Exploring William Butler Yeats' The Shadowy Water And Adam's Curse

4245 words - 17 pages

"What is madness but a translation out of essence but into the abysses of the exterior interior?" - Antonin Artaud

In his 1901 essay entitled "Magic", the Irish poet William Butler Yeats formulated a conception of aesthetic work directly rooted in the ancient labors of the magician and the priest. His fundamental beliefs, beliefs which would shape the entirety of his life and literary career, can be summarized in the following points:

(1) That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and
that many minds can flow into one another, as it were,
and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting,
and that our memories are a part of one great memory,
the memory of Nature herself.
(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked
by symbols.
(Ideas of Good and Evil, 21)

This psycho-spiritual conception of the relations between the individual, the other, and reality itself have a profound effect on all of Yeat's aesthetic works, but can be particularly felt in his verse drama "The Shadowy Waters" and the poem "Adam's Curse". These works reflect a theory of the interrelation of the categories of self, other and world that highlights the possibility of communicating truths, if indirectly, through the linguistic manipulation of symbols. This magical manipulation is capable of creating experiential worlds, shaping perceptions and beliefs, uniting the selves made separate by "our life in cities, which deafens or kills the passive meditative life, and our education that enlarges the separated, self-moving mind" (37, ibid). Language, for Yeats, becomes a primary means for the transcendence of this isolated state. However, this faith in the power of language to communicate meaning is complicated by a strong sense of the limitations of language. In "Magic" Yeats speaks of certain truths which, if spoken, would make the speaker's tongue "heavy as stone". Though this obviously deeply-felt injunction to silence is often attributed to the oaths of secrecy sworn upon his initiation into the Golden Dawn, it will be my intention to show that this responsibility to be silent derives from a sense that language cannot directly approach some truths. As I intend to show, it is through the indirect, evocatory force of symbols that Yeats achieves the revelation of the spirit's wisdom, rather than through the direct discursivity of deductive language.

In the prefatory poem to his verse drama "The Shadowy Waters" William Butler Yeats describes the process by which he received the inspiration for the play, and in this poem can be discovered many of the underlying principles of both his esoteric beliefs and the way that these beliefs shape his theory of symbolism. The poem, entitled "I...

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