Tag Archives | W.B. Yeats

Magic, Myth and Secrecy: W.B. Yeats and the Occult

William Butler Yeats by John Butler Yeats 1900.jpg

William Butler Yeats by John Butler Yeats, 1900.


Did you know that Yeats was fascinated by the occult? He was a member of Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society (eventually expelled) and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Indpendent.ie sheds some light on Yeats’s fascination with the dark arts:

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.

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A Man Young and Old

by Hartwig HKD via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

by Hartwig HKD via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

I First Love

THOUGH nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.
But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.
She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

II Human Dignity

Like the moon her kindness is,
If kindness I may call
What has no comprehension in’t,
But is the same for all
As though my sorrow were a scene
Upon a painted wall.
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.… Read the rest

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W. B. Yeats’s Vision of Historical Cycles

Neil Mann interprets:

General Outline

Since it affects the poetry more obviously and more directly than almost any other part of the System, the view of history proposed in A Vision has received more critical attention than any other area, not all of it entirely accurate. The basic principles are, however, relatively easy to grasp, and Yeats himself noted that the section treating history, ‘Dove or Swan’ (AV A Book III and AV B Book V), was among the more accessible parts of A Vision.

The title ‘Dove or Swan’ alludes to a particularly potent yoking of ideas through symbol. The Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary is often accompanied in art by a descending dove to symbolise the angel’s message that she would conceive a child: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

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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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