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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould


W. B. Yeats and the Problem of Belief1

Catherine E. Paul

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  • 1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If (...)

1W. B. Yeats’s readers have long wondered whether he could possibly believe in what is strangest in his work. When George Russell (AE) first reviewed Yeats’s essay introducing A Vision, he highlighted the

  • 2 W. Russell (AE), ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound: AE Reviews W. B. Yeats’ s Latest Book’, The Living Age, (...)

collaboration between the dreaming consciousness of his wife and his own, with possibly other entities not of this plane of being. The poet speaks of them as if he believed they were external to consciousness, but when we enter into the dream world there is a dramatic sundering of the ego, and while we dream we are persuaded of the existence of many people which, when we wake, we feel were only part of our own protean nature. I do not suggest that these philosophic entities who communicated to the poet and his wife the substance of The Vision may be simply some submerged part of the soul, because I am skeptical of the possibility. I merely say that the poet has not given me enough material to decide.2

  • 3 See CW14 xxxv–xxxvi and xli–xlvi.

2AE’s comments purport to suspend judgment, but by suggesting what he claims not to suggest, he gives voice to doubt about Yeats’s claims for the origin of A Vision. AE was hardly alone: questions, concerns, doubts, and often dismissals appear in most contemporary writings about the Yeatses’ long mediumistic experimentation and A Vision.3

3This essay addresses not whether Yeats believed in what he describes, but rather how Yeats believed and what that belief enables. To consider this question, I focus primarily on several versions of the paragraph with which he closes his ‘Introduction to A Vision’, an essay that first appeared in print in A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929) and then in the revised version of A Vision (1937). In this paragraph, Yeats foregrounds the question of whether he believes in what he has written in A Vision, and his shifting answer and the metaphors through which he offers that answer reveal his changing sense of what it means to believe in phenomena that so many approach with scepticism. That Yeats revised this paragraph so many times and in such extensive manner shows how complex he finds the problem of belief to be.

4‘Believe’ can encompass a range of meanings, but here I focus on two. First, it can mean to have confidence or faith, and specifically to have religious faith. This intransitive meaning expresses a state that is or is not, that either happens or does not. This kind of belief occurs only rarely in Yeats’s writings on his engagement with the supernatural. ‘To believe’ can also have a transitive sense, meaning to give intellectual assent to something, or to give credence to something. Giving assent is a decision, a choice, a commitment, a willingness to go along with something and see what it reveals or enables.

5These two kinds of belief—that which is a given versus that which is a choice—matter to Yeats’s engagement with the supernatural. He opens his 1901 essay ‘Magic’ with an unusually definitive statement: ‘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…’(E & I 28). This statement has all the certainty of a credo. Yeats claims faith as an underlying assumption, clarifying that the exploration therein is not academic but invested. Granted, his credo is modified by moments of uncertainty and caution—‘what we have agreed to call magic’, and ‘what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are’. Still: this opening sets the stage for an essay in which, readers are told, questions of belief or doubt will play no part, because faith is. The kind of belief expressed in ‘Magic’ is rare in Yeats’s writings.

6The kind of belief that involves consent, however, allowed Yeats to experiment with modes of exploration that many of his readers still find dubious. In his ‘Introduction to A Vision’, Yeats tells the story of his and George Yeats’s long mediumistic experience, through automatic script and other methods, with the spirit beings who revealed the system of A Vision. Yeats closes this essay with a paragraph addressing the question of his belief in the elaborate system of A Vision— a system that he calls crucial to nearly all of his mature poetry. Imagining doubt allows Yeats to ponder different kinds of belief and their significance to his work. This passage was heavily revised at every draft state, and even between the publication of A Packet for Ezra Pound, attesting to its importance to Yeats’s presentation of his strange system, and his complicated thinking about belief.

7The earliest version I have found appears in the Rapallo B notebook:

  • 4 W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, Rapallo Notebook B, NLI Reference MS 13,579. I am grateful to Warwick (...)

Sometimes I have asked my self do I believe all this book, or only some part of it for tho I believe different parts with different degrees or do some parts of it sound certain & some parts probably, & I always find myself loth to answer. What I write in future, will This book has filled my imagination for so many years, that I can never imagine myself reading or any studying anything, without in some [way] relating it, or incorporating it with what is here, & yet I do not want to answer because what ever else it is may be it is a dream. A single thought has expressed in it self as if it were a work of art, whether man or Centaur, & I have tested each detail of its relation to the whole, each completed movement, by its reflection of the whole; & thoug[h] I am always conscious that there is a unity beyond that whole I have found, a smokeless flame that I cannot reach, & the value of this single [implied ‘thought’ as above], & therefore of the whole, was in the daimon, which I can express but cannot judge.4

8Whereas all later versions of this paragraph begin ‘Some will ask if I believe …’, this version begins with Yeats’s own self-questioning, demonstrating that the problem of belief is more fundamental than a simple response to reviewers or friends. His knowledge that the origin of his work is strange, lying in the realm of phenomena hard to explain and easy to doubt, has perhaps been present throughout the process of mediumistic experimentation of automatic scripts and sleeps with George Yeats. Already in this draft he confesses a difficulty answering the question of his belief in what AE would later call ‘entities not of this plane of being’. As if anticipating that review, Yeats worries about his experience with his communicators that ‘may be it is a dream’, though he resists this explanation because this work has been so central to his thinking and writing. Yeats must keep open at least the possibility of this communication’s reality in order to keep the poetry and prose rooted in it vital.

  • 5 See below, ‘AFTERWORD’.

