Poetry News

Lapham's Quarterly Puzzles Over Yeats the Magician

By Harriet Staff

Dwelling on a topic that never fails to make poetry academics uncomfortable, Lapham's Quarterly gives a thorough history of W.B. Yeats's lifelong devotion to magic. From his admission to Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society to A Vision, his strange book on personality types and the cosmos, scholars have often wondered about (and apologized for) Yeats's other obsession. This essay puts forth the following argument:

[Helen] Vendler offers a plausible answer: “Our present discomfort in imagining Yeats at Madame Blavatsky’s arises from our feeling that there are more respectable ways of approaching the esoteric, forgetting that a concrete encounter is the only one likely to appeal to a mind peculiarly attuned to words and visual symbols.” The magnetic drawing-room seer’s “air of humor and audacious power” inflamed his imagination. No one reads the poetry of Yeats for its lucid logic; he despised rationalism. The principal source of Yeats’ power as a poet was his fabulous rhetorical gift. From the beginning he could turn an unforgettable phrase as deftly as a ballet dancer takes a leap. He devoutly believed that words were magic charms, endowed with an innate, transcendent power to raise poet and reader directly into a higher realm, just as the dancer may believe that the music lifts him soaring from the stage.

Many great minds before and after Yeats have espoused beliefs and engaged in activities that appear false and foolish centuries after the dust has settled, as the passionately disputed controversies of the past have become homework for undergraduates. The closest analog to necromantic Yeats may perhaps be found not in literature but in the figure of Isaac Newton, alchemist.

...If the greatest mathematician of postclassical times believed himself to be the modern exponent of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, and performed alchemical experiments in his laboratory in Cambridge, then readers of Yeats may wonder the less at the poet’s passionate devotion to hermetic revelation. Yeats’ credulous acceptance of the incredible is at the core of inspiration. The relationship between poet and muse is sometimes mysterious and sometimes simple, or at any rate direct.

...Following hermetic teaching, the correspondences between the word and the ideal it reflects are mystical: the symbol has a life of its own, outside the mind. Yeats needed magic not for his thematic material but for the power to accomplish this alchemy, to transmute the wisdom from above into verbal formulas comprehensible here below. Marlowe’s Faustus ponders what task to set for the spirits obedient to his omnipotent will: “I’ll have them fly to India for gold, /Ransack the ocean for orient pearl.”

Yeats set his sights higher: the treasure he sought was not metal gold but the gift of a golden tongue.

The entire essay is worth a read; find it here.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2012