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Yeats’s Legacies

Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

Yeats, Philosophy, and the Occult, ed. by Matthew Gibson and Neil Mann

(Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2016). Hardcover, pp. 237, £75 [Distributed by Liverpool University Press, 4 Cambridge Street, Liverpool L69 7ZU]. ISBN 97819429542551

R. A. Gilbert

Texte intégral

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

1The editors’ choice of a title for this collection is, perhaps, unfortunate, for it may lead readers to expect what they will not find. Philosophy is certainly present but ‘the Occult’, in the sense of discrete elements of Western Esotericism, is not. What they will find is rather comparative religion and aspects of parapsychology, and these as they relate especially to A Vision.

2Indeed, the presence of A Vision permeates all of the seven essays (and one of the two appendices), which is unsurprising given that the book is a sequel to the previous collection of Yeats essays from Clemson UP— Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: Explications and Context (2012, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson and Clare Nally)—which was concerned solely with that work. Three of the present essays are specifically devoted to A Vision, but they are of mixed merit and it will be as well to consider first the other contents, beginning with Wayne Chapman’s splendid introductory chapter, ‘“Something Intended, Complete”: Major Work on Yeats Past, Present, and Yet to Come’.

3This essay is, in Chapman’s opening words, ‘a prelude to a body of new scholarship on w. b. Yeats’ and he reminds us, emphatically, that ‘Yeats is a very LARGE project, as well as a WORK IN PROGRESS’. That said he launches into a sweeping and comprehensive survey of the present and, hoped for, future state of Yeats studies. Chapman is sardonic but not cynical, incisive but always just short of being catty: a difficult balancing act given the current chaotic state of the academic publishing world.

4He carefully lays out the labyrinthine processes and progress of (relatively) recent Yeats publishing with all of its intricacies, difficulties and often unresolved issues—and all under the shadow of an ominous future for academic publishing in general. But Chapman lightens the gloom by presenting the reader with facsimiles of hitherto overlooked annotations to ‘A Dream of Death’ in Yeats’s copy of Poems (1912). He further emphasises the need to revisit personal copies in his appendix to this volume, ‘Annotations in the Writings of Walter Savage Landor in the Yeatses’ Library’. In this Chapman provides an exhaustive catalogue of the check marks, strokes, brackets and other reference annotations in copies of Landor’s works in the library. These notes may, he writes, ‘be used to reconstruct one’s own picture of Yeats’s engagement with Landor’s texts’. (p. 289). The merit of this is apparent in the other significant element of Chapman’s essay, in which he sets out, in extenso, his ‘Case for the Origin of “The Phases of the Moon”’.

5The essays that follow do not all, alas, live up to Chapman’s standard. The editors describe the second contribution—‘Ghost, Medium, Criminal, Genius: Lombrosian Types in Yeats’ s Art and Philosophy’, by Katherine Ebury—as ‘highly original’ (which it is) and as an essay that ‘argues most convincingly for the influence of Cesare Lombroso in Yeats’ s ideas’(which it does not). It should be noted that their further claim of ‘the fact that Lombroso’s eugenics enthused the spiritualist movement’ is unsubstantiated and is, at best, highly debatable.

6Ebury’s essay does not open well. She refers to Lombroso’s ‘occult researches’ —by which she means his psychical investigations—and to ‘the mystical system of A Vision’: too loose a use, by far, of the word ‘mystical’. There is a further lack of precision in her reference to Yeats’s ‘occult interests’, in which she includes his engagement with psychical research. The terms are not interchangeable, and it must be noted that Havelock Ellis was in no sense an ‘occultist’ (unless engaging in the use of psychedelic drugs is thought to be confined to occultists).

7It is also difficult to be convinced of the significance of Yeats’s appetite for detective fiction. In 1949 Arthur Hannah (actually ‘Hanna’, but Ebury merely repeats an error from Interviews and Recollections, 324 & n.) recollected selling detective novels to Yeats but the anecdote serves only to show that Yeats preferred thrillers to cerebral detective stories. We do not know just which titles he read, or how bloodthirsty they may have been. What is more significant is that Yeats didn’t retain the crime fiction that he read and it seems far more probable that he read it for relaxation; the ‘four detective novels’ that Yeats ‘consumed’ weekly seems to startle Ebury, but it is far from excessive (as I know from personal experience).

