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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

W. David Soud, Divine Cartographies: God, History and Poeisis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford English Monographs, 2016), pp. 246, £60; $100; also available as an e-book and via Oxford Scholarship Online. ISBN 97801987777791

Grevel Lindop

Texte intégral

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

1Religion is once more respectable, or at least discussable, as a constituent of serious literature. Despite taking J. Hillis Miller’s classic study The Disappearance of God as a starting-point for his examination of the religious element central to the work of three poets, W. David Soud moves on at once to an investigation of the fact that, for all of them, ‘even after the Great War,… “theological experience” was often the overriding consideration, and it determined a great deal about some of their most important works’.

2His General Introduction provides a historical context and theoretical framework for the debatable and shifting cluster of connected terms (theology, theodicy, religion, spirituality, mysticism, and others) which make up what Soud neatly calls ‘a taxonomy of difficulty’ in the midst of which these matters must be examined. Summarising recent work showing that a view of the past century and a half as characterised simply by a process of secularisation or ‘disenchantment’ would be seriously inaccurate, he goes on to point out (drawing on Charles Taylor’s work) that disenchantment is in any case not the same thing as secularisation. Liberal Protestantism was every bit as keen to ‘disenchant’ the world as was scientism: in its Unitarian form, it was precisely the current of thought which T. S. Eliot found spiritually impoverished, and against which he reacted.

3In the earlier twentieth century (as Alex Owen in The Place of Enchantment has shown), theosophy—and not only in the guise of the Theosophical Society—gained extensive ground, serving as a seedbed for many aspects of modernism. The creative roots of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian in theosophy are well known: Soud mentions a ‘particularly striking convocation’ in which A. R. Orage, Evelyn Underhill, Yeats, t. e. Hulme, and Jessie Weston ‘regularly attended Quest Society gatherings at Kensington Town Hall’. Much of this had more to do with the status of the self than with a return of ‘God’, however understood. Freud, Jung, and the idea of a self in touch (however intermittently) with other realities and even other incarnations, past and future, merged easily with the idea of religion as quest rather than dogma. To hunt for traces of a missing deity is itself a religious act.

4Nonetheless there remain great and obvious differences between the spiritual quests of Eliot and Jones, who sought understanding and solace within well-defined theological traditions, and Yeats, whose investigations and beliefs were essentially eclectic. Yeats needed to ‘hammer [his] thoughts into unity’ because they were gathered from diverse sources. For Jones and Eliot, whatever their personal responses, others had already done most of the hammering. Soud renders the notion of a ‘theology’ for Yeats less implausible by dealing only with the last decade of the poet’s life, in which, with guidance from Shri Purohit Swami, he explored Indian religious texts, especially the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and the Upanishads. (Indeed, Soud’s book as a whole is less comprehensive than its title seems to imply, dealing only, for Jones, with The Anathema and, for Eliot, with Four Quartets.) The great value of the chapter on Yeats is that Soud clearly knows far more about these Sanskrit texts and their translations than others who have written on the subject; nor is he tempted to use them to explain too much about the poet. Instead he focuses on the difficulties of interpretation faced by Yeats and his instructor, and the various misunderstandings which arose. Tellingly, these often centred on Yeats’s reluctance to abandon the idea of the self. Indian thought posited a transcendent Self; but this Self lacked individual characteristics: it was divine and transcendent because it was, precisely, not the individual person we might each imagine ourselves to be. Yeats repeatedly manages not to understand this. Instead, his annotations to Hume’s translation of the Upanishads show him, in Soud’s words, ‘attempt[ing] to locate between the individual self and the [divine] Self a kind of happy medium called the “real self”… that would allow him to attain emancipation without surrendering the individual will’. Such misunderstandings derive, Soud shows, from the discourse of the Theosophical Society, through which Yeats often interprets the texts.

  • 2 Editor’s Note: See Soud, 61 and ff., nn. 130 and ff. Naresh Guha was one of the earliest Indian Yea (...)

