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Mercury in Taurus: W. B. Yeats and Ted Hughes

Rand Brandes
Affiliation:
Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC
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Summary

Since the death of W. B. Yeats, no major poet writing in English deserves his magical robe more than Ted Hughes. None of Yeats's successors have followed him with the discipline and determination of Ted Hughes into the realms of the esoteric. W. B. Yeats's belief in the poetic and political power of magic, mysticism and the mythic gave Ted Hughes the spirit confi dence he needed to push through personal tragedy and global despair. In an unpublished letter from the late 1970s to his daughter Frieda Hughes in which he quotes from Yeats's “The Second Coming,” Hughes writes:

Yeats was a magician: he made rituals to summon up spirits and visions. Spiritus Mundi is the Soul of the World—where all past and future are said to be eternally present. So Yeats is saying that the time of the Second Coming is close but his vision tells him that it is not Christ who is going to be reborn in Bethlehem, but some terrible beast—some terrible uncontrollable energy. Since he wrote that poem in 1920 or so, the atomic bomb, & the possible immediate extinction of the earth, has really become possible. Though we hope human beings will be clever enough to harness this beast, & turn its energy to good. Yes? (Emory, MSS 1014)

To Hughes, Yeats the magician and Yeats the poet were inseparable: “He [Yeats] never really abandoned his early resolution, to make the work of poetry his first concern, the world of magic his second. And by magic as we know he did mean the real thing: arduous negotiation with spirits; regular systematic, ritual dealings with the supernatural and supersensible realms” (Winter Pollen 270).

Hughes's familiarity with esoteric epistemologies—the Art of Memory, Astrology, Occult Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Alchemy, and the Kabbalah—are intense magical points of contact with Yeats. These contact points not only made Yeats one of Hughes's essential lodestones, but also gave Hughes a unique insight into Yeats's work, especially his mythic preoccupations. These preoccupations included his belief that the form and function of the mythic poet and that of the shaman are one and the same.

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 216 - 228
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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