The poetry and thought of William Butler Yeats make for one of most profound, yet elusive studies in the English language. The context of Yeats is problematic since his work spans the gap between romantic and modern sentiment, his case, therefore, a special and telling one in the recent history of poetry. And unlike many writers, his intellectual flourishing never ceases, never granting itself a concrete certainty to rest on.
One of the most consistent though beguiling influences throughout his lifetime, and at which point many readers might well become lost, is the domination of his spiritualistic/mysticist/occultist interests, which will be the topic of this brief article. His interests in the occult began in his youth, and they inform and permeate his career and works, culminating with his text A Vision.
Yeats spirituality marks the palpable metaphysical feel of his poetry and entails a dense and erudite background to understand even to a slight degree. This brief article will hopefully serve as a sort of simple guide to the base of Yeats’ spirituality, and offers a summary of some of the key features which constitute his view on reality as expressed in A Vision, and finally, the effects these inspire in his poetry.
First of all, Yeats system is all encompassing; it concerns the physical, the mental, the historical, the spiritual, life- and -death; divinity, a mathematical universality underlying reality, the subjective and the objective, and many more issues, some of which we shall uncover for a brief glimpse. The most important though is none of these individually, but in the universal relation, Yeats applies to all dichotomies.
Consider the idea of good and evil, and the symbol of Yin and Yang, as a cyclical, coextensive existence; the good is as much a subtraction of evil, as the addition of any-thing; and this serves well as an archetypal example to how much of the thought of Yeats unwinds.
Yeats makes use of several important pieces of imagery, the most significant being the gyre (vortex), which he presents as doubled to demonstrate the division between the primary, and antithetical (secondary) modes of things. The gyre is to Yeats a universal form which symbolises a movement of energy between any two poles (we’ll stick to considering good and evil for simplicity).
The gyre commences at its base, and it’s power increases as it moves toward the top (apex) of the spiral/gyre/vortex. The doubled gyre shows us that as we move upward on the primary gyre (good), we move downward to the same degree on the antithetical gyre (evil) and vice versa. It is in this sense that we begin to understand reality as Yeats saw it, as a whole, alike a beating heart, continually pulsing in and out of existence.
Yeats distinguishes characteristics which set apart the primary from the antithetical qualities, which he refers to as ‘tinctures’ and which relate to his astrological ideas. All of the primary tinctures are of the Solar, and the antithetic the Lunar.
While the two are mutually reliant on one another, the Solar always predominates the lunar, and as the most significant mark which distinguishes the two, the Solar refers to all unification and the Lunar to individuation. The solar to objectivity, and the lunar to the subjective. His symbolism places the soul in incarnate life, in the lunar, and the soul in death, or between lives, in the Solar.
Yeats proposes a historical cycle between primary and secondary which lasts around 2000 years, the current solar age having begun around the time of Christ’s birth, soon to spiral into chaos, and collapse; the death of the age, and the birth of a new lunar era.
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
Yeats was himself a member, and often Chairman of several noted organised spiritual communities, as well as versed in an array of traditional, and Eastern religious doctrines. It was following his marriage to George Hyde-Lees though, from which his materials and ideas for A Vision arose.
A little over a week after their marriage, Yeats’ new wife began to experiment with automatic script (placing a writing utensil in hand, over a paper, and allowing oneself to drift into an unconscious daze, to produce writing).
The “Automatic Script” produced by George, and put together by them over many years stands as a notable example of attempted spirit communication of the esoteric occult traditions. Between them, the Yeatses produced thousands of pages of script which they considered messages from the objective realm between life and death, accessible in dreams and through meditation.
This material is essential to Yeats since knowledge from incarnate life is limited and subjective, thus dialogue with spirits grants Yeats a certain authority. It is from these scripts which Yeats draws the symbolism for his later poetry and the inspiration for A Vision.
Personal belief set aside momentarily, while Yeats refuted the thought of Freud, the experiment is interesting in the context of the subconscious and serves as a precursor to the techniques of Surrealism as expressed in the writing of Andre Breton. And though it is true that the Yeats believed to be communicating with spirits, Yeats does in his later career seem to lean toward accepting that the inner thoughts tell us more about our mind than something beyond.
So how does Yeats as a poet reflect his system of beliefs in his works as both a romantic poet, and later as an undoubtedly modern one?
The shortest response would be to highlight that just as Romanticism is a reaction against a mechanistic view of reality from enlightenment thinking, modernism is a reaction of crisis to our place in the universe and concerning the chance of certainty given that position. A crisis which unwinds thanks to the works of many including Einstein on relativity, Planck on quantum theory, Darwin’s evolution, and Freud’s unsettling theories dismantling our status as rational creatures.
And just alike the spirit of rejection for conventionality which marks the revolutions in thought throughout times like the renaissance, enlightenment, and modernity, and when any bold, controversial new idea is proclaimed; the spirit of Yeats is outward looking, questioning, innovative, powerful, pervasive, and always poetic.
We find in Yeats’ system a kind of attempt to explicate how we can account for creation and destruction and everything between given our unsteady foothold for knowledge in the universe. In Yeats the romantic we find a dream of flight from this ordinary existence to some place elsewhere where we might look back and reflect, in the timelessness of silence and thought.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
In his mature work though we find a system with emphasis on a quality of pattern making; with his cyclical stages of history, the co-existence of bi-polarities, the 28 stages of the moon, and the anti-self of the Daimon. Yeats’s is different from usual descriptions of our reality, and it’s workings are unfamiliar at first. Different partly because it doesn’t follow a narrative, or story, in the usual sense. It is a story made from a thousand splintered symbols, more than of words, and this is emphasized especially in his mature works, and as a feature of modernism more generally.
In this sense, we might consider it as any other doctrine inevitably, to be grasping for some certainty and predictability in the world, for why things must be, and be as they are. By balancing everything in its relations as he does, Yeats seems to make things seem complete and perfected.