The Rhetoric of Belief:
Yeats' Occult Aesthetic in Per Amica Silentia
In 1892, William Butler Yeats wrote a letter to his friend John
O'Leary, in which he plainly expressed the significance of the
supernatural to his work:
The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that
I think and all that I write. . . . It bears the same relation
to my work as the philosophy of Godwin held to the work of Shelley
. . . I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe
to be a greater renascence--the revolt of the soul against the
intellect--now beginning in the world. (Letters 14)
Yeats' desire to be a voice for what he sees as the coming spiritual revolution became more emphatic throughout the course of his career; his mature works are undergirded by the arcane symbology of A Vision, a symbology given him, he believed, by prophetic spirits. A Vision details the features of Yeats' metaphysical universe in painstaking prose; its abstruse argument links the machinations of a mystical geometry with the sublunary endeavors of humankind. However, a more eloquent rendering of the relationship between the occult realms Yeats studied throughout his life and the poetry that they inspired finds expression in the earlier work, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (published in 1917). Here we find potent evidence of the tension between private vision and public expression that animated Yeats' desire to give voice to a spiritual renaissance. Rendering public such ineffable mysteries as those Yeats encountered in his explorations of the supernal realms required not only a poet of the first order but a highly skilled rhetorician, as well. For all his protest against rhetoric as being "the will trying to do the work of the imagination," Yeats designs his strategically compelling argument to move the reader's sympathies by aesthetic and rhetorical means toward acknowledgment, however reluctant, of his occult ontology. The aim of this essay is to trace and analyze the progress of the rhetoric of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, and to examine the role of Yeats' preternatural beliefs in the development and conveyance of his occult aesthetic.
Per Amica Silentia Lunae is Yeats' first exploration of the symbology of the Anti-Self, or Mask, which he will articulate in greater detail in A Vision. Most critics have tended to consider Per Amica as a kind of adjunct to his better-known work, thinking of it as a "first draft" to A Vision (Seiden, Ure). Even Yeats, in a letter to his father, assigned it secondary status as "a kind of prose backing to my poetry" (Letters 625). Among those who have accorded the essay an autonomous significance, opinion ranges as to Yeats' intention in revealing the enigmatic source of his inspiration. Lawrence Lipking regards Per Amica as an initiatory tract, in the same genre as Dante's La Vita Nuova and Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Robert Langbaum, on the other hand, takes a psychoanalytic tack, interpreting Yeats' intention as responding to
the twin problems bequeathed him by romanticism, the problem of the divided self and solipsism--the claustrophobic fear that the struggle played out within the prisonhouse of self has nothing to do with external reality. (162)
The relation of text's occult elements to its aesthetic elements has also been subject to varied interpretation. Leonard Nathan, for example, sees in Per Amica an attempt "to make systematic categories for the natural and supernatural orders of experience and for the relationships between them" and considers it "the best statement up to the publication of A Vision of the ontology that underlay Yeats' dramatic theory and practice" (161). Herbert J. Levine also acknowledges the importance of Yeats' metaphysics, regarding Per Amica as "the visionary center" of Yeats' art and career, a text designed to elaborate the strategies that "continued to shape dramatic and visionary structure" of the rest of his life's work (3; i). Harold Bloom, however, underplays the occult elements of the text, considering Per Amica to be mainly an "aesthetic treatise, with poetic influence a more major concern in it than the vagaries of ghosts" (185).