5The Yoga Sutras, with their highly technical discussion of contemplative states, were probably even more important than the Upanishads in their effect on Yeats’s thought and poetry. When he wrote (in his Introduction to Hamsa’s The Holy Mountain) ‘I know nothing but the novels of Balzac and the aphorisms of Patañjali’, he was indicating an important debt. He wrestled mightily with these notoriously compressed and enigmatic verses, and again misunderstandings were plentiful. Nonetheless, the creative results were splendid, and Soud is probably right to say of ‘Long-Legged Fly’ that ‘the poem’ s form and content reflect his absorption in Yoga philosophy’. Soud also offers a judicious and knowledgeable guide through Yeats’s somewhat fragmentary investigations of Tantra (chiefly in the books of Sir John Woodroffe, alias ‘Arthur Avalon’), which provide a context for discussion of A Vision B and several of the later poems, including ‘Vacillation’, ‘Meru’, and ‘Lapis Lazuli’.2 Though necessarily challenging to read, this part of Soud’s chapter offers valuable guidance on a subject too little understood.

6Lacking such a clear and interesting relationship between little-understood sources and major creative outcomes, Soud’s chapter on The Anathemata of David Jones is essentially a critical reading; or rather, perhaps, an adjudication amongst critics. He suggests that interpretations of this challenging text have been dominated by ‘false dichotomies’, in terms of meaning and of form, some critics seeing the work as an extreme example of ‘the mythical method’ and not essentially Christian at all, and others viewing it as largely an apologia for Catholic Christianity. At the same time, there are critics who see the work as having linear development, and others viewing it as a labyrinth—or taking literally Jones’s own admission that it ‘has no plan, or at least is not planned’, so that, simply, ‘one thing leads to another’. Soud comes down mainly on the ‘Catholic’ side (as indeed the general bearing of his book requires), whilst suggests that there is truth in all of these readings. He usefully brings to bear biographical information and the ideas of those who influenced Jones, from secular theorists (Clive Bell, Roger Fry) to Catholic thinkers (among them Eric Gill and Jacques Maritain), and recent critics including Geoffrey Hill and Thomas Dilworth. The result is a useful critical survey, reaching the unsurprising conclusion that ‘As the expression of a theologically determined poetics, … The Anathemata is a remarkable achievement’—with which few will disagree.

7When it comes to Eliot, Soud is once more on his mettle. His chapter on Four Quartets focuses mainly on Eliot’s debt to Karl Barth, reading the poems as, amongst other things, ‘an evolving negotiation between the Christian mystics and Karl Barth’ —for, though, as Soud points out, ‘Barth was deeply suspicious of mysticism’, his reflections on time (in his most influential work, The Epistle to the Romans) are both quasi-mystical and very much akin to Eliot’s poem:

this moment beyond all time, when men stand before God,… is the Truth. All that is before and after this ‘Moment of moments’, everything which encircles, like a plane, this Point which cannot be reproduced,—is time… And so, the time in which we live conceals and yet preserves Eternity within it[.]

8Exploring the Quartets’ debts to Dante and St John of the Cross as well as to the stringencies of Barth, Soud offers sensitive readings of important passages in the poems; though Yeatsians may be dismayed to read, in his discussion of ‘Little Gidding’, that ‘For Eliot, [Yeats] is the epitome of mystical aspirations gone wrong’, and that ‘In his refusal to submit to, as Barth frames it, “the final negation of the man of the world and of all his possibilities”, Yeats is an idolater of personality’. Soud does not fully explain how this squares with the apparent respect accorded to the advice proffered by this ‘familiar compound ghost’; nor does he seem to attend the implications of that word ‘compound’. (Reassuringly, Soud tells us that ‘Whether Eliot regarded Yeats as damnable is open to question’.)

9At the close of Divine Cartographies, Indian thought reappears in a useful discussion of the way in which Eliot manages to resolve the Quartets by integrating insights from the Bhagavad Gītā with elements from Christian mysticism as well as from the theology of Barth.

10It is disappointing to find this expensive and generally well-produced book disfigured by many misprints. To take the material on Yeats alone, these include a quotation from ‘The Second Coming’ horribly mislineated as ‘The best lack all conviction, | While the worst are full of passionate intensity’ (4); Graham Hough appearing (20) as ‘Graham Gough’, and duly indexed under G—becoming two people, since his correct spelling also features; The Thirteen Principle [sic] Upanishads (51n.); ‘no less a luminary Ramakrishna’ (60); ‘and [for “an”] energy which …’ (63); ‘Ellman’ for ‘Ellmann’ (69); ‘Lapis Lazuli’ misquoted (‘a water-course or avalanche’, 95); a poem mistitled (‘Man and the Echo’ rather than ‘The Man…’ with initial capitals missed from ‘O Rocky Voice’ in the same poem (p. 96: odd given that Soud uses the Variorum Edition); and, in the bibliography, ‘Shee Purohit Swami’ (for ‘Shree…’, 233. The main text’s consistent spelling of his title as ‘Shri’ also goes unexplained.) Someone at Oxford University Press should have noticed.


