Yeats and the Sculpture of Self: A Critical Essay
— By Monika Rose
W.B. Yeats’ progress as a writer was shaped by deliberate plans of self-improvement and exploration, especially as it pertained to his development of craft. His “passion for making and remaking himself led him to revise his early work…to conform to a later pattern” (Kermode 1683). Yeats cross-referenced his themes in several different modes of discourse–poems, essays, journals, plays, fiction, etc.–and worked on them continuously. The amount of material regarding the researching of his methods of composition is vast, ranging from detailed studies of his prosody and versification, to exploration of his writing influences and associations with people who would become symbolic emblems in his work. The most valuable and provocative of Yeats’ ritualistic writing practices, however, stem from his recording of occult experiences such as those experienced via his involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucianism participation in seances, ritualistic ceremonies, dream recording, automatic writing through mediums, and other activities. Luckily, his methodical habits of composing prose, drama, and in particular, poetry, that involve compulsive, rigorous, methodical cross-referencing and extensive notes, editing, and revision kept him “hammering his thoughts into unity”(qtd. in Kermode and Hollander 1680). These two areas seem radically different, yet in order to control and shape the evolution of his ideas, I believe Yeats needed the system of careful composition he devised in order to channel the mystic visions and experiences into unified forms of expression. According to Kermode and Hollander, he sought a place called, after Plotinus, “There,” some center where everything came together, and “what he was trying to get together, for the sake of major poetry, was himself” (1682). And as Yeats said in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, “I live in my own mind and write poetry; can go into a dream and stay there” (qtd. in Kermode and Hollander 38).
Yeats had a system for recording experiences and ideas that would seem challenging to the average person at first glance, but it was a system that afforded him opportunities to document material recurring in various genres, and it would become a method that would serve as a sort of cyclical reincarnation of ideas. He kept various bound journals and notebooks, and later, loose-leaf journals, which provided a vast workshop for his reveries and musings, as well as a place to store his observations that would become a basis for his text be it a dramatic work, a poem, or even a passage in his autobiographies (Bradford 3). Studies of his manuscripts provide the insights to his textual changes, which were frequent, before and after publication (Bradford “Preface” vi-ix).
In light of Yeats’ constant self-construction, Daniel T. O’Hara summarizes Jahan Ramazani’s book, Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime, by concluding that “the poet is the one who is reborn as ‘idea,’ perfected, become complete…”(qtd. in O’Hara 547). Yeats’ poems are “ecstatic acts of intellectual and imaginative deliverance, a wresting of order from the chaos of life” (549). Thus, Yeats creates himself as an entity in his notebooks and works, documenting the evidence of his identity, and he becomes a director of his own life, acting on the stage of his own tragedies (Neuman 56). In his reveries, mystical musings of the past as recorded in journals which would later become part of his Autobiographies, Yeats reports that he was, at puberty, first attracted by the thought of determining his life’s form as he would “shape a poem.” This process was influenced by the works of Shelley, as Shirley Neuman reports. Yeats stated that he “began to play at being a sage, a magician or a poet…as I climbed along the narrow ledge. . . (60). He “shaped his life as he might a poem….” Thus, this deliberate self-shaping began early, with Yeats trying out different poses and masks of himself, Hamlet-like (60).
As Vereen Bell relates, Yeats knew that “poetry and even thought are fictions, but he believed in the power of such fictions to shape and direct human life and in the ability of narrative logic to give coherence and dignity to the erratic human enterprise of becoming,” thus the Collected Poems of Yeats stood for his own life story (495). Bell explains that Yeats was not really suited for the job of being a “cutting-edge modernist,” since the realm of his life experience included Yeats claiming to have had a meeting with a queen of a band of fairies who discussed the fairy kingdom with him. Another incident, in which Yeats told Dorothy Wellesley that the immortality of the individual soul could be proved and upheld in a court of law, reiterates a tie to the ancient relics of the past, not to mention the practice of consulting daily astrological charts worked out by Yeats and his Uncle George to forecast events (Bell 496). “Hammer your thoughts into a unity,” one spirit had instructed Yeats (Bell 497) and by Yeats’ own desire to create a reality with its own qualities, he believed he could “call, declare, make, summon, tell,” and continue shaping his life as a poet in a physical sense (498). Natalie Crohn Schmitt reports Yeats’ statement, “Whether it is we or the vision that create the pattern, who set the wheel turning, it is hard to say, ” and that Yeats continues by saying that he is full of uncertainty, not sure “when he is the finger or the clay” (174). Thus, Yeats struggled with identifying the nature of his soul as a writer and as a Magi, a role he so much wanted to acquire, continuing his process of self-shaping (Croft 135).
