Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Scent From Beyond: The Spirit Smells of W.B. Yeats

Our Spectral Tour of olfactory ghost stories is turning out to be shorter than expected. I thought smells would be the perfect, uh, medium for unsettled spirits to make themselves known to the world of the living. Apart from a beautifully sentimental 19th century poem, and a more recent novel, the pickings have been slim. Not so much as a farting poltergeist.

In What the Nose Knows I described how some artists, like William Faulkner, weave themes of smell into their work, while others use scent to kick-start their creative engines (Richard Wagner and Emily Dickinson for example). Among the latter I would now include the fine Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who thus becomes the last stop on our tour. (Even if you don’t care for poetry The Second Coming will grab you attention: it’s an apocalypse in two short verses.)

Yeats apparently went through at least one extended period of preoccupation with spiritualism and the occult. He and his wife experimented with “automatic writing” and sleep talking. His book A Vision was an attempt to organize these spirit-inspired cogitations into coherent prose. He relates the various ways the “communicators” made contact:
Sweet smells were the most constant phenomena, now that of incense, now that of violets or roses or some other flower, and as perceptible to some half-dozen of our friends as to ourselves, though upon one occasion when my wife smelt hyacinth a friend smelt eau-de-cologne.

. . . Such smells came most often to my wife and myself when we passed through a door or were in some small enclosed place, but sometimes would form themselves in my pocket or even in the palms of my hands.

. . . I seldom knew why such smells came, nor why one sort rather than another, but sometimes they approved something said.

. . . Sometimes if I had been ill some astringent smell like that of resinous wood filled the room, and sometimes, though rarely, a bad smell. These were often warnings: a smell of cat’s excrement announced some being that had to be expelled, the smell of an extinguished candle that the communicators were ‘starved’.

. . . I can discover no apparent difference between a natural smell and a supernatural smell, except that the natural smell comes and goes gradually while the other is suddenly there and then as suddenly gone. But there were other phenomena. Sometimes they commented on my thoughts by the ringing of a little bell heard by my wife alone . . .
Yeats categorized his various spirit guides into instructors, communicators, frustrators, etc. The substance of A Vision—the wisdom Yeats distilled from the smells and bells—consists of stuff like this:
At the opening of Book V is a diagram where every date was fixed by my instructors. They have adopted a system of cones not used elsewhere in this exposition. If one ignores the black numbers it is simple enough. It shows the gyre of religion expanding as that of secular life contracts, until at the eleventh century the movements are reversed. Mask and Body of Fate are religion, Will and Creative Mind secular life. My instructors have inserted the black numbers because it enables them to bring into a straight line four periods corresponding to the Four Faculties that are in Flinders Petrie’s sense of the word ‘contemporaneous.’ . . . If we keep the straight line passing through the Four Faculties of the same length as the bases of the triangles we can mark upon it the twenty-eight phases, putting Phase 1 at the left hand, and the line will show what the position of the Faculties would be upon an ordinary double cone which completed its movement in the two thousand years of the era.

I have to say that this sort of stuff fails to move me. It’s not so much that it’s unscientific; rather it’s that the aesthetics of it—the numerology, the spirit hierarchies, the obsession with parallelisms—bore me to tears.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer, but the poet can smell the Beyond. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the spirit messages were blarney; delusions can be the means to great art.



Hi Avery,

Add me to the list of those who are experiencing the non-physical relationship with scent. One pulled me across the ocean and I wrote about it here.

You should also check out indieperfumes, Lucy has an excellent nose. Cheers, Jade

Anonymous said...

I have an idea why "this stuff fails to move" you: You react to it with dumb and indifferent, and may I say, slightly panicky dismissal. Your own comment betrays your inability to grasp the scope and the nature and the motivation of the Yeats's endeavor - and ultimately, its significance for an age and a hemisphere that is crippled by the triple ideology of victorianism, the spreading mechanistic worldview of science, the dogmatism of religion. Deeply bigoted, and inappropriate comment - neither is numerology nor spirit hierarchies nor blunt 'parallelism' in any way central to "A Vision". The mixture of dumb-assedness and arrogance and poor taste and style of this:

"The falcon cannot hear the falconer, but the poet can smell the Beyond. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the spirit messages were blarney; delusions can be the means to great art." ..bores me to tears

Avery Gilbert said...


But . . . I do believe in fairies. I do, I do!