Bloom's reading provides a good example of the kind of hedging
often done to deny Yeats' communion with dead spirits a central
role in Per Amica. Bloom goes so far as to accuse Yeats
of deception, of "presenting us with rhetoric, by his own
definition" (188), referring to Yeats' characterization of
the rhetorician in "Ego Dominus Tuus" as one who "would
deceive his neighbors." To support this, the critic must
literally re-write the text:
[Yeats] tells us that the dead are the source of everything we call instinct, and so of our passions, but what he means is that our passions imitate art, and that tradition has taken the place of instinct. Similarly, he wishes us to believe that we communicate with the anima mundi through the famous and passionate dead, but what he means is precisely what the fiercely skeptical Shelley meant by the survival of Keats in Adonais.... (188)
This effort to soften the boldest occult professions of Per Amica is understandable, but Bloom's argument that Per Amica's occult elements are subordinated to its poetics is in some ways a sophistic toying with emphasis. Certainly it is an aesthetic treatise, and Bloom makes this case largely by pointing to the number of allusions to the Romantic poetic tradition. But we must realize that Yeats is attempting to elucidate an enigmatic realm to a skeptical audience; in so doing, he is trying to describe a sphere for which he has little vocabulary and even less common ground with his audience to draw on. His use of Romantic images serve as analogies to communicate his insights in the only terms his readers can comprehend.
At every turn, Per Amica makes a case for the literal existence
of the spirit realm, the source from which Yeats drew both his
aesthetic and esoteric inspiration. Throughout the course of this
cryptic manuscript, Yeats displays an impressively diverse familiarity
with literary and esoteric traditions to support his case. As
Per Amica is very much a textbook of [the] visionary influences upon Yeats, both aesthetic and esoteric. The range of allusion within these general categories is vast: from Virgil to Mallarmé, from Heraclitus to the nineteenth-century magician, Stanislas de Gaeta. Yeats defines his poetic tradition with extensive quotation from Spenser and the Romantic poets, and he summarizes his spiritist researches of the previous years, which ranged from seances in modern London to study of the Eleusinian mysteries. (5)
Aside from connecting with the traditions of the esoteric audience of Spiritualists and Theosophists with the literary tradition, these allusions serve, for the exoteric, intellectual audience, as trailheads for Yeats' increasingly exploratory foray into more remote spiritual territory. Knowing that he would be addressing an audience for the most part quite reluctant to take his spirits seriously, Yeats devised a rhetorical strategy that would meet with these readers on the common ground they shared, and persuade them to consider his visionary realm by the seduction of his carefully ordered and figuratively rendered argument.
The structural design of Per Amica thus moves the reader deliberately from the more familiar to the increasingly strange. The title of the work, while signaling a mystical symbology that Yeats was to personalize more and more throughout his career, alludes to Virgil's Aenied (II, 255f), certainly a familiar text for the intellectual reader of Yeats' time; Yeats translated it in a letter to Lady Gregory as "Through the friendly silences of the moon," referring to the Greeks' nocturnal entry into Troy (O'Donnell 293). Maintaining the air of familiarity, Per Amica begins with an epistolary convention, addressing the prologue to "My dear Maurice" (Iseult Gonne, the daughter of his life-long love, Maud) as the continuation of a conversation from the previous summer. Because it is addressed to a friend and recalls a conversation interrupted by a cat, it creates a rather ordinary frame for the extraordinary revelations to come. This effect is only slightly changed with the introduction of the poem, "Ego Dominus Tuus." The words, "I am thy master," are those of Dante's "Lord of Terrible Aspect," who appears to him in his chamber in La Vita Nuova. Yeats was known as a poet; his intellectual audience would have expected him to express himself in verse, even at the beginning of a prose work. That the poem is itself structured as a dialogue between two voices would not have been all that disconcerting, since a long tradition of such debate poems exists. Yeats himself had employed this dialectical poetic form several times before in his career, starting with the Indian romantic poem, "Anashuya and Vijaya," published in 1889. "Ego Dominus Tuus" alludes to familiar characters and metaphors from his previous work, recalling the Michael Robartes of Rosa Alchemica and the "magical shapes" of his alchemical symbology. Its argument, which serves as evidence for the argument of the prose portion of Per Amica, is that the poet speaks from a visionary anti-self, which can be evoked from the spiritual realm with magical symbols and incantations. Pound's much-quoted joke that the poem is a debate between "Hic and Willie" (e.g., Ellman 71) supports the view that Ille's argument is the one that wins out. But this is poetry, not prose argument; such assertions might be more easily accepted (or at least not as quickly rejected) by the intellectual reader in poetic form than they would be in prose, because of the increased willingness to suspend disbelief and to interpret meanings metaphorically that poetry evokes.
