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Yeats, W. B. (1865-1939)
William Bulter Yeats, a noted Irish
poet, playwright, and mystic, was born at Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland. His
father John Yeats was a talented portait painter. His brother Jack Butler
Yeats was an artist too. His sisters Elizabeth and Lily assisted in the
founding of the Dun Emer (later Cuala) Press.
Most of Yeat's childhood was spent in London where he attended the Godolphin
School, Hammersmith. However, he also spent time in Dublin and County Sligo,
in Western Ireland. When fifteen he attended Erasmus Smith School in Dublin
where he studied art for three years, turning to literature having reached
twenty-one. His first published book, in 1886, was a little play entitled
Mosada. This was followed by two books of poems, The Wanderings
of Oisin (1889) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). In 1888,
he edited a collection of works titled Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish
Peasantry, which included some of his own fairy verse and established
him as one of the leaders in the Irish literary renaissance.
He knew many distinguished members in both English and Irish societies.
He helped establish the Irish Literary Threatre in 1899 (later the Abbey
Threatre). His poems and plays gained world fame. He served as a member
of the Irish Senate from 1922-1928, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature
Yeat's literary works received more publicity than his occult and mystic endeavors.
However, he believed he owed much credit for his poetry to his studies of
the occult. "In 1892, he wrote, `If I had not made magic my constant study I
could not have written a single would of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever
come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all
that I think and all that I write.'"
His interest in Theosophical writings led to the founding of the Hermetic
Society, in Dublin. He presided over the initial meeting on June 16, 1885.
When in London in 1888 he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical
Society. Then in 1890, he joined the famous Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn, taking the magical
motto; `Demon Est Desus Inversus" (DEDI) and was associated with this
order for over thirty years. It was in 1900 that he clashed with Aleister
Crowley, another member, in a leadership crisis.
In his book Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) are his studies of the
mystic element in Blake and Shelley and another essay entitled "The
Body of the Father Christian Rosencrux". In the commencement of an
essay Magic Yeats wrote, "I believe in the practice and philosophy
of what we have agreed to call magic, and what I must call the evocation
of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating
magic illusions in the visions of truth in the depths of the minds when
the eyes are closed."
After declaring this Yeats told how an acquaintance of his, while at a small
party in a darken room held a mace over "a tablet of many coloured
squares," and then repeating "a form of words." He said that
right away he found that his "imagination began to move itself and
to bring before me vivid images"
Yeats later said that it was S. L. Mathers of the Golden Dawn "who
convinced me the images well up before the mind's eye from a deeper source
than conscious or subconscious memory."
In a lecture on "Psychic phenomena" given before the Dublin Society
for Psychical Research, which was reported in the Dublin Daily Express,
November 1913, Yeats described the most amazing experiences which he had
received during his many years of investigating the phenomena. He stated,
"that so far as he was concerned, the controversy about the meaning
of psychic phenomena was closed. But he was not `converted,' in the true
sense of the word, since he was a born believer, and he had never seriously
doubted the existence of the soul or of God."
However, even though he declared a firm belief in the soul and God, Yeats
further stated his experience with the occult and psychic phenomena in a
lecture on "Ghosts and Dreams" before the London Spiritualist
Alliance (1914). In Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), he wrote as
a poet and mystic concerning some of the deeper issues of Spiritualism.
After marrying Georgia Hyde Lees, in 1917, he discovered that she was a
medium and had the ability of automatic writing.
Yeats' one-act play The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1934) was composed
around a Spiritualist seance at which the spirit of Jonathan Swift communicated.
Yeats' mystical inclinations was stimulated by the Hindu religious philosophy
of the Theosophical Society. In his sixties he became friends with a Hindu
monk Shri Purohit Swami. He wrote an introduction to the Swami's autobiography
An Indian Monk ((Macmillan, London, 1932). He further translated
another book The Holy Mountain (Faber, London, 1934) which was by
the Swami's guru. There were other endeavors which Yeats and the Swami also
It should be said that it took courage for Yeats to divulge some of his
occult beliefs, however he never publicize his association with the Golden
Dawn. By his disclosure of such beliefs one can surmise that he considered
them to be of importance although he firmly declared Christian convictions.