an account of the force of strong feeling – in fact, of hatred – which animated Yeats, Eliot and Pound in their repudiation of 19th-century civilisation. If we are willing to concede their relationship to Fascism, we must also concede that their will towards destruction and violence contained a belief in the miracle by which that violence would become again generative of order. Of the three, perhaps only Eliot ever believed in that miracle. For all his mystery religion, Yeats could not. He could only hope for it and call it the 13th Cycle.

As early as 1943 George Orwell had speculated about the connections between Yeats’s authoritarian politics and his interest in occultism. It is useful to be able to see this essay again in the company of Eliot, Tate and, above all, Richard Ellmann, whose 1954 elucidation of A Vision restored a balance to the discussion of Yeats’s ideas which the pseudo-Augustan iconoclasm of Yvor Winters was not sufficient to upset. Elizabeth Cullingford’s selection of essays on the poems of 1919-1935 is an admirable guide to the centre of the Yeatsian labyrinth, enhanced by an introductory essay which describes the evolution of the massive commentary with such concision that we are almost persuaded to accept the omission of Melchiori, Torchiana and Donoghue. The Macmillan series is so good that it is in danger of giving the Casebook idea a good name too. One would never think, on reading such a careful selection, that Yeats ‘has the property of making his critics dull’. Yeats, like Wilde and Shaw, made a success of his public.

To do so took a lot of hard work and Yeats, the Great Founder of movements, sects and theatres, managed so well that he created, especially in Ireland, a public that learned to be more enchanted by his insolence than pleased by his ingratiation. Ian Jack, in the last chapter of his book The Poet and his Audience, shows in detail the remarkable symbiosis between Yeats’s conquest of his audience and his conquest of himself. Of all the poets he surveys – Dryden, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson – only Pope displays a comparable political skill in exploiting an audience without being finally exploited by it. Yeats wavered once or twice, most especially in the Blueshirt days. But, as Professor Jack says of Pope, he recovered his remarkable independence and ‘presents himself as one of the principal subjects of his own writing’. Our sense of Yeats and of the history of English poetry is enriched by Professor Jack’s rare combination of exact scholarship and limber intelligence. I could have wished that he might have ‘With open arms receiv’d one Poet more’ – perhaps Whitman? But at least it is more possible now to appreciate the various and complex manoeuvrings behind Wilde’s famous remark: ‘I am very fond of the public and, personally, I always patronise the public very much.’ A poet’s sense of audience is, in part, his sense of himself, widening outwards from the inner circle of ‘understanders’. If it does not exist, it has, like the poetic self, to be invented.

A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream.

A complete bibliography of the secondary material on Yeats would run to about seven and a half thousand items. A. Norman Jeffares’s Commentary is the best single antidote to the despair such a figure might occasion in the mind of anyone interested, in a general or specialised way, in getting to know the poems. Since 1968, with four reprintings, it has been a useful guide. Now, in this revised and expanded edition, it has absorbed a good deal of the scholarship of the last four or five years into its notes on the individual poems. Many of the minor errors of the first edition have been purged but some still remain and a few new ones have crept in. For example, ‘Solider Aristotle’ from ‘Among School Children’ becomes ‘Soldier Aristotle’ in the commentary on ‘The Saint and the Hunchback’. The same error was there in the ’68 edition. Yeats gave the correct date (1703) for Swift’s Discourses in the introduction to Words for Music Perhaps. Now it is misprinted as 1763. Burke’s Reflections appeared in 1790, not 1770; his The Sublime and the Beautiful belongs to 1757, not 1796. It is a pity that niggling errors should flaw such a work, where so much depends on accuracy of information. More careful proofreading would have got rid of most of them. There are perhaps a dozen other misprints in quotations from various poets – Shelley prominent among them – which derive from poor printed sources. One unalloyed pleasure is Professor Jeffares’s introduction, with its lucid account of the dispute over the ordering of the poems which Richard Finneran’s new edition, now withdrawn, had raised. This is the most useful of all the new additions to a commentary which, with all its minor flaws, remains an essential companion to the Collected Poems. In his fully annotated new selection, Professor Jeffares orders the poems under 18 separate headings, using Finneran’s new text. Thus both the text and the order of Yeats’s Collected Poems are now decisively disturbed.