“The Wrong Supernatural World”: Yeats’s Mystic Revision

Gregory Dekter, New York University

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Although Yeats often pointed to mysticism as an ideal framework for understanding the physical world, his 1937 emendations to A Vision seem to countermand this. A closer look reveals, however, that Yeats’s intent was not to discount his earlier effort, but to mislead skeptics like T.S. Eliot in order that he might subvert controversy and strengthen the work’s revelatory experience.

When W.B. Yeats revised A Vision in 1937, he did so with the following admission: the original text, published a decade earlier, had misinterpreted the core philosophy “upon which the coherence of the whole depended”(19). Yeats further admits that such a mistake fills him “with shame,” and commits in the new volume to redact or correct it wherever possible (19). From this, a reader might expect a clarification of esoteric language, or a more attentive illustration of the work’s arcane concepts. Instead, despite a longstanding conviction towards their literal accuracy, Yeats appears to entirely discount the range of mystic subjects populating his texts. He apologizes if it seems as though, “overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it,” he had taken “such periods [of supernatural encounter] literally,” and assures us that his faculty of reason has since recovered sufficiently that he now regards these writings as merely “stylistic arrangements of experience” (25). That is to say, the cones and gyres, ghosts and spirits, experiments with magic, and automatic writing detailed throughout the text (and his greater body of work) should be understood as metaphor working towards the illumination of a deeper subject, but not as the subject itself. And yet this relegation of Yeats’ mystic scholarship to technical aestheticism is not especially persuading when we consider its context. In Modernist Alchemy Timothy Materer suggests that this self-dismissal, issued by Yeats late in his literary career, is actually a strategy to “avoid arguments or win over a skeptical audience” (27)—an intentional but insincere subversion of the material intended to, if not attract a wider readership, at least avoid any chance of critical debate. If we accept the latter option, we may also consider it a direct response to T.S. Eliot’s charges against Yeats in After Strange Gods. Published in 1934, and therefore only a few years before the revised A Vision, Eliot says of Yeats in After Strange Gods: his “verse is stimulated by folklore, occultism, mythology and symbolism, crystal-gazing and hermetic writing,” that while aesthetically beautiful, is in itself “highly artificial” (44, 45). If indeed Yeats’ explanation of his “stylistic arrangements” in A Vision is a kind of apology to Eliot and those who shared Eliot’s skeptical views, it does not seem to be an especially passionate apology, or one that is long lived. Whereas Eliot’s formal project in The Waste Land conscribes ghosts, sorceresses, and other mystic systems in an unapologetically exoteric form, Yeats, in beginning a work devoted to the explication of a mystic system by renouncing that system as merely a stylized experience, seems actually to strengthen the work’s esoteric shell.

We need only look to Yeats’ earlier writing to locate a strong hold against his surprising reaction. In Ideas of Good and Evil Yeats makes the assertion that readers and poets alike, from all eras, practicing in all genres, “cannot separate the idea of an art or a craft from the idea of a cult with ancient technicalities and mysteries,” or, indeed, separate “learning from witchcraft” (13). While he may mean specifically that the literary tradition is cult-like in nature, the ultimate evolution of his own work proves literature’s ability to inform independent cults rather than simply reflect existent ones. Yeats was concerned with an occultation of literature from a grand perspective, and believed the poet served the same essential function as the occult cleric in that his task was to initiate the reader into a secret order. Only those adept enough to “read the signs” and absorb the transmission of the secret wisdom tradition held within the poet’s work could be said to have undergone spiritual improvement; all others were foiled by “shallow wits” (Yeats, Poems 207). It should be noted that this esoteric tradition is distinctly different from literary symbolism, which is intentionally open to the interpretation of any educated reader. Indeed, “occult exegesis does not deploy some key or code…which would permit [just] anyone to reveal the secret meaning of encoded texts,” rather there is held to be “a single esoteric meaning which can be cleanly and unambiguously derived” only by those who are “enlightened or initiated” (Surette 33).

