Materer, Timothy. Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult. Cornell University Press, 1995.
“Occultism is usually seen as an inversion or direct challenge to Christian doctrine; for example, occultism may emphasize the feminine or androgynous nature of the deity in defiance of Christianity’s God the Father” (xiii).
“The medieval Saint Anselm said that he believed in order to understand: credo ut intelligam. Like Tertullian’s phrase, Anselm’s suggests that one wills a belief that, a a result of believing it, only them seems intellectually coherent” (2).
“Elissa New says that to study [religious] lyrics is to be ‘thrust out of the theoretical universe we’ve come to know’ with its assumptions about ‘the equation of literariness and an intrinsic skepticism of language’… certain poems… resist the ‘disenchantments of irony;” (3). (AD: mystic writing isn’t suspicious of language since it assumes and harnesses language’s inability to directly and accurately describe. This inability is necessary for mysticism to exist, and some sort of mystic connection between word and thing is necessary for language to work at all.)
“In Horizons of Ascent, [Alan Wilde] maintains that modernist irony registers the disparity between the past and the present, or between an ideal world and a depressingly real one, without any hope of healing the breach” (3).
Mysticism may in some way be related to Keats’s “negative capability.” Richard Ellman writes that Yeats possessed “Affirmative Capability” (5). Ellmann thinks this altered term is more appropriate to Yeats because “it begins with the poet’s difficulties but emphasizes his resolutions of them.” (5). (AD: isn’t this just negative capability with a happy ending?)
Sigmund Freud “considered [occultism] an attempt to compensate in a spiritual world for the diminished attractiveness of earthly existence and deplored its tendency to reimpose ‘the old religious faith’ or the ‘superseded convictions of primitive people'” (9).
“W. H. Auden is another Christian poet who considered occultism a fraud. Beyond his amusing dismissal of Yeats’s occultism as “Southern Californian,” he had a serious objection that it deflected concern away from real-world psychological problems” (15). (AD: yes: but what if your real world psychological problem is, like H.D.’s, that the world does not accept you as a woman writer, who you are as a person? What if it isn’t fixable? Occultism might be nice.)
Ezra Pound defended Blavatsky as an “occultist Gertrude Stein, dealing in Upanishads rather than Picassos, and knowing, nacherly, more of the subject than rural uyokels of 1900 or 1880” (17). Pound was condescending toward the occult, but recognized it had some kind of artistic power (17).
“W. B. Yeats is a classic case of a writer who turns to occultism as a compensation for a lost traditional faith” (25).
Some critical work on Yeats is “weakened by an implausible attempt to make occultism respectable” (28). (AD: they try to entrap it into some sort of, if alternative tradition. It is by definition not respectable)
“The reality of the cathedral is meaningless to Yeats unless it interprets or corresponds to an inner, spiritual reality. Pound’s implied criticism is that the ‘whatever’ discovered by ‘dawdling’ is not precise enough to achieve an imagist ‘precise rendering of things'” (30).
Pound did like yogi philosophy, and “as he grew dissatisfied with the static images of the imagist movement, he sought a term of ‘patterned’ or ‘dynamic’ image and so developed the name of the movement meant to supersede imagism: vorticism” (33).
“We have seen that the poetry of both Yeats and Pound drew upon the ‘daemonic images’ of occultism. Although Yeats directly influenced Pound’s treatment of the image, the similarity in their poetry was more the indirect result of their sharing in this stock of images. The conception of the poet as a magus is inherent in this imagery. Like the magi of old, the poet, for Yeats and Pound, is one who can ‘read the signs’ and transmit to initiates the secret wisdom incomprehensible to ‘shallow wits'” (50).
“The Greek word magos denotes both a magician and member of a priestly caste that understands occult arts” (51).
Yeats’s “Rosa Alchemica” and Pound’s “The Alchemist”
In Pound’s “The Alchemist,” the “pattern of mystic marriage of male and female, or solar and lunar,” is a recurring theme. (58).
In “Xenia,” Pound wrote of the alchemical alembic as a “glass subtly evil” (58).
In Canto 82, the “hope of rebirth accompanies the motif the mystic marriage. The poet is married with the earth (“connubium terrae”) and trunk with the Dionysian power of the earth’s ichor (“ichor of chthonios”)” (64).
The “obscurity” of Pound’s later volumes is a “natural development of Pound’s conception of himself as a magus illuminated by the golden dawn of wisdom” (69). (AD: as compared to H.D.)
In Canto 107: “I am not a demigod / I cannot make it cohere” . H.D: the demigod’s role is to illuminate incoherence, not make it cohere. She has a very different idea about “magi”
“A magnus risks sounding pretentious and merely oracular, and Pound’s gnomic utterances in the late Cantos certainly run this risk. True occultists, such as YEats and H.D., seem to avoid this portentousness through their evident sincerity. They reveal a reverence in the use of sacred images like the sphere which is missing in the brashness of Pound’s poetry” (70). (AD: Pound feels like he OWNS the images, H.D. and Yeats are a conduit.)
