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L'impersonnel en littérature

Anthony Larson
Hélène Aji
Brigitte Félix
et al.

Deuxième partie. Les voix de l’impersonnel

Chapitre III. The Ultimate impersonal: the disembodied spirit author in W.B. Yeats and James Merrill

Jane Augustine

Texte intégral

1The ultimate “impersonal” is the non-human spirit communicator – or “author” – who dictates the words, during a séance with a medium or session with a ouija board, to the passive human author-receptor who writes them down. What is going on in this literary process? Why was it undertaken in the beginning, how does it evolve, what is the outcome? What is its effect on our judgement of the results? It is, I am arguing, the analogue of the artist’s traditional sense of “inspiration by the Muse,” expressed in terms of popular spiritualism of late 19 th- and early 20 th-century England, France and America. The séance process links “inspiration by the muse” with the elevated mystical vision of God within the Christian tradition of Western Europe.

2Two factors are key in this link. The human author, the poet, believes, without a touch of scepticism, that the spirit-author, or authors – there are many of them – are truly “out there,” living and possessed of higher knowledge. They are instruments of the Divine, whatever that is, and they bestow the “gift” that opens up higher knowledge. Second, a partner or witness must be present for the spirit communication to take place. Then it cannot be seen as the private invention of a single mind, which might indicate delusion or madness. The partner is an equally unsceptical believer, often a more intense believer who cooperates in the passive role of bringing to earth the words from “on high,” from beyond death, from beyond the fatal limitations of personhood and the single isolated consciousness. The spirit-words are holy scripture and the deliverance of them to the poet is a holy command that, in theory, relieves him of personal ego-concerns and responsibility to adhere to prevailing literary conventions.

3“Impersonality” is a source of new forms for the poet, and these are the vehicle for a new and expanded vision, the goal to which the poet aspires. Therefore these sanctioned words from “on high” evade literary criticism, internal or external. The unimpeded free flow of words is revelatory. The poet feels joy. He feels liberated from the restrictive everyday life of ordinary persons, vicariously from “personhood” itself through the psychic “gifts” which he attributes to his partner, the essential catalyst on whom he is dependent. He and his partner are collaborators in fact, although in the end only the poet’s name appears as author of the book. “Impersonality” then becomes a dodge or disguise, but in order not to “break the spell” by which the poet obtains a lot of hard work from other people and time to himself to write, the fiction of “impersonality” or divine origin must be maintained at all costs. The medium delivers the words, but the poet’s interpretive work goes on for many years. Thus the “gift” purporting to be “special”, “higher” is in fact the daily hard practical work of poem-writing, the continual effort to coordinate form and meaning.

4Thus William Butler Yeats (1965-1939), through the automatic writing of his wife, Georgina Hyde-Lees, called “George” or “Georgie,” composed A Vision, a 300-page philosophical work interspersed with stories and poems, and at the same time two volumes of poetry, The Winding Stair (1925) and The Tower, which include many of his finest poems. A continuing theme is the resolution of cosmic oppositions, good vs. evil, love vs. hate, strong leaders vs. weak ones, great writers vs. failures in symbolic terms of the phases of the moon. He worked on A Vision until a revised version satisfied him in 1937, but the book was first privately printed in 1926, the same year that the American poet, James Merrill, was born. Merrill was gay, highly conscious of his poetic reputation, and he composed his giant c. 600-page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, with the help of his life-partner, David Jackson, who sat with him at a ouija board intermittently for nearly thirty years, beginning in 1955. Literary and artistic commentary mixes into post-atom bomb scientific speculations on reincarnation in the resulting five volumes, which were finally brought together and published in 1982 under the title The Changing Light at Sandover: A Poem.

5Both Yeats and Merrill began to be spiritualists – that is, believers in communication with discarnate beings through a medium – because they were suffering from writer’s block, an inability to find a way to write more and better. Their unhappiness drew their partners into efforts to help, the partners themselves possessing literary interests, talents and aspirations. The initial purpose was to produce more writing, but the ultimate purpose became the identification of the poet’s creative mind with the mind of the Creator God or whatever totalizing power that controls the universe, however it – “He?” – is named. The literary outcome is an enormous complex and comprehensive explanation of everything in a magnum opus which is “impersonal” because it is so much larger than any person or personality. The encyclopedic system presented by differing literary means offers a union of opposites in eternity that resolves the individual’s temporal and personal realities of confusion and contradiction. It is not hard to see this union as the secular or revisionist theology of an “alternative religion.”

