A Surprisingly Dashing Portrait of Yeats

The world of BRASS is alternate history, but one that hews in some ways very close to our own. There really was an occult movement in the London of the 1880s, one that centered around the Russian seer and founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, who was living in London in 1887. And as in our story, one of her early acolytes was the poet W. B. Yeats.

It is a mild embarrassment to many biographers and literary critics that the greatest lyrical poet of the 20th century had a lifelong interest in the occult, and was a member of several mystical organizations.  The details of what Yeats believed developed many times over his long life, but his study, investigation, and practice of mysticism and magic began early on. Even as a child, his occasional family trips from their dreary London lodgings back to the beauty and mystery of Sligo exposed him to a rich tradition of belief in the supernatural.

“I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed….” This is Yeats in 1901, but his own studies in magic and the occult had begun over a decade before.

The work that first brought Yeats to public attention in 1888 was his Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, a collection of stories gathered from his conversations with rural folks  about the fading but still present beliefs in fairies, banshees, spirits and other supernatural creatures. This contributed significantly to the public perception of the poetic young dandy as something of a harmless nut, rather like certain New Age proponents are thought of today.

‘Mr WB Yeats, Presenting Mr George Moore to the Queen of Fairies’, 1904. Illustration from The Poets Corner, by Max Beerbohm, (London, 1904).

Yeats took his commitment to occult thought much deeper than a whimsical belief in folklore. He was an early convert to Blavatsky’s Theosophy, an esoteric and (admittedly) obscure farrago of Eastern mysticism, supposedly derived from certain Hidden Masters in the Himalayas who passed on their wisdom through automatic writing. Yeats’ questioning nature led to his expulsion from her circle in 1890, and this in turn led him from mysticism into the practice of magic via membership in the famous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats’s introduction to the Golden Dawn came from a chance meeting with one of the group’s three founders, Samuel Liddel Mathers, in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Mathers, a former Mason who changed his name to MacGregor Mathers due to a dubious belief in his Scottish descent, had founded The Golden Dawn with two fellow Masons, William Robert Woodman and William Wynn Wescott, with the intent of coalescing a number of different occult beliefs into a working system of rituals. The basis for much of this was a study in Hermeticism, the theory and practice of magic in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical author of a series of occult texts. Yeats joined a growing number of sincere students of the occult, both men and women, and swiftly advanced through the Order’s hierarchy into its upper ranks.

The group’s welcome of women into its ranks helped to popularize it among London’s middle-class bohemians, and through the 1890s it grew to include over a hundred members, including the brilliant though disruptive young occult scholar Aleistair Crowley. Crowley was to initiate an attempted coup of the group in 1900 in an affair known as The Battle of Blythe Road. What was variously described as (take your pick) a magical showdown between rival magicians using occult forces, or an eccentric case of criminal trespassing, ended with the local constabulary evicting the be-kilted and masked Crowley out of the Order’s headquarters.

Yeats himself resigned from the Order in 1901, and late in life seemed to view the high drama of his early days with amusement. “Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts;” he wrote decades later, “henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.” But he remained committed to a subsequent Order, the Stella Matutina, until 1921, and much of his great work of mysticism, 1925’s A Vision, came from a series of automatic writings produced by his wife George.

As to his own beliefs, Yeats was most comfortable as a skeptic among believers and a believer among skeptics. Along with his occult membership, he was a member in good standing of the Society for Psychical Research for many years, a group that attempted to use scientific methods of inquiry to discover physical proof of the supernatural. And whatever your own belief in magic might be, the study of mystical ritual and symbols was for the poet rich and vital. It provided, in language and symbolic imagery, a lifelong source of poetic inspiration.