William Butler Yeats: Poet and Practicing Magician

The Lapham Quarterly has published a rather excellent essay on W.B Yeats magical studies and his relationships with the Theosophical Society and the Golden Dawn. Of particular interest is the author’s take on why so many of the era’s most prominent thinkers and artists were  preoccupied with magic:

When Yeats arrived in London in 1887, the vogue for spiritualism was at its height, and the young poet was immediately sucked into the vortex. The implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had sunk in and were undermining basic assumptions of the established social order. In 1867 Matthew Arnold had heard the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith in retreat, and cults sprang up to fill the gap, to satisfy those who, like Yeats, were searching for something to believe in beyond the material world.

Read more at The Lapham Quarterly.

Hat tip: Revolt of the Apes



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11 Comments on "William Butler Yeats: Poet and Practicing Magician"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Jul 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm |

    Roy Foster wrote an interesting essay about Yeats’ mysticism in the context of the social dislocation of the Protestant middle class at the apex of the Irish nationalist movement. 

    • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2012 at 12:48 am |

      Do you have the name of the essay?
      Was it in his Yeats bio?

      • Liam_McGonagle | Jul 31, 2012 at 11:24 am |

        “Protestant Magic:  W.B. Yeats and the Spell of Irish History”.  I encountered it in Foster’s anthology called “Paddy and Mister Punch:  Connections in Irish and English History”. 

        I’ve only recently acquired any real interest in fiction and literary criticism, so I was drawn mostly by the historical analysis.  I’d have to believe that Foster covers the same ground in more depth within the bio.  Though I don’t know that for a fact.

        As you’d expect for a historian, even one with a literary emphasis, Foster treats the subject of magick itself in a very superficial way, explaining it as a kind of backdoor through which Yeats could affirm his Irishness in the face of a political and cultural landscape systematically attacking all the institutions that had nurtured him.

        I may change my mind later, but I’m kind of dismissive of Yeats myself.  I might be prejudiced by another essay from the same anthology:  “Good Behaviour:  Yeats, Synge and Anglo-Irish Etiquette”. 

        It kind of portrays Yeats as this sad, pretentious non-entity that would have been doomed to become an extra in his own life’s story were it not for the early death of his great rival and the fortuitious appearance of a some wealthy, influential patrons.

  2. W.B Yeats
    even Joyce thinks he’s obscure

    • Liam_McGonagle | Jul 31, 2012 at 11:34 am |

      That’s my feeling.

      Yeats was self consciously trying to create a type of nationalist cult, partly out of the understandable insecurity that comes from being a member of a formerly priviledged, now despised minority, and partly out of flaming personal egotism.

      Joyce had a much broader vision.  He embraced his Irishness only as a means of exploring the universal through the medium of the particular and rendering it totally authentic.

      So, in my opinion, Yeats’ work is, generally speaking, much duller, programmatic and ephemeral than Joyce. Yeats knew exactly the type of result he wanted to return and expressed himself accordingly, whereas Joyce was free to go wherever the road took him.

      • Calypso_1 | Jul 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm |

        Or is Joyce a product of the Workings of Yeats & his prophetic forbearers?  A movement from the 10th to the 11th gyre, the falcon dissapearing in the sun; A dissolution of the imaginal, visionary Celtic revival into the disseminated, yet local emergence of Time & Space in a world now populated with the color and flavour of Quarks, evaporating whimsically, indecipherably in a nocturne to the Classical age – where the particulate is bound only by the ability of the visionary to unleash the croakers from the boughs of paraheliotropic trees into the darkness shining in brightness which brightness can not comprehend.

        • Liam_McGonagle | Jul 31, 2012 at 3:00 pm |

          I feel kind of trapped by history, and I think these guys did, too.  But I think Joyce’s approach is a little more adaptable to my situation than Yeats’.

          Joyce came from an ancient gentry family that produced several distinguished Gaelic poets.  His father was heavily involved in nationalist politics.  His family’s history was the history of Ireland.

          Most of Yeats’ forebears were relatively recent immigrants who’d chosen career paths that were slowly being written out of Irish history–clergymen  of the established church who owed their livelihoods to the extraction of tithes from a hostile, non-subscribing population.  As Foster put it, these were “marginal men”.

          For Joyce, history was often a nightmare from which he was trying to awake.  It might have been easier for him to comfortably explore universal human themes because he had no realistic possibility of dissociating himself from his ethnic identity.

          Yeats, on the other hand certainly spent a lot of energy trying to create a national mythology.  The particular may illustrate the universal, but it certainly does not CONTAIN it.  Joyce was struggling to leave a narrow space whereas Yeats was struggling to enter it.

          For my part, my family’s history is much more like Joyce’s–although being American born, I guess that’s of dubious relevance.  Especially in an age when the very notion of nationalism is of dubious relevance.

          Maybe I am a little cynical, but I think Yeats employed his brand of magick for some very mundane ends.  I realise there are many different ways to read its content, but I see his Celtic Revival imagery in “Fergus and the Druid” as a heavy handed and unironic attempt to usurp ownership of a nationalistic mythology.

          On the other hand, I’m inclined to interpret Joyce’s statement that he intended to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” as referring to the human race, of which the Irishman is merely one specific instance.

      • Jin The Ninja | Jul 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm |

        i don’t really know enough about yeats or joyce to concretely agree (although i did years ago take several classes on english literature/poetry…:S) but i definitely concur with my limited knowledge on it.

      • one of the littliest said me, me, Sem,
        when pappa papared the harbour,
        one of the wittiest said,
        when he yeat ye abblokooken and he zmear hezelf zo zhooken

  3. That was cool, sometimes it’s hard to take into account the general feeling of a particular time.  “…the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith in retreat” – beautiful line.

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