9Yeats struggles with how to understand the relations and verity of parts and wholes, even considering this ‘single thought’ as ‘a work of art, whether man or Centaur’. In evoking the centaur, he reminds us of his assertion in ‘Four Years 1887–1891’ that ‘all art should be a Centaur finding in the popular lore its back and its strong legs’ (CW3 165). In this way, he affirms his decades-long work’s connection to popular belief and its affirmation of spirits. In his ‘Notes to Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, by Lady Gregory’(w. 1914), Yeats includes the centaur in a lengthy discussion of ‘The Faery People’, whom he describes as ‘without sin though midway between men and angels’ (CW5 258). In that discussion, he describes the Abbot Anthony’s encounter with a centaur, who gives Anthony directions to find the hermit St. Paul and also describes himself as ‘a mortal, one of those inhabitants in the desert called fauns, satyrs, and incubi, by the Gentiles’. Yeats posits a direct link between these beings and ‘the faery host’ (CW5 261–62). The centauric image of Yeats’s work underlying A Vision thus both is a mythic and unusual fusion of various parts, and it is rooted in popular lore’s belief in the existence of beings ‘midway between men and angels’ —precisely the kind of beings that Yeats posits as the source of the system of A Vision.5 These beings not only exist but can offer useful direction.

  • 6 Neil Mann, ‘Dualism and the Origins of the Daimon’, The System of w. b. Yeats’s A Vision, http://ww (...)

10Yeats concludes this Rapallo B version with the conclusion that the value and form of the whole work ‘lies in the daimon, which I can express but cannot judge’. Neil Mann writes that ‘the dualism of human and Daimon is perhaps the most enigmatic and personal of all of the formulations, cutting across the divisions and categories of the geometry and representing the maverick element within the System’.6 Present and evolving in such texts as Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917), A Vision (1925), and A Vision (1937), Yeats’s Daimon derives from classical and occult texts; in A Vision it functions as an anti-self and a greater self. In ‘Introduction to A Vision’ Yeats asserts that the ‘philosophic voices’ that spoke through George Yeats said that ‘spirits do not tell a man what is true but create such conditions, such a [s] crisis of fate, that the man is compelled to listen to his Daimon’, adding that ‘the whole system is the creation of my wife’ s Daimon and of mine’ (CW14 17). In Per Amica Silentia Lunae, Yeats explains that ‘the Daemon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite, for man and Daemon feed the hunger in one another’ s hearts’, adding that man and Daimon ‘are but knit together when the man has found a mask whose lineaments permit the expression [my italics] of all the man most lacks’ (CW5 11). In A Vision (1937), Yeats writes that ‘Memory is a series of judgments [my italics] and such judgments imply a reference to something that is not memory, that something is the Daimon, which contains within it, co-existing in its eternal moment, all the events of our life, all that we have known of other lives, or that can discover within itself of other Daimons’ (CW14 141). The system is the creation of his and George Yeats’s Daimons, as he emphasizes in the paragraph from Rapallo B. Stressing here the power of the Daimon to enable expression connects with his claim in the Rapallo B paragraph that in his writing ‘can express but cannot judge’ the Daimon. Memory, however, functions as judgment, and as such it has, according to the distinction above between expression and judgment, moved beyond the task that he has set for himself in A Vision. In this way, the belief he stipulates for his engagement with the spirits and the writing of his system, remains more in the realm of those spirits than in the memory work associated with human thought. Through centaur and Daimon, and even as begins with his own questioning, this first version of the paragraph affirms Yeats’s belief in the system, the work to discover it, and the art made from it as very much a part of the mystical realm from which they derived.

11An early rejected typescript draft of the section reads:

  • 7 w. b. Yeats, Draft of A Vision with various fragments, n. d., NLI Reference MS 36,272/5/1; reproduc (...)

Some will ask if I believe what I have written and I will not know how to answer because we all mean different things by that word ‘belief’. Who will understand me if I say that I must and should believe it because it is a myth? When we hear a sound argument we give assent, withdraw it and give it again as the argument shifts, but a myth has something sensuous and concrete about it like a house or a person that stirs belief because it stirs affection. I will never think any thoughts but these, or some modification or extension of these; when I write in prose or in verse they will be somewhere present though not, it may be, in the words; they will affect my judgment of friends and of events, and yet it is all a myth.7

12At stake in this passage is not only the meaning of ‘belief’, which Yeats takes up explicitly, but also that of ‘myth’. He says he must and should believe it because it is a myth, but he frames that point as a question, ‘Who will understand me if I say…’, immediately suggesting that even as we read we might misunderstand. He juxtaposes myth with argument, to which we give and withdraw assent. Myth, on the contrary, engages us on some other level than the intellect. We are brought back to the metaphor of the centaur in the first version, and its powerful link to the beings described in Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. These mythic beings occupy an important place in popular lore, and art rooted in that lore draws its strength in part from them and from the beliefs of those who hold that lore. Myth also arouses affection as familiar and perhaps beloved things do. As we might a house or a dear person, we dwell in a myth, with it. This domestic and intimate relationship, tangible and emotional in its realness, is not one about which to deliberate, but one to inhabit. Yeats shifts away from definitions to claim the centrality of these thoughts, but then, surprisingly, closes with ‘yet it is all a myth’. He seems to move from ‘myth’ as a powerful traditional story or religious belief to ‘myth’ as a common but untrue story or belief, something perhaps told as an amusement. Even so, he suggests that A Vision relies not on its accuracy or verifiability, but on the powerful feelings it elicits, its ability to persist—and on his ability to dwell in them. I suspect that his frankness about these powerful feelings explains at least in part his rejection of this version.

