Stories of magic and myth, folklore and fairy traditions, the occult and the outré, inspired by the rich mystical world of Ireland’s greatest poet, W. B. Yeats. We invited ten contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, drawing on his work for their own new and original tales. Each has chosen a phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric. Alongside their own powerful qualities, the pieces here testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds and the talismans of old magic.
Introduction by Mark Valentine
“All Art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is symbolic, and has the purpose of those symbolic talismans which mediaeval magicians made with complex colours and forms . . . ”
– A Book of Images
The artist had a hawk-like face and dark garments. I could imagine him turned into an effigy, some allegorical image, an Edwardian sphinx. There was a pallor which suggested he was already halfway to marble. The long fingers were like white candles. The black eyes seemed to be regarding something that none of the rest of us would ever see. He was staring from the frontispiece of a book. It had a linen spine that was now as grey as cerements, and its lettering was worn away. I try always to look at a book whose title cannot be read. Since others may have passed it over, it might be worth finding. In any case, sometimes it seems such books might be waiting in secrecy for you.
After I had stared at the figure in the frontispiece a little while longer, I turned the pages. There were black and white drawings in bold sweeps. A cloaked figure moved through a bare plain. A bearded god stared from a ziggurat. Castles and citadels ramped on top of each other in dream cities. A sibyl held her forefinger to her lips. Unlike the worn and stained coat of the book, the pages inside were a pure cream-white and the black ink still sombre and crystalline, as if fresh from the artist’s pen.
This was the way I made the acquaintance of the artist Will Horton, or, to give him his full measure, William Thomas Horton. And this Will Horton was a chosen friend of W. B. Yeats, who penned an introduction to his A Book of Images and spoke of him in the same breath as Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts. “Even the phantastic landscapes, the entangled chimneys against a white sky, the dark valley with its little points of light, the cloudy and fragile towns and churches, are part of the history of a soul,” wrote Yeats, understanding that whatever Horton did came from strange spiritual sources. “His art is immature,” he admitted, “but it is more interesting than the mature art of our magazines, for it is the reverie of a lonely and profound temperament.”
For some time the poet and the artist saw each other almost every day and when they did not meet, or even when they did, they wrote letters to each other every day too. Yeats persuaded Horton to join for a while the Order of the Golden Dawn but the haggard, hawk-faced man decided it was not for him, for he had a different vision. Yeats always remembered Horton even when, especially when, he had outstripped him by far in fame, for Horton’s work never quite won acclaim and he died in obscurity.
The reason these two souls were drawn together was because they shared an understanding of the power of the image to say the things we cannot otherwise express, to suggest the presence of overlapping worlds and haunted figures and the working-out of fates and destinies. Though they did not always agree on the mechanics of occult science or on the outer details, yet they had the same respect for the magical art of the image. Indeed, looking at their own two portrait images, they might almost pass for brothers of some mystical consanguinity, each imbued with an aspect of Thoth-Hermes. And in the last part of his great work A Vision, “All Souls Night: An Epilogue”, Yeats summoned the image of his friend to him: “Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought . . . ” It seems to me that we may see the real Yeats, and discern what mattered to Yeats, from this ardent friendship.
So the Yeats of old age, the senator, the grand old man of letters, the panjandrum of preposterous causes, the grey eminence of the marching men, is not, because it was the last of him, by any means all of him. It is not at all the whole of who he was. We must look instead at the young man with the raven’s wing forelock and the dark frock-coat and the loose flowing tie and the glinting pince-nez, that fervent youth of the Nineties, the votary of the Rhymers Club, acolyte of the Hermetic Order, firm Irish Republican, friend and keen counsellor to poets, artists, actors, prophets, mystics.
At the age of twenty-six he published a book in stately royal blue with gilded lettering, The Wanderings of Oisin, which told of heroes, heroines, giants, demons, fairies. It was his tribute to the rich folk traditions and epic poetry of his own country, and it revealed an imagination dwelling in a world and a time when magic was understood as naturally interwoven with the more visible order of things.
In that same year, however, his fellow Rhymer Arthur Symons published his poems of cosmopolitan ennui, Days and Nights, and Amy Levy, in A London Plane-Tree, offered subtle Symbolist lyrics of melancholy and loss. These were more modern, daring and fleet-footed than his own traditional verse, and they, or others like, must have helped him see how he must make his own work new too. In time he would come to seem one of the few figures who were able to construct a bridge between the traditional and the modern.
But one of the singular aspects of the work of the modernists is how they drew on ancient myths for inspiration: Ezra Pound on Chinese philosophy; T. S. Eliot on the legends of the Holy Grail; H.D. on the classical gods. Yeats, too, enriched his modern work with ancient sources, and immersed himself fully in them. He practised astrology and ritual magic, researched folklore and fairy traditions, and was deeply interested in theosophy, spiritualism, alchemy, hermeticism, and the Kabbalah. He was a dedicated student and scholar who took these subjects utterly seriously and used them to guide his life. The excellent exhibition on The Life and Work of William Butler Yeats at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin illustrates this powerfully with its cabinets containing the poet’s magical equipment, robes, horoscopes, astrological notebooks, and other relics.
