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  • Ideas of Good and EvilOn the Celtic Borderlands with W. B. Yeats
  • Oliver Hennessey (bio)

On May 15, 1903, W. B. Yeats wrote to John Quinn, his Irish American patron in New York, "Tomorrow I shall send you my new book, 'Ideas of Good and Evil'. I think you will like it, for it is certainly thoughtful. I feel that it is true but no longer true for me. … The book is, I think, too lyrical, too full of aspirations after remote things, too full of desires."1 Always attentive to new projects and new self-knowledge, the book of essays he had so carefully edited and arranged had begun to strike him as too dreamy, too abstract, and perhaps even a little naïve. Although each essay revealed something of the poet's spiritual life, most of the selections had been written to make ends meet, from a period of intense occultism, literary journalism, and emotional upheaval in the 1890s. To fellow traveler, George Russell ("AE") he had written the previous day, "I would like to know what you think of the book, and if you could make your Hermetists read it. I have a notion that it would do them a world of good."2 Upon its release, the book received positive, if occasionally skeptical, reviews in the English and American press, though Yeats had instructed his publisher, A. H. Bullen, not to send it for review in Ireland, since "Reviews in Dublin papers sell no copies & I don't see why I should give them the oppertunity [sic] of attacking me."3 Taken together, we sense in these fragments of correspondence a defensive pride mingled with the desire to cultivate audiences across the North Atlantic. Yeats's brand of Anglo-Irish cultural nationalism was never particularly popular at home. Indeed, in 1903 he was onto new projects, most notably his work developing a repertoire of challenging Irish drama for the new National [End Page 63] Theatre Society. A phase of his life's work had come to an end: "Whatever I do from this out will, I think, be more creative. I will express myself so far as I express myself in criticism at all, by that sort of thought that lends itself straight to action, straight to some sort of craft."4 Yeats clearly felt that he was on the cusp of a new phase of his career and spiritual life in 1903. During the previous year, a change had taken place which would permanently alter the direction of the poet's intellectual journey in pursuit of gnosis, or spiritual knowledge of the world. In part, this involved his withdrawal from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, following a series of squabbles among its members and a sexual scandal which forced it to change its name. Terence Brown reminds us that "Yeats remained a member of the faction that declared itself the Amoun temple of the Stella Matutina and while he maintained his deep commitment to occult study … he does not seem again to have played a leading role of the kind he undertook between 1899 and 1901."5 Also in 1902, Yeats had begun in earnest his study of Friedrich Nietzsche, having received from John Quinn a copy of Alexander Tillie's three-volume edition of The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is in Nietzchean terms that Yeats signified his departure from the critical prose of the 1890s in the letters to AE and John Quinn referenced above. Thus, he writes to Russell that "The Greeks said that the Dionysisic [sic] enthusiasm preceeded the Apollonic and that the Dionysisic was sad and delirious, but that the Apollonic was joyful and self-sufficient."6 The next day, to Quinn, he writes "I have always felt that the soul has two movements primarily, one to transcend forms, and the other to create forms. Niet[z]sche, to whom you have been the first to introduce me, calls these the Dionysic and Apollonic respectively."7 In his essay on Nietzche's influence in W. B. Yeats in Context, Michael Valdez Moses reminds us that "If Yeats envisioned ritual theatre as a revolutionary means by which...


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pp. 63-86
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