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ELH 71.4 (2004) 1019-1038

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Talking with the Dead:

Leo Africanus, Esoteric Yeats, and Early Modern Imperialism

University of Alabama

On 9 May 1912, William Butler Yeats was attending a séance in London when a mysterious voice emerged from the end of a tin trumpet placed in the middle of the table around which the participants sat. Addressing itself to "Mr. Gates," the voice declared that it belonged to a spirit that had been with the poet since his birth.1 In what Yeats later noted to be a stagy Irish accent, this spirit ultimately named itself as "Leo the writer and explorer" (A, 19). Subsequent research by Yeats turned up the figure of Leo Africanus, born al-Hasan ibn Mohammed al-Wezaz, al-Fasi, the sixteenth-century North African Christian convert, papal advisor, and writer of the most authoritative early modern account of North African geography, translated into English by John Pory as A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600). What followed was a six-year esoteric dialogue between Yeats and his imagined Africanus through various psychic media such as séances, card readings, and automatic writing sessions. Though skeptical, Yeats began to write a series of letters to Africanus, as well as their replies. He notes in his séance diaries, "He asked me to write a letter addressed to him as if to Africa giving all my doubts about spiritual things and then to write a reply as if from him to me. He would control me in this reply so that it would be really from him" (A, 13). These letters, only recently published, indicate the centrality of Africanus to Yeats's poetic and philosophical project. His discovery that the sixteenth-century Moor was "a poet among his people" (A, 19) proved irresistible to such a lover of the dialectic, and Yeats quickly adopted Leo as his antiself or daimon, an objectively existing spirit figure which came to replace his earlier concept of mask. Africanus was the poet's counter-personality: "He was drawn to me because in life he had been all undoubting impulse . . . I was doubting, conscientious and timid. His contrary and by association with me would be made not one but two perfect natures" (A, 13). This esoteric formulation proved central to Yeats's artistic project, as [End Page 1019] well as to his somewhat obfuscated theory of mind. Moreover, it involved a four-hundred-year-old dead African in the development of an Irish national identity and struggle for self-government.

John C. Hawley has noted a certain transhistorical potential in the adoption of Africanus as a figure who denies a simple colonialist monologic: "What he endured, how he portrayed his adventures and how they have, in turn, been portrayed by others, offers some suggestive angles of vision on the more recent adventurers who have crossed borders or found themselves adrift across cultures."2 By this token, Edward Said, following Seamus Deane's positioning of Yeats as a participant in a culture of resistance, has usefully outlined the Irish poet's similarly liminal status:

He shares with Caribbean and some African writers the predicament of a common language with the colonial overlord, and of course he belongs in many important ways to the Protestant Ascendancy whose Irish loyalties, to put it mildly, were confused.3

Interestingly, Said proceeds to account for the more esoteric nature of Yeats's poetry in terms of this highly fraught political identification:

For Yeats the overlappings he knew existed between his Irish nationalism and the English cultural heritage that both dominated and empowered him as a writer were bound to cause an overheated tension, and it is the pressure of this urgently political and secular tension that one may speculate caused him to try to resolve it on a "higher," that is, non-political level.4

The problem here is that Said involves Yeats's eccentric mysticism in his resolution of this schism in his political identity, but strangely manages to view the product as "non-political." Furthermore, he fails to note that...


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