Timothy Materer, Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult

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diminished attractiveness of earthly existence and deplored its tendency to reimpose ‘the old religious faith’ or the ‘superseded convictions of primitive people'” (9).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?



Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. ed. Maureen Honey. Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Introduction by Maureen Honey

“This is the first anthology to be devoted exclusively to women poets of the Harlem Renaissance” (1).

“Poetry was the preferred form of most Afro-American women writers during the 1920s” (1). (AD: re: Audre Lorde’s assertion that poetry is more economical than prose.)

“Scholars who lived through the Renaissance generally wrote favorably of them,” though “later critics have tended to see women’s verse as conventional and sentimental, out of step with the militant, rebellious race consciousness of the period… known primarily for their lyrical, pastoral verse, women have been judged as imitating European traditions and contributing little that was useful to the creation of a Black aesthetic” (1-2).

However, Honey argues that “much of their poetry exhibits the qualities of “New Negro” writing: identification with the race, a militant proud spirit, anger at racism, determination to fight oppression, rejection of white culture, and an attempt to reconstruct an invisible heritage… that their exploration takes place in a personal landscape…should not detract from its radical implications” (2-3).

“Nineteenth-century Romantics were particularly compelling as models because they shared this generation’s alienation from modern society, although not in a fully realized, articulated way… Nature offered an Edenesque alternative to the corrupted, artificial environment created by ‘progress'” (7). (AD: Also, valorizing black love was radical, and Eden is an alternative to a white supremacist culture)

While they invoke nature, they do not, like HD, invoke the goddess – white supremacist cultural heritage of that religious symbol

Instead, they use the symbol of “night” : “Just as the death of each day is followed by a healing period of quiet repose, so, too, does the battered spirit find sustenance in womblike suspension of interaction with the outside world… Although the day’s piercing light destroys, it can be thwarted by guarding the innermost recesses of the self” (17). (AD: black women most guard themselves from, rather than become, a god)

“a fundamental tenet of white supremacy was that Afro-Americans were not capable of fine, romantic feelings… to make visible an Afro-American tradition of love poetry [is] a form of resistance” (20).

“the frankly erotic dimension of women’s poetry negated desexed images of the plantation mammy…to bring their bodies into public view on their own terms is to state that Black women were sentient, complex beings deserving of sexual pleasure” (21).

“On the other hand, women as mothers were glorified by male artists of the Harlem Renaissance. The frontispiece to Alain Locke’s The New Negro, for example, is a portrait of a young woman cradling a baby, entitled ‘The Brown Madonna.’ Indeed, one of the primary metaphors of the New Negro movement was that of the young mother leading the race to a brighter day. As a representation of rebirth, such an image was irresistible and women, too, made use of it but more ambivalently. Often, for instance, birth is distanced by embedding it in a natural landscape described as pregnant or maternal… Many of these poets were, in fact, single or childless” (21).

“The radical nature of this poetry lies not only in its employ of what was considered nonpoetic language, but also in Johnson’s praise of those aspects of Black culture most despised by whites” (28).

“White Things,” by Anne Spencer (49)

“Letter to My Sister” by Anne Spencer (51)

“It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods…” (1)

“Lady, Lady” by Anne Spencer (56) (vs H.D.’s “Lady”)

“Motherhood” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (64)

“Chalk-Dust” by Lilian Byrnes (86)

“To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn B. Bennett (108)

“Black Baby” by Anita Scott Coleman (112)

“Oriflamme” by Jessie Fauset (122)

“To a Dark Dancer” by Marjorie Marshall” (140) (v. McKay’s “Harlem Dancer”)

“Night’s Protégé” by Marjorie Marshall (141)

“Touché” by Jessie Fauset (158) (white is ideal of beauty)

“Things Insensible” by Kathleen Tankersley Young (166)

“Grass Fingers: by Angelina Weld Grimké (183) (v. Whitman’s Leaves)

“Substitution” by Anne Spencer (203)


Alain Locke, The New Negro Anthology

Locke, Alain. The New Negro Anthology. 1925 ; 1991 Anthaneum. 

