Friday, October 16, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors 

The Four Winds
by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)

The South wind said to the palms: 

My lovers sing me psalms; 

But are they as warm as those 

That Laylah's lover knows? 



The North wind said to the firs: 

I have my worshippers; 

But are they as keen as hers? 



The East wind said to the cedars: 

My friends are no seceders; 

But is their faith to me 

As firm as his faith must be? 



The West wind said to the yews: 

My children are pure as dews; 

But what of her lover's muse? 



So to spite the summer weather 

The four winds howled together. 



But a great Voice from above 

Cried: What do you know of love? 



Do you think all nature worth 

The littlest life upon earth?



I made the germ and the ant, 

The tiger and elephant. 



In the least of these there is more 

Than your elemental war. 



And the lovers whom ye slight 

Are precious in my sight. 



Peace to your mischief-brewing! 

I love to watch their wooing. 



Of all this Laylah heard 

Never a word. 



She lay beneath the trees 

With her lover at her knees.
 


He sang of God above 

And of love. 



She lay at his side 

Well satisfied, 



And at set of sun 

They were one. 



Before they slept her pure smile curled; 

"God bless all lovers in the World!" 



And so say I the self-same word; 

Nor doubt God heard. 


Aleister Crowley is better known as a famous magician, author of magical books and creator (with artist Lady Frieda Harris) of the beautiful Thoth Tarot deck, than as a poet. He was also a novelist, a painter and a mountaineer. However, he did write quite a lot of poems too. Their diction is musical, but the style has dated and the language often seems rather flowery now. 

I chose this one to share with you because of the touch of humour. If you'd like to look at others, there is a collection at PoemHunter.

Although this one seems fanciful rather than magical, I'm interested to see that it includes the four directions which magicians evoke in ritual. 

Crediting God with approving of the lovers is a very Crowley attitude. He was a notorious figure in his day, for his libertine lifestyle as much as for openly espousing magic as his religion. A flamboyant character, who appears to have been very egotistical, I think he quite liked to play up to his bad press. He is also said to have been highly charismatic.

He was for a time a member of the Golden Dawn, an order of ceremonial magicians which included some famous names (even the great poet, W. B. Yeats). It was a very secretive order. Crowley fell out with them, and after he left he offended them further by publishing their secrets. He also studied Hindu and Buddhist teachings, claimed to have been a Freemason, and went on to found his own religion of magic, Thelema. Later still he was initiated into the Ordo Templi Orientus (O.T.O.) and blended those teachings with the Thelemic. 

The magical societies I mention are still famous, and Crowley is still known in magical circles as having been an innovative teacher. He was, in his life, an influence on Gerald Gardner, who is regarded as the father of the Wiccan revival. Some contemporary Pagans like to refer to him with a sort of ironic affection as Uncle Al, acknowledging his contribution to the lore. In his own day, his detractors imputed all sorts of evil to him, and dubbed him The Great Beast. 

A widely travelled man, he also worked for the British Intelligence Service, probably since his student days at Cambridge, and particularly during World War I when he lived in America. He was a double agent, who infiltrated the pro-German movement in New York. This required him to publicly espouse that cause, which added to his bad press.

He also had a long-lasting heroin addiction, after being prescribed it in 1920 to treat asthma. 

Life didn't go well for Crowley in the end. Although he had been wealthy and influential, he died in poverty and illness, much of it brought about by his own choices – but the fact that he lived to 72 is perhaps surprising, considering his lifestyle.

Despite glaring flaws of character, he also had some good qualities such as courage, enterprise and intellect. He had a serious devotion to both magic and writing. He was a prolific writer. Although his poetry received a mixed reception critically, much of it was acclaimed in its day. 

I think that, by now, this poet is more interesting than his poetry – though this rather fed-up piece strikes a chord:

Optimist

Kill off mankind,
And give the Earth a chance!
Nature might find
In her inheritance
The seedlings of a race
Less infinitely base. 

Posterity seems to agree with my assessment, as his magical texts are still available from Amazon and Google but his poetry is harder to find. Yet I still meet people who profess to admire his poetry. He undoubtedly had facility with rhyme, metre and heightened language. If you wish to judge for yourself, there are also some poems at the AllPoetry site – not so many as at PoemHunter, but presented in a way that's even easier to navigate and read.


In the course of my researches I came across this fascinating interview with the authors of two separate and apparently rather different biographies of Crowley.

It begins with them disagreeing vehemently on his poetic status!

That might be a good place to leave this controversial figure.





Poems and photos posted to 'The Living Dead' for purposes of study and review remain the property of the copyright holders.


8 comments:

  1. Hahahah! You can now add me to his fans. I confess that I often have trepidation on reading (and writing) long poems, hoping something will hook me early on so I want more. (My experiments with that are rarely successful. But Crowley's depiction of the 4 winds as very human like jealous whiners who cannot appreciate what they have did just that--and I love how the actual humans come off better in that poem In the next, he treats them in reverse. Love. Thanks.

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  2. Rosemary, what a wonderfully researched and thorough look at this poet, whom I had not heard of. He does sound like a character. Poets are nothing if not unconventional, LOL. What an amazing life he led, he sounds very busy and he managed to write as well. Wow. Thanks for this, and happy Friday, kiddo.

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  3. He was a colorful character indeed and I feel sorry for his sad end. I like the rhythm of the first one and totally agree with what he says in the second one. The earth must be given a chance...wow...well said...thanks for this wonderful post...

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  4. This was a very interesting article, Rosemary. I liked the details of his life ....he sounds like a fascinating person, and his poetry is quite unique.

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  5. Curiously I worked for some years with Watney's the brewer in the UK at their brewery in Hampshire. This was a brewery they had taken over from the former owners Crowley! I don't think there was a relationship however when the history of the brewery was being written in the 1950's any association with Aleister Crowley was carefully avoided!

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  6. amazing person.
    this is the first time i have read his poems. :)

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  7. Not everyone's cup of tea, but obviously there are plenty who still enjoy his flavour – and he is part of our collective history.

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  8. Thank you Rosemary. You wrote such an interesting and fair piece. As I was reading I wondered if there is a movie about him. I think it would be a hit. But the books must be fascinating to read too. Enjoyed his poetry, especially the second one. I sometimes feel like that myself. Ha. Thanks again Rosemary, enjoyed this thoroughly.

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