W.B. Yeats Twentieth Century Magus by Susan Johnston Graf - Read Online
W.B. Yeats Twentieth Century Magus
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W.B. Yeats--Twentieth Century Magus is a comprehensive study of his magical practices and beliefs. Yeats moved through many different phases of spiritual development, believing that his life was an intellectual, spiritual, and artistic quest--a quest greatly influenced by Celtic lore, Theosophy, Golden Dawn ceremonial magic, Swedenborg's metaphysics, the works of Jacob Boehme, and Neo-Platonism. For Yeats, writing poetry was an act of divine possession, and he believed that a perfected soul was the source of his inspiration, visiting him during times of superconscious awareness. Susan Johnston Graf meticulously documents and provides evidence that Yeat's poetry is brilliant, lyric narrative of realtiy captured through the mind of a practicing magician working in the Western Tradition.

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ISBN: 9781609254957
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W.B. Yeats Twentieth Century Magus - Susan Johnston Graf

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William Butler Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, found his poetic genius through ceremonial magic. Yeats wrote about politics, heroes, love, and family. He wrote about Ireland and about being Irish. He also wrote about his visionary experiences and his magical worldview. Since his death in 1939, scholars have written about Yeats's poetic genius, using that term metaphorically. Yeats, however, would have used the term genius in its literal sense, although he preferred the term daimon. Yeats's essays, letters, journals, and the automatic script that he and his wife produced mark him, not only as one of the important poets of the twentieth century. but also as one of its foremost esotericists.

Yeats has always been the property of the literary establishment. Within the academy, Yeats is English Department material. We read his poetry, and once in a great while his drama, but his prose is usually overlooked. Modern and post-modern critics have never looked kindly on Yeats's esoteric pursuits, finding his occultism, as W. H. Auden put it, an embarrassment. With few exceptions, scholars of literature are not interested in the occult. Since their own beliefs often contradict a magical worldview, they find the idea of magical practice silly and repugnant. For scholars of Yeats, this is a problem. The New Critics, however, whose dictum was to focus on the work itself, ignoring context and biography, had an easy, theoretical out. Refusing to admit any problem or contradiction of beliefs, they claimed that it did not really matter what Yeats believed. They downplayed his interest in occultism and ignored the esoteric subtext in his work. Eventually, it became accepted practice to continue ignoring it. My own experience reflects this. As I worked within the academy to write a doctoral dissertation about Yeats, I was constantly reminded that I was writing for an English department—that my work should be a literary study, not one in esoteric philosophy.

I am not suggesting that there has been a grand conspiracy to silence Yeats's esoteric views. In the case of Yeats, however, the compartmentalization of knowledge that the academy fosters has left a major aspect of his work unexplored and has impeded a real understanding of his art. In the last twenty-five years, there have been some breakthroughs. Some of the old prejudice has been eroded. George Mills Harper published Yeats's Golden Dawn, a book about the poet's administrative and political involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn.¹ Harper also recently edited the automatic script that later became A Vision, silencing those who argued about whether or not the work really could be the product of such arcane experimentation.² William T. Gorski's Yeats and Alchemy was published by a major academic press, and Yeats's correspondence with Maud Gonne and others has also been published, showing how deeply Yeats was involved, throughout his life, in esoteric pursuits.

The blame does not lay entirely with the academic establishment, however. Yeats began to silence himself after his publisher, A. H. Bullen, told him that the Irish considered his work heterodox. Bullen warned Yeats, after the publication of The Secret Rose, that he had better downplay his occultism.³ During 1901, there were also scandalous problems within the Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats was running the Order at the time, acting as Imperator of Isis-Urania Temple in London. The scandal appeared in the press, and the Order's name was associated with a couple named Horos, who were supposedly practicing an unsavory form of sexual magic in Paris, using the name Golden Dawn.⁴ The Order to which Yeats belonged changed its name to Stella Matutina and continued practicing, but Yeats was careful thereafter to keep his association with it quiet, especially after Bullen's earlier warning. Nonetheless, Yeats remained a member of the Order until 1923. By then, times had begun to change. and Yeats realized it. The young modernists, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, found Yeats's preoccupation with occultism silly, and Yeats knew that he must downplay his esoteric interests if the new, modernist literary establishment were to accept him.

For these, among other, reasons, Yeats's esoteric philosophy has not been studied. Scholars have now provided pieces of the puzzle, but nowhere has the whole picture been assembled. With the whole picture in clear view, it becomes apparent that Yeats has played a role in shaping esoteric thought in the twentieth century and in preserving what has recently come to be called the Western Tradition. This book is about Yeats the esotericist. In Eye to Eye, Ken Wilber sees an evolution toward what he terms a transpersonal consciousness in artists.⁵ Yeats is an artist on the vanguard of the artistic revolution about which Wilber is writing. He worked within an esoteric framework and used that framework to find the inspiration for much of his work.

As Kathleen Raine has noted, 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.⁶ Such was Yeats's conception of poetry from the commencement of his career. Yeats placed the poet at the meeting point between heaven and Earth, defining him as one possessed by a divinity, an oracle through whom a daimon might find voice.

