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 in 1923.
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 work on.
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. A.G.H.