Wes Davis, editor of An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, reviews R.F. Foster’s new book on Yeats, Words Alone: Yeats and his inheritances, just published from Oxford University Press. Titled “Putting Sweet Sounds Together,” it appears in the September 1 Wall Street Journal. Davis says: “Mr. Foster, an Oxford historian whose two-volume biography of Yeats has become the standard of reference, is less occupied with tracking particular lines of literary influence in Words Alone than in capturing the mindset to which Yeats was heir. Along the way, however, he does highlight instances of direct inspiration.”
One of those inspirations being Mme. Blavatsky. “Yeats’s fascination with occult oddities like the psychic Madame Blavatsky and the secretive group known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn accords more easily with his nationalist ideals. What looks like a flight from history simply underlines the presence of the past.”
Like most of his generation who were drawn to Theosophy, Yeats drew on a number of sources: William Blake and his visionary poetry, the fairy tales and ghost lore of rural Ireland, Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophy with its stress on Eastern scriptures, the hermetic kabbalah and ritual of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the works of Plato and the Neoplatonists as translated by Thomas Taylor, G.R.S. Mead’s works on gnosticism, and more. Foster’s new book, Words Alone, “draws out themes which had particular resonance for Yeats, offering a new interpretation of the influences surrounding the young poet as he began to ‘hammer his thoughts into a unity.’”
Wes Davis’s review can be read here.