Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865–1939)
Famous Irish poet, playwright, and mystic. He was born at
Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. His father
John Yeats was a talented portrait painter. William’s
brother Jack Butler Yeats was also an artist, and his sisters Elizabeth
and Lily assisted in the establishment of the Dun Emer
(later Cuala) Press.
Much of Yeat’s childhood was spent in London, where he attended
the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, but he also
spent time in Dublin and County Sligo, in Western Ireland. At
the age of fifteen, he attended Erasmus Smith School, Dublin,
then studied art for three years, turning to literature at the age
of 21. His first book, a play titled Mosada, was published in
1886. It 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 titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,
which included some of his fairy verse. He became one
of the leading figures in the Irish literary renaissance.
In London he was a founder of the Rhymers’ Club and
friend of Ernest Rhys, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, William
Morris, W. E. Henley, and Arthur Symons. In Ireland, he was
associated with J. M. Synge, ‘‘AE’’ (George W. Russell), Douglas
Hyde, George Moore, and Lady Gregory. He helped to establish
the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 (later the Abbey Theatre).
His poems and plays have become world famous. He was
a member of the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928 and received
the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
The occult and mystical side of his life and work received
less publicity than his literary work, yet he believed that his poetry
owed much to his occult studies. In 1892, he wrote ‘‘If I
had not made magic my constant study I could not have written
a single word 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 the writings of Theosophists led to the formation
of the Hermetic Society, Dublin, and he presided over its
first meeting on June 16, 1885. While in London at the end of
1888, he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society.
In 1890, he joined the pioneering magical society, the Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn, taking the magical motto
‘‘Demon Est Deus Inversus,’’ (DEDI) and continued to be associated
with the Golden Dawn over some thirty years. In April
1900, he clashed with Aleister Crowley, also an order member,
in a leadership crisis.
Yeats’ book Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) contains studies of
the mystic element in Blake and Shelley and another essay is
titled ‘‘The Body of the Father Christian Rosencrux.’’ Another
essay titled ‘‘Magic’’ commences ‘‘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 his declaration, he related how once an acquaintance
of his, gathering together a small party in a darkened room,
held a mace over ‘‘a tablet of many coloured squares,’’ at the
time repeating ‘‘a form of words,’’ and immediately Yeats
found that his ‘‘imagination began to move itself and to bring
before me vivid images. . . .’’ It was S. L. MacGregor Mathers
of the Golden Dawn, states Yeats, ‘‘who convinced me that images
well up before the mind’s eye from a deeper source than
conscious or subconscious memory.’’
In a lecture on ‘‘Psychic Phenomena’’ before the Dublin Society
for Psychical Research (reported in the Dublin Daily Express,
November 1913), he spoke of most amazing experiences
during his investigation, which lasted for many years, and declared
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.
Yeats and Spiritualism
Lecturing on ‘‘Ghosts and Dreams’’ before the London
Spiritualist Alliance in April 1914, he gave another clear account
of his beliefs and experiences. In his book Per Amica Silentia
Lunae (1918), he spoke as a poet and mystic in dealing with
some of the deeper issues of Spiritualism.
In 1917, he married Georgia Hyde Lees and discovered that
his wife was a medium and capable of automatic writing. In
1934, Yeats wrote a one-act play ‘‘The Words Upon the Window-Pane’’
built around a Spiritualist séance at which the spirit
of Jonathan Swift communicated.
He showed considerable courage in making known some of
his occult beliefs, although he did not publicize his Golden
Dawn connections.
His mystical inclinations, stimulated by the Hindu religious
philosophy of the Theosophical Society that had also attracted
fellow poet ‘‘AE,’’ continued to develop. When in his sixties, he
became friendly with the Hindu monk Swami Shri Purohit and
wrote introductions to the Swami’s autobiography An Indian
Monk (Macmillan, London, 1932) and his translation of the
book by the Swami’s guru titled The Holy Mountain (Faber, London,
1934). In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the
Bhagaved-Gita under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord
Shri Krishna (Faber, London), which he dedicated ‘‘To my
friend William Butler Yeats’’ on the poet’s seventieth birthday.
In the same year, the Swami also published a translation of the
Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided a perceptive introduction.
He had planned to travel to India to assist the
Swami in translating the ten principal Upanishads, but eventually
the work was completed by the two friends at Majorca in
1936.
Yeats died January 28, 1939, in the town of Roquebrune,
overlooking Monaco, and was buried in the cemetery there
until nine years later, when his remains were transferred to the
churchyard of Drumcliffe, near Sligo.
Sources
Harper, George Mills. Yeats and the Occult. London Macmillan,
1975.
———. Yeats’ Golden Dawn. London Macmillan, 1974. Reprint,
Wellingborough, England Aquarian Press, 1979.
Yeats, William Butler. Autobiography. New York Macmillan,
1938.
———. Memoirs. New York Macmillan, 1973.
———. Mythologies. New York Macmillan, 1959.