Source: Biography of Pamela Colman Smith.
Among the personal effects of poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats was a pack of tarot cards. By most accounts Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn*, an occult secret society that practiced ceremonial magic. As it was, the Hermetic Order considered tarot divination to be one of the foundational studies that the society’s initiates learned (the others being astrology and theurgy).
While other notable members of the Golden Dawn, namely A. E. Waite and illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, were conceiving the tarot deck now known as the Rider-Waite (or Rider-Waite-Smith) deck, it is said that Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. So poetry and poets have influenced the tarot and its symbology as much as the deck of cards has influenced and inspired poets and their poetry.
The title of Yeat’s autobiographical work The Trembling of the Veil hints at the poet’s association with the Rider-Waite tarot. The veil is a notable Hermetic reference, which has also been used by A. E. Waite in his book on tarot The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Part I of the book is titled “The Veil and its Symbols” and Part II, “The Doctrine Behind the Veil.” What’s more, in the Introduction to Pictorial, Waite writes, “The pathology of the poet says the ‘undevout astronomer is mad.’” (He takes the quote from William Herschel, a musician, mathematician and astronomer.) The more one digs, the more patterns are found.
For the poets who look to poetry as evidence, look to Yeats’s “The Tower.”
…Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian's turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards –
To start, the thematic references to pride and ego throughout are the ascribed meanings to the tarot card Key 16, named The Tower, which is also the title of Yeats’s poem. As for what that “one card” was, I suspect the title offers some indication. The fellow Hanrahan has been interpreted by many to be a representation of The Fool, significant because the progression of the Major Arcana cards in the tarot has been referred to as “the Fool’s journey.”
…Before that ruin came, for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms there were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored,
Come with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper's rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.
The foregoing stanza describes The Tower card: the ruin, the rough men-at-arms, narrow stairs, and the general imagery reminiscent of the Tower of Babel, which is often the depiction on The Tower card in tarot. As for the “Great Memory stored,” it could be speculated that it is a reference to the card that follows Key 16, The Tower, which is Key 17, The Star. The Star card is associated with depicting the varying states of human consciousness and the unconscious, with the Great Memory a metaphor for the collective unconscious, which is a concept deeply rooted in ceremonial magic and the traditions of the Golden Dawn, which Yeats was purported to be part of (though the Golden Dawn do not use the actual term “collective unconscious,” and ascribe a different designation for the concept).
T.S. Eliot. Source: Public Domain
Tarot may be one of the lesser known muses of poets past. Take T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” for instance.
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
In that stanza, Eliot makes reference to several cards in the tarot deck. Some speculate that the drowned Phoenician Sailor is the Ten of Swords and the Lady of the Rocks is the Queen of Cups. There is then the Three of Wands (“man with the three staves”), The Wheel of Fortune (“the Wheel”), the Six of Pentacles (“the one-eyed merchant”), and The Hanged Man. “Fear death by water,” writes Eliot. The Hanged Man is ruled astrologically by Neptune and is governed by the element Water.
If the tarot cards are to be interpreted, they may suggest pending doom and misfortune, empathy felt for that downfall, a period of waiting and yearning for validation, the karmic turns of the samsara wheel, and the ultimate benevolence--self-sacrifice and prophesy. The tarot reading sets the tone for the progression of Eliot’s poem.
Richard Palmer, a prolific contemporary poet and master tarot practitioner says that in the union of the tarot and poetry, the poetic voice is joined with the voice of the universe, our words with the ancient symbols, which is the language of the cosmic soul. Together, tarot and poetry “weave a song of mystery, meaning, beauty, and love upon the unfolding tapestry of Time,” as he eloquently put it. Palmer’s poetry, some of the most brilliant of his works showcased in The Traveler (Writers Club Press, 2002), among his other collections, demonstrate the richness of poems conceived from a poet-mind that has been influenced by the tarot. Likewise, his tarot books, such as Tarot: Voice of the Inner Light (Custom Book Publishing, 2008) exudes a depth and breadth to tarot interpretive work that surpasses other practitioners, precisely because of his poet-mind approach.
It is no surprise that poets might gravitate toward the tarot for inspiration. Poetry calls upon our mythologies as metaphors of otherwise hidden truths, and the notion of revealing what has been hidden is a fascination of, I dare say, all poets. And what is the occult? The occult is but the study of that which has been hidden from view. So it would be of little surprise that poets and occult secret societies might be bedfellows. Tomorrow, I hope to explore the idea of mythology and metaphor further, in particular how the tarot is itself a book of poetry, and even more significantly, poetry for poets.
* Notwithstanding Yeats, other acclaimed poets and writers that were known members of the Golden Dawn were Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Sax Rohmer, author of the ever lovely Fu Manchu series, Scottish poet and writer William Sharp, who also wrote under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod, writer Arthur Machen, who Stephen King has called perhaps the best writer of horror in the English language, Arnold Bennett, Algernon Blackwood, Gustav Meyrink, John Todhunter, Violet Tweedale, and Charles Williams, to name a few.