Magic, myth and secrecy - WB Yeats and the occult
Poet dallied with 'the other side', writes Michelle McDonagh
Published 09/05/2015 | 00:00
The young William Butler Yeats was introduced to the study and practice of the occult while in art college in Dublin - his instant fascination with the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities was to remain with him throughout his life. His passion for mysticism and the occult sciences was displayed through his poetry and writings.
The path to conventional Christianity had been cut off for Yeats by his father's religious scepticism, but his need to believe in something and a hunger for the spiritual life led him to seek and devise an alternative system of beliefs, according to official Yeats biographer Roy Foster.
He spent a lifetime seeking contact with the spirit world through occult researches and practices that informed much of what he did and wrote. As Foster points out, his involvement in the occult was intimately bound up in his complex relationships with a series of women who shared these beliefs and almost all the women who inspired his poems were involved in the occult.
His occultism fits into an Irish Protestant literary tradition that includes Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bowen.
It was while studying at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin that Yeats met the poet, dramatist, and painter George Russell who inspired his interest in mysticism, giving him a copy of A.P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism.
Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life. In 1885, he became a founding member of the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society with Russell.
When the Yeats family moved back to London in 1887, the young poet paid a visit to Madame Helena Blavatsky, the famous occultist and founder of the Theosophical Society which he joined and was later expelled from.
In March 1890, still seeking deeper answers, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, a secret and rather shady society that practised ritual magic. Other members included his great love Maud Gonne, the actress Florence Farr, Welsh author Arthur Machen and English authors Evelyn Underhill and Aleister Crowley.
At one point, Yeats and Gonne conducted a spiritual marriage through the Golden Dawn to channel his frustrations at the lack of a physical one. His future wife, George Hyde-Lees joined the order in 1914.
At one point Yeats sought occult guidance for a crisis in his private life. He had been seeing the actress Mabel Dickinson who wrote to tell him she was pregnant. He asked for the advice of the spirit world through a medium and a message came through to say he had been deceived and "should not take the action I had all but decided on".
Dickinson, as it turned out, was not pregnant and his faith in the supernatural had, in his eyes, been vindicated. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for over 30 years becoming involved in the order's power struggles, both with Farr and McGregor Mathers.
After the organisation ceased and splintered into various offshoots, Yeats remained with the Stella Matutina until 1921. Influence of the occult on Yeats's poetry is infused with a sense of the otherworldly, the spiritual and the unknown.
Mysticism figures prominently in his discussion of the reincarnation of the soul, as well as in his philosophical model of the conical gyres used to explain the journey of the soul, the passage of time, and the guiding hand of fate.
Mysticism and the occult occur again and again in his poetry, most explicitly in 'The Second Coming' but also in poems such as 'Sailing to Byzantium'.
In his book The Muses of WB Yeats, Joseph Hassett points out that Yeats came to the marriage with Hyde-Lees partly as a way of escaping the emotional turmoil of his relationship with Maud Gonne, but he feared that domesticity would cost him his poetic inspiration. However four days into their honeymoon, his new bride astonished him by suddenly assuming the voice of a messenger from the other world, with secrets to impart.
To his delight, George's 'instructors' revealed to him that the moment of sexual union was a portal to knowledge of the spiritual world - a knowledge that carried with it a metaphorical language rooted in a belief system of stunning power and richness.
This was the beginning of what would be a lengthy experiment with the psychic phenomenon called 'automatic writing', in which George's hand and pen served as unconscious instruments for the spirit world to send information.
Yeats and his wife held more than four hundred sessions of automatic writing, producing nearly 4,000 pages that he avidly and patiently studied and organised. From these sessions, Yeats formulated theories about life and history.
He created a complex system of spirituality, using the image of interlocking gyres (similar to spiral cones) to map out the development and reincarnation of the soul. Yeats believed that history was determined by fate and that fate revealed its plan in moments when the human and divine interact.
He published his intricate theories of personality and history in A Vision in 1925 (which he substantially revised in 1937), and some of the symbolic patterns (gyres, moon phases) with which he organised these theories provide important background to many of the poems and plays he wrote during the second half of his career.