Yeats continues, in prose, to structure carefully his exploration
of the realms from which he believes his creative inspiration
flows. He divides the next section of his argument into two parts,
"Anima Hominus," a description of the visionary
state of consciousness of the poet, and "Anima Mundi,"
an attempt to describe the spiritual realm of daemons and the
dead that Yeats believed fed poetic inspiration. He begins "Anima
Hominus" by setting a rather ordinary scene: he has come
home after an evening of conversation with strangers and is self-critically
going over everything that he said, wondering whether he "overstated
everything" or contributed anything of quality to the conversation.
This momentary rhetorical diminutio, however, is quickly
set aside, as Yeats the poet relates the process through which
he animates his creative spirit:
But when I shut my door and light the candle, I invite a Marmorean Muse, an art, where no thought or emotion has come to mind because another man has thought or felt something different, for now there must be no reaction, action only, and the world must move my heart but to the heart's discovery of itself, and I begin to dream of eyelids that do not quiver before the bayonet: all my thoughts have ease and joy, I am all virtue and confidence. ("Per Amica" 4)
Into this reverie of poetic inspiration, Yeats re-introduces his
concept of the "anti-self," the creative daemon that
the poet or artist must encounter in order to create something
of true originality and essential meaning. This central figure
will later be given a kind of objective existence in the spirit
realm, but when it is introduced here, it seems not really so
strange. Rather, it comes as a natural progression from the description
of the kind of "altered state" into which most would
accept that the poet creating enters. The reader can be forgiven
for thinking at first that this is just another side of Yeats--even
he, admittedly, is so deceived "for a moment." But with
a self-castigating rhetorical question, the transition is made
to the assertion of the "otherness" of the creative
anti-self: "How could I," he asks, "have mistaken
for myself an heroic condition that from early boyhood has made
me superstitious?" No, he concludes, taking the decisive
step in his reasoning:
That which comes as complete, as minutely organised, as are those elaborate, brightly lighted buildings and sceneries appearing in a moment, as I lie between sleeping and waking, must come from above me and beyond me. (4)
Once this central assertion, which initially challenges the reader's sense of ordinary reality, is put forward, Yeats spends the major portion of "Anima Hominus" presenting evidence for it. He begins by supporting the idea of an anti-self with examples from famous artists and his own artistic acquaintances, where he says, "I discover a like contrast" between the personality and the creation. A woman of "harsh judgment" writes comedies in which no one is judged; a domineering actress plays the meek and fragile lady on the stage; the sickly playwright Synge creates bold and lustful characters for the theatre. His characterizations of Morris, Landor, Keats, and Dante follow the same pattern--the person in real life is the direct opposite of that which he creates. This Yeats offers to his audience as persuasive evidence of the role of a creative anti-self: not the person at all, but some agency outside himself that spurs the artist to create something opposite from himself.
The kind of argument Yeats offers next, definition by antithesis, is designed to appeal even more to the reason of his intellectual audience. He begins Section V of "Anima Hominus" with a telling antithesis between "rhetoric" and "poetry": "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry" (8). Yeats' definition of rhetoric, corrupted by prevailing attitudes of his time, is pejorative. The rhetorician is all "confidence" from his experience with the "crowd"; the poet, full of the "uncertainty" of his own "solitude." Yeats' point is that he is not seeking to "win" his audience, as a rhetorician, but rather speaking from his experience as a poet. Despite this denial, however, he is making an argument here, and so from our perspective, he is both rhetorician and poet (even though he may not share our understanding of rhetoric as the study and practice of effective communication). This first antithesis between poet and rhetorician is followed by a number of others designed to define "the poet" by the rhetorical figure of expeditio (argument by elimination): The poet is not one who "has pleasure for his end"; he is more likely to have a "preoccupation with religion." Nor is he a "sentimentalist," because sentimentalists are "practical men" who forget all but the "momentary aim" while poets pursue, rather, "awakening", "vision," "the revelation of reality," "ecstasy" (8-9). Yeats' argument is that the anti-self will come only to poets, because their "passion is reality" (8). He is also trying to forestall any doubts about his preceding evidence by example in the minds of his intellectual audience based on their own lack of experience with daemonic encounters. Their inexperience with this, he implies, can be explained in other ways than that it does not exist.
