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  • Michael Martin

Spirits, Poets, and Fools

William Butler Yeats

In mid-November of this year I was in Washington, DC for a conference. It was really a great conference (on The Brothers Karamazov) and one of the things that was nice about it was that we participants were given a few hours downtime in the afternoons. The conference was held at a hotel in Georgetown, so in my time off I’d walk around a bit (it was unseasonably warm and hospitable to perambulation). One thing I did was visit “the Exorcist stairs,” the site of the final scene of the most terrifying film ever made when Fr. Damien Karras tells the devil to take him and leave the possessed girl before jumping out of a window to his death at the bottom of these stairs. It ended up being the most un-touristy thing in the world. In fact, I passed it twice while trying to find it. The stairs empty onto a pretty abandoned-looking parking lot and one would never guess the place to hold such an iconic place in the history of cinema. Nevertheless, I took a few photos (see below) and met two Irish women about my age who were also taking pictures. We joked that after the film had so traumatized us as teenagers, visiting the scene of the crime was a psychological necessity.

Photo credit: me

The rest of the downtime I spent cruising Georgetown’s used bookstores. Outside of my farm and the Boarshead Tavern in Stratford, Ontario, there is no place I feel more at home as in a used bookstore, a place where old and good books don’t go to die but to be reborn. And let’s face it: Kindle is the devil. When it all goes down, so will your digital library. Hoard books: humanity depends on you.

Well, on one such used bookstore sojourn, I found a copy of James Merrill’s magnum opus, The Changing Light at Sandover. I used to own this book, but I must have sold it or given it away somewhere along the years, but I never read much of it. Initially, I was intrigued by the book because Harold Bloom had nominated it for inclusion in the canon. (You can read some of Bloom and Merrill’s correspondence here.) More recently, my friend, the novelist and translator Jonathan Geltner and I were talking (okay, eyerolling) about the Catholic traddie adulation for formal verse and how poetry could use a rediscovery of the epic when Merrill’s book came up—which, we agreed, is certainly not the formal verse or epic Catholic traddies would have in mind, let alone add to the canon. The reason The Changing Light at Sandover is not the formal verse they would want is a simple one: much of the text was transmitted to Merrill and his partner David Jackson through the agency of a Ouija board.

Changing Light is rather a virtuoso piece as a collection of formal verse, wherein Merrill (and his interlocutors?) takes turns at blank verse, terza rima, the sonnet, brace octave, alexandrines, sestina, and so on—he literally pulls out all the stops. But despite Bloom’s enthusiasm, the poetry itself leaves me pretty cold, flat, uninspired. Nevertheless, I read the entire thing, all 623 pages of it. I am probably eligible for an award.

I can’t help but read Changing Light without thinking of William Butler Yeats’s A Vision, a work of metaphysical speculation also produced with the aid of supernatural interlocutors, this time by way of Yeats’s wife Georgie’s experiments in automatic writing, at first, and later by way of trance or somnabulistic locutions. (John Michael Greer recently wrote a very good piece on the Yeatses). In the 1980s I bought a first American edition of the book (1938)—I still have it—but could never quite assimilate its complicated and obscure system of symbolism. To be honest, I still can’t, as I just read through it once again after finishing Changing Light. I am sure, given time and effort, one could get to the bottom of Yeats’s system—much in the way one does through the heroic task of comprehending his master Blake’s. But it isn’t gonna be easy.

One thing is for sure: after reading through Changing Light, encountering Yeats’s prose dropped like of draught of new wine after gorging on Kool-Aid. He was a masterful poet and a stunning essayist and the letter to Ezra Pound and short comic narrative that precede his explanation of the system he received are delightful immersions in the aura of a man at the height of his literary powers. Indeed, I didn’t realize how truly impoverished was Merrill’s language until following it with Yeats’s. But, really, who could measure up?

Interestingly, Yeats (or should I say “Yeats”?) makes an appearance in Merrill’s text as on of his interlocutors, though W.H. Auden (“W.H. Auden”) plays a much more prominent role. The entities with which Merrill interacts, in fact, deliver a diagram not unlike the gyres Yeats received from his. (Incidentally, these cones or gyres are very similar to the inverted or double pyramids found in the diagrams of the 17th century Paracelsian physician and Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd—I write about this in both Religion and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England and The Submerged Reality).

In addition, Merrill’s “Yeats” delivers some Yeatsian verse that sounds like a very bad imitation of WBY:









I’m sure the dead Yeats would rather live than be associated with such doggerel, a veritable Yeatsian parody. Whatever the case, is it not telling that Bloom failed to detect Merrill’s agon with Yeats in what may be one of the most illustrative examples of his “anxiety of influence”? Yet even Homer nods.