Yeats began writing poetry in the early 1880s, when he was a teenager. Even then, he conceived of poetry-writing as an act of divine possession. As Yeats matured, he moved through many different phases of spiritual development, believing that his life was an intellectual, spiritual, and artistic quest. Finally, in 1917, through the writing of Per Amica Silentia Lunae (Through the Friendly Silence of the Moon), a little blue book with a twenty-two-petalled rose resembling that from his Golden Dawn Rose Cross Lamen on its cover, Yeats syncretized his eclectic spiritual pursuits and refined his beliefs about the source of inspiration. He called Per Amica his spiritual history (AVB, 19). In its prologue, he said he was writing about his convictions (PASL, 319). Yeats's lifelong endeavor was to unify his interests and beliefs. He was 52 when he wrote Per Amica Silentia Lunae, a middle-aged man who could see, in retrospect, how his various spiritual pursuits fit together to create his poetics. Celtic lore, theosophy. Golden Dawn magic, Swedenborgian metaphysics; and Neo-platonism each played a part in Yeats's development up to a point.

Per Amica Silentia Lunae serves as the fulcrum of Yeats's career, holding the balance between his early and his mature work. Since it is his self-proclaimed spiritual history. it is also the perfect starting point for a study of the development of his esoteric beliefs and the expression of those beliefs in the poetry written between 1914 and 1939, when he died. From 1900 until 1908, Yeats experienced an artistic dark night of the soul, producing little poetry. much of it formula work. Desperately seeking inspiration, he questioned his beliefs about its source. Yeats had no trouble hearing his daimon before 1900. Thereafter, however, he felt increasingly as if it had deserted him. In 1908, through his artistic suffering and searching, Yeats finally found the idea of the mask and went on to articulate his poetics definitively in 1917 in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. After 1917, Yeats began producing the poetry that has led critics to name him a great modern poet.

According to Per Amica Silentia Lunae, poetry-making was part of a magical process for Yeats. He believed that a perfected soul, what he termed a daimon, was the source of his inspiration, visiting him during instances of superconscious awareness. In Per Amica, he reaffirmed that writing poetry was a magical act, explaining his ceremonial technique and using Cabbalistic imagery to depict his theory about the origin of inspiration. Through the writing of Per Amica, Yeats realized that he needed to make some changes in his life if he were to achieve the poetic greatness that he felt had been lost to him seventeen years before. The changes Yeats made reflected his symbolist, esoteric worldview.

To begin with, he bought his tower at Ballylee. He would have a tower for attracting the sudden lightning of daimonic inspiration. Thoor Ballylee, more than a summer home for Yeats, was a magical talisman within which he lived. It was the tower on the tarot card that drew the brilliant flashes of poetic inspiration he sought. As he paced the battlements of Thoor Ballylee, Yeats round his anti-self, and his daimon was drawn to him. In his tower, Yeats could fully and literally practice the poetics of Per Amica Silentia Lunae.

Next, Yeats began looking for a wife—someone to whom his daimon could whisper in the dark. Yeats proposed marriage to Iseult Gonne, Maud Gonne's daughter, in July of 1917. Per Amica was written to explain his metaphysical beliefs to her. The book articulated his personal, syncretistic beliefs about the soul of man and the soul of the world. At the time he wrote it, Yeats had set his sights on making Iseult his spiritual and sexual partner. It was thus important that she understand, accept, and share his magical world view. Only then could she hear his daimon whispering to her in the dark. As fate would have it, lseult Gonne was not to become Yeats's bride. In the fall of the same year, how ever, Yeats did marry for the first time. He choose George Hyde-Lees, a fellow initiate in Stella Matutina. Within weeks of their marriage, George became the oracle for Yeats's daimon, dictating hundreds of pages of automatic script.

Meeting Mohini Chatterjee, working with Ma dame Blavatsky, joining and then running the Order of the Golden Dawn, becoming an adept in Stella Matutina, studying spiritualism, experimenting with automatic writing—all contributed to Yeats's practical experience with the supranormal. Supplementing these practical experiences were the theoretical works that Yeats studied, including works by Jacob Boehme, Ema nuel Swedenborg, and Paracelsus, as well as Celtic bardic material and Vedanta. Yeats's own personal attempt at writing an esoteric text comes to us as A Vision, a work that critics have called his personal mythology. As his letters attest, however, Yeats privately called the mate rial in A Vision his public philosophy and admitted that he had a different private philosophy that was not contained in A Vision.

Yeats's attempt to record his private philosophy, his spiritual practices and beliefs, began in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, where his intention to articulate his magical worldview is clear. The attempt is half-hearted and sketchy. however, and Yeats's grander plan for a book whose chapters were to be based on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet was forgotten. Yeats had intended, originally, to title the book An Alphabet; its second segment, titled Anima Mundi, was to consist of twenty-two sections. Yeats left no record of his original plan, however. He finished the book in a few months and published it immediately. Per Amica remains the closest Yeats ever came to articulating either his magical beliefs or his poetics, which are based on them. Students of Yeats must first hear the poet clearly in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, and then follow the sources and intimations he offers in order to arrive at a full understanding of his esotercism. Only then will the cultural milieu within which Yeats was operating, the occult establishment of England and Paris from 1885 until the 1930s, come into clearer focus.

