Yeats's Ghosts

The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats
By Brenda Maddox

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 1999 Brenda Maddox
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060174943

Chapter One
An Astrofogical Deadline

(January-March 1917)

On an icy Spring day in 1917, the year that was to change his life, the poet William Butler Yeats traveled from London to St. Leonard's-on-Sea on the Sussex coast. Yeats was a big man, over 6 feet tall, with a massive frame conspicuously well dressed. At 51, he had masses of gray-black hair slanting over his forehead, brown eyes, and a soft, full mouth that, in photographs, looks ready to cry.

With him were two friends, cultivated men: the orientalist Edward Denison Ross, and the painter and stage designer Edmund Dulac. On March 22, the Great War was in its third year and 23 1 st day. Sixty miles away British troops were massing for an assault on Arras, in St. Petersburg crowds were celebrating the overthrow of Czar Nicholas 11, while in Washington Congress was reconvening to endorse the United States' entry into the war. Yet the travelers' minds were fixed on a different reality: a talking machine sometimes known as the Metallic Medium, claimed in psychical literature to speak on spiritualistic matters and to answer questions in several languages.

The bachelor Yeats was an animated, loquacious traveling companion, running his hands through his hair as he talked unstoppably on. If his listeners did not get many of their own words in, they rarely minded. Yeats was the best conversationalist many had ever heard--often (with due respect to his audience) ribald in his flow. For those not being preached at or patronized, he was fun. Anyone who had been long in his company, moreover, knew the excitement of the supernatural world, especially when conveyed with hints of Arabian nights and desert sands. On such Eastern esotericism, Denison Ross, director of the London School of Oriental Studies, was expert. His school advertised on the front page of the Times, for applicants to its courses "in the Principal Languages of the Near, Middle and Far East, and Africa. Also Oriental Religions and Customs."' For his part, the artist Dulac shared Yeats's enthusiasm for the plays of Japan; the previous year he had designed the costumes and masks for At the Hawk's Well, Yeats's first Noh play.

At St. Leonard's, the robot's owner, David Wilson, happily showed off his invention: a square, copper-lined wooden box, containing a brass drum and a short brass tube with a lens called "the eye," which revolved around the drum. The visitors were invited to try experiments with cards; Yeats had brought his own pack for the purpose. But the machine did not cooperate. Wilson thereupon sat himself in front of it and dictated syllables that Ross vouchsafed could be transformed into Turkish. These elicited a long string of livelier responses, such as "Masala Koum / Koum Toum Boula Bli Yesh."

Yeats then offered to use his mystical symbols to clear the room (presumably of interfering spirits), but the box needed no assistance. It kept spewing out words, switching to English. Asked to identify "the excellent one," it responded with some scorn: "Who are you when knoweth not that the excellent one is he whose name may not be branded upon the camel's neck?"

The visitors were not impressed. After more attempts with cards and envelopes, they left disappointed that the machine was not scientific. Yeats, however, who had made the journey to St. Leonard's once before on a similar quest, felt he had to try again. He went back, and this time, alone, got better results. At about eleven o'clock the tubed box began to speak. At first all it said was "Leo," a name Yeats knew well from seances. Then it confessed that it was not sure who it waspossibly Yeats.

"But I am Yeats," Yeats contradicted. Homunculus Metallicus was unconvinced, insisting, "No, Yeats has gone." Yeats tried another tactic. Sitting at a table with his long arm stretched out before him, he bent down to try to communicate through telepathy. Suddenly his arm began to tremble and throb as if under the influence of the machine, which gratifyingly appeared to obey commands to stop and start. But no more words emerged. Yeats went back to London, disillusioned. In the notes he kept of such investigations, he concluded, much as Dulac had, that the robot's owner was somehow behind the voice.Indeed, he believed, drawing on nearly 30 years of ventures into the paranormal, "999 mediums out of 1000 never communicate other than subconscious experience."

But the one chance in a thousand was, for him, worth pursuing. Long experience had left him convinced that the images that welled up before what he thought of as "the mind's eye" came from a source deeper than the individual memory or unconscious. Images came, he was convinced, from a universal store that he (and not he alone) called the Anima Mundi, the world soul. The chance to draw on this pool of accumulated imagination and wisdom offered a way out of the solitariness of the self and, not incidentally, a rich source of poetry.

Yeats's concept of"the age-long memoried self"' suggests Jung's collective unconscious. Yeats had read Jung--just as he had read Freud, Nietzsche, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Buddha-randomly, with the voraciousness of the autodidact. The new psychoanalytic theories floated in a warm bath in his mind with Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas that reality is hidden, that image is all we see.

A more sustained influence was William Blake. In the early 1890s, in collaboration with Edwin Ellis, a Pre-Raphaelite artist and London neighbor, Yeats poured enormous energy into mastering and editing Blake's prophetic and mystical writings, which appeared as The Works of William Blake in 1896. His own mysticism, Yeats felt, helped him to understand Blake and see that Blake was not mad.' Yeats, having rejected scientific rationalism as well as the religion of his childhood, was seeking to make his own creed out of poetic tradition and "imaginary people ... created out of the deepest instinct of man." And the unschooled, Swedenborgian Blake, he found, had done so before him, discovering in his humble London surroundings a vision of the eternal world "of which the Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow."

In a half century of alternating between Dublin, where he was born in 1865, and London, his intermittent home since childhood, Yeats had given a great deal of his time to groups dedicated to the investigation of the supernatural. But he had given his time to many groups. Unusually for a poet (and he had never had any other occupation, except for literary journalism, lecturing, and long, unpaid labors for Dublin's Abbey Theatre), Yeats was a man who loved organizations. Much as he loathed realism in art, in his public life he was a joiner, a clubman, and more: an administrator, a virtuoso of the committee table, an avid draftsman of constitutions and rules of membership, an intrepid writer of letters to the editor.

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