13Another draft is leafed into a typescript draft of what would become Book III of A Vision. This draft introduces some chronological confusion, as the typescript seems to build quite closely on the previous draft, but handwritten strike-throughs and additions may have been added at a later date, perhaps after the publication of A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929) with its very different version of the paragraph. In this version, the main text is typescript and strike-throughs and additions (marked here in italics) are made in Yeats’s handwriting. The paragraph begins as the previous version did, continuing from where the previous version ended:

  • 8 w. b. Yeats, ‘Book Four’, Typescript with MS alterations, NLI Reference MS 36,272/25/2. Yeats seems (...)

… and yet it is all a myth. There are matters that we must decide upon, if we are to liberate our energies and [we] would turn all our life into creation, though we have no sufficient facts and life is too short to judge the few that we have; this is something that we must affirm against the peril of life and we encourage ourselves, we look back through history with the certainty that whatever man has most boldly affirmed the like has often come nearest to the truth as in the past those whose decision has been unhesitating seem nearest to the truth. Has not Vico advised that we should distrust all philosophies that did do not begin in myth? The great tradition of philosophy, all that rigorous speculation that descends from Plato to Hegel sets before us Lotze affirms the certainty or probability—for Kant only offers us probability—that he who has best imagined justice has best imagined reality, and in a work of imagination the maker of myth poet may outwe and the symbolist may sometimes outweigh the logician.8

14Yeats describes allowing oneself to believe, despite the risks. This is a continuing decision, crucial to the vitality of creation. Self-encouragement over fear. Imagination over logic. Symbolism over philosophy. Affirmation over hesitation. And a vital decision, too, ‘something that we must affirm against the peril of life’. These are high stakes, even if he later crosses that intense statement out. Yeats situates his examination of myth, imagination, and justice in philosophical tradition, demonstrating a link between this pondering and his larger artistic mission to offer meaningful structure to reality.

15In revising the passage, Yeats replaces ‘maker of myth’ with ‘poet’, affirming a direct link between the two—the poet is both a believer and a maker of myth. We are reminded that myth offers explanation regardless of verifiability, that myth is powerful story, and that we can believe stories to be true, regardless of whether they really happened. In that large, central crossed-out section, Yeats even suggests that it is the act of affirmation, of belief, that makes truth, though he then backs off that slightly, shifting from bold affirmation to unhesitating decision as the maker of truth. In this way he further plays with those different senses of belief—belief that happens by choice (the bold affirmation) and belief that simply is (the unhesitating or instantaneous decision).

16Here is the paragraph as printed in the Cuala edition of A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929):

  • 9 w. b. Yeats, A Packet for Ezra Pound (Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1929), 32–33; reproduced CW14 325.

Some will ask if I believe all that this book contains, and I will not know how to answer. Does the word belief, used as they will use it, belong to our age, can I think of the world as there and I here judging it? I will never think any thoughts but these, or some modification or extension of these; when I write prose or verse they must be somewhere present though not it may be in the words; they must affect my judgment of friends and of events; but then there are many symbolisms and none exactly resembles mine. What Leopardi in Ezra Pound’s translation calls that ‘concord’ wherein ‘the arcane spirit of the whole mankind turns hardy pilot’ —how much better it would be without that word ‘hardy’ which slackens speed and adds nothing—persuades me that he has best imagined reality who has best imagined justice.9

17Where in the draft versions of this passage Yeats pondered competing definitions of belief, now he wonders if that word ‘belief’ can exist in modern times, and whether he and his interlocutors even live in the same moment. Who am I to judge the world, he wonders, as if believing in something (or not) were an immensely arrogant act. He continues to consider the relationships among imagination, reality, and justice, but now he has eliminated the list of philosophers in favor of a return to poets—in this case his friend Ezra Pound and Pound’s translation of works of the Romantic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. Yeats shares Leopardi’s insistence on an ‘arcane spirit’ —a hidden spirit, with overtones of magic and esoteric knowledge. Yeats cannot resist criticizing Pound’s translation of the Italian poet, but like Leopardi, Yeats grants belief to this ‘arcane spirit’, asking it to guide him as the centaur might. Most important to his belief are the actions it affords—the contents of this book underpin his thinking, writing, and judgment. ‘Judgment’ here returns us to the Rapallo B version of this paragraph and Yeats’s reluctance to judge the Daimon. His embrace here of judgment demonstrates a movement from the spiritual realm of the Daimon to the more ordinary human world of memory, friends, and events. The justice imagined becomes the imagined reality becomes the written word, the poem and its translation, perhaps even the myth, all nevertheless beholden to this ‘arcane spirit’ and its will.

18As published in A Vision (1937), the passage is different still, representing a significant shift in Yeats’s description and disclosure of his idea of belief:

Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called ‘the pulsation of an artery’, are plainly symbolical, but what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice. (CW14 19)

19Here ‘miracle’ is something that can temporarily overwhelm but not fundamentally hoodwink the poet. Yeats suggests that his structuring of history based on important divisions is just that—a structure. It is not a reality of history or time itself, but something laid over it to try to understand it. Some of his ‘circuits of sun and moon’ he almost discounts as ‘plainly symbolical’, and even those that he retains as ‘fixed’ (he does not say ‘real’) he acknowledges as appealing to something not outside of reason but unreasonable—something from which he must recover. His geometric circuits are, he suggests, no different from the geometric forms of Lewis and Brancusi. They are forms, a part of the art, but not a mystical source of it. In short, he seems to be suggesting that there is not any kind of real belief here—just the structuring forms of art. What happened?

