BL. W. B. Yeats
15. Essays and notes. In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, collected and arranged by Lady Gregory. 2 vols. London: Knickerbocker, 1920. 2nd ed., Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1970.
In addition to two essays by Yeats this work includes his notes to Lady Gregory’s transcriptions of the ‘visions and beliefs’ she had recorded in the Irish countryside. The second of the essays and two of the notes touch on an emerging sense of a spiritist tradition in Japan similar to that of Ireland, an understanding that would inform Yeatsian drama and belief for the remainder of his life. The notes are undated, but Yeats was at work on them at Stone Cottage in the winter of 1914-15.
a. ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’. Dated 14 October 1914, this work was written before Yeats’s earlier-published introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan (11) and Per Amica Silentia Lunae (13), and so the extended passages about the nô here are Yeats’s earliest in the published record, and reveal the degree to which he associated the form with the life of spirits, and fit it into an emerging occultist system that occupied him for the remainder of his life. The first reference to the nô comes in a note (p. 316) about Aoi no Ue (BK22) and its ‘theme’ of ‘the exorcism of a ghost which is itself obsessed by an evil spirit . . . represented by a dancer wearing a “terrible mask with golden eyes”’. It is not until the work reaches conclusion (pp. 333-35), however, that Yeats turns at length to the nô, particularly to Motomezuka, which he knew from Stopes (see D23), and Nishikigi (BK8), which he knew from Pound, works from the nô to which he will return for the remainder of his life when his thoughts turn to the passionate dead, and which will inform his poems, drama, and system of belief in various and surprising ways (see 11, 13, 14a, 17b, 22, 29, 32a, 33, 34, 36c, 38b1-2, 44b, and 57h). See also BL1, 119b, 193, and 202. Reprinted in 51.
b. Note 36. Lady Gregory has recorded the story of a servant girl and her lover who were separated in life, but after death return to earth to request that a priest marry them, which he does, and the ghostly couple disappears from sight. Yeats remarks in the note that this is the ‘same story as that in one of the most beautiful of the “Noh” plays’, and that he will ‘tell the Japanese story’ in his terminal essay. The reference is to Nishikigi (see BK8), the plot of which Yeats recounts in detail in ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (a). Thoughts of this similarity stayed with Yeats: he returns to it some twenty years later in a key passage in the second edition of A Vision (38b1).
c. Note 39. Includes a lengthy passage recounting a tale of possession by a spirit in Percival Lowell’s Occult Japan (see D6), after which Yeats demonstrates an understanding of Shintô that echoes Lowell: It ‘always . . . in certain of its sects practiced ceremonies that had for their object the causing of possession’.