When Yeats arrived in London in 1887, the vogue for spiritualism was at its height, and the young poet was immediately sucked into the vortex. The implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had sunk in and were undermining basic assumptions of the established social order. In 1867 Matthew Arnold had heard the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith in retreat, and cults sprang up to fill the gap, to satisfy those who, like Yeats, were searching for something to believe in beyond the material world. Yeats was already familiar with the basic occult narrative: the magical wisdom of antiquity, predating even the civilizations of Egypt and Babylon, was preserved by an elite brotherhood of seers that handed down intact the doctrines of alchemy, astrology, and the path to eternal life. Belief in this hermetic revelation had flourished at least since the early Renaissance. One of the principal motives of the humanists who ransacked the cloisters of Europe for classical manuscripts was the quest for the treatises of Hermes Trismegistus, first among ancient magi, often identified with Olympian Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth (and from whom the word hermetic derives). Cosimo de’ Medici, fifteenth-century patron of the humanists, hoped to cheat death with the aid of scripture more ancient than that of Christian religion.
more from Jamie James at Lapham’s Review here.