For the rest of the section, Yeats bolsters this argument with
relentless antitheses between the poetic or artistic condition
and all others. "False faith" is contrasted to the doubt
that leads to true faith, which is "the highest achievement
of the human intellect"; "false beauty"--that which
"hides ugliness"--is contrasted to the "greatest
imaginable beauty," which is divine vision; "water"
is contrasted with "fire"; "noise," with "silence";
that which "comes easily," with that which "is
of all things not impossible the most difficult" (9). The
passage culminates in an exquisite antithetical argument for the
existence of a spiritual counterpart, just on the other side of
death, to our living:
I shall find the dark grown luminous, the void fruitful when I
understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have
appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell. (9)
The passage hovers on the line that divides the literal and figurative, a vivid descriptio of the condition of the soul's memory hovering just beyond death. The poet, Yeats concludes, lives on the threshold between the worlds. With this section, Yeats establishes his authority, as a poet, to speak about a realm which his audience may not understand. He has constructed a careful line of reasoning to get to this point, and for the rest of "Anima Hominus," he speaks in the style of a visionary poet, about the nature of vision in the human world.
It is from this vantage point that he can introduce the term daemon.
He first attributes it to both Plutarch and "old women in
Soho"--the former an authority for the intellectual audience
(the wisdom of education), the latter for the esoteric audience
(folk wisdom). These authorities have understood the daemon to
be an "illustrious dead man" (11). Yeats does not dispute
this, but rather adds "another thought":
The Daemon comes not as like to like but seeking its own opposite,
for man and Daemon feed the hunger in one another's hearts. (11)
Having put forward this central hypothesis, he supports it for the rest of "Anima Hominus" with examples from antiquity and with definitions of the poet, the hero, and the saint.
In the second part of the work, "Anima Mundi," Yeats identifies the realm in which this creative daemon exists as that which is inhabited by the spirits of the dead, especially the poets. The effect of the structure on the reader thus far has been one of increasing seduction into Yeats' dream-vision. With the introductory poem, Per Amica arouses an expectation of metaphor and obscurity; this poetic license prepares the reader for the spiritual revelations of "Anima Hominus." But at the same time, the epistolary form suggests a non-fictional, if strange, world because of its first-person narration and because it is characterized as a continuation of an interrupted conversation. The world the text describes is thereby made to seem real. Once the reader is acclimated to the idea of a poet's spirit-self as source of inspiration, it is not all that much greater a step into a world populated by the spirits of the dead. What would otherwise have taken a concerted "suspension of disbelief" becomes a more natural progression for the reader. Now, in "Anima Mundi," Yeats can put forth his most challenging ideas about the spiritual realm.
He begins by making an argument based on the ethos he has so carefully established in "Anima Hominus." The first, beautifully crafted sentence is a resumé of his career, culminating in the title assertion that he has achieved his visionary education:
I have always sought to bring my mind close to the mind of Indian
and Japanese poets, old women in Connaught, mediums in Soho, lay
brothers whom I imagine dreaming in some medieval monastery the
dreams of their village, learned authors who refer all to antiquity;
to immerse it in the general mind where that mind is scarce separable
from what we have begun to call 'the subconscious'; to liberate
it from all that comes of councils and committees, from the world
as it is seen from universities or from populous towns; and that
I might so believe I have murmured evocations and frequented mediums,
delighted in all that displayed great problems through sensuous
images, or exciting phrases, accepting from abstract schools but
a few technical words that are so old they seem but broken architraves
fallen amid bramble and grass, and have put myself to school where
all things are seen: A Tenedo Tacitae per Amica Silentia Lunae.
