Yeats and the Occult

A drawing by Edmund Dulac from WB Yeats’ “A Vision.”

Irish poet and playwright William Butler (W.B.) Yeats is still best known for his Irish nationalism and poems like “The Wild Swans at Coole,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Second Coming.”

Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin, but moved to London when he was still a young man. He went back to Ireland every summer to spend time with his grandparents in County Sligo, a place that would appear frequently in his work.

His father was a well-known painter and began training Yeats as a child. William went to art school to appease his father, but only long enough to realize he really wanted to be a poet. In London (1886), he made the acquaintance of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. He liked to dress in a long black cloak, soft black sombrero, and untidy black trousers.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Yeats was introduced to the study and practice of the occult while in art college in Dublin. He found work as a correspondent for two American newspapers and he met the poet Paul Verlaine in Paris. This was also the time when joined the Theosophical Society and the Order of the Golden Dawn, an English occult group.

There is another world, but it is in this one.”

Conventional Christianity had been closed off for him because of his father’s religious skepticism. But he felt a need to believe in something and he sought some kind of spiritual life. Throughout his life, he tried to contact the spirit world through occult practices.

His involvement in the occult was connected to his relationships with a series of women who shared these beliefs. Almost all the women who inspired his poems were involved in the occult. In 1890, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, a secret society that practiced ritual magic and included in its member his great love Maud Gonne.

“…I’m looking for the face I had, before the world was made…”

Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems, and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats throughout his life. It had a profound effect on his poetry. Mysticism and the occult occur in many poems, most explicitly in ‘The Second Coming” but also in poems such as “Sailing to Byzantium.” Not everyone appreciated that effect. W.H. Auden said that these poems were the “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.”

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

2 thoughts on “Yeats and the Occult”

  1. Seems like you and Yeats have something in common: women who are into the occult. It did not go unnoticed. You have written about this before. LOL. I think secretly you’d still like to pursue the occult. Admit!


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