Writing was painstaking for Yeats, and by 1895, he had developed the habit of writing many drafts of his prose and poetry, staying with a work until ‘much hammering’ had worked it into shape. But it was a tedious process, writing in a slow longhand, working mainly in the early morning hours on his poetry from 9 until noon (Wellesley 38, 44),revising as he went along. In his later years, he would often get up at 4 A.M., work at proof sheets until 5:30, then go back to bed until breakfast at 7:30. Then he would write poetry until noon (Wellesley 82). His handwriting was nearly illegible to others, so he dictated from his manuscripts and notebooks for a typist, sometimes his wife George. If he were interrupted during dictation, he would be disoriented and his secretary had to write what she thought she heard, going back later and correcting errors in the transcribing of his poetry, misreading his writing, with Yeats often missing the corrections needed, himself. Yeats’ writing contained atrocious misspellings, horrendous over-punctuation of commas and dashes, and his sentences were hard to discern due to lack of end punctuation and capitalization. He would do such things as trail off at the suffixes, so that those wanting to examine actual manuscripts for prose style had a difficult if not impossible task of trying to decipher his process (Bradford “Preface” iii).
Later on, after marriage to George Hyde-Lees, Yeats’ work was less graphically demanding, writing in loose-leaf notebooks so that he could rearrange the order of his material while composing, tearing or cutting out pages he wanted transcribed, and then rearranging them again more easily. His wife would type these sheets out while he continued to revise in his notebook–thus, he would have continuous clean copies with which to work (xiii). She often typed carbon copies so he could continue to correct the copies, revising such things as repetitive images that he could not get out of his mind, reducing them to “echoes”(Bradford 93). In his notebooks, or his “daybooks” which were literary musings and observations, in which he would write infrequently but regularly, he would write down phrases and statements, putting phrases that he would want to use in a poem in quotation marks, so that they could easily be seen.
Yeats would also complete some of his poems, such as “The Wild Swans at Coole” in these journals (Crawford 8). He would, in addition, develop musings on ideas he would have about news of the day, with reports of seances and psychic investigations, as well as autobiographical material in these journals. For Yeats, this working record of ideas provided a fertile place for the genesis of ideas as well as the continuous working of that idea to its end as a publishable work, and these works included various forms. On the nature of his repeated revision process, he remarked to Dorothy Wellesley, “The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless; a poem comes right with a click like a closing box” (qtd. in Wellesley 24). He even put minor essays through multiple drafts, and he worked for years on his Autobiographies. One could say Yeats was a compulsive self-editor, but he seemed to work his material like a sculptor until that work of art conformed to his expectations of expression (Croft 54-55)
Yeats did not stop at just creating the shaping of his poetic self, as his association with Dorothy Wellesley, a fellow poet, demonstrates. He foisted his skills upon others. In one letter to Wellesley, Yeats had talked about the revision of one her poems: “Ah my dear how it added to my excitement when I re-made that poem of yours into a single being. We triumphed over each other”(Wellesley 82). It seemed as if his Pygmalion tendencies were not always self-directed but spilled over onto others. His system included frequent letter writing in which he stashed and worked on some of his ideas for his autobiographies, another method of shaping himself (Kermode and Hollander 1683).
The individual pages of composition within his notebooks and loose-leaf manuscripts had a system as well, indicates Bradford. Yeats liked having a two-page layout or spread in which he would compose on the right side, leaving the left free for revision, drawing arrows to the right-hand page and corresponding lines. The particular works may not remain in sequential order, either. Later, in the 20’s and 30’s, Yeats would complete his writing on the first typescript page. When he finished a satisfactory work, he would initial it or sign in full, with a date. This method provided students of his work clear tracings of his process, especially watching actual lines emerge from the mass of ideas. His process usually was an adding-on task, with works “accumulating slowly, as a coral reef accumulates” (Kermode and Hollander “Preface” iii).