Like the Greeks sailing into Troy from the island of Tenedo by
night, Yeats has stolen into the daemonic realm, gaining wondrous
entry. Now that he has proven his beliefs to himself, however,
and laid out that evidence before us, he will no longer go to
great lengths to document his argument. He speaks now as a poet,
as one who has seen:
At one time I thought to prove my conclusions by quoting from diaries where I have recorded certain strange events the moment they happened, but now I have changed my mind--I will but say like the Arab boy that became Vizier: 'O brother, I have taken stock in the desert sand and of the sayings of antiquity.' (16-17)
In other words, "I have already proven myself qualified to speak about these matters; the proof is in my poetry."
Nonetheless, from a rhetorical perspective, "Anima Mundi"
contains many kinds of proof. Yeats cites the authority of Goethe
to bolster his "how to" section on summoning visions,
and of More and Wordsworth to support his description of the Great
Memory, the anima mundi. He reasons carefully to make a
case for the existence of this realm, which Jung has called the
Before the mind's eye whether in sleep or waking, came images that one was to discover presently in some book one had never read, and after looking in vain for explanation to the current theory of forgotten personal memory, I came to believe in a great memory passing on from generation to generation. But that was not enough, for these images showed intention and choice. They had a relation to what one knew and yet were an extension of one's knowledge. If no mind was there, why should I suddenly come upon salt and antimony, upon the liquefacion of the gold, as they were understood by the alchemists, or upon some detail of Cabbalistic symbolism verified at last by a learned scholar from his never-published manuscripts. . . ? The thought was again and again before me that this study had created a contact or mingling with minds who had followed a like study in some other age, and that these minds still saw and thought and chose. (18)
For the esoteric community, this was a matter of faith; occultists
and Theosophists knew this as the "akashic" realm, the
place where records of all past events are recorded and continue
to exert an influence on people presently living. For the audience
of intellectuals, Yeats knew he must provide evidence, even after
carefully building his structure so as to prepare them for this.
The evidence is, finally, from his own experience. Though he might
marshall the authority of More, Swedenborg, Agrippa, Blavatsky,
and all the Romantic poets by the end of the book, the problem
comes down to the one he began with: Yeats has experienced visions,
"those finely articulated scenes and patterns that come out
of the dark, seemingly completed in the winking of an eye"
(21). They inspire his poetry. They must come from somewhere,
because his felt experience is that they do not come from himself.
The answer that explains these phenomena best, for Yeats, is the
one that many esoteric thinkers have proposed before him:
If all our mental images no less than apparitions (and I see no reason to distinguish) are forms existing in the general vehicle of Anima Mundi, and mirrored in our particular vehicle, many crooked things are made straight. (22)
The answer explains; that is its power. And the intellectual reader, whose own experience has been discounted (unless he is a poet), has nothing of equal power to explain. Science certainly has no explanation for the phenomena Yeats expounds, and religion, though it may hold clues, has lost its exegetic validity for the post-Darwinian intellectual reader. Having thus carefully made his case, Yeats is, in the final sections, free to expound his understanding of the anima mundi as populated by the spirits of the dead.