6The literary model is Dante’s Divine Comedy. As composers want to rise to a ninth symphony like Beethoven’s Ninth, poets aspire to Dante’s linguistically transformative, encyclopedic, physical and metaphysical description of his world. He wanted to see the world as much as possible as it is seen by God, the God of the unified medieval Christian church and the comprehensive philosopher-theologians Augustine and Aquinas. The poem symbolically constructs Dante’s personal journey from error to truth, from suffering to everlasting happiness with the help, at first, of his “partner” Virgil and, later, his spirit guide Beatrice, his projection of Love, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Union with her, or with these, is Paradise, bliss, salvation. Dante’s poem is the model Ezra Pound chose for his Cantos, and Pound’s work is the model for Yeats’A Vision. Dante and Blake, Pound, Eliot, and Auden are not far from Merrill’s mind as the séances progress and the archangelic spirits eventually issue him a command, spelled out on the board in all-capital letters: THIS IS OUR/CHALLENGE ELIMINATE HELL MAKE MAN THE CLONE OF GOD.

7Spiritualist belief rests upon a theological-theosophical view that there is no hell and damnation by a wrathful, punishing God but only upward progression of the immortal soul toward the loving creator-God of which it is a part. This belief was popular during both world wars because it brought happiness and solace to the bereaved as they felt contact with their loved ones suddenly killed in the war. Spiritualism claims to help the dead talk to the living. Actually, it helps the living to talk to the living. There is no evidence of supernatural beings intervening in the lives of Yeats and Merrill (or of anyone else, I would add), but plenty of evidence of the power of belief to keep the communication process going even as these modernist writers in a scientific age had to question its contents. For both Yeats and Merrill, the “impersonal” voices from the beyond, filtered through the partner, created a meta-language in which desires, hopes and fears could be expressed, stripped of their pain – perhaps the goal of poetry altogether. The poet believed in order to find a new way to write, and the partner believed in order to save the marriage. When Georgie married Yeats, she knew she was third choice of wife, Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult both having rejected him – a bizarre story in itself. Immediately after the wedding, he fell into deep gloom, thinking he had “betrayed three people,” especially Iseult, but imagining that Georgie “knew nothing” of his thoughts. She knew perfectly well, and only he was surprised when, as he wrote in A Vision:

  • 1 Yeats W., A Vision, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1937, Papermac, 1981, p. 8.

On the afternoon of October 24th th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen of hours offered to spend the rest of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer,” we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.1

  • 2 Harper G., The Making of Yeats’A Vision: A Study of the Automatic Script. Vols. 1 and 2. London, M (...)
  • 3 Ibid, p. 22.

8Georgie Yeats was a wise woman. From 24 October until a change of method on 28 March, they “recorded and preserved more than 3 600 pages in 450 sittings,”2 forming the astonishing document, the Automatic Script, long held by the Yeats family and now in the National Library of Ireland. The resultant book, A Vision, with its pseudo-scientific categories, diagrams and charts edited by Yeats from his wife’s words, drawings of cones and gyres, trees and figures, is a virtually unreadable philosophical document. The spirits’authority perhaps gave Yeats too much freedom, too much creative license, but his poems show that he got what he needed from the spirits – beautiful formal objects, the golden bird of the poem. Once Yeats had asked one of the spirits named Aymor (Amor?) about the high goal of the séances: “Is not the spiritual objective god?”3 The answer came: “No. It is the search.” Georgie maintained the marriage and Yeats’poetry by keeping him within the eternal “impersonal” creative process.

  • 4 Merrill J., The Changing Light at Sandover: A Poem, New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1982, p. 3.

9Yeats’writing of A Vision haunted James Merrill a generation later as he and David Jackson basically employed the same method with the same goals. The two men had a great mutual problem: a discrepancy in literary status. Merrill was a success, a famous and respected poet, a winner of prizes, and Jackson was a failure, with five novels written and only one published. An erotic problem plagued them, too. Both men were handsome and attractive but aging, no longer competitive in the gay world that prizes youthful beauty. Consciousness of “time running out” increased Merrill’s frustration with trying to write a novel around his preoccupying theme, “the incarnation and withdrawal of/A god.” He was tired of the roman nouveau and “fancy narrative concoctions”, yearning instead for “the kind of unseasoned telling found in legends, fairy tales… serene, anonymous,”4 that is, impersonal.

10In 1955, he and Jackson moved into an old house in Stonington, Connecticut, strangers in the community without friends or even a telephone. “Who needed one!/ We had each other for communication/And all the rest” – the rest presumably being sex. It seems, however, they were suffering from too much “togetherness” when the “honeymoon” was over. Like bored children on a rainy day, they decided one evening to play a parlor game and take it seriously. They sat next to each other at a glass topped table covered by a paper with the alphabet, Arabic numerals and the words YES and NO lettered on it. In the center stood a cheap teacup on which each man gently laid motionless fingers. They sat quietly for some time with nothing happening. Merrill was ready to give up when Jackson, the essential partner-catalyst, said “One more try” and asked “Was anybody there?” Merrill wrote the reply in gorgeous blank verse and Homeric epithet, the elegance it seemed he had repudiated:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 6-7.