8There is no question that Yeats did read books by Lombroso, and he may well have made use of Lombroso’s ideas in constructing the vocabulary of A Vision, but borrowing does not constitute significant influence upon the borrower. Ebury draws together too many disparate strands without offering more than circumstantial evidence and guilt by association (as with chronological parallels between Lombroso’s interest in spiritualism, in Italy, and Yeats’s involvement with the Golden Dawn, in England). Her concluding suggestion that ‘Yeats and George’ s shared admiring reading of Lombroso should be considered a central undercurrent to that occult work and to their courtship, marriage, and child-bearing’cannot stand up in the absence of direct and unequivocal evidence from primary sources of Lombroso’s influence upon them.

9With Charles I. Armstrong’s ‘“Born Anew”: W. B. Yeats’s “Eastern” Turn in the 1930s’we return to surer ground. His consideration of ‘Yeats’s engagement with Asian literature’ is well constructed and convincing. Yeats’s early fascination with Indian thought, in the 1880s, was continued with his promotion of Tagore, in 1912, and reinforced, with a deeper philosophical underpinning when, in 1932, he entered into a productive relationship with Shri Purohit Swami.

10Yeats’s ‘search for a rebirth of a kind’ (as Armstrong describes it) was not a rejection of the West in favour of the East, but an informed, creative association of both. For Yeats, what the East gives us is access to the sources of ‘Unity of Being’ and we have, in both art and spirituality, ‘borrowed directly from the East and selected for admiration and repetition everything in our own past that is least European’ (Introduction to Shri Purohit Swami, An Indian Monk, His Life and Adventures. 1932; E & I 433). Thus, as Armstrong points out, we see that ‘Yeats’s Eastern introductions are not in fact mere first encounters with writers from an alien culture, but rather the rediscovery of something uncannily familiar’ (p. 103).

11And, of course, Yeats did not reject western thought. In the year before he met Purohit, Yeats wrote an introduction to J. M. Hone and H. M. Rossi’s Bishop Berkeley, on which foundation Colin McDowell builds his essay, ‘Yeats and Abstraction: From Berkeley to Zen’. This is concerned as much, if not more, with the conflicts among Berkeley scholars as to just what was his true philosophical position, as it is with the manner in which those same scholars (supplemented by the views of Yeats scholars) view Yeats’s understanding of Berkeley’s thought. As such the essay provides an admirable exposition of Berkeley’s philosophy of mind as perceived by Yeats, Whitehead, Luce and others.

12But Yeats’s own developing views, as understood by Berkeley scholars, here play second fiddle to the internecine conflicts among those scholars as to the true nature of Berkeley’s philosophy. McDowell notes that Yeats’s position, on the side of common sense, is clearly stated in On the Boiler: ‘No educated man to-day accepts the objective matter and space of popular science’ (Ex 435–36). That his mature views are consonant with Berkeley’s is pointed out by McDowell in one of the perceptive, detailed and invaluable footnotes that make up one third of his essay. He notes that, ‘For Yeats, of course, as for Berkeley, the only way that such an absurd idea—materialism—could have emerged was because people indulged in illegitimate abstraction’. (n. 19, 282).

13The one complaint I have about this excellent essay is that McDowell joins his fellow contributors in conflating ‘occultists’ with psychical researchers. Both J. W. Dunne and W. Whately Smith qualify for the latter title, but neither of them fall at all into the occultist camp where McDowell places them.

14Here we may turn to the three chapters of the book that relate directly to A Vision. First comes Neil Mann’s ‘w. b. Yeats, Dream, Vision and the Dead’, the longest, at 64pp, and probably the most important essay in this collection. It offers a carefully focused, detailed analysis of the aspects of Yeats’s thought that provide us with a knowledge and understanding of Yeats’s visionary processes, noting his distinction between dream and vision and between types of dream. He utilises intelligently a very wide range of sources—both within and without Yeats’s texts—and provides, among much else, an excellent treatment of the magical attitudes, beliefs, practices and symbolism within the Golden Dawn.

15The whole essay is carefully structured and usefully divided into complementary sections: ‘Classifying Dream’; ‘Engineering Vision’; ‘Exploring Astral Light’; ‘Lecturing on Ghosts’ and ‘Reading Voices’. This enables the reader to navigate among the dangerous shoals of Yeats’s own and Maud Gonne’s dreams; the sources, contents and development of A Vision; and Yeats’s understanding of our relationship with the dead and our shared experiences with them.