20To answer this question we must turn to important precedents in Yeats’s other writings. In Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1914), Yeats includes many stories about his growing interest in things mystical, magical, and spiritualist, and here, too, he grapples with the difficulties of making supernatural tales convincing. For instance, he describes his uncle George Pollexfen’s servant Mary Battle, who ‘had the second sight’. Yeats introduces her abilities in conjunction with the limitations of her education: ‘She could neither read nor write and her mind, which answered [Pollexfen’s] gloom with its merriment, was rammed with every sort of old history and strange belief’(CW3 84). What she lacks in formal education, she makes up for in immersion in folk history and belief. This ‘old history’ and ‘strange belief’ offer an alternative to literacy, and in a sense, to scientific or empirical inquiry.

21In the same text, Yeats describes his reaction to seeing spontaneous and mysterious fires along the side of the road between Sligo and Rosses Point as ‘doubting, and yet hardly doubting in my heart’ what he saw. He continues: ‘I began occasionally telling people that one should believe whatever had been believed in all countries and periods, and only reject any part of it after much evidence, instead of starting all over afresh and only believing what one could prove’ (CW3 89). By shifting the burden of proof to the denial of these possibilities rather than to affirmation, he offers an alternative to scientific verifiability rooted in belief in the supernatural. And he acknowledges the power and possibility that comes from belief as a counter-argument to the pervasive fear of being tricked by ‘old women in Soho, ministering their witchcraft to servant girls at a shilling a piece’ (Per Amica, CW5 11). Almost as quickly, though, he undermines this argument, adding, ‘But I was always ready to deny or turn into a joke what was for all that my secret fanaticism. When I read Darwin and Huxley and believed as they did, I had wanted, because an established authority was upon my side, to argue with everybody’ (CW3 89). Are these statements of belief themselves dubious, or are the jokes a way to shield these beliefs from public derision? Or is each position taken merely an exploration in its own right, a willingness to play with positions and see what they allow?

22As Yeats relates episodes of supernatural experience and mystical experimentation, he consistently wonders how such things as he has seen are possible. His writings about experiments conjoin with his philosophical readings, and he works through questions about the source of dreams, the possibility of a world soul to which all persons are connected, and the relationships between vision and understanding. And every so often he steps back from story-telling to reflect on his own discourse. For instance, in in the ‘Hodos Chameliontos’ section of The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats comments:

I had not taken up these subjects willfully, nor through love of strangeness, nor love of excitement, nor because I found myself in some experimental circle, but because unaccountable things had happened even in my childhood, and because of an ungovernable craving. When supernatural events begin, a man first doubts his own testimony, but when they repeat themselves again and again, he doubts all human testimony. At least he knows his own bias, and may perhaps allow for it, but how trust historian and psychologist that have for some three hundred years ignored in writing of the history of the world, or of the human mind, so momentous a part of human experience? What else had they ignored and distorted? (CW3 211)

23Following his own advice about doubting the doubting until adequate confirmation has been achieved, Yeats turns his doubt onto those who do not address the supernatural, suggesting that their ignoring cannot but reveal larger gaps. Modernity, represented here by the methods of history and psychology, he implies, has blinded us to important aspects of human experience. He suggests that the problem lies with modernity itself, not with those who possess the second sight, or have strange visions, or communicate with spirits. His ‘ungovernable craving’ for a deeper truth, for knowledge largely ignored, allows him an approach outside of acceptable discourses. And he thereby has access not only to those things that disbelievers ‘ignored’ but also what they ‘distorted’. Their insistence on modernistic verification, their disbelief, become a source of untruth.

24The way that Yeats believes enables methods likely to be rejected by those beginning from doubt or scepticism. Open to every means of seeing an unseen world and communicating with the centauric beings neither human nor angel, Yeats constantly changed his methods. He describes in The Trembling of the Veil that in the mid-1890s he had planned ‘a mystical Order’ that ‘might establish mysteries like those of Eleusis and Samothrace’ (CW3 204). He imagined that this Order’s rituals ‘were not be made deliberately, like a poem, but all got by that method Mathers had explained to me’ —a symbolic system whereby ‘the visible world would completely vanish, and that world summoned by the symbol take its place’ (CW3 205, 162). Similarly, early in his first ‘Sleep and Dream Notebook’, dating from early 1920, and a part of the documentation of his and George Yeats’s communication with spirits, Yeats heads a section ‘New Method’, explaining:

George speaks while asleap.
Sees herself dead. Sees many sleapers as if floating in air. All in dark except for a little light round flowers left by living. They by help of this light smell the flowers. They only hear & see, when living think of them, as dead. They are dreaming. (
YVP3 9)

25Here we see a deep investment in preserving the specifics of working method, opening up the possibility of replication, and acknowledging the need for and capabilities of unaccepted methods. In this way, spiritualism—often denigrated as the domain of those old women in Soho profiting from easily deceived ‘clients’ —can generate different but still important (perhaps more important) knowledge. But first, a person has to be open to these new methods.

26Most remarkable, of course, is the long endeavour of automatic writing shared by Yeats and George Yeats, the 3600-page thirty-month project of communication with spirit guides that underlies A Vision. These papers testify to the Yeatses’ insistence on belief, and they demand of readers a similar willingness to venture beyond traditional modes of reading and experience. In fact, according to draft of Yeats’s ‘Introduction to A Vision’ in Rapallo notebook B, the automatic writing experiment began with a ruse:

  • 10 w. b. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, Rapallo Notebook B, leaf [83], NLI Reference MS 13,579; reproduced CW1 (...)

