WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS: Mysticism, Magic and Theosophy. By Colyn Boyce

William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet, dramatist, writer and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature, being awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in 1923.

He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and helped to found the Abbey Theatre, as Ireland’s national theatre, in 1904, “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”.

In later years he served as a Senator of the Irish Free State.

Paracelsus, in 1538. courtesy of Wikipedia

Yeats had a lifelong interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology.  He read extensively on the subjects throughout his life, and was greatly influenced by the Theosophical Society and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme and Paracelsus, as well as Celtic bardic literature and Vedanta.

A Protestant of Anglo-Irish descent, Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin and was educated in Dublin and London. He spent childhood holidays at his mother’s relatives, the Pollexfens, in County Sligo. As a young poet Yeats came to think of the area as his spiritual home. Its landscape became, over time, both personally and symbolically, his “country of the heart”.[1] 

So too did its location by the sea; John Yeats stated that “by marriage with a Pollexfen, we have given a tongue to the sea cliffs”. [2] 

The Sligo coastline. courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1867, the family moved to England to aid their father, John, to further his career as an artist. At first, the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother entertained them with stories and Irish folktales. For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin toward the end of 1880. His father’s studio was nearby and William spent a great deal of time there, where he met many of the city’s artists and writers. During this period he started writing poetry, and, in 1885, the Dublin University Review published Yeats’s first poems.

William Blake in 1807. courtesy of Wikipedia

Although Yeats’s early works were heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and the pre-Raphaelite poets, he soon turned to Irish mythology and folklore and the writings of William Blake.

Later in life, Yeats paid tribute to Blake by describing him as one of the “great artificers of God who uttered great truths to a little clan”.[3]

While in Dublin, Yeats began his theosophical involvement, being admitted as a member of the Theosophical Society on 12 March 1885. In late 1884 his aunt Isabella Pollexfen Varley, had sent him a copy of Esoteric Buddhism, by Alfred Percy Sinnett. Yeats then lent the book to his good friend Charles Johnston, whom he had known since 1881.  Originally he had considered a career in the church; but after reading the book Johnson forsook that path. Instead he went to London to interview the founders of the movement, and on his return introduced Theosophy to Dublin.

Charles Johnston. courtesy of Wikipedia

Their paths would intersect on several occasions through life, with Johnston turning up at Madame Blavatsky’s home in London in the 1880s. A Sanskrit scholar and translator of several Hindu classics, Johnston was married to H. P. Blavatsky’s niece, Vera Zhelihovsky. It is probable that it was Johnston, together with Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism, which encouraged Yeats to explore the new philosophy of Theosophy.

Over his lifetime, Yeats had a history of forming clubs, and investigating a variety of spiritual disciplines and secret knowledge. One such organization in which he was involved was called the Dublin Hermetic Society, and dates from 16 June 1885. Always inclined to Theosophy, the Hermetic Society became in April 1886 the Dublin Theosophical Society.

Mohini Chatterji. courtesy of Wikipedia

It was here in 1886 Yeats had his first experience of an Eastern holy man – Mohini Chatterji (Chaterji), who had travelled from the Theosophical Society in London to lecture. “Rather than expounding Sinnett’s ideas which were steeped in Western Occultism), Chatterji propounded the more existentialist principles of Samkara – of the necessity to realize one’s individual soul by contemplation and the illusory nature of the material world. To WBY . . . Theosophy could not have been presented more attractively”.[4]

Yeats had the following to say about Mohini’s influence

“It was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless. Consciousness, he taught, does not merely spread out its surface but has, in vision and contemplation, another notion and change in height and depth”.[5]

The oriental turn in Yeats’ poetry, in later life, owed much to the influence of Chatterji and his Hindu philosophy.

The family returned to London in April 1887 and by the summer of that year Foster tells us that Yeats was introduced by Charles Johnston to Theosophist Madame Blavatsky, who recently had arrived in England.[6] 

Blavatsky in her 40s. reproduced from photo given by W Q Judge to Mrs Harriet Farr of NY CW 6 (1883 – 85)

During the coming year he was paying visits to the growing Blavatsky entourage in Holland Park, west London. In December 1888, he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society that Blavatsky had recently established.[7]

“He had an inclination towards magical experimentation and the verification of natural phenomenon. For this reason, he strongly backed the formation of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, devoted to such rituals” [8]

In 1889, he transferred his membership to the Theosophical Society in England.

