W. B. Yeats spent a great deal of his life immersing himself in magical, mystical, and philosophic studies in order, as he claimed, to devise a personal system of thought 'that would leave [his] ... imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul's.' He succeeded in developing a cohesive metaphysics, and one which is surprisingly original. While he set it down in a series of philosophical treatises culminating in A Vision, it is most clearly elaborated in his plays, which breathe life and meaning into the rather obscure statements of the treatises. In this book, the author traces 'the history of the soul' as it is developed in Yeats's plays. She elucidates the underlying system of thought in the drama and establishes its importance to the aim and execution of the plays by drawing attention to a few of the central themes, metaphors, and symbols through which it is developed. The manuscript and the earliest published versions of the plays are indispensable to this study as they retain much of the abstract thought which Yeats eliminated from the later versions. Martin traces the development of the metaphors and images which gradually replaced Yeats's abstractions. In the process, she is able to uncover new meaning in the plays, as many subtle and obscure passages become clearly understandable.
Heather C. Martin is a writer living in Galiano Island, British Columbia, and a former Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
"Metaphors for Poetry"
It was in search of a coherent, but personal, metaphysics that, Yeats It was in search of a coherent, but personal, metaphysics that, Yeats tells us, he began his study of esoteric traditions in the 1880s: "Some were looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power, but I had a practical object. I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul's" (AV (A) xi). Yeats's youthful fascination first with Theosophy and the teachings of Mme Blavatsky and then with the theory and practice of magic through MacGregor Mathers and others is well documented, not least in his own writing, the clearest example of which is his unfinished novel, The Speckled Bird. Writes William Murphy, "Readers of... that intense, astonishingly personal autobiographical novel... will understand and appreciate the depth, earnestness and sincerity of the poet's devotion to the occult."1
Yeats became a serious student of the occult, of magic, mysticism, and spiritism, and he pursued this study until late in life. He was very active in the inner circles of Theosophy until he fell into disfavour with Mme Blavatsky for advocating the study of practical magic in the Esoteric Section, the study group to which he belonged. He then joined the magical Order of the Golden Dawn, founded by master masons including his magical mentor MacGregor Mathers, and became an extraordinarily active member, as is exhaustively documented in G. M. Harper's Yeats' Golden Dawn .2 Yeats held the post of Instruct of Mystical Philosophy for years, and was a key figure in the restructuring of the order after the painful break with Mathers in 1900. Yeats belonged to the Golden Dawn and to its successor the Order of the Stella Matutina for thirty-two years. In addition, he was an Associate Member of the Society of Psychical Research from 1913 to 1928.3
Yeats took his esoteric studies very seriously; they were inextricably intertwined with his literary activities, and he insisted on proclaiming them publicly while "enduring unbelief and misbelief and ridicule as best one may" (El 38). He made no apologies for them, since it was often while pursuing these studies that he found his muse. As he wrote in A Vision, "Muses resemble women who creep out at night and give themselves to unknown sailors and return to talk of Chinese porcelain... or of the Ninth Symphony - virginity renews itself like the moon - except that the Muses sometimes form in these low haunts their most lasting attachments" (AV (B) 24). His essay entitled "Magic," a manifesto of sorts, begins, "I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed..." (El 28). What Yeats is referring to is ritual magic, a rigorous spiritual and scientific discipline combined with a transcendental doctrine which teaches that human beings are one with nature and one with the gods. The magical order of the Golden Dawn combined studies of the ancient wisdom tradition, including Rosicrucian lore and the Kabbalah, with astrology and the tarot, and turned the whole into a system of practical magic which allowed the initiate (in theory at any rate, though Yeats's writings indicate that he achieved a measure of success), through dedication and practice, to leave the physical body through astral travel and even, through skrying (travelling directly to higher planes of existence) and divination, to converse with the gods. The aims of the order are reflected in the "Obligations of an Adeptus Minor":
I further solemnly swear that with the Divine permission, I will from this day forward apply myself unto the Great Work, which is to purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature, that with the Divine aid, I may at length attain to be more than human, and thus gradually raise and unify myself to my Higher and Divine Genius and that in this [unreadable word] I will not abuse the Great Power entrusted unto me.4
Israel Regardie, a fellow member of the Golden Dawn and a prolific demystifier of magic, writes of the magician that,
His is the task, and his alone, of transforming the universe, and of transmuting the base elements of matter into the substance of the veritable spirit. A constant alchemical operation must the whole of his life become, during which he distills in the alembic of his heart the grossness of the world into the essence of the cloudless skies.5
Yeats used magic in this way, not as a means of acquiring temporal power, but as a key to a higher spiritual life. Traditional magic, along with Theosophy and spiritism, was for him a means of rediscovering the spiritual and imaginative truths which he felt had been understood in ancient times and still were by the uneducated classes such as the Irish peasantry and the servant girls of Soho, but which were largely lost in the modern world through an overemphasis on the mind and the rational faculties. Yeats spent his life trying to understand the nature of the spirit, and welcomed any opportunity to glimpse another facet of it. For this reason he immersed himself in various studies, such as magic and spiritism, which even in occult circles were considered incompatible;6 "I was comparing one form of belief with another, and like Paracelsus, who claimed to have collected his knowledge from midwife and hangman, I was discovering a philosophy" (VB 311).