She [George Yeats] told me afterwards that she intended to amuse me by some invented message had meant to make up messages, & having amused me for an afternoon say what she had done. She went out of her way did invent a few lines, some names & some imaginary address when her hand was, as it were, grasped by another & this came in an almost illegible in disjointed sentence in disjointed sentences in almost illegible handwriting certain startling sentences disjointed sentences….10

27This moment that began with George Yeats planning to trick Yeats changes into the moment at which control was taken from her. A different person from George Yeats might have been so alarmed to have her hand grasped that she might drop her pen, resist. But her decision to surrender to whatever other grasped her hand enabled the exploration that followed. George Yeats’s initial plan was interrupted by sentences that are not exactly disjointed, not exactly startling, and almost illegible, almost beyond the horizon of what can be communicated. That this forceful interruption—redirecting, repurposing—is enacted by sentences is itself interesting: the script is embodied, a conjunction of intention and product, something George Yeats produces even as it controls her. And so, too, did Yeats assent, to George Yeats, to the sentences, to the script and whatever or whoever dwelled behind it. Their decision to believe and their willingness to surrender enabled experiences, understanding, and writing otherwise impossible.

28The Yeatses may initially have begun automatic writing with plans and expectations, but what they learned became the basis of a new collaborative work that would transform their relationship and Yeats’s writings. They let the script take the lead, and they followed, as Yeats says one must, regardless of risk. As Yeats notes in A Vision, ‘Those who taught me this system did so, not for my sake, but their own’, adding in a footnote, ‘My interpretations do not concern them’ (CW14 170). The spirits had their own purposes, but by agreeing to follow, Yeats could come to write a very different and rich kind of poetry.

29Let us now return to that passage about belief as it appears in A Vision. Given everything that belief has enabled, why would Yeats step back from belief, or even from a plea that his interlocutors recast what they mean by belief? This passage from A Vision seems to consent to doubt, saying that even what Yeats had previously identified as a powerful acceptance of being ‘overwhelmed by miracle’ was actually a bout from which he needed to recover. Was revealing the ‘arcane spirit of the world’ —as he does in so much of A Vision, The Trembling of the Veil, and his many essays like ‘Magic’ —an all too open revelation of something he now, late in life, believed should remain hidden?

30With this paragraph, Yeats almost undermines the revelation of the spirit guides, calling it a literary construct of his imagination—a stylistic arrangement of forms into a work of art, which, like paintings and sculpture could bring aesthetic pleasure. Or amusement. But let us not forget that in an earlier form, this paragraph used as its driving object not reality and justice, not drawing and sculpture, not a regaining of reason, but myth—that body of story that may or may not be factually accurate but which nevertheless contains truth. We must remember that Yeats wrote in one of those early drafts, ‘that he who has best imagined justice has best imagined reality, and in a work of imagination the maker of myth poet and the symbolist may sometimes outweigh the logician’. The power of art—and myth—to balance reality and justice is already important to him there, but he there insists that myth also reveals realms beyond the ordinary matters too, such as the existence of faery beings and supernatural entities doubted by empirical studies of reality. Where he now focuses on reality and justice—the idea that art provides order enabling a justice that disorganized reality may not reveal—he had previously moved from there to the power of the maker of myth, the poet and symbolist, to ‘sometimes outweigh the logician’.

31What is hidden in the paragraph in A Vision— what remains arcane to all but the most initiated reader of his essay—is the way that Yeats, with his parable of belief and doubt, is concocting his own myth, and his own ritual into which a reader must be inducted—his own mystery ‘like those of Eleusis and Samothrace’. Through his series of veils, ending with the most veiled statement of all, in which he almost seems to render his own story an amusing fake, he has transformed A Vision and all it signifies back into that powerful and mysterious kind of myth, unwilling to reveal all its secrets even as it purports to do so. He has placed A Vision very much in conversation with the stories told in Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. He has forced us to recognize that ‘plainly symbolical’ ‘circuits of sun and moon’ function as a powerful story, a conduit to the realm of myth. Indeed, this confluence should not surprise us, given the importance of prefatory stories in both this and the earlier version of A Vision, as well as his publication of his own fiction in a volume entitled Mythologies. He tells the story of the origins of A Vision, but he excises the admission that it began with an amusement yielding to a surrendering of control. Revelation must come from Yeats’s mythic creation in his circuits of sun and moon. This does not eliminate the power of that story, and an ideal reader of A Vision must be willing to return into the materials undergirding A Vision, into the belief space that allowed the automatic script, into the realms of the supernatural that Yeats believed we are all too prone to ignore and dismiss. While we have long recognized that A Vision is an occult text, we must now acknowledge its ‘Introduction’ as similarly so.

  • 11 G[eoffrey] E. G [rigson], ‘They Chase Had a Beast in View’, New Verse 29 (March 1938), 20; quoted i (...)
  • 12 Richard Ellmann, ‘The Art of Yeats: Affirmative Capability’, The Kenyon Review 15.3 (Summer 1953), (...)

