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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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Chapter four The ‘Secret Society’ of Theatre: Yeats’s Middle Plays 169


Chapter Four ‘The Secret Society of Theatre’1: Yeats’s Middle Plays Yeats’s lifelong involvement with theatrical production, and with the Abbey Theatre specifically, was established on the old foundations of the Dublin dead in a very literal way. Following Annie Horniman’s offer in 1904 of a strictly non-political theatre for the production of plays for an Irish audience,2 the building, on Abbey Street in Dublin (subsequently destroyed by fire) was transformed from ‘the site of the old Morgue’3 to a modern theatre house. The establishment of the theatre coincided with the excavation of the tomb, and equally with Yeats’s continued investigations into the spirit world.4 Emphatically, it is also a theatre which Yeats sug- gested was closely aligned to esoterica: ‘The theatre began in ritual, and it cannot come to its greatness again without recalling words to their ancient sovereignty.’5 Additionally, the idea of the Anima Mundi or storehouse of images bordering the unconscious mind of every individual, has impor- tant theatrical connotations. In this occult theory, the theatre becomes a national space whereby (ideally), the coherence of an audience’s response 1 W. B. Yeats, ‘A People’s Theatre: A Letter to Lady Gregory’ (1919), Ex, p. 254. 2 See Adrian Frazier, Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theatre, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990, for a full discussion of Annie Horniman’s role in the founding of the Abbey. 3 Lady Gregory, Our Irish Theatre, Colin Smythe: Gerrards Cross, 1972, p. 33. 4 This fact...

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