Yeats studied these disciplines carefully, but he did not swallow all their tenets whole, and could laugh at the follies and excesses of each. While still an active Theosophist, for example, Yeats wrote to Katherine Tynan about "a sad accident [which] happened at Madame Blavatsky's lately, I hear. A big materialist sat on the astral double of a poor young Indian. It was sitting on the sofa and he was too material to be able to see it. Certainly a sad accident!" (L 59). Throughout even the obsessive The Speckled Bird, which he wrote while he was still trying to create a Celtic magical order, Yeats poked gentle fun at the fanatics and middle-class eccentrics he met in occult circles. This sense of humour, coupled with a healthy skepticism, is very much in evidence throughout his work, and is an important part even of A Vision which, as H. Adams has pointed out, is much more tongue-in-cheek than is generally acknowledged.7 A balance of belief and skepticism is also evident in the plays, notably in the highly esoteric, but equally irreverent, The Herne's Egg.
Yeats's metaphysics is in fact considerably more orthodox than his preoccupation with the occult would lead us to believe. To begin with, the Western philosophic tradition has very strong ties with the occult tradition which was resurfacing at the turn of the century in Europe, and in which Yeats was immersing himself. As James Olney argues, "Going back to Plato himself, and even earlier to Pythagoras and Empedocles, the exoteric tradition had its counterpart in a parallel esoteric tradition; and point by point along their parallel paths the philosophy offered justification for that other darker brother."8 Yeats's philosophy can in many instances be traced both to occult sources such as Mme Blavatsky's books or Golden Dawn tenets and to exoteric philosophic works - on many points these traditions are virtually interchangeable.9
Yeats absorbed a great deal of exoteric philosophy indirectly, through his occult studies and through poets such as Shelley, Coleridge, and Blake, but he also devoted a considerable amount of time to the study of Eastern and Western philosophies. He became acquainted with the former early in life, through his contacts with the India-based Theosophical Society, with Mohini Chatterjee and his friend AE (George Russell), and with the Indian dramatist Tagore. This interest was rekindled in the last few years of his life by his friendship with the Indian monk Shri Purohit Swami, with whom he translated The Ten Principal Upanishads. Yeats's interests in Western philosophy took longer to develop, since he was so skeptical in his youth of the value of logical, abstract thought, equating it, like Blake, with a dearth of holiness (VB 20). Nevertheless, following the publishing of the first version of A Vision, a decidedly abstract work (though Yeats at first tried to clothe it in myth), he began to read Western philosophy seriously, and spent the ten years between 1925 and 1935 studying it "chiefly to test A Vision."10 As Yeats explained to T. Sturge Moore in 1926,
When it [A Vision] was written... I started to read. I read for months every day Plato and Plotinus. Then I started on Berkeley and Croce and Gentile. You introduced me to your brother [the realist George Moore]'s work and to [Bertrand] Russell, and I found Eddington and one or two others for myself. I am still however anything but at my ease in recent philosophy. I find your brother extraordinarily obscure.
He persevered, with boundless enthusiasm and increasing confidence, as his long philosophical correspondence with T. S. Moore attests. Besides consistently pointing out flaws in the realist...