Sunday, 13 March 2016

Yeats and Alchemy

Yeats’s poetry can, like Gaul, be divided into three parts: first there was the 'Celtic Twilight’ stuff: Not quite leprechauns and shamrocks, but only a step above. Then came the middle period of the great poems, the ones that make him a candidate for ‘Greatest English language poet of the twentieth century’: poems like ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and (in my view his masterpiece) ‘Long-legged Fly.’ This was the period just before he got the Nobel (to which his response, on being told the news by ’phone, was ‘How much?’)

The prize came, as always, late, (remember Auden’s vertical and horizontal man), when Yeats had already gone a bit funny: he included the poetastic drivel of some silly little girl he’d fallen for in his 1936 version of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, he flirted with fascism, and he was heavily into alchemy.

If you check out his late prose work ‘Rosa Alchemica’ you’ll see just how far gone he was towards the end. Fair enough, he did at least understand (I think) that the alchemical enterprise is not ‘really’ about turning lead into gold; that that is just a metaphor for the transformation of the intellect, of wisdom — of poetic sensibility, in fact — into spirituality, but even so, like all the alchemists, (and this is really a mystery, persisting to the present, witness L.M. Principe’s ‘The Secrets of Alchemy’) — he couldn’t resist all the physical — and actually irrelevant — paraphernalia of alchemy; ‘Alembic’, ‘Athanor’, ‘Lavacrum Maris’ and such-like; things the old loony had actually gone out and bought. (To tell the truth I rather like him for that.)

I’m not trying to reach any grand conclusion; this is just my blog. I just felt like drawing attention to the strange progress of one of the world’s great poets. It is, after all, the poets who show most clearly that Man is as much a spiritual as a material creature.

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