This structure, from the more accessible to the less, then, prepares
the skeptical minds of the intellectual audience by suggesting
plausible connections between concepts they accept and those that
will be more of a challenge. The remaining sections of "Anima
Mundi" unabashedly explain the effect that Yeats believes
the dead have on the living. When we first die, he says, we carry
with us a memory of our most passionate moments, which "recur
again and again" for us. Not only are events remembered but
thoughts as well, so that whatever we may have dwelt upon or believed
will also accompany us beyond the grave. After a while, however,
the soul becomes accustomed to its malleable condition and can
exert its own influence on the world:
The dead, as the passionate necessity wears out, come into a measure
of freedom and may turn the impulse of events, started while living,
in some new direction, but they cannot originate except through
the living. Then gradually they perceive, although they are still
but living in their memories, harmonies, symbols, and patterns,
as though all were being refashioned by an artist, and they are
moved by emotions, sweet for no imagined good but in themselves,
like those of children dancing in a ring . . . . (25)
Previous to this, the soul has only been able to communicate with other souls "in moments of common memory that recur like the figures of a dance" (25). But now, they come together in rhythms and patterns that have been empowered by their thoughts while they were alive. This, says Yeats, is "the source of all that we call instinct," that which drives us "beyond our reason" to nobler pursuits; and these pursuits, in turn, feed the energies of the dead (27). This antithetical give-and-take is the source, for Yeats, of all creativity. It also explains why communication with dead spirits is done through "the association of thoughts or images or objects" which are remembered through repeated use (27). The daemon manipulates this process to bring man "again and again to the place of choice" and to lead him "to whatever among works not impossible is the most difficult" (28).
The ending sections of "Anima Mundi" alternate
between lucid explanation and esoteric symbolism. Allusions to
Paris and Helen are mixed with cabbalistic references to the Condition
of Fire and the Path of the Serpent. Quotations from Spenser and
Shelley are set side-by-side with dream-visions of "dragons
climbing upon the steep side of a cliff" and Homeric allusions
to "the mask plucked from the oak-tree" of Dodona (30),
which gave oracles by the rustling of its leaves (O'Donnell 297).
In the midst of all this, however, Section XXI is perhaps Yeats'
clearest explanation of how he recognizes the effect of the spirit
realm in times when it is upon him. Yeats says that when he is
in this state, he becomes full of what he calls "innocence"
and can harbor no irritation or hate for anyone or anything:
I look at the strangers near as if I had known them all my life,
and it seems strange that I cannot speak to them: everything fills
me with affection, I have no longer any fears or any needs; I
do not even remember that his happy mood must come to an end.
In the plainest language of the entire text, Yeats confesses to
a belief that the "common condition" throughout most
of life is hate, by which he means annoyance or irritation at
little things: stupid people, bad writers, rowdy dogs, the fish
that got away. But in the condition in which Yeats is perfectly
content--"the place where the Daemon is"--all hatred
is gone, and love, innocence, and creation overwhelm him. He ends
the section, however, on a cryptic note:
Once, twenty years ago, I seemed to awake from sleep to find my body rigid, and to hear a strange voice speaking these words through my lips as through lips of stone: 'We make an image of he who sleeps, and it is not he who sleeps, and we call it Emmanuel.' (32)
And in the following section, the last, he admits, "I am baffled by those voices that still speak as to Odysseus but as the bats" (32). The allusion is to the beginning of Book XXIV of the Odyssey, in which the spirits of Penelope's suitors, whom Odysseus has slain, are depicted as gibbering like scattered bats in a cave as they follow Hermes into the underworld. Ever the enigmatic esotericist, Yeats leads the reader into the netherworld of his occult experience, and then leaves us baffled as he himself professes to be.
The Epilogue of Per Amica addresses itself again to "Maurice," bringing the reader out of thanatoptic reverie and back to the world of garden conversation. But the subject is now out in the open; Yeats speaks explicitly of alchemy and magic. Clearly, the topic of Per Amica has been spiritual as much or more than aesthetic. And, as such, it is structured so as to lead a skeptical audience from doubt to belief--or at least consideration.
