The Turn of the Gyres: Alterity in ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’ and A Thousand and One Nights

Authored by: Mazen Naous

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


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In his 1923 poem ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, William Butler Yeats imports formal and thematic material and imagery from A Thousand and One Nights (I will refer to the work as simply the Nights henceforth). Furthermore, Yeats uses Oriental 1 1

I use the term ‘Oriental’ as derived from Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ to refer to the historical and ideological processes that manufacture images and myths about the East.

characters in this fictionalized poem to stand in for himself and his young wife George, as well as an Oriental context ostensibly inspired by her automatic writing and, later, her sleep-talking. 2 2

See Margaret Mills Harper, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W.B. Yeats (Oxford, 2006). Harper states that, beginning ‘in 1920, the various methods of reception underwent a major change, as WBY recorded in a notebook, under the heading “New Method”: “George speaks while asleap [sic.]”’ (p. 8).

In the course of their traumatic honeymoon, during which an ill Yeats wondered if he had made a mistake by marrying George, she

… tried and succeeded in producing automatic writing … [that] lasted for several years of almost daily work, during which messages purporting to be from disembodied communicators from realms of spirit brought thousands of bits of information, information that was questioned, trusted, distrusted, and elaborated upon. Gradually, it coalesced into a philosophic and religious ‘system’, which WBY eventually compiled in his strangest book, A Vision. 3 3

Ibid., pp. 4–5.

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