If the paramount project of W. B. Yeats’ professional life was the perfection of the art of poetry, it was intertwined with a personal preoccupation, the study and practice of magic— not in any metaphorical sense, but the dedicated pursuit of supernatural powers based upon the ancient traditions of alchemy and necromancy, which began in his youth and persisted to the end of his long life.
Yeats wrote frankly about his vocation as a magician in several memoirs and in A Vision, a dense astrological treatise he labored over for twenty years. A Protestant Irishman in Victorian Britain, Yeats as a young man was pulled in conflicting directions, but the occult always trumped worldly concerns, because it was so deeply connected with his poetic craft. In 1892, when the Irish patriot John O’Leary admonished the twenty-seven-year-old poet for his devotion to magic at the expense of the Cause, Yeats answered:
Now as to magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “weak” or otherwise because I choose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book [The Works of William Blake, with Edwin Ellis, 1893], nor would The Countess Kathleen [stage play, 1892] have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.
That’s plain speaking, which admits no ambiguity. If one would understand the works of the poet often described as the greatest of his age, it might seem necessary to come to terms with this lifelong passion. Yet apart from the prose works mentioned and a handful of supernatural tales in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, Yeats never directly addresses the practice of magic in the poetry and plays upon which his magisterial reputation rests. He alluded to it only rarely, with ambiguous metaphors and a select hoard of words charged with esoteric meanings.
Magic imbrued Yeats’ thinking so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the strands without rending the garment. Kathleen Raine, a poet deeply influenced by Yeats, offered a useful formula: “For Yeats magic was not so much a kind of poetry as poetry a kind of magic, and the object of both alike was evocation of energies and knowledge from beyond normal consciousness.” The salient word there is “evocation,” casting the poet as a magus conjuring verbal spirits, not from his imagination but from a higher, or a deeper, place.
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.
Yeats was already familiar with the basic occult narrative: the magical wisdom of antiquity, predating even the civilizations of Egypt and Babylon, was preserved by an elite brotherhood of seers that handed down intact the doctrines of alchemy, astrology, and the path to eternal life. Belief in this hermetic revelation had flourished at least since the early Renaissance. One of the principal motives of the humanists who ransacked the cloisters of Europe for classical manuscripts was the quest for the treatises of Hermes Trismegistus, first among ancient magi, often identified with Olympian Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth (and from whom the word hermetic derives). Cosimo de’ Medici, fifteenth-century patron of the humanists, hoped to cheat death with the aid of scripture more ancient than that of Christian religion.