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Posted June 27, 2000
The Intelligent Approach to Yeats's Occultism
Susan Johnston Graf new book on Yeats's occult beliefs may signal a new 'middle ground' approach the Yeats's esoteric interests such as been recently applied to the history of Theosophy by K Paul Johnson and Joscelyn Godwin. If so, she has performed an invaluable service to the study of Yeats. In the first fourth of the book Ms Graf gives a clear summary of W. B. Yeats's occult background in Theosophy, his long association with the Order of the Golden Dawn and its successors, his formation of several Celtic magical orders, and his later interests in spiritualism. The real core of the work is the detailed examination of Per Amica Silentia Luna (1916) perhaps Yeats's most understudied and most underrated book. Squeezing meaning from this work is rather like deciphering a coded document, because it is written in Yeats's most carefully crafted, measured, and completely deceptive prose. Many turns of phrases heretofore interpreted as poetic figures of speech by literary academics are revealed by Graf to be Yeats's own private esoteric terms with specific, concrete meanings. Most Yeats scholars have considered Per Amica to be an obscure prelude to A Vision (1925 and 1934), but Graf reveals it to be a unique and revealing work, in many ways expressing ideas much different from its better known cousin. The final chapters deals with the series of mediumistic experienced by Yeats's bride Georgie (known as George) Hyde-Lees which began to occur four days after their wedding in October 1917. These mediumistic experiences, became the basics of Yeats's new 'philosophy' published the two versions of A Vision, and became the underpinning of almost everything he wrote during the later period of his life. Graf's book forms a powerful antithesis to Brenda Maddox's recent odorous book Yeats's Ghosts (1999), which suggested that the entire visionary experience of Yeates was driven by the ticking of Mrs Yeats' biological time-clock, and that she faked the entire mediumistic experience to keep her husband's interest and to deliver instructions about their sex lives designed to produce pregnancy in the most efficient manner. Instead Graf advances a more reasonable thesis: that the Yeats were engaged in a form of sex magic, guided the supernal intelligences toward the creation of 'children of a higher order,' perhaps an Irish Avatar for the new age. This does not negate the ticking of George's time-clock, or her desire to have children as a motive, but recognizes and accepts the deeply held occult convictions of both of the Yeates. Susan Johnson Graf has done something quite rare in Yeats criticism. She has examined the poets occult beliefs without prejudice, accepted them for what they were, and examined exactly what they might mean to his writing, without any snide disclaimers or protestations of disbelief which usually accompanies such studies.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.