Ignoring to a large extent the complex cosmology of Theosophy, Yeats adhered to the more comprehensive elements of the doctrine as summarised by Graham Hough

A young Yeats. courtesy of Wikipedia

“The idea of an age-old secret doctrine, passed on by oral tradition from generation to generation. He found a God seen only as the boundless, Absolute, impassible, unknowable, indescribable. He found a world consisting of emanations from this Absolute, and souls who were sparks or separated fragments of the same substance. Their object was to return to the One from which they came, but to accomplish this they have to make a long pilgrimage through many incarnations, live through many lives both in this world and beyond.” [9]

Yeats’s own personal attempt at writing an esoteric text comes to us as A Vision, a work that critics have called his personal mythology, but in his letters, Yeats claims the material in A Vision his “public philosophy,” and that he had a different “private philosophy”.

AE. A Self-portrait. courtesy of Wikipedia

Regularly visiting the British Museum, one day Yeats met MacGregor Mathers, author of The Kabbalah Unveiled, and was invited to join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Inaugurated in 1888, the organization was devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities and its time included such ‘luminaries’ as Sir William Crookes (England’s finest chemist), playwright Oscar Wilde and Yeats’ fellow Irish writer AE (George William Russell).

Yeats liked the approach of the Golden Dawn better than that of the more passive Theosophical Society: “After I had been moved by ritual, I formed plans for deeds of all kinds.” The organisation changed its name in 1901 to Stella Matutina. Yeats remained a member until 1923, acting as Imperator of Amoun Temple from 1914 to 1923.

Yeats was very interested in magic. A fellow visitor with him to Blavatsky’s home, the American artist Edmund Russell said for Yeats, next to poetry, magic was the most important pursuit of his life. As early as 1892, Yeats wrote to John O’Leary: “If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book . . . The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renascence – the revolt of the soul against the intellect – now beginning in the world.”[10] There is little doubt that his meetings with Blavatsky influenced his thinking and his work.

Another abiding interest for Yeats was spiritualism – although his investigations into the subject were mostly confined to the period between 1911 and 1916.

He had for many years been convinced of the supernatural and viewed the spirit world as lying behind visions, behind everything and in 1911, he became a member of the paranormal research organisation “The Ghost Club”.

The spirits were conceived as having power he said to “reunite the mind and soul and body of man to the living world outside us”; and that reunion he coveted for mankind.

He had a passionate hope of finding a proof of immortality comprehensible to everybody, which might act as a catalyst for people to change their inner perspective, and outer lives radically and fast, thus improving human relations, purifying politics, and spiritualizing art.

Few could tread the path of vision; most required a short cut. Séances might provide the short cut. Once Yeats made up his mind to pursue this path, there was no stopping him.

Having noted analogies between Irish country stories and modern spiritism, he proposed, in the interest of learning, to make a careful comparison: “I was comparing one form of belief with another, and like Paracelsus, who claimed to have collected his knowledge from midwife and hangman, I was discovering a philosophy.” [11]

Emanuel Swedenborg. courtesy of Wikipedia

Many warned against the pitfalls of pursuing such investigations. Blavatsky was against the practice, saying the danger was black magic; few dabbling in “phenomena” were strong enough to avoid hooking up with the lower forces of the goetia. While not denying the existence of ghosts, Blake compared them most unfavourably to the glorious realities of the imagination.

Swedenborg was ‘dead set’ against mediumship except his own and railed against the passive kind which wipes out the will instead of heightening it. And even the Golden Dawn expressed caution advising that man’s Higher Self must wake, not sink into sleep. Any ‘communication’ with the gods or the disembodied dead must be in full, not muted, consciousness.

Yeats in 1923. courtesy of Wikipedia

From 1900 Yeats’ poetry had grown more physical, realistic  and politicised. He moved away from the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with some elements including cyclical theories of life. He had become the chief playwright for the Irish Literary Theatre in 1894, and early on promoted younger poets such as Ezra Pound. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”.

His major later works include 1928’s The Tower  and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, published in 1932.

In 1936, he undertook editorship of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892. From 1935 to 1936 he was living on the Spanish island of Majorca and with Indian-born Shri Purohit Swami undertook the lion’s share of translating the principal Upanishads from Sanskrit into common English. The resulting work, The Ten Principal Upanishads, was published in 1938.

He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, on 28 January 1939, aged 73 and was buried after a private funeral at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.  In September 1948, Yeats’s body was moved to the churchyard of St Columba’s Church, Drumcliff, County Sligo, on the Irish Naval Service corvette Le Macha.