It was not Yeats’ goal to invent an esoteric mythology, but rather to expound the one he believed was a priori within history, and to depict it adequately enough to proselytize—or initiate—potential adepts. In A Vision Yeats explains that history is entirely the result of certain spirits who direct the actions of mortals and initiate a select few for inclusion in the wisdom tradition through the path to enlightenment. Moreover, if one could identify the patterns of these spirits or become a member of their order, it would be possible to predict mass historical changes. To this end Yeats writes in A Vision that “things move by mathematical necessity, all changes can be dated by gyre and cone, and pricked beforehand upon the Calendar” (lvii). Indeed, the foremost intention of A Vision is to describe a secret and ancient tradition closely resembling the types of rituals in which Yeats himself partook, both at private gatherings and during the course of his membership in various occult orders (Owen 46, 64).

The bulk of the information detailed in A Vision is established, not by Yeats himself, but through a series of formal literary frames. Working under the preconceived notion that “a visionary experience is the one unquestionable reality for the person who undergoes it,” Yeats uses a collection of stories, told purportedly in the words of historic figures, to strengthen and legitimize the text’s authority (Longenbach 23). The core of Yeats’ strategy in establishing “a line of transmission of the gnosis from high antiquity through the classical and medieval worlds to the present”(Surette 19) is achieved therefore, like it is for Eliot in The Waste Land and Pound in The Cantos, through systematic fragmentation. Yeats toils at some length to connect the accounts of “certain Irish countrymen” who “had seen Spirits departing from them in an ascending gyre” alongside Descartes’s mathematical conception of a gyre, “Boehme and his gyre,” and similar allusions “in many writers back to antiquity” (Vision 103). He finds, due to its persistence in recorded history, that the symbol of a gyre or cone is a good analogue for the motions of the human mind and inner consciousness, and from this determines that two inverted gyres, expanding and contracting in opposite force, suitably describe Anima Hominis and Anima Mundi—soul of man and soul of the world. Essentially, the gyre is the platform upon which all life is supported, and, as a result of its endless fluctuation, necessitates all life as catastrophic (106).

Yeats goes on to illuminate certain classifications established by the “wisdom tradition,” illustrated in contemporary analogues. In describing a certain phase of the lunar calendar, for example, Yeats finds Eliot and Pound guilty of imbalance: they tend towards “technical research to the entire exclusion of the personal dream.” Yeats continues: “I find at this 23rd Phase…hatred of the abstract,” men who “eliminate from metaphor the poet’s phantasy [sic] and substitute a strangeness discovered by historical or contemporary research” (175). Just as Eliot had condemned Yeats for his artificial esotericism, Yeats accuses Eliot of engaging a kind of anti-poetry that is nothing more than an “accurate record of the relevant facts,” or merely a string of “associated ideas or words that seem to drift into the mind by chance” (Oxford xxxv; Vision 175).

Although in A Vision Yeats likewise accuses Pound of being “absorbed in…technical research,” Pound has similar issue to take with Eliot’s apparent reliance on erudite history (174). In canto 29, Pound describes a conversation with Eliot in which Eliot admits he is “afraid of the life after death” (Pound 145). Pound does not share Eliot’s fear because he has, by way of his own spiritual studies, gained “the power to escape death” (Materer 11). For Pound, Eliot has failed to grasp the significance of the Yeatsian cycle and is therefore “preoccupied with the fear of death,” (42). In Eliot’s view, and despite Pound’s claim, neglecting to receive the Yeatsian cycle in his work is not a failing but the result of partiality towards an apparently incompatible Christian doctrine of belief. While spirituality is of the highest importance in his poetry, to Eliot Yeats’ avenues of inquiry are misguided; rather than ignorance, his position is found in a dismissal of Yeats’ mysticality as “the wrong supernatural world” (Strange Gods 45). This position is further elucidated in base terms when Eliot writes in the same text that “it is in fact in moments of moral and spiritual struggle…[that] we are all very much alike” (42). Rather than the function of esoteric systems, for Eliot spiritualism forms a universality.