Bradford relates that Yeats’ modus operandi in beginning a poem or any prose work, usually, was to sketch a subject in prose–for drama it was a scenario. These were brief images, but many of them laboriously developed into poems, most continued to a draft form that same day in which a sketch was begun. Yeats often complained that it took a long time to “set into a pattern” or find the rhythm of natural speech or utterance for it. He had to pick his suitable form for the poem, then most often write a list of rhyming words at the top with which to play, select his rhyme scheme, and invent descriptive correlatives or symbolic objects to represent his ideas. Sometimes he obsessed over a conflict in a poem, which evoked dreams in which symbols and workings of the poem manifested themselves (Wellesley 86). He worked until he got the poem right in this manuscript format, carrying on revision processes even after printing (Wellesley “Introduction” 8-9), however, it may have taken months between intermediate and final drafts which were working drafts that he continuously revised as he went along (12). One favorite technique in his later years, in the 1930’s, was to “undertake different tasks in order to give birth to new poems,” states Tim Armstrong (50). This was to force him to produce new work. In a letter to Wellesley, Yeats says that his prose version of “The King of the Great Clock Tower” was written to “force myself to write lyrics” (43). At the same time, Yeats was concerned with his own approaching death and loss of sexual strength and desire, as evidenced by his interest in a surgical procedure called the Steinach operation (a vasectomy). This procedure was purported to be a restorer of the cardio-vascular system and supposedly provided a renewed vigor in men due to its inward properties of “self-insemination” (Armstrong 49). Yeats, who related poetic creation and power with physical male potency, was aware of the theory behind the operation, and he would relish this “second puberty” (50). What might this have to do with his poetic prowess? Armstrong analyzes that for a self-made poet, this procedure would give Yeats a rebirth, channeling his faculties inward during a time when he could balance the sexual energies and his creative output together. Yeats was involved at this time in his own “self as a focus for incarnation,” connecting with this idea of Yeats, indicates Armstrong, as a “self-begettor” or self-generator and his fears that he would never again be able to write poetry (50). This is why the automatic writing, along with his marriage to George, and alliances with younger women such as Dorothy Wellesley, provided such a fresh source of new direction for his writing. He thrived on these new areas of exploration (50). The occult experiences that Yeats recorded, as well as his “esoteric investigations,” which occupied about one third of his time, became the types of activities that were an integral part of his writings. He does not say much of the studies, since he was sworn to secrecy about the rituals and experiences with Madame Blavatsky, MacGregor Mathers, his psychic teacher, and the ceremonies of the Order of the Golden Dawn (Bradford 309). Included were his conversations with the spirit Leo Africanus, an explorer of the 17th century, with whom Yeats conversed initially at a seance in 1912, then over a period of years in which this ‘daimon’ allowed Yeats to understand his true self, as he thought it to be (Neuman 43-44). This experience would prepare him for his later automatic writings with his wife, which would inspire the basis for his grand scale description of the workings of the universe, A Vision (O’Donnell 1).
In the book, Yeats’ Golden Dawn, George Harper tells of Yeats’ accounts of experiences with thought transference, his meticulous records of his spiritual marriage with Maud Gonne, seances, dream recollections, and rituals connected to visionary events. In these events, Yeats would hold an object in his hand and begin to envision ideas and events related to that object, or the use of mediums would assist with this (102-3). Yeats had not been the only writer to have ideas come to him via a trance-like state: he had studied Blake and Coleridge extensively. The automatic writing, of which he participated even before his married life, as well as the other psychic experiments he conducted with friends of the order, kept him in good standing with the metaphysical tradition of his predecessors (103). Yeats also wrote occult essays based on his practices, such as one called, “Magic.” His most famous work, Vision, which Yeats labeled as “philosophy” but is in reality a group of images based on one symbol of the universe, the Divine Essence, stems from his automatic writings with his wife as the medium. Through her, spirit “Controllers,” those that spoke to and gave insights to George, and the “Frustrators” who attacked his health and caused illness, or confused the manuscript text, communicated to them in response to Yeats’ questions on various subjects. The actual text or writing of the automatic script is difficult to decipher, so Yeats went back and transcribed the questions and answers in his notebooks, trying to unravel for himself the mysteries he only “half understood”(Croft 166).