Introduction by Arnold Rampersand:

“art within black America reached its zenith in the second half of the 1920s… The New Negro is its definitive text, its Bible” (ix).

While many at the time considered Locke the “dean” or “father” of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes “described Locke as only one of the three ‘midwives’ of the movement, along with Charles S. Johnson and the literary editor of The Crisis magazine, Jessie Fauset” (xi).

While many authors represented in The New Negro resented Alain Locke’s often domineering leadership – Rampersad notes that Claude McKay was “incensed,” for example, when Locke changed the title of his poem “The White House” to “White Houses” without permission in order to “avoid possible repercussions” – the most aggrieved author should have been Jessie Fauset (xxii). Rampersad notes that the pivotal Civic Club dinner that birthed the New Negro had been arranged “to mark the publication of her first novel, There Is Confusion. However, she had seen her achievement glossed over, and Locke hailed as the dean of the movement, although she had done far more, as literary editor of The Crisis, than he to discover and nurture the younger writers. And the commission of the special number had gone to him” (xxii).

Rampersad argues that the New Negro “exudes more than energy–it exudes a quality suspiciously like joy… This quality of youthful energy and joy is in contrast to the lassitude described in the greatest poem of the age, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land…” (xxiii).

Foreward by Alain Locke:

“Of all the voluminous literature on the Negro, so much is mere external view and commentary that we may warrantably say that nine-tenths of it is about the Negro rather than of him, so that it is the Negro problem rather than the Negro that is known and mooted in the general mind”(xxv).

“So far as he is culturally articulate, we shall let the Negro speak for himself” (xxv). (AD: emphasis on “he.” also, this seems timid.)

“The galvanizing shocks and reactions of the last few years are making by subtle processes of internal reorganization a race out of its own disunited and apathetic elements. A race experience penetrated in this way invariably flowers” (xxvii). (weird, floral, fertile language)

Poems on Fertility:

“To a Brown Girl” by Countée Cullen (129)

“Like a Strong Tree” by Claude McKay (134) (see also “Harlem Dancer” by Claude McKay)

“The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson (137)

“Song” by Langston Hughes (143)

“The Ordeal” by Georgia Douglas Johnson (146)

Note: why did he stick all the female poets in the back

“The Task of Negro Womanhood” by Elsie Johnson McDougald

She opens by arguing that “throughout the years of history, woman has been the weather-vane, the indicator, showing in which direction the wind of destiny blows…What then is to be said of the Negro woman of to-day?” (369). McDougald calls on her people to measure with other civilizations “throughout the years of history” by showing themselves better treaters of women

“She is conscious that what is left of chivalry is not directed at her. She realizes that the ideals of beauty, built up in the fine arts, have excluded her almost entirely (370). (re: Jessie Fauset’s poem)

“The masses of Negro men are engaged in menial occupations throughout the working day. Their baffled and suppressed desires to determine their economic life are manifested in overbearing domination at home. Working mothers are unable to instill different ideals in the sons. Conditions change slowly” (380).


Jean Toomer, Cane

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923 Liveright, 2011 Norton Critical Editions. 


  • dedicated “to my grandmother” (my female ancestor)
  • Instead of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Cane is organized around stalks of cane – instead of numbered sections, “leaves,” named women, “stalks.”
  • Although Toomer noted in a letter to Waldo Frank that his book is organized around three “movements” of south & north, past & present, it is also organized around the beauty, ripeness, rotting waste of these women’s fertility.
  • Modern fragmentation related to this “off” fertility


Afterword by Rudolph P. Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“Raised as African American but, to most observers, racially indeterminate, Toomer embodied in his person, in his disposition, and in his art many of the signal elements – hybridity, alienation, fragmentation, dislocation, migration, fluidity, experimentation – that define American modernism” (166).

“When he made the commitment to become a writer, Toomer gave himself the androgynous name of Jean, which stemmed from his admiration of Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe. During the 1930s and 1940s, Toomer published under the name of N. J. Toomer, initials for Nathan Jean… to distance himself from Cane and the racial identity of its author… and to mark a rebirth in his life…” (176).