Yeats' rhetorical strategy in Per Amica is not only structurally
persuasive, however; it is also stylistically so. As a work of
prose and poetry, and as an esoteric tract that straddles the
boundaries between literal and figurative language, Per Amica's
style is compelling. Yeats' audience would be drawn in by its
poetic qualities as much as by its seductive structuring or its
mysterious claims. Yeats the poet shows his facility with a phrase,
as in his definition by antithesis of the poet in Section V of
"Anima Hominus." Antithesis is, of course, an
exquisitely appropriate figure for a central passage in an argument
about the anti-self. The section ends with the following blend
of metaphor and description:
The last knowledge has often come most quickly to turbulent men, and for a season brought new turbulence. When life puts away her conjuring tricks one by one, those that deceive us longest may well be the wine-cup and the sensual kiss, for our Chambers of Commerce and of Commons have not the divine architecture of the body, nor has their frenzy been ripened by the sun. The poet, because he may not stand within the sacred house but lives amid the whirlwinds that beset its threshold, may find his pardon. (9)
The personification of life as magician underscores the illusory nature of our convictions about death, and the attachment to the pleasures of the flesh are synecdochically well rendered as the "wine-cup" and the "sensual kiss." This sentence is crafted as a chiasmus, as well, with attraction to the wine-cup and the kiss being explained, in reverse order, by "the divine architecture of the body" and "frenzy...ripened by the sun." And the self-importantly capitalized "Chambers of Commerce and of Commons" is a metonymy for the more mundane, yet still influential, things of life that bind us to it. The poet, at last, straddles both realms, in vision as he does in language, living, not "within the sacred house" of death, but "amid the whirlwinds that beset its threshold." That is the source of his salvation.
Such poetic prose abounds in Per Amica;the effect is an
intoxicating and seductive style that in itself would keep even
a skeptical audience reading. It is clear why Harold Bloom calls
Per Amica a "surpassingly beautiful little book,"
and acknowledges that, "Except for the Autobiographies,
it is Yeats' great achievement in prose, a book to be read and
re-read . . ." (179). Yeats speaks throughout in the style
of a visionary poet, appealing to the aesthetic sensibilities
of his intellectual audience as well as to their latent hopes
for some experience of the spiritual.
Yeats relies heavily, as well, on his ethos in realizing this rhetorical intention. The ethos of a writer can be defined as the sum total of the values, attitudes, and beliefs as expressed in, and inferred from, a given text. But it is also the public character of the author as it precedes his work. In both these senses, Yeats drew on the values he shared with the intellectual reading public to allow him to challenge his audience as he did. In some important ways, his constructed ethos also forged a link between his esoteric and intellectual audiences. In Ireland, Yeats' reputation as a poet, dramatist, collector of folklore, and member of the Celtic Twilight movement prepared his audience for his increasing forays into the supernatural in his later years. Though he had been dabbling in the occult for many years before he published Per Amica, he had been reluctant to write about it very much or in very great detail. But his ethos as a serious poet had long since been established.
Certainly, he was already respected as a poet in England as well by the time he was writing Per Amica; in 1908, The Collected Works in Prose and Verse of William Butler Yeats in eight volumes had been issued, and he enjoyed a high degree of public celebrity. But he also takes particular care to establish a trustworthy and respectable ethos within the work itself. The diminutio at the beginning, for example, establishes Yeats as a humble man who cares what others think about what he says. His self-deprecating rhetorical questions ("How could I have mistaken . . . ?") likewise establish his character as critical of his own ideas and willing to reconsider previous conceptions. All of this sets up an expectation in Yeats' readers--especially those who would have perceived themselves as intellectuals--that what is about to be put forward has been carefully considered and critically examined by the writer. When Yeats alludes to respected literary figures, too, he is establishing the ethos of one who is knowledgeable in the tradition; and his references to friends who are artists suggests he has tested his theories against the experiences of other artists and poets. Even his definitional distinctions between the poet and other kinds of men--rhetoricians, heroes, saints--is designed to situate Yeats in the world as one who is qualified to speak of things visionary. By the time he asserts his authority to speak unequivocally, at the beginning of "Anima Mundi," he has not only spent a good portion of "Anima Hominus" establishing his ethos, but also has summarized his experience in spiritual matters in the sweeping opening sentence to "Anima Mundi." His message is this: "Believe me: In spiritual matters, as in matters of poetry, I know what I am talking about." This projection of a trustworthy ethos, then, is an important component of Yeats' rhetorical strategy to get a hearing from the intellectual community for his knowledge about the spiritual realms. What is an advisable rhetorical consideration for any writer--attention to one's ethos--becomes, for the writer of esoteric discourse, an absolute necessity.
