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’).
Yeats 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.’
The 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:
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.