32Trying to determine whether Yeats believed in his spirit guides, whether or not George Yeats was inventing them or some of their messages—these questions become irrelevant. And to suggest that a poet who uses communications from spirits, belief in supernatural phenomena, and very real possibility of a connection between this ordinary realm and places more magical—to suggest as Geoffrey Grigson did in his review of A Vision that despite whatever else this poet gained from his supernatural instructors, ‘quack remains quack’ —is to miss the value and significance that belief affords.11 Richard Ellmann calls Yeats’s willingness an ‘affirmative capability’, emphasizing that Yeats demanded ‘an art of affirmations, by which he meant positive statements which were the active expression of a man, distinguished from beliefs or ideas which were outside structures to which the man submitted himself’. Ellmann notes that ‘Yeats considered it the poet’s duty to invade the province of the intellect as well as of the emotions’.12 We must push this idea harder, however, for we are discussing not poetry but prose that claims to be a straight-forward description of reality and belief in it, outside of the imaginative realm of verse. In studying Yeats’s long exploration of the realms of magic, mythical beings, and communication with spirits, we, too, if we are to read A Vision well, must take very seriously the province of the supernatural—a province with which modern scholarship, like empirical science, is deeply uncomfortable. An insistence on affirmation is easier when discussing belief in the context of philosophy or religion than it is in the realness of occult practice and supernatural beings. To engage with A Vision and read the automatic script, however, we must nevertheless persist into these uncomfortable realms. We must approach ‘myth’ as Yeats did, as powerful means of engaging the intellect, imagination and spirit. We must allow ourselves to believe, as he did, even if we are not interested in pursuing his methods of exploration, in order to embrace a world more complex than modernity typically allows.



  • 13 We need not follow for our present purposes the cabbalistic explanation of the centaur’s part in th (...)

33The Centaur and the Daimon were long associated in Yeats’s mind. The connexion is not immediately apparent, but this extended note is intended to offer some evidence. Essential reading includes the serial visions collectively known as ‘The Vision of the Archer’ in ‘The Stirring of the Bones’ and its attendant notes by Dr. Vacher Burch: see Au 372 et seq. & 576–79; CW3 279–82; 484–88; and Mem 100–1; also see the extended analysis in ‘The Vision of the Archer’ appendix to CL2 658–63. The ‘Centaur’ vision in this episode took place on 12 August 1896 at Tillyra Castle. At the time of the Archer Vision at Tillyra, Yeats would have had access to one of Edward Martyn’s books: E. Curtius, F. Adler et al. (eds), Die Funde von Olympia Ausgabe in einem Bande herausgegeben von dem Direktorium der Ausgrabunge zu Olympia (Berlin, 1882), Plate XV of which shows Deidameia and the centaur Eurytion from the West Pediment at Olympia in a photograph by Verlag Von Ernst Waspruth, Berlin. See YA4 Plates 1–2. I have seen the book with the remnant of Martyn’s library at the Discalced Carmelites house at St. Teresa’s, Clarendon St., Dublin 2. As Deirdre Toomey has pointed out, the image of Deidameia as ‘… fit spoil for a centaur | Drunk with the unmixed wine’ (VP 355) stayed with Yeats (see YA4 34–35 and 51, n. 13), and perhaps we may conjecture that it was this image which brought on the Vision, with all its associations of frustrated love.13

34By mid-1920, Yeats had drafted ‘Suggested by a Picture of a Black Centaur’ first published in Seven Poems and a Fragment (Dundrum: Cuala, 1922), and later republished in The Tower (1928) as ‘On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac’ (see VP 442). Dulac’s painting, ‘the Good Chiron taught his Pupils how to Play upon the Harp’, an illustration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918) had been the source (see YA18 Plate 16). On 7 October 1920 Yeats wrote to Dulac that ‘about two months ago I wrote the poem on the Black Centaur & forgot that I had ever written it & it is still untyped’ (CL InteLex 3793). Revising the poem in Glenmalure whilst staying with Maud Gonne at the end of July, Yeats, had intense discussions about his revisions c. 31 July 1920 with Cecil Salkeld. Salkeld recalled them much later for Joseph Hone:

Madame Gonne MacBride smiled at me and said: ‘Willie is buzzing like a bumblebee… that means he is writing something…’ To my great surprise, Yeats, who appeared shortly, obviously preoccupied and absent-minded, asked me if I would walk up the glen with him. We walked, treading our way among boulders and small stones along the river bank for nearly half an hour in silence. By that I mean no word was spoken; but, all the while, Yeats kept up a persistent murmur—under his breath, as it were. Suddenly, he pulled up short at a big stone and said: ‘Do you realise that eternity is not a long time but a short time…?’I just said, I didn’t quite understand.
‘Eternity’, Yeats said, ‘Eternity is in the glitter on the beetle’s wing… it is something infinitely short…’I said that I could well conceive ‘Infinity’ being excessively small as well as being excessively large. ‘Yes’, he said, apparently irrelevantly, ‘I was thinking of those Ephesian topers …’
He pulled out of his pocket a very small piece of paper on which he had written 8 lines which had been perhaps ten times corrected. It was almost impossible for me to read a line of it. I saw only one phrase which I knew was obsessing him at that time—for Yeats was at all times a man dominated—sometimes for weeks on end—by a single phrase: this one was ‘Mummy wheat’ —a phrase destined to appear in a much later poem—a phrase he never forgot.
That night I sat up late, long after the others had gone to bed, and finished a water-colour picture of a weird centaur at the edge of a dark wood: in the foreground, in the shade of the wood, lay the seven Ephesian ‘topers’ in a drunken stupor, while far behind on a sunny distant desert plain elephants and the glory of a great army passed away into the distance. Next day I showed the picture to Yeats. He looked at it so critically that I suddenly remembered that he had been an Art Student. He peered at me over the top of his glasses. ‘Who is your teacher?’ he asked. ‘Has he told you about values?’ ‘What are values?’ l asked. Yeats laughed his deep ferocious chuckle: ‘Do you really tell me you don’t know what “values” are?’ I said ‘No’, and waited for instruction. ‘Well, I’m certainly not going to tell you! Perhaps that is the beginning of a new Art… “Values” were the bane of my youth’.
When I walked out with him that day he made no reference to the poem, but talked continuously of the conception of the Daimon’which was particularly interesting him at the time: he also told me the history of his play The Player Queen, saying (perhaps with a faint reminiscence of Goethe’s Faust in his head) that he had spent 20 years on the play.
Later that night, W. B. came down to supper with a perfectly clear countenance; it was plain the poem was finished. He did not speak throughout the meal, yet l felt he would say something before the night was through. When the ladies had withdrawn, he produced a pigskin-covered brandy flask and a small beautifully written manuscript: ‘Your picture made the thing clear’, he said. ‘I am going to dedicate the poem to you. I shall call it “The Black Centaur”’. … It was then for the first time I heard those miraculous lines, one of which is:
Stretch out your limbs and sleep a long Saturnian sleep.

