by Ishan Bose
For many writers, inspiration can come from strange places, but W.B. Yeats takes the crown. One of the most notable influences on poetry of William Butler Yeats was his experiences and fascination with the occult and mysticism. “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 ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”
From early childhood, W.B. Yeats held a deep interest for the folklore and mythology of pre-Christian Ireland. While Yeats always sought to fill the gap in his spiritual understanding, he began his journey in occultism when he was around the age of 20, rejecting classic religions in the midst of Catholicism’s popularity. Yeats played a formative role in the Dublin Hermetic Order in June 1885 and presided as chairman during its inaugural meeting.
In 1886, he joined the Theosophical Society under Madame Helena Blavatsky. The organization focused on the study of the occult, metaphysics, and the paranormal. However, Blavatsky strictly forbade the practice of magic. As a result, Yeats longed for more experience, and had increasingly strained relations with Blavatsky, until he was finally excommunicated in 1890.
Not long before his forced resignation, Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Macgregor Mathers, a Freemason and one of the founders of the organization, encouraged members to practice occult experiments, such as astral projection and spirit communication. The society offered ten levels of learning and initiation. Only magi (those thought to know the secrets of supernatural wisdom) could attain the three highest levels. Becoming a magus was Yeat’s ultimate goal, remaining an active member of the Golden Dawn for thirty-two years.
It was through the Order of the Golden Dawn that Yeats met his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees. George, as she was known, was an alleged medium and gifted with the ability of automatic writing, where one apparently uses their body as a vessel in order for a spirit to communicate with the mortal realm. He and his wife began large scale experiments with automatic writing and together they held more than three hundred writing sessions and produced four thousand pages of text. Yeats patiently organized, cataloged and analyzed these writings, creating esoteric theories about the meaning of life and human history through the lenses of imagination, astrology and the occult. Yeats published these complex ideas in A Vision in 1925.
Yeats and Hyde-Lees became the power couple of séances, the writing of A Vision keeping them together despite their rather large age difference. For more on Yeats and his life in the occult, The National Library of Ireland has an extensive display on his life and writing, and up close documentation about the rituals of the Golden Dawn.