W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats; drawing by David Levine

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 Crowley. In fact, he takes for granted a Benthamite ethic, altered by circumstances, and Kathleen Raine seems to recognize that. It gives all the more shock value to her acte gratuit for this occasion.

Number XIV of the cards from Yeats’s pack has a winged girl pouring a liquid from one jug to another, and under this “L’INTEMPERANZA” is printed. Kathleen Raine lists it at the bottom of the page, without comment, as “Temperance.” I found a quite lavish Italian dictionary going back to the fourteenth century, which made clear that Italians have long meant by intemperance just what we do. Besides, in the two modern drawings given for comparison, the earth is splitting open beneath the girl’s feet, and a volcano smokes behind her, or she stands in a cauldron with flames under it, and animals are grouped around. These artists seem to have expected that something would happen, even if in the old picture she is only mixing her drinks.

But then again, on page 23 we are given a rather pietistic interpretation by Mathers (one of the founders of Yeat’s Order of the Golden Dawn) for the twenty-two picture cards, and it says that a wise Combination (Temperance) will enable the magician to defy Fate (the Devil). No doubt this clears the point up; the devisers of the pack did not mean by temperance what we are prone to do, that is, total abstinence sustained by a vow, but drinking the proper amount for a given occasion. A magical occasion might demand quite a lot, but one should remember to use the resulting condition for its purpose. Still, even if the reading “temperance” can be defended, the defense had better have been given in the book.

There is a similar puzzle about Number XI (“LA FORZA“); Kathleen Raine remarks (page 44) that this “shows a woman closing the mouth of a lion,” but she has already quoted another expert, Mr. Ussher (page 27), saying that the woman is “tearing open a brute’s jaws.” In the picture, one of her hands is inside its mouth, not a good plan if the mouth is being closed; perhaps she is a Maenad, with “a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.” The powerful though sickening design by Crowley makes a human-headed lion simply her ally, while she struggles by means of earthly desire to drag down passion from Heaven—Kathleen Raine’s note positively remarks here that the figure has been turned from Chastity into Lust. Even in the old version once owned by Yeats, I think the woman looks frightened, furtive, and agog, so that one is not at all sure what she will do with the lion next. Of course, the main idea to be illustrated is that she has suddenly acquired power, and to make her hesitate over what to do with it does nothing to weaken that impression.


It might seem that the emblem, regarded as a means of edification or fortunetelling, has merely vanished in such cases, and yet one might claim that these uses of it show racial memory or intuitive grasp of ancient wisdom. I fell into a very similar doubt over some photographs of an early Sumerian icon, which the learned commentator regarded as the sacrifice of a human female to a lion—it was eating her. Three or four examples of this type survived, not at all uniform, and it seemed to me quite plain that the biting was of the sexy type prominent in the earlier verse of Swinburne; whether or not these reliefs were a bowdlerization of some actively horrible ritual, they showed a goddess or priestess enjoying the embraces of a lion, and the lion enjoying those of the goddess or priestess. As I understand her, Kathleen Raine claims the Tarot as “a full and effective formulation” of the basic reality especially because it has this riddling quality:

The archetypes—if we encounter them at all—are likely to appear as figures mysterious and nameless, belonging to no pantheon, no theological system. The Tarot symbols gave to the members of the Golden Dawn the freedom to evoke, in their living essence, those personifying spirits which by different nations have been variously named. To the poet especially this freedom is essential.

This presumes, I take it (the whole position is close to that of Jung), that the use of archetypes itself is essential for good poetry, though they must be used with freedom. We are next told that “the incantatory style of the Magus” is liable to become absurd, and poets should not take it for granted. She is thinking about the technical needs of young poets, having used the method in her own poetry, as well as about their obvious need to be up-lifted.

All this seems to me much better than the prattle about “imagery” now standard in academic criticism, both because not liable to become trivial and because not based on a psychological belief actually known to be wrong. I should confess to a prejudice here, in that I am a nonvisualizer, never getting a row of pictures when I read a line of verse; though I can see visions as well as the next man, especially after an eye operation. But anyway the mere existence of nonvisualizers is enough to refute most of the cluster of Imagist beliefs. Yeats heard about them from Pound, and made use of them to emerge from the Celtic Twilight, but refused to let them get in his way; he went on to write some very piercing and minatory lines in very “abstract” language. But I am not sure that he was hampered by these archetypes either, or that a coming poet should be advised to be. If you allow your mind to stray over a few examples of poets in the past—Donne, Pope, Wordsworth—all plainly and admittedly trying to do different things, surely it is very hard to maintain that they only wrote well so far as they embodied an archetype? The tethered theory was always bleating for its consummation, which turned out to be the rule of Mr. Robert Graves, that the only archetype is the White Goddess.