  • 14 See Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939 (London: Macmillan, 1943 [1965]), 326–28, emphasis added.

I was impressed and gratified. But when printed in 1928, in The Tower, the poem was altered; it was corrected and it was entitled: ‘On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac’.14

  • 15 On Salkeld’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ see above 169, n. 99.

35Despite Salkeld’s implicit claim that his own (now lost) watercolour had inspired the poem, it is clear that it was done as his response to their conversations about the draft already based upon Dulac’s work.15

  • 16 Demoniality; or, Incubi and Succubi. A treatise, wherein is shown that there are in existence on ea (...)

36What remains compelling in this exchange is what we might call the ‘suppressed association’ of Centaur and Daimon: Yeats, writing his poem about the Centaur, can speak only of the Daimon. The Centaur remains associated with the Daimon in Yeats’s reading and thought. He had found the story of St. Anthony and the Centaur not in his usual source for lore about the Saint, the first version of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine, which he owned in the English translation of Rene Francis (1910; YL 680). Instead, he had been reading Demonalitate, et Incubis, et Succubis etc., of the Franciscan theologian, Ludovico Maria Sinistrari de Ameno (1622–1701), first published in a Latin/French edition as De La Demonalité. Yeats found it quickly translated into English as Demoniality; or, Incubi and Succubi. A treatise, wherein is shown that there are in existence on earth rational creatures besides man, endowed like him with a body and a soul, … and capable of receiving salvation or damnation, and he borrowed it from Ezra Pound.16

  • 17 William H. O’Donnell’s superlative notes to CW5 258–61 should also be consulted on this source, esp (...)

37Sinistrari set out to prove that Demons—incubi, succubi, homunculi—did exist, and were ‘rational animals, capable of beatitude and damnation’ (173). For his ‘third principal proof’ of his ‘conclusion regarding the existence of these animals, in other words, respecting the corporeity of Incubi’, he turns to St. Hieronymus’s Life of St Paul, the First Hermit. In Section 77, In Section 77, 160 and ff.,17 the narrative of St Hieronymus proceeds to tell the story of St Anthony’s journey to the abode of St Paul of the Desert, wherein the Centaur acts as a sign-post, before

  • 18 Ludovico Maria Sinistrari de Ameno, Demoniality; or, Incubi and Succubi. Etc.. Transl. into English (...)

flee[ing] with the utmost speed into a wood. The Holy Abbot kept on his way, and, in a dale, met a little man, almost a dwarf, with crooked hands, horned brow, and his lower extremities ending with goat’s feet. At the sight of him, St Anthony stood still, and fearing the arts of the Devil, comforted himself with the sign of the Cross. But, far from running away, or even seeming frightened at it, the little fellow respectfully approached the old man, and tendered him, as a peace offering, dates for his journey. The blessed St Anthony having then inquired who he was: ‘ I am a mortal’, replied he, ‘ and one of the Inhabitants of the Wilderness, whom Gentility, under its varied delusions, worships under the names of Fauns, Satyrs and Incubi; I am on a mission from my flock: we request thee to pray for us unto the common God, whom we know to have come for the salvation of the world, and whose praises are sounded all over the earth’. Rejoicing at the glory of Christ, St Anthony, turning his face towards Alexandria, and striking the ground with his staff, cried out: ‘ Woe unto thee, thou harlot City, who worshippest animals as Gods!’.18

38To Sinistrari, Demons are ‘some kind of animal’, ‘no Devil[s]’, are ‘subject to death’ and ‘knew that the common God had suffered in human flesh’. As ‘a rational animal capable of the knowledge of God through revelation’ and endowed with a rational, and consequently immortal, soul’(165, 167, 169) a Demon is

capable of beatitude and damnation… on the way, in via, that is, capable of merit and demerit; for if he had been at the goal, in termino, he would have been either blessed or damned. Now, he could be neither the one nor the other; for, St Anthony’s prayers, to which he had commended himself, could have been of no assistance to him, if finally damned, and, if blessed, he stood in no need of them’(169–71).

39In stating ‘I am on a mission from my flock’, the Demon seems to Sinistrari not to be an ‘exceptional and solitary monster’ but to lead a ‘social life’ (171), and the Gentiles, in naming such creatures ‘Fauns, Satyrs and Incubi’ are ‘blinded by error’ (173).

40Yeats had turned to Sinistrari when investigating Irish Faery belief, and speculating on the reading of Irish theologians accommodating their beliefs to that more ancient system. He had quoted from and paraphrased Sinistrari’s passage in his 1914 Notes to Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), closely following Sinistrari’s arguments as Sinistrari proceeds to ‘investigate the circumstances’ of St Hieronymus’s account, and yet leaving himself free to speculate upon the changes brought to it by Irish Faery belief.