Some researchers, such as Kathleen Raine and Virginia Moore, among others, explains Croft, have discovered some of the symbols and rituals from the occult experiences, many of these related in closed notebooks not for public viewing. For instance, when Yeats was initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn, he wore a green robe, red shoes, and a rope belt. Being blindfolded and told to repeat oaths, he was led around to symbolic points in the room. His path was barred, but then he passed between two pillars and learned secret steps and salutes. In another ritual, he was “suspended on a cross by means of ropes, while the Second Chief of the Order held out the Rose Crucifix and said, ‘The Symbol of Suffering is the symbol of strength,’ to which Yeats replied, ‘I, Demon Est Deus Inversus, a member of the Body of Christ, do this day spiritually bind myself, even as I am now bound physically upon the Cross of Suffering, that I will to the utmost lead a pure and selfish life’”(Croft 137-8). It is suggested that these rituals became a part of actual life for Yeats, then embodying the realm of symbol in his writing, especially since these symbols, forms, colors would reappear in his works, further evidence of the deliberate shaping of life and work in his integrated system (Croft 138).
Yeats saved most material involved with the Order of the Golden Dawn and other spiritualistic data, except the early personal writings. In writing of his occult experiences, he sometimes admitted he called up the wrong symbol or had distorted visions, making errors in his evocation (Croft 137). Some examples of symbols found in his documentation include a dagger, a wand, a pentacle, and a broken lotus, as well as a rose cross, a black silk sash, several cardboard seals and pentagrams, a huge diagram of the Sephirotic Tree of Life (about 3 ft. square) and a diagram of the Phases of the Moon on oiled silk, etc. (Harper, Golden Dawn) The sword he was given by a Japanese visitor also worked into the symbolism of his poetry. There are several notebooks that document more diagrams, sketches of gyres, phases of the moon, sleeps (dream recordings of the spirits speaking through the medium while asleep), automatic script, and working notes, some of which are illegible. There is an index card file of over 700 cards of the automatic script, as well as envelopes with recorded information in the collection, showing the elaborate organization Yeats devised (Harper, Yeats and the Occult 4-5). The automatic script is an incredible body of work on psychic research, conducted from October 20, 1917, to March 28, 1920, with more than 3,600 papers in 450 sittings that were recorded (Harper, Making, “Preface” x). Harper relates that other modes of dictation include a writing in which Maud Gonne wrote down notes and conversation for Yeats about the investigation of the bleeding miracle, an oleograph of some sort of religious figure (Harper, Yeats and the Occult 3-4). In addition, some of the exercises in the Golden Dawn materials are concerned with the Celtic Mysteries, horoscopes, Talismanic experiments, and Tarot exercises (Harper, Yeats’ Golden Dawn 8). There are letters and sealed records of the business meetings, petty quarrels, and lectures of the Order of the Golden Dawn, all of which were carefully saved by Yeats, I think, so that students could later clarify his participation in the occult. Yeats stayed with the Order of the Golden Dawn in hopes of eventually becoming a Magi, or spiritual figure (O’Donnell 56).
Thus, through Yeats’ deliberate attempts to train himself in his various literary and dramatic undertakings, shaping his realm of thought, the poet had some control over his own genesis as a writer. If he lacked control elsewhere in his life, where women slipped away, politics wavered, losses overwhelmed him, as in Lady Gregory’s death, and as his own impending death loomed nearer–he at least could take satisfaction in the constant visible changes in the editing and shaping of his manuscripts. Balancing that with exploration of the world of the dead via communication with spirits, and the formulation of a cyclical system of the universe, perhaps he could engender some hope that he would retain a position in the earthly literary system. Perhaps he would return to complete some of his projects, continuously revising some them, as was his habit, from beyond the grave.
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—.Yeats’ Golden Dawn. London: Macmillan Press, LTD, 1974.
—.ed. Yeats and the Occult. Canada: Macmillan, 1975.
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—.“William Butler Yeats.” 1679-1683.
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