Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: The Occult
After mentioning the connection between William Butler Yeats and the infamous Aleister Crowley, I decided to take a little trip down the virtual rabbit hole for this week’s poetry series.
The Golden Dawn is the mystic order both men were members of. Yeats went on to become a cornerstone of Modern English poetry. Crowley, on the other hand, if he’s known at all, is often seen as some practitioner of satanism.
Beyond the misinformation usually associated with Aleister Crowley lies a fascinating figure. For example, it might come as a surprise to learn that Crowley was a notable mountain climber:
The first serious attempt to climb K2 was undertaken in 1902 by Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley, via the Northeast Ridge. In the early 1900s, modern transportation did not exist: It took “fourteen days just to reach the foot of the mountain”. After five serious and costly attempts, the team reached 6,525 metres (21,407 ft) — although considering the difficulty of the challenge, and the lack of modern climbing equipment or weatherproof fabrics, Crowley’s statement that “neither man nor beast was injured” highlights the pioneering spirit and bravery of the attempt. The failures were also attributed to sickness (Crowley was suffering the residual effects of malaria)…
In a Telegraph piece written a few years ago, Jake Arnott puts it like this:
Aleister Crowley is the archetypal villain in 20th-century fiction. Larger than life, he personified the extreme fears and disturbing desires of a new age. Poet, chess master, mountaineer, sexual adventurer, cult leader, spy, magician: all these achievements have faded. What remains is an unforgettable creature of the imagination. The “Great Beast 666”, as he was known, was never that bad, but he possessed a seductive horror that enchanted many of the most important writers of his generation. His own literary ambitions were never realised; his legacy is as a character, or rather a series of them.
WB Yeats first met him in 1899 as a fellow initiate in the Order of the Golden Dawn, a fashionable mystical society. The young Beast became indignant when the older poet appeared to snub him. “What hurt him was the knowledge of his own incomparable inferiority,” Crowley was later to comment. When a bitter schism divided the Golden Dawn, they found themselves on opposite sides, issuing curses, magical spells and even threats of violence.
Nevertheless, they shared an artistic temperament. Both sought to infuse modern verse with an occult sensibility and had apocalyptic visions for the coming century. And, though clearly the better poet, Yeats remained intimidated by the Beast’s demonic prowess. “The Second Coming” (1920) has a depiction of the Antichrist with the unmistakable silhouette of his old adversary: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last.”
Yeats’ The Second Coming is a powerful poem, absorbing and projecting the horrors of 20th century violence propelled to apocalyptic scale.
And Crowley? He chose instead to embody corporal excess in a manner the sensibilities of his time found abhorrent, though he would have been right at home as the sixties ramped up, as Jimmy Page lead Led Zeppelin down the dark path and the Beatles popped Crowley into their Sgt. Pepper’s pantheon.
(oh, and would you believe there’s a not totally implausible chance Aleister Crowley was the father of the Bush matriarch, Barbara (Pierce) Bush?)
The poem I’ve chosen for this week’s LWPS is from The Book of Lies, first published in 1913. Enjoy!
THE BAL BULLIER
Some men look into their minds into their memories,
and find naught but pain and shame.
These then proclaim “The Good Law” unto mankind.
These preach renunciation, “virtue”, cowardice in
These whine eternally.
Smug, toothless, hairless Coote, debauch-emascu-
lated Buddha, come ye to me? I have a trick to
make you silent, O ye foamers-at-the mouth!
Nature is wasteful; but how well She can afford it!
Nature is false; but I’m a bit of a liar myself.
Nature is useless; but then how beautiful she is!
Nature is cruel; but I too am a Sadist.
The game goes on; it y have been too rough for
Buddha, but it’s (if anything) too dull for me.
Viens, beau negre! Donne-moi tes levres encore!