  • 19 CW5 262, reference and emphasis added.

This tale so artfully arranged as it seems to set the pious by the ears may have been the original of a tale one hears in Ireland today. I heard or read that tale somewhere before I was twenty, for it is the subject of one of my first poems [‘The Priest and the Fairy’, VP 728–31]. But the priest in the Irish tale, as I remember it, tells the little man that there is no salvation for such as he and it ends with the wailing of the faery host. Sometimes too, one reads in Irish stories of hoof-footed creatures, and it may well be that the Irish theologians who read of St Anthony in Sinistrari’s authority, St Hieronymus, thought centaur and homunculus were of like sort with the shades haunting their own raths and barrows. Father Sinistrari draws the moral that those inhabitants of the desert called ‘fauns and satyrs and incubi by the Gentiles’ had souls that could be shrived, but Irish theologians in a country full of poems very upsetting to youth about the women of the Sidhe who could pass, it may be even monastic walls, may have turned the doubtful tale the other way. Sometimes we are told following the traditions of the eleventh-century poems that the Sidhe are ‘the ancient inhabitants of the country’ but more often still they are fallen angels who, because they were too bad for heaven and not bad enough for hell, have been sent into the sea and into the waste places. More probably still the question was never settled, sometimes Christ was represented as throwing them into hell till someone said he would empty the whole paradise, and thereupon his hand slackened and some fell in this place and some in that other, as though providence itself were undecided.19

41Sinistrari does not speculate whether the Centaur which so mysteriously gallops away just before the ‘little man’ appears, is indeed the Demon in a shape-changed form. In ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (1914), the essay which had grown from his studies of the Daemon or Daimon, Yeats reminds us that

… we never long escape the phantasmagoria nor can long forget that we are among the shape-changers. Sometimes our own minds shape that mysterious substance, which may be life itself, according to desire or constrained by memory, and the dead no longer remembering their own names become the characters in the drama we ourselves have invented. (CW5 63; Ex 55)
Warwick Gould


1 Note—Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

2 W. Russell (AE), ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound: AE Reviews W. B. Yeats’ s Latest Book’, The Living Age, 337.4347 (1 October 1929), 187; quoted in CW14 xxxv.

3 See CW14 xxxv–xxxvi and xli–xlvi.

4 W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, Rapallo Notebook B, NLI Reference MS 13,579. I am grateful to Warwick Gould and John Kelly for assistance with this transcription, but any errors are my own.

5 See below, ‘AFTERWORD’.

6 Neil Mann, ‘Dualism and the Origins of the Daimon’, The System of w. b. Yeats’s A Vision,

7 w. b. Yeats, Draft of A Vision with various fragments, n. d., NLI Reference MS 36,272/5/1; reproduced in Catherine E. Paul, ‘Compiling A Packet for Ezra Pound’, Paideuma, 38 (2011), 46.

8 w. b. Yeats, ‘Book Four’, Typescript with MS alterations, NLI Reference MS 36,272/25/2. Yeats seems to have gone back to this version, for written at the top of the page, ‘“A Packet for E P”—insert on page 32 instead of 15’.

9 w. b. Yeats, A Packet for Ezra Pound (Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1929), 32–33; reproduced CW14 325.

10 w. b. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, Rapallo Notebook B, leaf [83], NLI Reference MS 13,579; reproduced CW14 xxxiv.

11 G[eoffrey] E. G [rigson], ‘They Chase Had a Beast in View’, New Verse 29 (March 1938), 20; quoted in CW14 xliii.

12 Richard Ellmann, ‘The Art of Yeats: Affirmative Capability’, The Kenyon Review 15.3 (Summer 1953), 378–85.

13 We need not follow for our present purposes the cabbalistic explanation of the centaur’s part in the Vision as provided by Dr Wynn Westcott: It is enough that the Centaur is an ‘elemental spirit’ (CW3 281) of the path Samekh upon Tree of Life.

14 See Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939 (London: Macmillan, 1943 [1965]), 326–28, emphasis added.

15 On Salkeld’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ see above 169, n. 99.

16 Demoniality; or, Incubi and Succubi. A treatise, wherein is shown that there are in existence on earth rational creatures besides man, endowed like him with a body and a soul, … and capable of receiving salvation or damnation. … Published from the original Latin manuscript… and translated into French by I. Liseux. Now first translated into English with the Latin text. With a preface by I. Liseux. Latin and English (Paris: Isidore Liseux, 1879). On Pound and Yeats’s use of this book, see James Longenbach, ‘The Secret Society of Modernism: Pound, Yeats, Olivia Shakespear, and the Abbé de Montfaucon de Villars’, YA4 108–9, and 119, n. 10.

17 William H. O’Donnell’s superlative notes to CW5 258–61 should also be consulted on this source, esp. nn. 11–14 (446–47).

18 Ludovico Maria Sinistrari de Ameno, Demoniality; or, Incubi and Succubi. Etc.. Transl. into English with the Latin text (Paris: Isidore Liseux, 1879), 161–63.

19 CW5 262, reference and emphasis added.


Professor Emerita at Clemson University. She is author of Poetry in the Museums of Modernism: Yeats, Pound, Moore, Stein (2002) and Fascist Directive: Ezra Pound and Italian Cultural Nationalism (2016). With Margaret Mills Harper, she edited w. b. Yeats’s A Vision: The Original 1925 Version (2008) and A Vision: The Revised 1937 Version (2015), both for Scribner’s Collected Works Series. She presently works as a textile artist at the Greenville Center for Creative Arts in South Carolina.


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