…As when a pike
Strikes, and the line singing writes in lakeflesh
Highstrung runes, and reel spins and mind reels
YES a new and urgent power YES
Seized the cup. It swerved, clung, hesitated,
Darted off, a devil’s darning needle
Gyroscope our fingers rode bareback
(But stopping dead the instant one lost touch)5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 11.
  • 8 Lurie A., Familiar Spirits, New York, Viking Penguin, 2002, p. 61.

11This spirit, Ephraim, announced himself as a Greek Jew BORN 8 A.D. at Xanthos, who died 36 A.D. on Capri, executed for having “LOVED/THE MONSTERS NEPHEW CALIGULA.”6 After this first visit, Merrill and Jackson sat at the table daily and Ephraim introduced the principal guides who reappear throughout Sandover, W.H. Auden, the “celebrated poet,” Maya Deren, “doyenne of our/American experimental film”7 and Maria Mitsotaki, a friend in contemporary Greece who died during the many years of the poem’s composition. The ouija board became an addiction as it commanded Merrill “to create a long, ambitious, serious poem dealing with complex philosophical issues,”8 as Alison Lurie points out in her memoir. This ambition brought the same problems to Merrill that they brought to Yeats. The second long poem in Sandover, the biblically-titled Mirabell’s Books of Number, in nine books, contains many more prose passages dictated by the spirits than poetry passages composed by Merrill. The prose, set in all capital letters without punctuation, as if the spirits were shouting, leaves the reader insufficiently rewarded for the effort of decoding. After many years of taking dictation, Merrill came to feel that he had lost his personal originality among all the other voices, and complained to Auden that in re-reading his poem he found it “maddening – it’s all by someone else/In your voice, Wystan, or in Mirabell’s. I want it mine.” Auden rebukes him for his return to the “personal”:

  • 9 Merrill J., op. cit, p. 262.

…can u still be bent,
after our course in how to see past lone
autonomy to powers behind the throne,
on doing your own thing: each teeny bit
(pardon mme) made personal as shit?
… think what a minor
part the self plays in a work of art
compared to those great givens the rosebrick manor
all topiary forms & metrical
moat aripple! from anthologized
perennials to herb garden of cliches…9

12“Sandover” is the house of literature and literary effort, a version of Paradise for the poet. In the poem’s last section, Merrill enters its grand ballroom which resembles his and Jackson’s newly redecorated Connecticut home, where soon all the great writers will assemble. Gazing, he rhapsodizes:

  • 10 Merrill J., op. cit., p. 556.

Empty perfection, as I take you in
My heart pounds. Not the shock of elegance, et
High ceiling where a faun-Pythagoras
Loses his calipers to barefoot, faintly
Goitrous nymphs, nor pier-glasses between
Floral panels of palest green,
Nor chandeliers–indulgent chaperones–
Aclick, their crystal charges one by one
Accenting the donnée sun-beamed through tall
French window, silver leaf and waxing bud;
All a felicity–that does not, however,
Fully account for mine. Great room, I know you!
Somewhere on Earth I’ve met you in disguise,
Scouted your dark English woods and blood-red
Hangings, and glared down on the bison head
Above a hearth of stony heraldry…10

13Soon “a young man in gray/three-piece suit” accosts Merrill and speaks reassuringly:

  • 11 Ibid.

… there’s one thing you should know,
these works, you understand? that others “write”
(It’s Eliot, he’s thinking of Rimbaud)
are yet one’s own That’s kind of you to say –
no doubt gratuitous. chicken and egg
as i believe you put it11

14Which came first, the personal or the impersonal? We might take a stand and say: the impersonal, because it is the creative space that makes possible the reassembling of the words on the page, the poem reprinted in books, repeated on the computer screen and by this voice and theirs. The personal is purged, gone with the death of the poet, but art goes on. Merrill ends his poem with its opening word “Admittedly…” and circles back, as in a gyre, or like the moon re-entering each phase, to start again. We could not speak of impersonality if we were not persons. The dead continually speak to the living, or sing, as Yeats made clear:

  • 12 Yeats W., The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, New York, Macmillan Co., 1959, p. 192.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.12


1 Yeats W., A Vision, New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1937, Papermac, 1981, p. 8.

2 Harper G., The Making of Yeats’A Vision: A Study of the Automatic Script. Vols. 1 and 2. London, Macmillan & Co., 1987, v. 1, p. 3.

3 Ibid, p. 22.

4 Merrill J., The Changing Light at Sandover: A Poem, New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1982, p. 3.

5 Ibid., p. 6-7.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 Ibid., p. 11.

8 Lurie A., Familiar Spirits, New York, Viking Penguin, 2002, p. 61.

9 Merrill J., op. cit, p. 262.

10 Merrill J., op. cit., p. 556.

11 Ibid.

12 Yeats W., The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, New York, Macmillan Co., 1959, p. 192.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009

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