Yeats when young was keen on magic and spiritualism because they refuted “scientific materialism,” and having convinced himself that that had been done (Memoirs, page 266), did not demand anything very specific from the spirits he encountered. They are far too much like people. His movement, as I think he came to realize, harked back to a grand Renaissance philosophical turmoil which had produced the physical sciences, so that the Spirits of Nature were its practical side; but the poetry of Yeats can never recover contact with that. Quite often, it really is in the vast smoky hall of world politics, but never at the top of a mountain, seldom in the open air. He was a man of splendid energy, intelligence, and public spirit, fortunate in having a small country where affairs were almost of manageable size; it would have been beneath him not to take on the spirits too, and he was not defeated there, but one cannot feel they were among his major successes.


How much he really believed in his system is a question one cannot help returning to, though in a Christian of known affiliation one would take the periods of doubt for granted. I had thought that he remained confident of reincarnation after meeting a Hindu sage at the age of twenty, and some remarks in his later letters are indignant against anyone who doubts that belief, but here in youth (Memoirs, page 48) we find him blaming himself because he ought to have warned Maud Gonne that it was after all only a hypothesis (she was very firm about it. and was afterward allowed to enter the Roman Church still believing in it, thus crashing a fundamental opposition between Europe and the wisdom of the East). Yet he goes straight on from expressing doubt here to expressing an astonishing confidence, talking about his handling of the spirits as a doctor would talk of the bold use of a drug—this is where he wrote “I have often wondered if I did great evil” and then crossed it out.

Maud Gonne said she used to see a ghost when she was a child, and Yeats decided that this was an evil spirit troubling her life unseen, creating for example a desire for political power.

Perhaps when one loves one is not quite sane, or perhaps one can pierce—in sudden intuition—behind the veil. I decided to make this woman visible at will.

Because that would make it put its temptation into words, and then Maud Gonne would face it with her intellect. “I made a symbol according to the rules of my Order…and almost at once it became visible.” It turned out to be a past personality of hers, seeking to be reunited, which had split off when she was a priestess in ancient Egypt and “under the influence of a certain priest who was her lover gave false oracles for money.” Yeats had been taught when admitted to the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society that all such requests for reunion should be refused. Nothing more is said about whether his treatment helped her to renounce the craving for political power.

The book edited by Professor Donoghue is in two parts, an Autobiography begun by Yeats in 1915, which became the first draft of his final Autobiography, also a Journal begun in 1908 and carried on fairly regularly till 1910, with a few later additions. The Autobiography ascribes these magical successes to his youth, hardly going beyond 1901, and it is plainly in rather an artificial style, but is quite frank in explaining firmly that a man may have a duty to tell lies for propaganda. Swift told lies in his campaign against Wood’s halfpence (page 84), but (“I…had argued”)

because no sane man is permitted to lie knowing[ly], God made certain men mad, and that it was these men—daimon-possessed as I said—who, possessing truths of passion that were intellectual false-hoods, had created nations.

This does not encourage belief, nor perhaps does the recovery of his uncle from delirium (page 75), though his magic was obviously a comfort to his uncle. But I do have to find impressive an incident reported in Kathleen Raine’s book, where the lad Yeats despises the skepticism of the master (Mathers) with whom he is staying in Paris:

He, like all others I have known who have given themselves up to images, and to the speech of images, thought that when he had proved that an image could act independently of his mind, he had proved also that neither it, nor what it had spoken, had originated there. Yet had I need of proof to the contrary, I had it while under his roof. I was eager for news of the Spanish-American War, and went to the Rue Mozart before breakfast to buy a New York Herald. As I went out past the young Normandy servant who was laying breakfast, I was telling myself some schoolboy romance, and had just reached the place where I carried my arm in a sling after some remarkable escape. I bought my paper and returned, to find Mathers on the doorstep: “Why, you are all right,” he said. “What did the bonne mean by telling me that you had hurt your arm and carried it in a sling?”

Here he is a logician, fit to deal through Sturge Moore with his brother G. E. Moore; and he probably had some influence on the general acceptance among scientists of the possibility of telepathy, though this would hardly be what he was aiming at. The Journal has practically nothing about magic (except for pleasure in recording a proof, page 266) because he was neck-deep in the labors of being chairman, having a peculiar skill in dealing with committees, alarmingly beyond what he could do when left alone with one opponent. This also seemed to him a magical power, though he tried to analyze it; and at the time of writing he regrets bitterly that he must use it, out of loyalty to his own side, since he is found to have it:

I thought myself free, loving neither vice nor virtue; but virtue has come upon me and given me a nation instead of a home. Has it left me any lyric faculty? Whatever happens I must go on that there may be a man behind the lines already written. I should have avoided the thing—but being in it!

Whether men could be reborn no longer made much difference; the main fact was, he found himself alone with mankind.

This Issue

December 13, 1973