Guest Blog: Yeats the Visionary

By Dr Claire Nally, University of Northumbria

William Butler Yeats is best known as a poet (he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923), but he was also novelist, playwright, member of the Irish Literary Revival, manager of the Abbey Theatre, Fenian revolutionary, and Senator in the Irish Free State. He was born in Dublin in 1865, died just before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and was one of the older generation of the Modernist poets. Not unusually for the early twentieth century, he was also an occultist. Indeed, W. H. Auden describes how the poet was ‘silly like us’ (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’) and his pursuits of magic were derisorily interrogated as follows:

How on earth, we wonder, could a man of Yeats’s gifts take such nonsense seriously? How could Yeats, with his great aesthetic appreciation of aristocracy, ancestral houses, ceremonial tradition, take up something so essentially lower-middle class – or should I say Southern Californian… Mediums, spells, the Mysterious Orient – how embarrassing. (‘Yeats as an Example’).

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comYeats had been interested in the occult from an early age (he was a member of the Golden Dawn, alongside figures like Aleister Crowley and MacGregor Mathers, as well as being a Rosicrucian). However, his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees on 20 October 1917 was to mark over a decade of occult discovery, ultimately provoking the production of two versions of Yeats’s otherworldly philosophy. A Vision was published privately by T. Werner Laurie in January 1926 (dated 1925 in the text itself), in a limited edition of 600 copies. Yeats was dissatisfied with the overall outcome, and immediately began to work on the book’s revision. It was intended for publication as part of the Macmillan Edition de Luxe of Yeats’s complete works, but this project was abandoned, and the revised A Vision was finally published in 1937.

The two versions of A Vision also rather neatly coincide with Yeats’s interest in authoritarian and proto-fascist policy, emerging most fully in his brief support of the Fascist Blueshirts in 1933. George Orwell suggested a link between anti-Semitic, right-wing politics and the occult in January 1943: ‘Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults. There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound hostility of both to the Christian ethical code.’ (‘W.B.Yeats’). In fact, a number of commentaries on Yeats’s political liaison with right-wing fanaticism have emerged since Conor Cruise O’Brien’s ‘Passion and Cunning’ in 1965. Seamus Deane has commented that ‘Yeats’s occult belief passes into his social and political beliefs.’ (‘Yeats and the Occult’)  Paul Scott Stansfield describes A Vision as ‘a deplorable venture’ (Yeats and Politics in the 1930s) whilst Stephen Spender has suggested that ‘In the minds of writers who thought that their first obligation in their art was to keep open lines of communication with the dead, Fascism represented order, a return to the past tradition, opposition to Communism and social decadence.’ (The Appeal of Fascism). Most recently in Blood Kindred, W. J. McCormack suggests ‘underlying these sympathies [in On the Boiler] was an occult philosophy that endorsed the irrational.’

Yeats2The poet’s occult theory, as expressed in A Vision, is best summarised through his theory of the gyres, although he was not the first to present time, space and the very origins of being through opposites. The early Greek philosopher, Empedocles, had also developed a philosophy based on antithesis, as had William Blake, whilst Giambatista Vico saw history as cyclical. For Yeats, the whirling vortices are the foundation of all existence: ‘all physical reality, the universe as a whole, every solar system, every atom, is a double cone.’ (A Vision) One gyre expands as another contracts, always in a dialectical movement, crucially without ever succeeding to dominate, overcome or assimilate its Other: ‘the gyre of Concord diminishes as that of Discord increases… and so on, one gyre within the other always… as intersecting states struggling one against the other.’ (A Vision) Yeats saw the gyre as a model of history, time, personality. It was a 2,000 cycle, the end of which brought revolution, strife and turmoil for humanity. Following the First World War, the Russian Revolution (1917), the Easter Rising in Dublin (1916) and subsequent violence in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923), it is easy to see why the poet thought we were heading towards the apocalypse. He expresses this in ‘The Second Coming’, which references his version of cyclical history in some detail:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world[.]

The falconer, as Christ, is alienated from humanity (the falcon), and slowly, religion, politics, the very foundations of our existence ‘fall apart’ and chaos ensues. The poem culminates in a vivid description of the sphinx and the bastard ‘rough beast’ from the Bible. We are presented with the turning point of a new civilization, brought about by Judgment Day. Essentially we have Yeats’s sense of pessimism for the modern world, the sense that we are progressively heading towards the apocalypse, and the poet’s desperate bid to see a pattern of order in the horror.