“Eliot criticized such writers as Irving Babbitt and D. H. Lawrence for believing in exotic or primitive systems that had been ‘made palatable for the intellectual and cultivated modern man’ and ‘not only purified but canned; separated from all the traditional ways of behaving and feeling” (72).
“Yeats hunts Eliot’s poetry like a ghost…who must be exorcised” (73). Helen Gardner’s The Composition of Four Quartets identifies this specifically as the ghost of “Little Gidding”
Richard Ellman “acknowledges Auden’s personal attraction to the occult but concludes that in his words he ‘includes the occult only to overcome it.'” (74). Auden’s “The Quest” and “Uncreated Nothing”
Reacting to his own thoughts when writing The Waste Land, Eliot said he regarded his interests in “dubious mysticisms” with the “reformed drunkard’s abhorrence of intemperance” (74). He also studied Eastern and Western mysticism at Harvard
Magic is, for eliot, “a reckless desire for the absolute” (78)
Eliot defuses Yeats of his magic in his late essay “Yeats,” praising his “moral, as well as intellectual, excellence”
Look at critique of occultism in “The Dry Salvages”
H.D. is one of the only poets who did not “weave doubts about the validity” of occult images into her poetry (87)
H.D. pored over Ambelain’s Dans l’ombre des cathédrales, a book describing the medieval symbolism of Europe’s cathedrals. Ambelain sees the “pentagramme d’harmonie” in the rose symbols of Notre DAme, which signify “l’aspect féminin de Dieu” (94). (re: roses in H.D.’s writing; sea rose in particular)
“The “feminine aspect of God” is crucial to H.D.’s interpretation of the Hermetic tradition and is related to the importance of Hermes in her poetry” (94).
“The basic elements of the alchemist’s art were sulphur and mercury. Sulphur represented combustibility, mercury liquidity; sulphur as masculine and solar, mercury feminine and lunar. Both elements, however, represented the spiritual aspects of the psyche. To represent the body, the suphur/mercury duality became the ‘alchemical triad’ with the addition of salt to represent the body. The merging of these contraries is what Jung…calls the mysterium coniunctionis, or alchemical marriage. Jung cites an alchemical work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus himself on this sacred marriage: ‘When we marry the crowned king with the red daughter, she will conceive a son in the gentle fire'” (95).
In the Jungian tradition, Hermes is a hermaphrodite (95)
Linguistic alchemy in Tribute: “From the word vase the poem moves through etymological play to the Latin phrase “vas spirituale,” which means a spiritual vessel in reference to Mary’s womb as the vessel that carried the Christ child. Finally, the product is not, as in Eliot’s Four Quartets, the rosa mystica. Although it is mystical, the product is also human – not the mystical rose itself, but a human face ‘like a Christmas rose'” (99).
“To use Pound’s term, her poetry is a ‘phantastikon’ in which one mythical figure or image merges into another, in a manner that defies ‘fixed meanings,’ and in a process that her ply-over-ply stanza forms re-enforces” (104). (Pound’s phantastikon comes from Platonic philosophy… question it)
Virginia Woolf’s Diary: “My writing is a species of mediumship. I become the person” (125).
H.D. & Plath both drew from Graves’s White Goddess
“A letter Plath wrote just before her marriage in 1956 shows how central occultism was in her relationship to Hughes: ‘When Ted and I begin living together we shall become a team better than Mr. And Mrs. Yeats – he being a competent astrologist, reading horoscopes, and me being a tarot-pack reader…” (128). (AD: of course, the difference is that she refused to let Hughes be the Yeats – she forgot that Yeats stole all of Georgie’s visions and claimed them as his own.)
“If Sylvia Plath’s fascination with the occult reached the level of a neurotic obsession, Ted Hughes’s seems in contrast detached and intellectual” (141). (HE wrote an article called “myth and education”)
“Hughes suggests the possibility that the quester of Cave Birds might recover the hunter’s mythical consciousness. Nevertheless, there is no hope for the woman consumed by fire. The alchemical process seems more destructive than restorative” (148, echoing Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”)
Materer suggests that, for Hughes, alchemy is “supposed to create a mythical time in which a persona’s guilt can be transcended” (153).
“These late poems are Hughes’s version of the burying of Prospero’s magical book and the breaking of his staff. We have seen this poetic gesture in Yeats’s doubt of the ‘half-read wisdom of daemonic images,” Pound’s admission that he could not make his work cohere, and Plath’s breaking of the wine glass in “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” (155). (There seems to be a moment when everyone gives up.) Why does Prospero bury his magical book?