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W. B. Yeats—Twentieth-Century Magus
By Susan Johnston Graf
Samuel Weiser, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Susan Johnston Graf
All rights reserved.
Another Yeats Book?
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.
Yeats's place in twentieth-century literary history is unassailable—everyone agrees that he was a genius. Consequently, not a few of the 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 They read Yeats's published—or in the case of a lucky few, unpublished—writings, and perhaps turn to Israel Regardie's classic work, The Golden Dawn to check out some references.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 say rather that it might possibly have some relation to this cultural phenomenon. I could never assert that Yeats and his wife practiced sex magic. Instead I had to go off on some pathetic digression about polarity and tension—only in the work itself, of course. I still have not figured out why fledgling Yeats scholars receive such training. Are senior scholars covering up for their own ignorance, or is there a built-in bias against occultism aimed at saving Yeats's reputation? The end result of this blinkered vision is a two-dimensional. flawed understanding of Yeats.
Scholars of magic—I'm thinking of Francis King, Ellic Howe, and R. A. Gilbert, among others—have always placed Yeats squarely in the center of the Golden Dawn. They tell us that he was a lifelong member who helped to run things, first in the original Order and then in Stella Matutina. Golden Dawn membership data reveals that Yeats achieved the 6 = 5 grade. It has not been the work of historians of the Western Tradition, however, to fully understand Yeats, the poet. Much of this work has been done in the world of literary criticism. The literary scholars, on the other hand, have their own set of limitations, as I have just discussed. Consequently, there are two W. B. Yeatses—the poet and the magus. This book attempts to synthesize the two, creating a truer, more interesting, and much more colorful picture of the man, as both magus and poet.
The Great Work
But seek alone to hear the strange things said By God to the bright hearts of those long dead, And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
—"TO the Rose Upon the Road of Time"
Yeats's lifelong affair with occultism commenced when he was seventeen and "began to play at being a sage, a magician or a poet" (Au, 41). With the awakening of his own identity came the realization that his father's philosophy was a "misunderstanding created by Victorian science" (Au, 59). Finding his father's Victorian, agnostic world view unsatisfying, Yeats "began to study psychical research and mystical philosophy" (Au, 59). By 1885, he and Charles Johnston had formed the Dublin Hermetic Society, whose basic tenet presaged the Golden Dawn magic he would study five years later: "Whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion, ... their mythology, their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth" (Au, 60). In a letter written to Ernest Boyd on January 20, 1915, Yeats stated that the Dublin Hermetic Society was not "Theosophical (in the present sense of that word) at the start, but was for general mystical study" (L, 591). The following year, in April 1886, this society became the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society. After this transition, a professor of Oriental languages, who sometimes came to the Hermetic Society meetings, arranged for one of Madame Blavatsky's closest disciples, Mohini Chatterjee, to visit Dublin (Au, 61). Yeats said of that meeting with Chatterjee: "It was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and boundless" (Au, 61 ).
In 1887, Yeats moved to London with his family, taking with him an introduction from Charles Johnston to Madame Blavatsky. He joined the Theosophical Society in London. Always a skeptic, Yeats wondered about everything, from Madame Blavatsky's authenticity to the practical application of the teachings. Still, he visited her about once every six weeks during 1888. Though Yeats joined the newly formed Esoteric Section of the Theosophists, he claimed that he "had learned from Blake to hate all abstraction, and, irritated by the abstraction of what were called 'esoteric teachings,' began a series of experiments" (Au, 122). Yeats resigned from the Theosophical Society in 1889, supposedly because he had caused an uproar by performing an experiment that dared to question its teachings. As for the theosophists whom Yeats left behind, he felt little regret, having found them for the most part "fanatic and unreasoning" (Au, 122).
In his autobiography, Yeats says that he was initiated into "The Hermetic Students" (an organization that had "a different name among its members") in "May or June 1887" in a "Charlotte Street Studio" (Au, 124). R. A. Gilbert dates the birth of the Golden Dawn as February 1888, "when its creator (Dr. William Wynn Westcott) and his cronies (Dr. William Robert Woodman and Samuel Liddell Mathers) signed their pledges of undying allegiance to themselves." In the Golden Dawn membership list, Yeats is listed as 0 = 0, Neophyte, in March of 1890. We may never know the true date on which Yeats joined the Golden Dawn. Yeats says that he was spending his days at the British Museum, where he met MacGregor Mathers, who had already written The Kabbala Unveiled Yeats and Mathers became friends. Yeats was twenty-two and Mathers thirty-six or thirty-seven (Au, 123). Mathers invited Yeats to join the Golden Dawn.
Yeats liked the approach of the Golden Dawn better than that of the more passive Theosophical Society:
After I had been moved by ritual, I formed plans for deeds of all kinds. I wished to return to Ireland to find there some public work: whereas when I returned from meetings of the Esoteric Section I had no desire but for more thought, more discussion (Mem, 27).
Secrecy was of paramount importance in the Golden Dawn. The neophyte ritually swore "to keep secret any information ... gathered concerning the Order before taking this Oath," and also promised not to "be placed in such a state of passivity that any uninitiated person may cause [him] to lose control of [his] words or actions." Yeats was a full-fledged, initiated member of the Order of the Golden Dawn by March, 1890. He chose the Latin motto, Demon est Deus Inversus.
The Order of the Golden Dawn and its later off-shoot, Stella Matutina, were not just social clubs. Order initiates were serious, committed practitioners of ritual magic. Upstanding citizens like Wynn Westcott, a Coroner of London, and Annie Horniman, a wealthy English-woman and patron of the Abbey Theatre, not to mention many other notable citizens, gathered at Isis Urania Temple, which was furnished with caldrons, altars, incense, sarcophagi, and other ritual paraphernalia. Members wore traditional robes and symbolic regalia while they intoned elaborately staged dramatic liturgies that they had practiced and memorized. The rituals invoked deities like Isis and Osiris and sometimes involved staged hangings or entombments.