Yeats harbored no illusions about the skepticism with which his
revelations in Per Amica Silentia Lunae would be met. He
knew that his beliefs were at odds with the emerging scientism
being heartily embraced by the intellectuals of his time--and
of ours. Kathleen Raine comments on this by saying that Yeats
writes about topics "which are no part of what most of us
know, nor of what we have been taught to regard as knowledge."
Although she is writing about his essay, "Swedenborg, Mediums,
and the Desolate Places," her comments apply to Per Amica
Silentia Lunae, A Vision, and many of Yeats' late texts:
Knowledge, for any society, is, after all, no more than an agreed area of experience from which other areas of experience are excluded as irrelevant or worse; as alchemy and other primitive scientific studies were excluded from scholasticism, and as now scholasticism, indeed theology as such, is excluded from the positivist scientific definition of knowledge. The three topics Yeats has here brought together cover a very wide field of the excluded knowledge of his time; a doctrine of the soul and the nature of the post-mortem state is no part of what modern humanism sees as the study of man. (80)
In the face of predictable skepticism for his beliefs, Yeats constructs his text in such a way as to win, if not the assent of the audience, at least their consideration. Yeats' literary reputation preceded him, and this certainly contributed to his success at persuading an intellectual audience to take his esoteric work seriously. Poets, after all, have always been accepted as seeing into other worlds. But his rhetorical strategy in Per Amica is to press the issue of the ontological existence of his inspirational visions by offering both reasoning and experiential evidence. He de-emphasizes his unorthodox logos--his challenging subject matter--by foregrounding the seductive effect of his structuring, the pathos appeal of his compelling style, and the assurance of his sincere, critical, and committed ethos.
Yeats' idea of a rhetorician disallowed him from characterizing
his own work as rhetorical. Yet clearly he was attempting, in
Per Amica Silentia Lunae, to move his readers and to persuade
them. Giving public voice to his most private visionary encounters
required constructing an alluring work that would create, by its
very form and substance, conditions within which his audience
could consider the possibility of his experiences. This Yeats
accomplished in the enchanting blend of the literal and figurative
which is Per Amica, a book to be savored for its rich suggestiveness
and admired for its rhetorical proficiency.
Bloom, Harold. Yeats. New York: Oxford, 1970.
Ellman, Richard. Eminent Domain: Yeats Among Wilde, Joyce,
Eliot and Auden. New York, 1967.
Langbaum, Robert. The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme in Modern
Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Levine, Herbert J. Yeats' Daimonic Renewal. Ann Arbor:
UMI Research Press, 1983, 1977.
Lipking, Lawrence. The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending
Poetic Careers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.
Nathan, Leonard. The Tragic Drama of William Butler Yeats:
Figures In A Dance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.
O'Donnell, William H., ed. The Collected Works of W.B.Yeats:
Volume V, Later Essays. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
Raine, Katherine. "Hades Wrapped in Cloud." Yeats
and the Occult. Ed. George Mills Harper. Canada: Macmillan
of Canada, 1975.
Seiden, Morton. William Butler Yeats: The Poet As Mythmaker.
E. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1962.
Ure, Peter. Towards a Mythology: Studies in the Poetry of W.B.
Yeats. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1946.
Yeats, William Butler. Letters of W.B. Yeats. Ed. Alan
Wade. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
_______________. "Per Amica Silentia Lunae."
In The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats: Volume V, Later Essays.
Ed. William H. O'Donnell. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
1994. Originally published, 1917.