One has to wonder why poets—or anyone, for that matter—would take to these sort of supernatural devices for seeking wisdom. Often they happen somewhat unexpectedly, as was the case with Yeats and his wife, but to take up a Ouija board some intentionality is certainly involved. But what’s behind such intention? Curiosity? Vanity? For Yeats, anyway, his aims were clearly revealed by his interlocutors: “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.” It would not be wrong to wonder whether or not this voice was a projection of Yeats’s own desires—or, just as possible, the desires of Mrs. Yeats to keep her husband attentive to their marriage, as even she admitted, though she subsequently avowed that the experiment exceeded beyond that humble ambition. But, clearly, Yeats’s experiment did yield substantial metaphors for poetry, whereas Merrill’s produced but idle forms of distraction for the monied and entitled class to which he belonged with little genuine poetry added in the bargain. To Yeats’s investigations we owe thanks for one of the finest poems in the language, “The Second Coming,” from which I quote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines would never have come into being had not Yeats seriously pursued these metaphors.

These were not my first encounters with supernatural communication, even at second hand. In my early twenties, I, too, undertook similar experiments at the instigation of a woman I was dating. Neither one of us expected it to work. But it did, and our experience was very similar to those of the Yeatses and Merrill, though we were given no system of metaphor. My wife knew people undertaking similar experiments at around the same time (we did not know each other then) and the wine glass that group used as a planchette moved of its own accord. I don’t think there is a purely psychological or materialist explanation for such phenomena that could hold water.

Much later, I wrote about the similar experiences of advisor to Elizabeth I, the polymath and magician John Dee in my dissertation, later published as Religion and the Encounter with God. My take there is that Dee used the various technologies available to him—an obsidian crystal ball, various fumigations, incantations/prayers, and tables—to gain access to hidden knowledge known only to angels. Or so he thought. Among other dangers (the sapping of etheric vitality not the least of them), trying to contact spirits by these technological means—and, believe it or not, a Ouija board is a piece of technology—though they “work,” is by no means a guarantee that the information or the informants are reliable. In fact, what happened with Merrill, Dee, and the Yeatses gibes very well with my own experiences: initial profitable experiences and interesting information gradually give way to the strangeness, insincerity, and ridicule. But, often by that point, the unwitting victims of the ridicule have already swallowed the bait and are on the hook. This clearly happened with Dee, who violated some of the core values of the Christian faith he held so very sincerely at the instigation of the spirits with which he communicated. And it is also evident that this is what happened with Merrill, especially in the way his interlocutors often degenerate into parodic versions of their earlier rhetorical selves. Indeed, at one point they have Merrill and Jones convinced they’re conversing with a unicorn from the age of Atlantis. Apparently My Little Pony was otherwise occupied.

Yeats seems to have been less deceived—but even he was fooled. Some of his interlocutors, he later discovered, were leading him down a garden path; and these he later identified as “Frustrators.” As they once told him, “Remember we will deceive you if we can.” Merrill and Dee did not appear to be so discerning (though Dee’s assistant Edward Kelley was certainly suspicious and even quit working with Dee for a while because of it).

Among other things, Merrill’s spirits foretell a “GREAT THINNING” of the human population on the horizon, an aim also announced by the Georgia Guidestones and, let’s face it, the WEF and Bill Gates (draw your own conclusions). Merrill and Jackson conducted their conversations during the heyday of the “population bomb” hysteria in the halcyon days of promised death by “THE COMING ICE AGE,” and the spirits with which they spoke seemed to have adopted, at least to some degree, the lingua franca of the time and of the ruling classes.

Valentin Tomberg offers practical insight into this phenomena. Demons, “the hierarchy of the left,” as he calls them, do not lack faith in God, they lack faith in Man. As such some of them look for ways to ridicule the pride of men. One such demon he identifies as Mephistopheles, who uses ridicule as his primary accusatory method and “it is primarily human pretension and snobbery that he turns into ridicule” as a way to castigate “spiritual snobs.” This is precisely what happened with Merrill (who never saw it) and Dee (who probably did, but too late). Yeats seems to have been a little wiser and more honest with and about himself, which is what, I think, helped him avoid the ridicule of demons; but even he was not entirely unscathed.

Finally, look around, especially on social media and in the news media. There you will find demons ridiculing men and women at scale. But since we are in a post-Christian age, an age of decline, as a culture we have no vocabulary or diagnostic tools available to us for discerning the state in which we find ourselves. And we are all made to look like fools.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: Flesh & Spirit. Twitter: @Sophiologist_

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