Although Eliot was concerned that Pound was “mixed up with Mr. Yeats’ spooks,” he nevertheless sought Pound’s contribution in his writing of The Waste Land, not only for the poem’s stylistic and rhetorical structure, but also, as Leon Surette points out: “Eliot submitted his long poem to Pound’s scrutiny specifically because he knew Pound to have some competence in occult theories and beliefs” (Materer 66; Surette 239). Pound’s competence in occult systems can in turn be traced to Yeats, and while Pound and Yeats never agreed on the specifics of occultism—Pound, for example, was highly critical of Yeats’ studies in magic—it is known that the two attended séances, read many of the same occult texts during their winters spent together at Stone Cottage in Sussex, and like Yeats, “Pound believed that spiritual masters guide mortals, who may become initiates of the ‘wisdom philosophy’ on the road to enlightenment” (Longenbach 184; Materer 54). Despite a difference of opinion with Yeats on certain occult matters, Pound was dedicated to creating a work with the same esoteric formulae as A Vision. In canto 74 Pound writes that “ghosts move about me” “patched with histories,” while cantos 90 and 91 are dedicated to the process of mystic palingenesis (Pound 466; Typhonopoulos 169). In all, A Vision and The Cantos seem designed towards the same end:“both texts are esoteric enough to define their own readership and create a secret society of readers who understand the codes” (Materer 146). Similarly, Demetres Typhonopoulos in The Celestial Tradition argues that Pound’s cantos are:

intended to be read in a fashion similar to Hermetic palingenetic literature. With this model, the author plays the role of the mystagogue and presents a description of a ‘mystery’ in the hope that his presentation will have the same impact upon the reader as a ritual revelation or mystical vision. Only the…“neophyte” will be able to perceive and experience the mystery. (6)

Such a reading is corroborated by Pound’s own comments that the goal of art in general is not to openly divulge information, but rather to craft a revelatory experience: “the most poignant songs,” Pound claims, for example, “have been often written in cipher—of necessity” (Typhonopoulos 9; Longenbach 95).

Presumably the necessity Pound speaks of has to do with a work’s impact on the reader: without a revelatory experience a work of art may be significantly less important in the reader’s consideration. To that end, Pound keeps The Cantos couched in esoteric verbosity. More than the ghosts of canto 74 and elsewhere, more than the hundreds of contemporary and historical reference points, more than the multitude of living and dead languages, The Cantos are “fragments shored against ruin” (Pound 801). Likewise, “since the mystery [of The Cantos] cannot be shown or explained, Pound does not attempt to discuss any of the details of the initiatory experience” (Typhonopoulos119),and rather leaves these details to the perception of the initiate-reader himself, an approach in line with Yeats’s own, and one opposed to Eliot’s sense of spiritual unity.

Pound’s method in The Cantos is precisely what Yeats accuses him of in A Vision: full reliance on “historical or contemporary research” circumventing “the logical processes of thought by flooding them with associated ideas or words that seem to drift into the mind by chance” (175). Ironically, this analysis may have indicated to Pound that Yeats himself was one among the uninitiated, capable of viewing The Cantos as a “technical and emotional masterpiece,” but unable to grasp its “allegorical expressions of…spiritual and political values” (Longenbach 93). Although Pound’s work functions much like the type of esotericism that Yeats studied at length, in that it “calls up the souls of enlightened individuals, both dead and alive,” it does so in a poetic style very different to Yeats’ own (Typhonopoulos 102). For Pound, Yeats’ poetic symbolism was undesirable because his “symbolism has usually been associated with mushy technique” (Pound LE 5) whereas his own Imagism, with its direct treatment of the image, found “the natural object [to be] always the adequate symbol,” and therefore not a symbol at all (Surette 5). If Pound did actually intend The Cantos to function as mystical revelation then his inclusion of the line “[t]hese fragments I have shored against my ruins” appropriated from The Waste Land in canto 8 and again in canto 110 indicate that, while he may not have seen The Waste Land itself as a revelatory instruction, he certainly thought the poem could form part of the initiation his own work represents.

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S. After Strange Gods. London: Faber, 1933. Print.

—. The Waste Land and Other Poems. Ed. Randy Malamud. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005. Print.

Longenbach, James. Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Materer, Timothy.Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. Print.

Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1968. Print.

—. The Cantos of Ezra Pound.New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1995. Print.

Surette, Leon. The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and the Occult. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. Print.

Sword, Helen.Ghostwriting Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. Print.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres P. The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos.” Waterloo:Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992. Print.

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. New York: Macmillan Company, 1970. Print.

—. A Vision. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.

—. Ideas of Good and Evil.London: A. H. Bullen, 1903. Print.

—. “Introduction.” Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Ed. W.B. Yeats. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936. V-XLI.Print.

—. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.

Gregory Dekter is a graduate student of English language and literature at New York University where he has focused on the works of Samuel Beckett. He has lectured on Virginia Woolf, and can be read in forthcomingpublications on both modernist and contemporary authors.

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