February 3, 2006
Seminar: Irish Studies, 535
Meeting Date: February 3, 2006
Chair: Mary McGlynn
Speaker: Dr. Ken Monteith
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Fordham University.
Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons
Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Rita
Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter Leahy (CUNY
Graduate Center); Diane Menagh (Fairfield University); Michael O.
Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY); Beth Gilmartin (Monmouth University);
Barbara Young (Molloy College); Terry Byrne (The College of New
Jersey); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University);
Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Abby Bender (Princeton University);
Mary Butler Shannon (Bergen Community College).
“The Poet and the Pythoness: Yeats, Blavatsky, and Philosophy”
A copy of the paper that Dr. Monteith gave has been deposited with
University Seminars. The following is a synopsis.
Years after he was asked to leave the Theosophical
Society for posing difficult questions, W.B. Yeats wote that theosophy
was a “philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at
once logical and boundless.” Dr. Monteith’s talk aimed to examine
the thought processes that Yeats learned from his fellow theosophists
and applied to his own early imaginative and critical writing.
Yeats not only used theosophy’s metaphysical worldview to provide a
structure for his early poetry; he also used it so connect him to poets
that he saw as proto-theosophists, Shelley and Blake.
Theosophy empowered Yeats in two ways: first, the
movement provided him with a community that trusted him to carry on the
esoteric tradition; second, it suggested that the unseen world,
including the world of the mind, could be controlled. It also
validated his political interests, suggesting that the people of
Ireland were a people quite distinct from Britons; far more in touch
with their emotions and with the spirit world. Finally, the
concept of a Master, a guiding force outside of the individual, was
indispensable to Yeats, who found such a master in Swedenborg, Boehme,
Blake, Shelley, and others.
Central to Blavatsky and Yeat’s concept of theosophy
is the idea of correspondence; they present analogies and corresponding
ideas as evidence for their own arguments. They not only argue by
analogy, but incorporate the analogy in itself as evidence of their
system of thought, disregarding the context of the thing
compared. This can clearly be seen in his critical writings on
Shelley, and in his claims that Blake was an Irishman, and that no one
but an Irishman can understand Blake. By arguing through analogy,
both Blavatsky and Yeats are able to argue a truth that appears to be
all-pervasive and present in every system examined.
Yeats’ relationship to Blavatsky was quite
ambivalent, and can be summed up in his use, in the Boston Pilot, of
the term “pythoness” to describe her, connoting simultaneously a
constrictive influence, and, in borrowing the term from Isis Unveiled,
a high priestess. Furthermore, she was for him “an old Irish
peasant woman,” portrayed in the same terms as the Pollexfens’
housekeeper, Mary Battle. Rather than being the gullible novice
worshipping at the feet of a cult figure, Yeats considers himself an
equal to Blavatsky, treating her as an esoteric aunt who set him on the
path of his own self-discoveries, not a figure to be worshipped.
Q. Did you do much work on the automatic writing and its
relationship to theosophy?
A. When I began the project I wanted to write about everything,
including A Vision and the automatic writing. Ellman says A
Vision was assigned for a time as a text for new theosophists.
The question of how theosophy filtered into auto writing is
interesting, but it is not clear. While G.R.S. Mead tutored
Georgie Hyde Lees, and his ideas on Plotinus turns up in the writing, I
have not yet found a clear connection between them.
Q. The automatic writing began during their honeymoon?
A. Yes. Yeats proposed to three women, of course, and he
was worried whether Georgie was the right one; she picked up a pen and
wrote "You have married the right woman," which was a great relief to
him! She continued to write right up until the birth of their
Q. Although the automatic writing seems strange to us, we could
think of it as finding muse. That would make it more
comprehensible for literary scholars.
A. She certainly was a muse, and said that she was providing
Yeats with metaphors, which do actually turn up in “Leda and the Swan”
Q. One thing I would like to think about is what sort of
emotional and psychological truths came out for Georgie and Yeats in
this writing, and how much of it made sense to them. Surely it
had some meaning for their lives? McDonagh and Pearse thought that
Blake was a Celt, so Yeats was not alone. I tend to think that
Yeats was onto something when he wrote of the connection to Blake, but
he didn't know what he was onto. My question, really, is this:
did his delusions reveal a psychological or cultural reality, or was he
A. There is definitely a pragmatic side to his occultism, and he
thought that what he was doing was pertinent to political and cultural
questions. The automatic writing would bring up marriage advice,
or suggest that they should have sexual relations in order to have a
child. The more he and Georgie got into it the personal mythology
they were developing for their family, the more it began to take
over. They thought their first child would be a saviour figure
for Ireland. The writing said you will have a boy, and they end
up with a daughter. The go back again and the writing suggests
that the son was not ready yet, which is why a daughter had been
born. There was always a ready answer for every question.
The occultism was a trap--once you got involved there was no way out,
because you could devise an answer for any possible question.
They started putting everything into a system—such as the phases of the
moon as an explanation of character traits—but could never understand
how it worked, or explain it. Was it the phase of the moon at
birth that determined your personality, or was it the phase at which
the soul entered the body? The explanations they gave never
seemed to hold water.
Q. Was it a reading of that person's character, with an occult
justification post hoc?
A. Yes. Of course, he placed himself in the same phase as Shelley
Q. Very often in bad Yeats scholarship there are efforts to pair his
poetry with his philosophy, which is a dead end; it's interesting to
think about the philosophy on its own. Is occultism your way of
thinking about Yeat’s relations to Blake and Shelley? There are
many other models for thinking of this relationship, so why do you
think occultism is particularly pertinent?
A. My interest is in the disgust that most critics have for the
occult. Roy Foster, unlike most, says it must have served some
need, and I want to think about what that need was. My initial
idea was to look at it as a cultural moment. Why did these
people, who seemed rational, go in for this? Yeats was trying to
bring a rational side to something irrational, which was fascinating to
me. I didn't find any clarity in the way that the occult relates
to Yeats. When he is pushed on the issue he won’t even say he
believes or doesn't believe in it; he points to Plato and Plotinus and
their writings on the nature of belief.
Q. Have the parapsychologists discovered Yeats? I think of
Yeats and Mesmer as fore-runners of parapsychologists.
A. Not really, and perhaps because of what happened to
Blavatsky. Theosophy became an apocalyptic ideology and lost a
lot of credibility. People who were involved in testing this
system moved to other systems and other organisations, such as the
Order of the Golden Dawn and the Society for Psychical Research.
Yeats would go to investigate séances and other phenomena.