Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn
W.B. Yeats: Memoirs, Autobiography (First Draft) and Journal
A selection from the picture cards of the Tarot pack, especially the pictures on Yeats’s own pack, compared to versions designed by his intimates, with quotations about symbols from Yeats and others which seem to derive from the cards (apparently, no direct discussion of them was encouraged in Yeats’s circle)—the theme has a tantalizing charm; and Kathleen Raine makes points which I suppose are still not adequately recognized:
For Yeats magic was not so much a kind of poetry as poetry a kind of magic, and the object of both alike was evocation of energies and knowledge from beyond normal consciousness.
In fact, both were justified because they make us better, and results such as we coarse outsiders call magical are not of the essence. All the same, such results are firmly expected, sometimes with moral worry (as when “I have often wondered if I did great evil” is deleted from the draft Autobiography [Memoirs, page 48]).
Rationalist critics, who could not bear to have a great poet who believed in tosh, used to argue that Yeats only meant Symbolism when he used such language; and I used to suspect that his air of certainty was put on merely as part of his duty to encourage his disciples; but he expresses it even more when he writes for himself alone. The interest of the Autobiography and the Journal, I should have explained, is that they are the original material from which the versions now well known were derived.
The layout was not oppressively moral. Though a very high-minded man, always striving to become better, Yeats found that the colleagues of his two major lines of secret public-spirited activity took a good deal of keeping out of jail. Maud Gonne with her casual gun-running, and the unsavory magicians who are so hard to tell apart in Jeffares’s Life, cost him a lot of his time, because he was the only one of them who could be relied upon to turn up (at the police station, maybe) and put a decent face on things. The doctrine of Masks has made him unpopular with anyone who expected to judge his character by his behavior at an interview, and in almost all walks of life, I do think, it has to be called a silly theory, being so immediately self-defeating (as people are not such fools as you think, or not interested enough to make the assumption you have presumed); but for a man in Yeats’s position, vowed to silence in two directions while neck-deep in the public quarrels of running a theater, the unattractive procedure is merely imposed. He deserves admiration for getting through.
Kathleen Raine is evidently right in saying that he would dislike the insistently mucky mysticism of Aleister Crowley, and work against it on his secret committee, and yet that, in old age, when no longer responsible for keeping the Golden Dawn on an even keel, he wrote poems very close to the position of …
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