Golden Dawn initiates believed that the rituals were rites of passage promoting their spiritual evolution, and they studiously prepared themselves for passage from one grade to the next in the Order. They learned to read and write Hebrew, mastering a complex symbology that cross-referenced the Hebrew alphabet with colors, planets, gods, goddesses, and the human body, ultimately internalizing The Tree of Life of the cosmos called the Christian Cabbala. The Golden Dawn system was the epitome of religious syncretism, using elements from many religions including Christianity. It was the embodiment of Blake's dictum that "ALL RELIGIONS ARE ONE." The goal of Golden Dawn practice was clearly articulated in its initiation oath:
I further promise and swear that with the Divine Permission I will, from this day for ward, apply myself to the Great Workwhich is, to purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature so that with the Divine Aid I may at length attain to be more than human, and thus gradually raise and unite myself to my Higher and Divine Genius and that in this event I will not abuse the great power entrusted to me."
The ideal of a "Higher and Divine Genius" became the centerpiece of Yeats's poetics.
At the time Yeats was initiated into the Golden Dawn, there were only five grades: Neophyte, ZeJator, Theoricus, Practicus, and Philosoph us. In 1892, MacGregor Mathers claimed a link with the Secret Chiefs of the Order and rormed a second, Inner Order, called the Red Rose and the Cross of Gold, the Roseae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis. The original Golden Dawn then became the Outer Order, teaching only theoretical magic. The Inner Order, on the other hand, taught practical magic. The four grades of the Inner Order were Zelator Adeptus Minor, Theoricus Adeptus Minor, Adeptus Major, and Adeptus Exemptus. In addition to the Outer and Inner Orders, there was a Third Order made up of the Secret Chiefs themselves. Its degrees were Magister Templi, Magus, and Ipsissimus. The Golden Dawn teachings and governance were said to come from the Secret Chiefs, whom Mathers believed to be "human and living on earth: but possessing terrible superhuman powers."
Yeats began his ascent into the Second Order on January 20, 1893, taking the motto Demon est Deus Inversus. Francis King assumed that the motto indicated Yeats's interest in diabolism and noted that, in a broadcast talk, Max Beerbohm documented Yeats's use of the term diabolism, which he pronounced "dyahbolism." King also tells a story about a small gathering of Irish sorcerers in an anonymous, small backroom somewhere, which included Yeats. Supposedly the sorcerers wore black hoods and cloaks and played out a stereotypical scenario: "A black cockerel had its throat slit, its blood being drained into the bowl that stood on the table, and the magician opened his book and read an invocation in some unknown language." Imagining black clouds around him that he thought would capture him in an evil trance, Yeats promptly had the meeting stopped so that he could be ritually exorcized. Yeats tells the tale of an identical, diabolical adventure in The Celtic Twilight in a story called "The Sorcerers."
Despite his curiosity about diabolism, Yeats's Inner Order motto probably did not have much to do with it, although scholars claim a connection. In his biography of Yeats, A. Norman Jeffares translated Demon est Deus Inversus as "the Devil is the converse of God." Francis King, G. M. Harper, and Walter Kelly Hood use a similar translation, assuming that Demon translates as "devil." The Latin word for devil, however, is diabolus, not demon, and in versus translates as "inverted"—as in the top becoming the bottom—rather than Jeffares' "converse." This mistranslation has caused a misunderstanding about what Yeats really meant. I do not doubt for a minute that Yeats experimented with diabolism of the sort that King's example illustrates, but the occult motto for the Inner Order initiation did not have anything to do with evil magic.
The word "demon" has been demonized. In its original Latin form, daemon meant a spirit—a genie or genius—who gave intuition, insight, and inspiration. Such a spirit allowed human beings to converse with the gods. The Greek word fur daemon is daimon. Virginia Moore noted:
Socrates's daimon, that voice from within, has been variously interpreted as his conscience, higher self, or some divinity connected with himself—never as an evil being. Thus Yeats's meaning stands clear. Daimon, to him was, at this point ... a tutelary spirit attached to its opposite on earth....
In a cosmology that pictures divinity at the "top," above the human experience, and places the Earthly world at the "bottom," below the sublime world of deity, a demon, a man's genius, is the inverse of God—a sublime, higher reality that emanates "down" to the Earthly realm. Yeats framed his thought in such a cosmology. The scheme he knew was called the Cabbalistic Tree of Life.
Demon est Deus Inversus labeled Yeats as one who recognized that a genius descends to its chosen human and invests him with power. The same idea is at the center of the poetics of Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In Per Amica, Yeats used the Greek word daimon rather than demon, but the concept is clearly the same. From the daimon, a higher mentality that becomes the poet's genius and enables him to create truly great art, comes inspiration. Yeats's Inner Order motto, rather than expressing a bizarre fascination with diabolism, may reflect his ultimate hope that, through the practice of ceremonial magic and union with his daimon, he would evolve into a poet of genius.
With his initiation into the Inner Order as Demon est Deus Inversus, Yeats renewed his commitment to the practice of magic. In July of 1892, he wrote to John O'Leary:
If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. I hold to my work the same relation that the philosophy of Godwin held to the work of Shelley and I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellct—now beginning in the world (L, 211).
Excerpted from W. B. Yeats—Twentieth-Century Magus by Susan Johnston Graf. Copyright © 2000 Susan Johnston Graf. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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