If we think about Yeats’s relationship to the occult, Auden’s ideas still dominate our thinking. It seems patently absurd that Yeats would commune with the spirit world, believing himself and his wife to be receiving messages from beyond. Yet, if we think about his belief system in relation to the politics and culture of the time, it makes much greater sense. In common with other poets, such as T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922), he was desperately attempting to make sense of the ‘immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (‘Ulysses: Order and Myth’). Indeed, this was a broader project of literary modernism. Yeats’s occult reflections provide documents of struggle in the crisis of the early twentieth century, the trauma and social upheaval involved in war, and the need to produce order out of chaos.

Claire Nally is a Senior Lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature at the University of Northumbria, UK. Her first book, Envisioning Ireland: Occult Nationalism in the Work of W.B. Yeats was published in 2009, and her co-written book, Selling Ireland: Advertising, Literature and Irish Print Culture 1891-1922 was published in 2012. She writes on gender, Irish Studies, and subcultures. She is part of Northumbria’s ‘Gendered Subjects’ research group and you can follow her on Twitter here. 


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Posted on September 12, 2013, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    We can do no better for an answer than turn to the last line of Larkin’s The Old Fools: “Well, We shall find out”.

  2. Trying to produce order out of chaos can lead to some very ugly things… but I’m not sure religion can always be viewed as one of them. Now fascism on the other hand… Interesting ideas, here, but the thesis seems a bit impersonal. Anyway, cool guest post, I enjoyed reading it and I learned a few things I never knew!

  3. Haha, what synchronicity -, in a review of a book today (Ray Bradbury’s 451) I quoted a couple of lines from the Second Coming –
    the best lack all conviction, whilst the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity

  4. Stuff Jeff Reads

    Great post! Thank you. Love Yeats. In college I studied Yeats and the professor had me read Blavatsky to get a better understanding of the occult influences that are incorporated in his works.

  5. Poetry is making order out of a chaotic mind that seems to exist outside our own; it casts impressions of various color and weight; Is it spontaneous, inspiration of the present wave of thoughts raising itself a notch higher? There are great many instances where poetic fancies have touched the sublime. Some of the Bar’s lines bear inspiration of the highest order. What was the origin of Keat’s ode to a Nightingale? A commonplace event for great many. But the poet responded to the sighting of the bird by writing on bits and pieces of a paper that he later faired it out because his friend persuaded him to make a go. He would have lost the inspiration but in the end produced a beautiful ode in the English literature. Poets are open to receive impressions under a more suggestive sensibility. It is a mystery. Yeats may have taken many wrong turns in trying to make a case for it. Occult is when you are seeking the unknowable on the premise that the dead do communicate and take many shapes etc., It is in my opinion the conscious side of our brain shaping its unconscious half in its image. Often it could end up as ludicrous than sublimity it seeks.
    An interesting post, Thanks

  6. In my comment I meant the bard and not Bar as written, Thanks

  7. Thank you for the interesting read!

  8. Yeats, the poet, was not author-alone in these beliefs, of course. Conan Doyle, for example, and even Funk of Funk & Wagnalls, investigated spirtualism first-hand at seances and wrote convincingly about it during the first decades of the 1900s. “Occultism” beliefs were not even remotely California-n in nature, but primarily grounded in the U.K.

  9. Thank you for this article! I have been a fan of Yeats for years.

  10. As always very interesting post, come to think about it all these poets are quite fascinating characters, either they´re tortured souls, have difficult personalities, one comment said “poetry is making order of a chaotic mind”(Mr bennythomas up there) I find that quite true, so it seems all these great poets and literatist seem to have an intriguing mind. So you have to be half crazy if you want to win the nobel prize, that makes me a good candidate.
    Stay Frosty

  11. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    And here is a second bit of interesting stuff to reblog. My day is now complete :)

  12. Fascinating post – a lover of Yeats, but had not been aware of this aspect of his complex persona. Thank you so
    much for illuminating me!

  13. I love Yeats, but him being interested in occultism never suprised me. I approached the topic from a different angle though. He was really sensitive to symbolism in literature, arts, even in life itself. Hes poetry is very deep and rich in symbols. And this is what occultism and secret societies like Rosicrucians, or the Free Masons operate with.

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