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Envisioning Ireland

W. B. Yeats’s Occult Nationalism


Claire Nally

Although W. B. Yeats is one of the most over-theorised authors in the Irish canon, little attempt has been made to situate his occult works in the political context of early twentieth-century Ireland. By evaluating the two versions of A Vision, published in 1925 and 1937, this book provides a methodology for understanding the political and cultural impulses that informed Yeats’s engagement with the otherworld. The author suggests that the Yeatsian occult operates very firmly within the political parameters of Irish nationalism, often as a critique of the new Free State, or as an alternative way of mythologising and inaugurating a new nation state. The occult, far from being free of all political considerations, registers the poet’s shifting allegiances, from the Celticism of the 1890s to his disenchantment with modern Ireland in the Free State.
Through close readings of Yeats’s manuscripts and his primary and critical works, including a close assessment of the frequently neglected dramatic texts, the author seeks to force a rethinking of the critical reception of the Yeatsian occult through contemporary theoretical developments in postcolonialism, subjectivity, national identity and textual instability.


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Introduction ‘A Secret Mystical Propaganda’: The Castle of Heroes 1


Introduction ‘A Secret Mystical Propaganda’: The Castle of Heroes In the early half of the twentieth century, automatic writing emerged as a distinct spiritual and cultural mode of communication: the Surrealists employed the technique as a method of examining the unconscious mind, whilst the resurgence of spiritualist practice following the Great War also prompted further investigations into the afterlife through trance medium- ship and automatic writing. It also engaged with the more general occult revival which came from the hedonism of the fin de siècle in the 1880s and 1890s and in many ways it embodied a French counter-culture which was a reaction against a petit bourgeois mentality: ‘In certain respects the “new” occultism represented a somewhat elitist counterpoint to the hugely suc- cessful Victorian spiritualist movement.’1 Automatic writing was often a lengthy and tiring process, as an Irish professional medium, Hester Travers Smith, indicated: A pencil is held generally between the first and third fingers of the hand of the medium; it touches the paper, and as a rule, after some preliminary flourishes and twirls, the pencil begins to write coherent words and messages. These messages vary according to the communicator, and the handwriting changes as different personali- ties appear. Sometimes the writing is that of a child, then of an old person, etc. … the script is generally difficult to decipher, as (in the nature of things) the pencil cannot be lifted as in ordinary handwriting, and the MS. is full of scrawls and hard to read.2 1...

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