‘Of Golden King and Silver Lady’: Yeats and the Pre-Socratic Philosophers

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Abstract

Of all the poets in the English speaking world, Yeats is probably the most indebted to philosophy and much has been said about the momentous impact Plato and the Neo-Platonists had on his work. This paper examines another philosophical legacy which is directly relevant to the theme of the conference since many Pre-Socratic philosophers wrote their philosophical aphorisms in verse: they lived at a time when the distinction between philosophy and literature had not yet come about. During that fascinating period of ur-philosophy, both the Italian and the Ionian schools produced thinkers who couched down revelations in dactylic hexameters, the meter used for prophecy at Delphi as well as Homer’s epic metre. Indeed, the two philosophers who are most relevant to Yeats’s work, i.e., Empedocles and Heraclitus were often compared to soothsayers, especially Heraclitus, aptly named ‘the obscure’ and whose nominal fragments were famously cryptic throughout Antiquity. Yeats’s wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, had an extremely good knowledge of early Greek philosophy, and it comes as no surprise that frequent allusions to the Pre-Socratic philosophers appear in Yeats’s later poetry and esoteric treatise, A Vision, in fact in all the works that were written after his marriage. Regarding subject-matter, the Pre-Socratic schools assert an influence over Yeats’s poetry as he moves away from transcendental Platonism and in this paper I will attempt to trace their impact. But I should also like to point out that they affect Yeats’s style as he started writing extremely short aphoristic verse containing the same sort of lapidary and obscure paradoxes as can be found in Pre-Socratic fragments. Famous statements like ‘Fair and foul are near of kin’ vividly recall the epigrams of Heraclitus. So great is Yeats’s mastery of style in service to philosophy that his work often begs comparison with pre-Socratic writings and their unique blend of poetry, knowledge and myth.

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