Toomer “never conceived of himself as a bridge” between the two communities of the Harlem Renaissance writers and white modernists like Waldo Frank, but instead “took what was useful from each in his efforts to create a work that expressed his own particular artistic and philosophical vision” (200).

In a letter to Waldo Frank: “From three angles, CANE’s design is a circle. Aesthetically, from simple forms to complex ones, and back to simple forms. Regionally, from the South up into the North, and back into the South again. Or, from the North down into the South, and then a return North. From the point of view of the spiritual entity behind the work, the curve really starts with Bona and Paul (awakening), plunges into Kabnis, emerges in Karintha etc. swings upward into Theatre and Boxseat, and ends (pauses) in Harvest Song. Whew!” (214).

“It is clear that Toomer wanted to write about the Negro, but not be regarded as a negro. In fact, it is also clear that he wanted to break out of the race itself through out, transcending the Negro world…” (223).

Cane is, perhaps, the first work of fiction by a black writer to take the historical experiences and social conditions of the Negro, and make them the metaphor for the human condition, in this case, the metaphor for modernity itself” (226). (AD: turning the African American into the symbol for modernity is a way of universalizing or normalizing him in ways that are usually barred from him as “other.” Could this also apply to Modernist women’s use of the “goddess” figure?)

“Toomer takes Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness and boldly declares that this fragmentation is, ultimately, the sign of the Negro’s modernity, first, and that the Negro, therefore, is America’s harbinger of and metaphor for modernity itself. It is a stunningly brilliant claim, this rendering by Toomer of the American Negro as the First Modern Person” (227).

Opening sentence: “Men always wanted her…” (3). “The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her” (3).”Karintha was a woman. Men do not know that the soul of her was a growing thing that ripened too soon” (5).

She most likely kills her baby in a sawdust pile (4-5) followed by a poem called “Reapers” that starts “Black reapers” and tracks a field rat killed by a reaping blade (who are they reaping for? Not themselves. Who profits from black women’s fertility? An easy answer would be “white men,” but in a later story, “Blood Burning Moon,” neither white man nor black man (nor black woman) emerge victorious from their battle over the body of a black woman.)

In “Fern,” “men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman” (22).

Woman often described as a “canebrake ripe for cutting” (25)

Also the figure of the stunted/frustrated “black madonna” as in “Esther”: King Barlo turns out to be not the God-figure Esther needs to conceive her child, despite her fantasies, and after finding him drunk and determines that “conception with a drunken man must be a mighty sin,” she “draws away frozen,” frigid, and rejecting her role as bearer of the Christ-child (36).

In “Blood Burning Moon,” Bob Stone, the white suitor of a black woman, says to himself, “She was lovely – in her way. Nigger way. What way was that? Damned if he knew… [he would have to] cut through old Lemon’s canefield by way of the woods, that he might meet her. She was worth it. Beautiful nigger gal. Why not, just gal? No, it was because she was nigger that he went to her. Sweet… the scent of boiling cane came to him. Then he saw the rich glow of the stove” (45).

The protagonist of “Box Seat” declares “Look into my eyes. I am Dan Moore. I was born in a canefield.” (77).

The narrator of “Kabnis” lyricizes: “Night, soft belly of a pregnant Negress, throbs evenly against the torso of the South. Night throbs a womb-song to the South. Cane- and cotton-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps, sawmills, and factories are fecund at her touch. Night’s womb-song sets them singing. Night winds are the breathing of the unborn child whose calm throbbing in the belly of a Negress sets them somnolently singing. Hear their song.

White-man’s land.

Niggers, sing.

Burn, bear black children…..” (142). (AD: black fertility makes the crops grow. For whom? The white man, it seems, but the fertile ones find some pleasure in the beauty / maternity/ creation of this fertility nevertheless.)

Final sentences of the book: “Outside, the sun arises from its cradle in the tree-tops of the forest. Shadows of pines are dreams the sun shakes from its eyes. The sun arises. Gold-glowing child, it steps into the sky and sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows of the southern town.” (160). (AD: ends with a birth – we start all over again at the beginning, with Karintha. So, the birth happens, and is beautiful, but it produces the same suffering over and over again.)