Listen to US cultural historian and poet, Professor William Irwin Thompson’s lecture on “The Poetry and Philosophy of W.B. Yeats” delivered in 1977 and which has recently been made available online at https://archive.org/details/WilliamIrwinThompsonB12_201304. William Irwin Thompson is a US poet and cultural historian. He is a Founding Mentor and Visiting Scholar at the Ross School in East Hampton, New York and a frequent contributor to the on line literary magazine, Wild River Review.
Introduction to The Poetry and Philosophy of W.B. Yeats
Professor William Irwin Thompson
When I was in graduate school at Cornell in 1962, I took a seminar with Cornell’s superstar professor M. H. Abrams. (“Mike” is now 102, an institution by himself at Cornell.) I had read his book The Mirror and the Lamp when I was an undergraduate at Pomona College, and Professor Abrams was one of the reasons I choose to apply to grad school at Cornell and not Harvard; the other reasons were the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which was a Cornell creation, and the beautiful campus with its lakes and nearby waterfalls and gorges.
In Abrams’s seminar on Romantic poetry a student presented a paper that dismissed Yeats’s A Vision, and Professor Abrams put his magisterial seal of approval on the student’s opinions. Following the received opinions of Auden who in the fashionable dialectical materialism of his day dismissed A Vision as “the Southern California side of Willie Yeats” and Orwell who dismissed it as “that tomfoolery of wheels and gyres,” the consensus of the seminar was that A Vision was not to be taken seriously.
Quoting Bishop Berkeley’s famous remark “We Irish think otherwise,” I jumped in, spoiling for a good fight–the motto on the Thompson family crest is Je veux de bonne guerre–and challenged the whole smug attitude of the class and claimed that both as a theory of history and as a theory of the personality, A Vision had to be taken seriously and that one could not understand Yeats without it.
Having grown up in Southern California, and having gone to Catholic parochial schools, I had no problem with the Southern California side of Yeats’s mysticism, because it had served me in my revolutionary efforts to take off the mental clamps of Catholic orthodoxy the Church had put on my head. Marxist intellectuals usually–with the notable exception of E. P. Thompson–dismissed mysticism and never really appreciated its use in breaking free of clerical orthodoxy.
But as Frances Yates was later to point out, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment preceded the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Properly seen, mysticism was part of a revolutionary tradition that inspired Blake, Whitman, Emerson, and Mrs. Yeats–who read Italian literature and was deeply conversant with Italian Renaissance humanism and should have been recognized as Yeats’s co-author–as Brenda Maddox has shown in Yeats’s Ghosts.
So having grown up in LA, and having attended lectures at the Theosophical Society in the nineteen-fifties–as well as more esoteric break-off groups–I was familiar with the esoteric and neoplatonic traditions long before I ever read Yeats in college or later met Kathleen Raine and invited her to become our Scholar-in-Residence at Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan in 1977. And it was in 1977 at Lindisfarne’s summer conference center in Southampton, New York that I gave this lecture and gave a longer form to my objections to Yeats scholarship in 1962 at Cornell.