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  • Celtic Occultism and the Symbolist Mode in the Fin-de-Siècle Writings of Arthur Machen and W. B. Yeats
  • Sondeep Kandola

The work of Arthur Machen—Welsh Bohemian, horror writer, erstwhile journalist, and actor—affords a signal postscript to the development of the Celtic movement at the fin de siècle. Although Machen later complained that his modish fictions of urban terror and doomed esoteric experiments had been (and often still are) relegated to the insalubrious environs of the "naughty nineties," a reappraisal of his novels The Three Impostors (1895) and The Hill of Dreams (1907) appears to cast new light on that complex filiation of Occultism, Celticism and Symbolism that uniquely shaped the career of W. B. Yeats at the turn of the twentieth century.1 While Machen's research into ancient and modern occultism for the antiquarian publisher George Redway in 1885 appears to have informed the cautionary and sceptical attitude he adopted towards modern hermeticism in his fiction, in 1899 personal tragedy not only led Machen to become an adept of the (closed) occult society the Rosicrucian Order of the Golden Dawn in which Yeats took on an increasingly important role but also saw Machen play a minor role in the doctrinal controversy that ruptured the order between 1900 and 1902.2

In his autobiography of 1923, Machen appeared to allude to the clandestine events that came to decimate the Golden Dawn and seemed to insinuate that Yeats's life had come under threat as a direct result of the dispute.3 Perhaps even more startling is Machen's extraordinary assertion that it seemed to him that these incidents and, by inference, Yeats's central role in them had been entirely foreshadowed in the darkly carnivalesque narrative of his 1895 novel The Three Impostors.4 That one of the inset tales from that novel ("The Novel of the Black Seal") juxtaposes Celticism and a hermetic experiment at the very juncture at which Yeats conceived the formation of a Celtic Order of [End Page 497] Mysteries to bring these defining aspects of his thought together might even suggest an actualisation of that spirit of doubling and the uncanny that marked the fiction of the period.5 But esoteric speculation aside, it is certainly arresting that in The Hill of Dreams the traumatic decline into drug addiction of a young Welsh writer in London in pursuit of Symbolist ideals also appears to anticipate Yeats's later paean to the "Tragic Generation" by two decades. And while the precise relation between Yeats's simultaneous commitments to (Pan-)Celticism, Irish cultural nationalism and Occult practice has exercised critics from Richard Ellmann to Terence Brown, in this respect the seemingly chance parallels and critiques of both Yeats's fin-de-siècle writing and experiences that can be adduced from Machen's novels afford a highly coloured, if less than hieratic, postscript to this debate.6

Locating Yeats in the Early Nineties

Darryl Jones's recent observation that for Yeats "the worlds of nationalism and occultism were in many ways, the same world" belies somewhat the dextrous negotiation of Celticism, Irish literary nationalism and esoteric study that the poet undertook in the 1890s and which, in turn, has so perplexed critics since his death.7 Richard Ellmann in 1945 sought to explain the tumult of Yeats's simultaneous commitments to London societies like the Rhymers Club, the Irish Literary Society and the Golden Dawn in terms of the "duality" that affected many of his Celtic acquaintances such as that evinced in Oscar Wilde's adoption of the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth in exile or George Russell taking up the penname A.E., as inspired by his theosophist visions. For Ellmann, although "Yeats came to maturity in this atmosphere of doubling and splitting of the self," he also emphasises that Yeats's "mental growth was parallel to that of other writers and did not derive from them."8 In responding to Ellmann's influential account of Yeats's "divided self," Roy Foster has observed that "Artificially separating out the several strands of WBY's experience in the early 1890s may seem an exercise in clarification, but it creates a false impression" since, according...


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