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W.B. Yeats, Magus



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.

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  • It was respectful and humble of Newton to argue that he didn't discover the laws of physics - he merely rediscovered them. Wrong, but humble. And many have imagined that they see hints of scientific discoveries in ancient texts -- all save the one discovery that trumped all others: Darwin's.

    There is no hint in any ancient text that dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 200 million years before disappearing, to be followed much later by the apes who evolved into the humans that have wandered around for no more than 200,000 years -- the tiniest fraction of the dinosaurs' empire. Esoteric texts offer no hint of the billion years, long before the dinosaurs could even have survived here, during which the most complex forms of life on Earth comprised a single cell.

    It may turn out that humanity as a whole will *never* be able fully to process what Darwin first understood, so the fact that even Yeats and Newton couldn't handle it should probably not surprise us. But we shouldn't look to them for help with it, either.

    Posted by Bill Brazell on Sat 28 Jul 2012

  • Thank you for the very good piece! But saddening, twice diminishing of the memorized poet's meaning. One, 'magic' (all that might be supernatural) was merely a means to an end, and Two, the end was his own omnipotent will. Would that the proof be only in the poetry. In fact the poetry is tinted or tainted whether one likes or not by extra-mural information. (Cf Pound.) Or, what do you think, Mr James?

    Posted by Kai Maristed on Sat 28 Jul 2012

  • We must not criticized the illusion of W.B Yeats without some kind illusion man could not survive on this earth.Man want some big motive for living.Everyman is unique,what kind of destiny he bring with his birth on that his illusion developed.If anybody`s illusion not harmful to society we must tolerate him but his illusion is harmful to society we must oppose to him.Hitler`s whim say illusion were most dangerous and most harmful to world so world united and defeated him. Illusion of Yeats harmless so let him enjoyed them

    Posted by Ramesh Raghuvanshi on Sun 29 Jul 2012

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About the Author

Jamie James’ most recent book is Rimbaud in Java. His previous books include The Music of the Spheres, The Snake Charmer, and Andrew & Joey: A Tale of Bali. His last essay for Lapham’s Quarterly appeared in the Fall 2010 issue, The City.

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, is a soothsayer, an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, consults ghosts or spirits, or seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you.
Book of Deuteronomy, c. 620 BC
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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