His epitaph is taken from the last lines of “Under Ben Bulben” one of his final poems:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Sligo countryside with Ben Bulben in the distance. courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the key twentieth-century English-language poets, Yeats was a Symbolist poet, using allusive imagery and choosing words and assembling them so that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggest abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant. His symbols usually hint at something that while physical in nature may at times point to immaterial, timeless qualities.

While Yeats’s early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore, his later work was engaged with more contemporary issues, and his style underwent a dramatic transformation. His work can be divided into three general periods. The early poems are lushly pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornate, and, at times, perceived as stilted. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects.

Yeats’s middle period saw him abandon the pre-Raphaelite character of his early work[12] But critics were not impressed and dismiss the works of this period as harshly modernist, barren or lacking in imaginative power.

Yeats’s later work found more favour as he discovered new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he had developed while under the influence of spirituality. In many ways, his poetry had come full circle with a return to the vision of his earlier work. As historian Kathleen Raine comments “The opposition between the worldly-minded man of the sword and the spiritually minded man of God, the theme of The Wanderings of Oisin, is reproduced in A Dialogue Between Self and Soul.” [13]

Modernists read the well-known poem “The Second Coming” as a lament for the decline of European civilisation, but it also expresses Yeats’s apocalyptic mystical theories and is shaped by the 1890s.

Written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War One and the Irish War of Independence, the poem is also connected, most significantly for today’s readers, to the last flu pandemic of 1918-19. Yeats’ wife Georgie Hyde-Lees, while pregnant caught the virus and was very close to death. The virus was particularly lethal for pregnant women— with up to a 70 percent death rate, in some areas. While his wife was convalescing, Yeats wrote “The Second Coming”.

As Grosvenor Powell writes in “The metaphysics of Yeats’s late works must be read in relation to his system of esoteric fundamentals in A Vision (1925)”.[14]

Yeats wrote this work while experimenting with automatic writing with his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees. It serves as a meditation on the relationships between imagination, history, and the occult. A Vision has been compared to Eureka: A Prose Poem, the final major work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Yeats with wife Georgie, second from the left in 1930. courtesy of Wikipedia

‘Eureka’ was written in 1848 and is subtitled as ‘An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’. Adapted from a lecture he had presented, Eureka describes Poe’s intuitive conception of the nature of the universe. Some of Poe’s ideas anticipate 20th-century scientific discoveries and theories, revealing a non-causal correspondence with modern cosmology due to the assumption of an evolving Universe.

Most controversially for the time, he proposes that space and duration are one and that matter and spirit are made of the same essence. Though Poe criticised the transcendental movement for what he referred to as incoherent mysticism, Eureka is more mystical than most transcendental works and contains more than a few elements that do not appear out of place with the theosophical ‘world-view’.

Acknowledgements

  1. Yeats, W. B. (1994). The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Wordsworth Poetry Library
  2. W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1956), p. 12. London: Macmillan
  3. Paulin, Tom. Taylor & Francis, 2004, “The Poems of William Blake”
  4. R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914. (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 45-8
  5. W. B. Yeats, Reveries Over Childhood and Youth. 1915. Quoted in Yeats’ Autobiographies (London 1961), pp 91-92
  6. Ibid p. 62
  7. Ibid p. 78
  8. R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914. (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 101-03
  9. Graham Hough, The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats. (London: Harvester, 1984), p. 39
  10. Yeats: Some Letters from W. B. Yeats to John O’Leary. pp. 13-14
  11.  Virginia Moore, The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats Search for Reality. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 11954) pp. 218-20
  12. Seiden, Morton (1962). William Butler Yeats. Michigan State University Press
  13.  Raine, Kathleen.Yeats the Initiate. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1990, pp. 327–329
  14.  Powell, Grosvenor E. “Yeats’s Second Vision: Berkeley, Coleridge, and the Correspondence with Sturge Moore”. The Modern Language Review, Vol. 76, No. 2, April 1981, p. 273

The author is also grateful for background information supplied by Wikipedia and Theosophy Wiki

Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, from Canada. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – for about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated. He is a National Lecturer for the TS in England and has spoken on numerous occasions in London and at various other locations throughout the UK, Canada and the USA. During 2021 and 2022 he has spoken for the TS in England, the TS in Ukraine, for the European School of Theosophy and the Philippines Section of the Society.

Published by hermesrisen

writer, theologian and broadcaster, my work can be found at www.debbie-elliott.co.uk Colyn Boyce is co-editor for Hermes Risen and is a writer, photographer and all round good guy.

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