Emanuel Swedenborg | influence


Irish supernatural literature has had a long history and writers from the Protestant Ascendancy classes during the later nineteenth century are notable prominent practitioners. W B Yeats (1865-1939) was immersed in the writings of William Blake; in this way he was artistically open to Swedenborgian ideas of the world. However it was Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) - another Irish Protestant author, but of Gothic fiction - who may have introduced Yeats to the writing of Swedenborg. The 'Ascendancy' classes in Ireland experienced a complex relationship with their rural landscape and this helped define the literary imaginations of Yeats and Le Fanu among others; it can be seen in their descriptions of anthropomorphized big houses amid a 'prenatural' world, forever on the verge of revealing a hidden, breathing parallel reality.

Readers of Swedenborg will be familiar with Yeats' essay, 'Swedenborg, Mediums and the Desolate Places', first conceived as an introduction to Lady Gregory's Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). In poetical prose, Yeats describes Swedenborg's afterlfie in Blakean terms: 'angels widening and deepening our consciousness at will', enabling us to glimpse the infinite: 'for imagination is now the world.' Elsewhere in his essay, spirits inhabit the mythical Irish landscape, reported on by old men who, Lady Gregory proposes, 'might know the secret of the ages.' This is Yeats' poetic reckoning of the visual world.

Sheridan Le Fanu was not a poet but his masterful prose is undoubtedly symbolic. Uncle Silas, a mystery tale of a teenage girl orphaned and left in the care of her sinister uncle, is steeped in transcendental meaning. The house and its neglected grounds reverberate Silas' foreboding and malignant presence. He represents the sinister influences of self-love, human waste, sloth and malice. In this way, as in Yeats' mystical philosophy, human beings become symbolic realities in their own right. Individuals corresponding to Silas emerge from the shadows, filled with 'buried injuries, ironies and covert taunts'; his son is 'an image of odious and dreadful associations.' These characters appear and recur under different guises, embodying the sin of duplicity. However there is light and hope in other symbols; Lady Monica constantly intervenes to bring goodness, truth and affection; Silas' daughter, Milly - a representation of nature unkempt - can be saved by Maud's love and wisdom. It is Dr Bryerly, a proclaimed Swedenborgian who hints at the 'prenatural' symbolic meanings implicit in Maud's circumstances, encouraging her to imagine and to reason: 'remember that when you fancy yourself alone and wrapt in darkness, you standin in fact in the centre of a theatre, as wide as the starry floor of heaven with an audience whom no man can number, beholding you under a flood of light.'

Further reading:

Words Alone: WB Yeats and Irish Literary Traditions in the Nineteenth Centuryby RF Foster (Oxford University Press 2010).

Between Method and Madness: Essays on Swedenborg & Literature (Journal of the Swedenborg Society)

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu (Penguin Classics)