R. F. Foster, W . B. Yeats: A Life - I: “The Apprentice Mage” (OUP 1997), “Waiting for the Millenium” [Chap. 7].

'[…] A. H. Bullen, the publisher, rejected two stories (”The Tables of the Law” and “The Adoration of [176] the Magi”), then changes his mind and printed them separately; but not before the original pattern of the volume had been spoiled. WBY had wanted to end with “The Adoration of the Magi”, whose theme of a religious annunciation relayed through a dying prostitute in a Paris brothel was too blasphemous, as well as too Decadent, for Bullen’s nerve. The story used what would become one of WBY’s favourite quotations, Mallarmé’s remark that his generation saw the trembling of the veil of the temple; it brings together millennialism, sexual decadence and the search for wisdom in a quintessentially Yeatsian way. As The Secret Rose was published, however, the final story was just as emblematic. The opening passage of “Rosa Alchemica” raises the question of how far a ‘sympathy’ for the occult is ‘but the sympathy of the artist, which is half pity, for everything which has moved men’s hearts in any age’. Michael Robartes’s frantic search for occult knowledge is observed by the detached, studious, essentially impotent figure of Owen Aherne, who has tried the priesthood, political revolution, alchemy, and found all wanting. Finally convinced to follow Robartes into an occult Order, Aherne journeys with him to an ancient house on the west coast of Ireland (like de Basterot’s): amid symbolic peacocks, starry heavens and spears, visions are induced through ‘incense’ and dancing. The would-be illuminati finally awake to angry attacks from the outraged local fisher-folk. Aherne escapes and takes refuge in a devout and unthinking Catholicism (or, looked at another way, in doctrines of transference and supererogation).

This and other stories echoed Huysmans’s preoccupation with the close relationship between ‘the supernatural of evil and the supernatural of good’, transposed to Ireland - and even to Irish history. WBY had read Ernest Renan connection between Celticism and the New Age: in the chronology of The Secret Rose, medieval searchers give way to Elizabethan wood-kerne, and then eighteenth-century poets ('Red Hanrahan’) before ending with “Rosa Alchemica”, which deals with (vaguely) contemporary times. Aherne represents WBY’s inclination to choose religious authority, but also his attraction to the heresy attributed to the twelfth-century prophet Joachim of Fiore. Taught by Symons, Pater, Lionel Johnson and Renan (in translation), WBY knew that Joachim prophesied a New Age, or Third Reign of Heaven on Earth. Through Aherne, WBY adapted Joachim’s ideas to claim the existence of ‘Children of the Holy Spirit’, whose work is ‘to reveal that hidden substance of God which is colour and music’. This chimed with Blake’s vision: the ‘Children of the Holy Spirit’ may stand for poets at large, for whom - in the antinomian tradition of the visionary sects - divine inspiration enables a self-made morality. Here, as as elsewhere at this time, an echo of Nietzsche sounds through, probably derived from Havelock Ellis’s Savoy articles. And an important group of stories in The Secret Rose (later comprehensively rewritten [177] from 1902 to 1903 and published separately) concerns Red Hanrahan, a passionate poet, lover and seer. Hanrahan, besides supplying another alter ago for WBY, was inspired by actual eighteen-century Gaelic poets like Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, who had achieve legendary reputations. WBY was effectively creating his own folklore.

For all their emphasis on religious heresy and illuminati traditions, the stories deal with the choices of the artist. Aherne echoes Lionel Johnson’s refuge in erudition and Catholicism; Robartes follows Russell’s and WBY’s search for enlightenment through vision. The terrain - Dublin, Paris, the west of Ireland - is that traversed by WBY himself in these years; the influences - Luciferianism, the apocalypse, the Cabbala, Rosicrucianism - echo writers like Huysmans whom he had encountered through Symons. Moreover, Blake had taught him that ‘all art is a labour to bring again the golden age’. Revelation is sought, in a milieu dominated by symbols and innocent of humour. Art is seen as spiritual transmutation, achieved through visions with a strong application of Celticist top-dressing (a formula rapidly and efficiently plagiarized by Fiona Macleod). In later revisions the peasantry become progressively less idealized. And it is possible to place these stories in the distinctive Irish Protestant supernatural tradition of Maturin and Le Fanu, where uneasy Anglo-Irish inheritors are caught between the threatening superstructure of Catholicism, and recourse to more demonic forces still, against a wild landscape which they have never fully possessed.

The Secret Rose reflects another arcane subculture too: it was no accident that the language was by turns narcotic and hallucinogenic. WBY had learnt to take hashish with the shady followers of the mystic Louis Claude de Saint Martin in Paris, and with Davray and Symons the previous December. In April 1897 he experimented with mescal, supplied by Havelock Ellis, who recorded that ‘while an excellent subject for visions, and very familiar with various vision-producing drugs and processes’, WBY found the effect on his breathing unpleasant; ‘he much prefers haschish’, which he continue to take in tablets, a particularly potent form of ingestion.’ (See Ellis, “Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise”, in Contemporary Review, 1898.) The stories in The Secret Rose grow out of the underworld of the Savoy as well as the disciplines of supernatural study.

Reactions to the collection were ambivalent; drug-taking apart, WBY’s conjunction of Irish ‘paganism’, occultism and spirituality was not universally popular. He wrote defensively to O’Leary: ‘The book has on the whole been very well received ... It is at any rate an honest attempt to wards that aristocratic esetoric [sic] Irish literature, which has been my chief ambition. We have a literature for the people but nothing yet for the few.’ (30 May 1897; Coll. Letters, Vol. II, p.104). The question of an elite audience would preoccupy him more and more; in the end, he would find it not through fiction but poetry, and most of all drama. [178] (pp.176-78.)

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