It makes sense to study Per Amica Silentia Lunae carefully, paying attention to detail and believing what Yeats tells us about what he thinks and what he does. The tendency of scholars to second guess Yeats or to ignore the esoteric subtext of his works, has resulted in Per Amica Silentia Lunae being thoroughly ignored, even though Yeats kept writing about how important it was and how A Vision arose from the thoughts he expressed there. In view of the growing body of scholarship that has focused on Yeats since his death, it seems amazing, at first, that any book he published has been ignored. When we consider that the work is arcane—in its entirety, however, the reason fur this becomes clear. It is not possible to second guess Yeats or to ignore his esoteric subtext and still have anything to say about what the poet has written in Per Amica. It is his spiritual history and the proper starting point for an understanding of Yeats, the poet, who is also Yeats, the magus.

¹ George Mills Harper. Yeats's Golden Dawn (London: Aquarian Press. 1987).

². George Mills Harper. The Making of Yeats's A Vision: A Study of the Automatic Script. 2 vols. (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. 1987).

³. Harper. Yeats's Golden Dawn, 23.

⁴. Israel Regardie. What You Should Know About the Golden Dawn (Phoenix. AZ: New Falcon, 1987), 16.

⁵. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm (Boston: Shambhala, 1990).

⁶. Kathleen Raine, Yeats, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn, 2nd ed. (Dublin: Dolmen, 1976), 44.



Bald heads forgetful of their sins,

Old, learned, respectable bald heads

Edit and annotate the lines

That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love's despair

To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.

—"The Scholars"

YEATS'S PLACE IN TWENTIETH-century literary history is unassailable—everyone agrees that he was a genius. Consequently, not a few ofthe current stars of literary scholarship have built their careers from their work on Yeats. Go to any academic library and you will find books about every imaginable aspect of Yeats's life and work. You will find books that claim to address the topic of Yeats and occultism (a good number of them even have titles that go something like that). In my experience, these works are written by academics trying to build their careers on Yeats—a solid foundation and respectable beyond a doubt—and searching for an untended corner of Yeats criticism to call their own.

Such scholars, however, do not understand a magical worldview and have not worked within the Western Tradition. They read Yeats's published—or in the case of a lucky few, unpublished—writings, and perhaps turn to Israel Regardie's classic work, The Golden Dawn to check out some references. Moreover, their audience, by and large, knows even less than they do about the topic, and takes whatever they glean from these readings as correct. While there are Yeats scholars, like Kathleen Raine or James Olney, who write from a profound understanding of Yeats, the literary canonization of his more popular works has led to a kind of secular humanist version of the poet that misses the mark. Scholars who read Yeats and miss allusions—really obvious ones—to occult ideas and practices, do so because they simply do not know how much they do not know. Most scholars of Yeats are either Christian or Jewish, and work from a personal bias that can impede direct apprehension of his work. Yeats compounded the problem, gladly obscuring his true beliefs in the interest of fame, respectability, and allegiance to his Order.

I hold no credentials that establish me as an authority on occultism. I do not belong to any occult society or coven. I have never met any of Dion Fortune's hidden masters, at least not that I know of, and I still can not read the Akasic Record. However, I came to Yeats because I wanted to study occultism, not the other way around. When I was an undergraduate at a small state university in the 1970s, there was no minor in the Western Tradition, nor were there courses on tarot cards or the making of ritual implements. Still, my friends and I were interested, often meeting in the attic of a Victorian house on a main street where my good friend, who was some years older, taught a class on the tarot.

Another Yeats Book?

When I think of those 1970s attic days, I compare them to Yeats's retelling of the 1890s. There was something decadent and symboliste in the way we lived and thought. It was then that I found Yeats, sensing a bond with him, a similarity in the way we thought about reality. When I read Yeats, I understood him in an almost uncanny way.

In 1987, after I had left that small university town and our Victorian house had been torn down to build a mirrored office and townhouse complex, I found myself in a different academic community—this time a major Midwestern university where I was pursuing a Ph.D. During a seminar on Yeats, Lawrence, and Heaney, I articulated some obscure, pertinent bit about Yeats that cleared up some apparent confusion in a poem. One of my fellow students looked at me in wonder and asked, How did you know that? Joking, I said, Yeats speaks through me At that very moment, the lights in the windowless seminar room went out for an instant. My colleagues were breathless. I played the moment for all it was worth. Someone had probably run their car into a utility pole at the moment I was joking, but the incident is typical of my life with Yeats.

In academia, I found myself doing just what Yeats had to do during the latter phase of his career. I was never allowed to say much about the esoteric aspects of Yeats's work. I had to qualify all of my observation, with the result that I produced some of the most circuitous, wordy prose imaginable. I am still recovering. I could not say that a certain symbol in Yeats was founded on Golden Dawn symbolism. I had to