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Somewhere in Earshot: Yates' Admonitory Gods

Judith Weissman
Pequod, 1982, 14: 16-31.


No poet in the twentieth century wished to write visionary poetry - poetry given by supernatural source - more fervently than Yeats did. He was, as he says in "Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931," one of the last romantics; he wanted to receive true inspiration, the breadth of the gods, as the English Romantics did when they were at their best. They heard voices speaking to them, often through nature, which were the nineteenth-century manifestation of divine voices heard by the poets of Greece and Israel and by Christian visionary poets. Such divine voices may have once been available to everyone, in early states of human culture; Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, provides a convincing argument that early men had to depend on auditory hallucinations - the voices of the gods - for guidance in times of stress because they coud not make what we would usually call conscious decisions. Some kind of ethical or moral guidance was usually part of divine inspiration for visonary poets as well, from Homer to Milton to Wordsworth. Most of the voices that the English Romantics heard were transformations of the voice of a Christian God, through they were not very reliable as sources of admonitory wisdom. The visionary tradition in English, the tradition Yeats knew, is entirely Christian.