Modernity has a unique gift—that of generating its opposite. In the sterile wake of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, the Romantic philosophers and poets, especially those of Germany and England, resisted the totalizing demands of “science” and “progress” and sought to restore a vision of human flourishing mindful of mystery, of nature, and of the imagination. In the bleak aftermath of industrialization and rapacious streams of Capitalism in the late 19th century, people turned to alternative methods of inquiry in movements as diverse as the Celtic Twilight, The Theosophical Society, the Occult Renaissance, and a renewed fascination with the World of Faerie. All of these various movements hide within themselves the often unspoken admission that modernity (and postmodernity) leaves much unspoken and more unaddressed.
We live in such times, times that are always-already happening.
In the early modern period, hermetic thinkers like Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, Robert Fludd, as well as the Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, the Anglican priest and alchemist Thomas, resisted the abstractions of Descartes and the world he was creating (creating by ignoring half of it) that directly led to the disenchanted and dismal landscape we now inhabit. In the transition from the 18th to the 19th centuries, William Blake’s poetic railing against all forms of slavery—both of physical servitude as well as of mental and imaginative enthrallment—did much the same thing. They all may have been on the losing side of history, but they were not on the wrong side.
In the late 19th and into the 20th centuries, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats straddled all of these worlds. A folklorist, hermetic magician, mystic, and politician as well as a poet, Yeats upheld the value of what might be called the Great Tradition, which encompassed not only Neoplatonism and medieval sensibilities of the microcosm and the macrocosm, but also folk traditions he found in the Irish peasantry, particularly the belief in faerie and the magical properties of stones and plants. Indeed, the desire for a society more closely connected to the visible and palpable world as well as the invisible worlds that coincide and shine through it is characteristic of those facing the abyss of modernity’s false promises of progress. The Cottingly Fairies, for instance, became cause célèbre in face of the inhumanities and horrors of World War I (the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story illustrates this beautifully), echoing the popularity of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan just a decade earlier. All were responses to the crowning features of alienation and confusion that is modernity: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand,” in Yeats’s apt phrase.
We live in such a time.
Yet, it is still a time of hope, a time of creating a new world, reimagining where we are and examining how we arrived here. Unfortunately, not everyone in the reimagining business is interested in hope so much as in control, and I am as concerned as anyone about people in whom I have no trust (politicians for the most part) exerting power in a moment of distress. Nevertheless, I find great comfort in Yeats’s short meditation “The Body of Father Christian Rosencrux,” first published in 1895 and later gathered in the collection, Ideas of Good and Evil (and which I later published in The Heavenly Country):
The followers of the Father Christian Rosencrux, says the old tradition, wrapped his imperishable body in noble raiment and laid it under the house of their order, in a tomb containing the symbols of all things in heaven and earth, and in the waters under the earth, and set about him inextinguishable magical lamps, which burnt on generation after generation, until other students of the order came upon the tomb by chance. It seems to me that the imagination has had no very different history during the last two hundred years, but has been laid in a great tomb of criticism, and had set over it inextinguishable magical lamps of wisdom and romance, and has been altogether so nobly housed and apparelled that we have forgotten that its wizard lips are closed, or but opened for the complaining of some melancholy and ghostly voice. The ancients and the Elizabethans abandoned themselves to imagination as a woman abandons herself to love, and created great beings who made the people of this world seem but shadows, and great passions which made our loves and hatreds appear but ephemeral and trivial phantasies; but now it is not the great persons, or the great passions we imagine, which absorb us, for the persons and passions in our poems are mainly reflections our mirror has caught from older poems or from the life about us, but the wise comments we make upon them, the criticism of life we wring from their fortunes. Arthur and his Court are nothing, but the many-coloured lights that play about them are as beautiful as the lights from cathedral windows; Pompilia and Guido are but little, while the ever-recurring meditations and expositions which climax in the mouth of the Pope are among the wisest of the Christian age. I cannot get it out of my mind that this age of criticism is about to pass, and an age of imagination, of emotion, of moods, of revelation, about to come in its place; for certainly belief in a supersensual world is at hand again; and when the notion that we are “phantoms of the earth and water” has gone down the wind, we will trust our own being and all it desires to invent; and when the external world is no more the standard of reality, we will learn again that the great Passions are angels of God, and that to embody them “uncurbed in their eternal glory,” even in their labour for the ending of man’s peace and prosperity, is more than to comment, however wisely, upon the tendencies of our time, or to express the socialistic, or humanitarian, or other forces of our time, or even ‘to sum up’ our time, as the phrase is; for Art is a revelation, and not a criticism, and the life of the artist is in the old saying, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the spirit.”
Neither can I get it out of my mind that this age is about to pass, and an age of imagination, of emotion, of moods, of revelation, about to come in its place.
William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Stolen Child” set to music by Mike Scott of The Waterboys
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutzand Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.