Yet for a long time in the twentieth century it was the critical fashion to ignore or diminish these abiding interests, as if they were somehow embarrassing and incompatible with his status as a great poet. This refusal to acknowledge the role of the mystical and mythical in the human imagination was pervasive amongst the arbiters of English Literature then. It was part of a consensus in favour of “realism” in literature, which also saw almost any aspect of the fantastic or visionary banished from considered study, an attitude which still lingers in some quarters today.
The same patrician disdain meant that the supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood; the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Peake, and Eddison; the tales of magic and witchcraft by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stella Benson, Mary Butts, and others were largely ignored. Original and challenging work, such as David Lindsay’s visionary novels, Claude Houghton’s metaphysical thrillers, Naomi Mitchison’s historical epics, had little chance of acceptance. The effect on some of these writers was not minor: for some it meant poverty, neglect, marginalisation, disillusion.
It is only in comparatively recent times that it has been acknowledged fully how crucial occult interests were to Yeats’s work. A few studies began to appear towards the end of the old century, such as George Mills Harper’s critical anthology Yeats and the Occult (1975); his explorations of the poet’s central role in the Eighteen Nineties magical order, Yeats’s Golden Dawn (1974); and indeed his account of that friendship with the visionary artist in W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: The Record of an Occult Friendship (1980).
Other important studies followed: Yeats the Initiate: Essays on Certain Themes in the Works of W. B. Yeats by Kathleen Raine (1986); Leon Surette’s 1994 study The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and the Occult; and Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats by Brenda Maddox (1999).
But although this new recognition of the deep sources of Yeats’s inspiration has been an important corrective, it should not now stop us from admitting that many aspects of his beliefs still seem hard to take, even under a sympathetic scrutiny. Arthur Machen, a fellow-member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, tells an anecdote about Yeats and another hierophant debating what his star sign was: they were both wrong. He admired Yeats’s work and enjoyed his company, but he added, “and yet the great poet was one of the silliest men I knew”.
Machen, who later dismissed the Hermetic Order as a sort of hoax (as indeed, in its claimed origins, it almost certainly was), soon came to diverge from its teachings and worked his way instead to a faith in a lost Celtic Church with its own distinctive ceremonies, the loss of which he thought perhaps haunted legends of the Holy Grail. This was quite a beguiling idea, but really not much more convincing than the Rosicrucian-style foundations of the Golden Dawn.
So we can acknowledge the power of the myths that guided and enriched the lives of both Machen and Yeats without necessarily subscribing to all the elements of these. And that ambiguity is itself a fertile borderland.
We invited some contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, by drawing on his work as the starting point for their own new and original stories. Each has chosen a resonant phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric.
The nine stories we present respond both to the allurements of the mystical and occult in the poet’s writings, and also to the doubts and misgivings that these must sometimes arouse in us. Caitriona Lally’s would-be contemporary hermit thinks he might quite like the “bee-loud glade” and the peace that “comes dropping slow”. But how will he find it and would it really be for him? In Reggie Oliver’s story, a risible mystic of our time shows a surprisingly material cast of mind about some matters, while a worldly sceptic finds his own fairly settled beliefs jolted, and we may detect a suggestion of Yeats’s “impossible hope”. Timothy J. Jarvis’s prose reverie is a sardonic meditation on aspects of Yeats’s posthumous fate which also “casts a cold eye” on the darker undercurrents of his occult interests.
In Rosanne Rabinowitz’s portrait of one of Yeats’s oldest friends in old age, we see that the psychic automatic writing he and his wife Georgie pursued is not without its potential abuses and perils. Derek John imagines the dire consequences of vaunting spiritual pride among the shabby séance rooms of suburban Dublin. D. P. Watt’s story envisages just what the “terrible beauty” that Yeats once evoked might mean in all its power, while Lynda Rucker meditates on how the apocalyptic vision of Yeats and more particularly his wife Georgie might indeed drop upon the world. Ron Weighell reminds us of the Irish poet’s abiding interest in the fairy mythology of Ireland, showing how this is often linked to otherworlds and chillingly different ways of being. John Howard, in his study of a tower built on the base of an old one by an avant-garde architect, adroitly suggests Yeats’s development from traditional to modernist forms in his work.
And, to end our volume, Nina Antonia contributes an essay meditating on Yeats and the world of faery, which guides us beguilingly through a realm that was always vital for him.
Alongside their own powerful qualities, we hope that all the pieces here will testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds which he shared with a forgotten artist whose images he was one of the few to recognise were really talismans of old magic.
Mark Valentine is the author of about twenty books, mostly of ghost stories or of essays on book collecting and obscure authors. He also edited The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray for Swan River Press. His fiction collections include The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things (Zagava) and, with John Howard, Secret Europe and Inner Europe (Tartarus). He also edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic and supernatural