W. David Soud, Divine Cartographies: God, History and Poeisis in W. B. Yeats, David Jones, and T. S. Eliot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford English Monographs, 2016), pp. 246, £60; $100; also available as an e-book and via Oxford Scholarship Online. ISBN 9780198777779


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 Editor’s Note: See Soud, 61 and ff., nn. 130 and ff. Naresh Guha was one of the earliest Indian Yeats scholars, and he provided an introduction to Yeats’s Tantric interests in his W. B. Yeats: An Indian Approach (Calcutta: Jadavpur University, 1968), 120 and ff. In his fifth chapter, ‘Patañjali, Tantra, and a Swami: figures in the carpet of modern poetry’ (100 and ff.), Guha traces what he believes had been the only seemingly ‘spasmodic’ history of Yeats’s interests in the Upanishads (100). In July 1962, Mrs Yeats showed him ‘an important small collection of books that once belonged to the poet. These books were kept in a small side room…. In reply to my query if W. B. Yeats ever became interested in the Tantras, Mrs. Yeats silently pointed to a complete set of these books neatly arranged on a shelf, and readily supplied the information that the poet did acquire the books as soon as they were published in London. No scholars or biographers have had the occasion as yet to mention this fact while writing on Yeats. I am happy that my conjecture, mainly from internal evidences, was amply supported by the evidence from Mrs. Yeats herself’ (121, n. 90, [144], emphasis added.). That ‘complete set’ can only have been some or all of the 21 volumes of Avalon’s series of editions of Tantrik Texts from 1913 to 1924. None is now in Yeats’s library, which includes only Shiva Chandra Vidyârnava Bhattâchâryya, Principles of Tantra, ed. by Arthur Avalon, 2 vols. (London: Luzac, 1914–1916), Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahanirvana tantra), trans. with commentary by Arthur Avalon (London: Luzac, 1913) and Tantra. Hymns to the Goddess, translated by Arthur and Ellen Avalon (London: Luzac & Co, 1913), see YL 2105, 162 and 943; and YA4 289. Of the last, only the Preface and the Introduction are cut and these three are not in the Tantrik Texts series. Guha’s account strongly implies that Mrs Yeats did not normally encourage scholars to probe Yeats’s Tantric interests, an impression reinforced by the opinion of Mr Roger Nyle Parisious, for some years Anne Yeats’s archivist. He writes to me that Anne Yeats ‘preferred [Yeats’s Tantric books] not be discussed’ (email, 21–10–17). The implication is clear: Yeats’s Tantrik Texts were culled after 1962. On 30 October [1915] Yeats wrote to the reciter and actor Maud Mann, about coming to hear her music: ‘I have thought a great deal over what you have told me & am looking up in my books on Tantra evocation of the Devas. The woman friend I propose to bring is Mrs Shakespear, a fine musician & herself a most remarkable clairvoyant. I think some of her visions can only be explained by looking upon them as from the Deva world’. (CL InteLex 2790) He saw her on 28 November and again on 6 December 1915. The ‘Avalons’ were Sir John Woodroffe and his wife, Ellen Elizabeth, friends not only of the Tagore family, but also of Sir John Rothenstein: see his Men and Memories (London: Faber & Faber, 1934), 249–50. See also Kathleen Taylor, Sir John Woodroffe, Tantra and Bengal: ‘an Indian soul in a European body?’ (Richmond: Curzon, 2001).


Grevel Lindop was formerly Professor of Romantic and Early Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester, and is now an independent writer and researcher. He was General Editor of The Works of Thomas De Quincey (21 vols., 2000–2003), and author of The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey; A Literary Guide to the Lake District; Charles Williams: The Third Inkling; and seven collections of poems, most recently Luna Park. He is a Fellow of the Wordsworth Trust, and Academic Director of the Temenos Academy, founded by Kathleen Raine.