Hinduism & English Poetry: an incomplete exploration... Active Reader W B Yeats Eliot Emerson opinion poems philosophy

W. B. Yeats, his poetry, Hinduism, Spirituality and Occult – an entangled web of enigma that extends beyond poetry

W.B. Yeats, a literary giant of the 20th century, left an indelible mark on poetry, and his works reflect a profound engagement with the occult, spirituality, and Hinduism. Yes, beyond poetry and drama, culture and criticism, Yeats also dealt with the occult to a great extent. To understand the world around him and himself, Yeats dived deeper into the world of spirituality and even Tantra, an ancient Hindu practice. This intersection of diverse influences has given rise to a body of work that transcends conventional boundaries, both thematically and stylistically.

Yeats’s fascination with the occult is evident throughout his poetic oeuvre. Influenced by the esoteric traditions of Western mysticism, he delved into the realms of the supernatural and the mystical. This fascination is particularly palpable in his collection “The Tower” (1928), where poems like “The Tower” and Sailing to Byzantium showcase his exploration of spiritual themes and esoteric symbolism. In “The Tower,” Yeats grapples with the complexities of ageing and mortality, intertwining spiritual yearning with mystical imagery, such as the gyres that symbolise the cyclical nature of history and existence. The poem serves as a testament to Yeats’s ability to weave the occult seamlessly into his poetic tapestry.

Yeats’ affair with spirituality, occult, mythology and religious philosophy is evident in many other poems. Among School Children and Leda and the Swan are prominent examples bearing the mark of Yeats’ preoccupation with these subjects.

Furthermore, Yeats’s engagement with spiritualism, particularly during the later stages of his life, profoundly influenced his poetry. His interest in mysticism led him to participate in séances, and the impact of these experiences is evident in poems like “The Cloths of Heaven.” In this poem, the ethereal and otherworldly elements mirror his forays into the mystical, where he sought to commune with the spiritual realm.

Hinduism, with its rich tapestry of mythological narratives and spiritual philosophy, also played a significant role in shaping Yeats’s poetic vision. The poem “Byzantium” from “The Tower” draws inspiration from Hindu mythology, referencing the concept of the “gyres” as a reflection of the Hindu cycle of ages or Yugas. This incorporation of Hindu cosmology highlights Yeats’s broad spiritual curiosity and his willingness to draw from diverse sources to enrich his poetic expression.

Yeats’s interest in Hinduism extended beyond mere thematic exploration; he also immersed himself in the study of Sanskrit texts and Hindu philosophy. His engagement with Hinduism is reflected in poems like “The Gyres,” where he draws parallels between the Hindu concept of cyclical time and his own philosophical reflections on history and existence.

“Yeats would not turn to the Protestant Christianity of his upbringing in his last years, but to a tradition that, in his understanding, posited a conquering and eternal Self as well as recurring lifetimes.” (Cambridge Companion to Yeats, 161)

Yeats’s contemporaries and scholars alike have recognised the profound impact of the occult, spirituality, and Hinduism on his poetry. The renowned literary critic Harold Bloom, in his seminal work “Yeats” (1970), acknowledges Yeats’s immersion in esoteric traditions and the transformative influence of his spiritual pursuits on his creative output. Additionally, the poet and scholar Aurobindo Ghose, better known as Sri Aurobindo, a prominent figure in the Indian spiritual renaissance, lauded Yeats’s exploration of Hindu philosophy and the depth with which he integrated these themes into his poetry.

The exploration of Hindu philosophy extends beyond the poetic realm of W.B. Yeats and encompasses a broader spectrum of influential poets, including T.S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These literary luminaries, contemporaries in their intellectual pursuits, were drawn to the profound richness embedded within Hindu philosophical traditions. T.S. Eliot, in particular, demonstrated a profound engagement with Hindu thought in his seminal work “The Waste Land.” The poem, laden with mythical allusions and spiritual desolation, reflects Eliot’s fascination with Eastern philosophy, including Hindu concepts of cyclic existence and rebirth. Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist philosopher and poet, was deeply influenced by Hindu scriptures and philosophy. Emerson’s exploration of the Oversoul and the interconnectedness of all existence mirrors the foundational principles of Hindu spirituality. The profound impact of Hindu thought on these poets underscores the universality and enduring relevance of Hindu philosophical concepts, transcending cultural and geographical boundaries to shape the intellectual landscape of Western literature.

In conclusion, W.B. Yeats’s poetry bears the unmistakable imprint of the occult, spirituality, and Hinduism. His profound engagement with these realms is not confined to mere thematic exploration but permeates the very fabric of his poetic expression. From the esoteric symbolism in “The Tower” to the incorporation of Hindu cosmology in “Byzantium,” Yeats’s poetry reflects a convergence of diverse spiritual influences. As a literary alchemist, he synthesised these elements to create verses that resonate with a timeless and transcendent quality, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to captivate readers and scholars alike.


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