16Thus we are skilfully led through vision, dream and psychic experience (George’s as well as WBY’s) to Mann’s conclusions. For Yeats, vision, when properly utilised, can lead to truth—but not alone. Mann reminds us that ‘Yeats had used evocation and meditation, vision and dream to explore mind, his own and also the dimensions of mind as the animated universe’. Further, the degree of insight obtained from dreams depends upon their nature and their particular form and source. As to visionary experiences, Mann also notes that ‘Yeats was convinced that these visions gave access to other-wise hidden knowledge and guidance, though he was aware that the images could also become a maze’. (153) It is a tribute to Mann’s industry and skill that the reader can follow his path through the labyrinthine complexity of Yeats’s thought to his concluding comment that, for Yeats, ‘The dream is both poetic artifice and magical vision: the dead are the inspiration of the past and a community of spirits’. (154).

17The second of what might be called these ‘Vision essays’ is Matthew Gibson’s exploration of ‘Yeats, the Great Year, and Pierre Duhem’, in which he sets out to trace ‘[t] he development of the concept of a “Great Year” in W. B. Yeats’ s thought’, and its culmination ‘in his most macrocosmic application of the symbolism in A Vision’. (171). A difficult task, but Gibson largely accomplishes it by providing us with a detailed analysis of Yeats’s complex vision of ages, phases and calendrical time, supported by a kaleidoscope of sources—variously astronomical and philosophical, reliable and unreliable—with Pierre Duhem’s Le Système du Monde at the centre.

18Gibson also guides the reader through the astrological and philosophical complexity of the text of A Vision, charting in depth the progress of Yeats’s textual changes and corrections from AVA to AVB, with the aid of a wealth of diagrams based on Yeats’s originals. In the course of this exercise Gibson analyses and expounds the purpose, content and method of A Vision, presenting the reader with a clear view of this most opaque of works.

19There remains a caveat. Gibson is at pains to present Pierre Duhem as a decisive source for Yeats in his continuing search for a definitive understanding of the concept of the Great Year, but although Duhem’s work was valuable for Yeats he seems to be one source among many rather than a primary influence. In much the same way, in his appendix on ‘Yeats’s Notes on Leo Frobenius’s The Voice of Africa (1913)’, Gibson stresses the significance of the book for Yeats’s work on the Great Year. It does seem, however, more likely that Frobenius was yet another arrow in Yeats’s quiver, but Gibson deserves praise for faithfully transcribing the relevant pages from ‘Rapallo Notebook E’ and providing a detailed commentary upon them.

20The final ‘Vision’ essay is even more speculative. In his essay, ‘The Morphological Interaction of the Four Faculties in the Historical System of w. b. Yeats’s A Vision’, Graham A. Dampier builds upon the parallels, or similarities, between Yeats’s and Spengler’s representations of history as a circular, or cyclical, progression with recurring ‘years of crisis’. Yeats himself pointed out the similarities and accepted also that this view of history is shared by many other scholars. But Dampier suggests that there is a previously unrecognised ‘third conceptual connection between A Vision and The Decline of the West: what Yeats called the line of “interacting periods”’.

21Dampier’s aim is to ‘explain what the line of interacting periods is; to illustrate its bearing on historical change; and to trace its movements in the historical gyres’. This he seeks to accomplish by examining Spengler’s ideas in depth and by relating them to the appropriate concepts in A Vision. His analysis is detailed and impressive, and there may indeed be this previously un-noticed conceptual connection, but it is difficult to see that it is of any great significance or consequence.

22What this essay—and, indeed, the whole collection—does demonstrate, however, is that the bones of A Vision are very far from being picked clean. We may not unreasonably expect a continuing flow of such essays from present and future generations of Yeats students, but on their potential quality it would be unwise to speculate.


Yeats, Philosophy, and the Occult, ed. by Matthew Gibson and Neil Mann (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Press, 2016). Hardcover, pp. 237, £75 [Distributed by Liverpool University Press, 4 Cambridge Street, Liverpool L69 7ZU]. ISBN 9781942954255


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.


r. a. Gilbert is the author and editor of twelve books, and many contributions to books and periodicals, on the Golden Dawn and its members. Among the most recent of these are his edition of The House of the Hidden Light, by Arthur Machen & a. e. Waite (2003) and a new collection of papers by Westcott: A Magus Among the Adepts. Essays and Addresses by William Wynn Westcott (2012). One major earlier title, The Golden Dawn Companion (1986), is currently being revised for a new edition. Dr Gilbert is now the editor of The Christian Parapsychologist, and has been a long-term contributor of scholarly articles on archives of occult materials to Yeats Annuals.