Occultism: Used in W. B. Yeats Poetry

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      By ‘Magic’ Yeats meant the whole area of occult knowledge. First of all it gave Yeats a supply of imagery that he drew on for the rest of his life. Because all occult symbols linked ultimately to a universal harmony, any consistent interpretation of one of them was ‘right’ since it in turn led to that harmony. Yeats had a firm belief that if he could discover the design of the world of spirit then only the pattern of the world of matter in which he felt himself trapped would make sense. The occult, imprecise yet logical, offered systems of order brought these two worlds closer to each other to so close as a matter of fact that adapts could penetrate the veil and discover from the spirits beyond, clues to the essential nature of things.

Father’s Influence

      Yeats’s father was able to prove to Yeats with convincing arguments that formal religion were not the thing for him. As a result, Yeats spent a life time investigating informal and exotic religions. Everywhere, he felt, was incontrovertible evidence of an invisible but eminently active spiritual world. He had only to chart out its geography.

      In boyhood, Yeats tried to investigate folk beliefs in Sligo. By the time he was twenty, he had become a founding member of the Dublin Hermetic Society which on June 16, 1885, met for the first time. Yeats was the Chairman of that meeting. From that point onwards, his interest in the occult never wavered.

      Stock with multiple, antithetical and secret meanings for trees, birds, roses, and stars etc., Yeats delighted in things and symbols which could be rightly interpreted in an almost unlimited number of ways. Yeats’s Cabalistic studies, as also his later investigation of Platonism, spiritualism and oriental philosophy, were directed at finding out the mystery of things.

‘A Vision’

      A Vision which was the result of Yeats’s wife’s capacity for automatic writing and her communication with the world of spirits, represents Yeats’s effort to construct a metaphor for the co-relation of all things. Ultimately it became for Yeats not reality but the pattern of reality. Thus, his circuits of sun and moon became for Yeats something like stylistic arrangements of experience and helped him to hold in a single thought, reality and justice. All this was a part of Yeats’s attempt to get a vision of reality which could satisfy the whole being.

      Yeats’s belief that the poet’s experience is very close to that of the mystic, led him to believe that the poet’s experience can give him direct access to a really existing spiritual world. He also believed that this unseen world went on intruding on the everyday world in various ways.

His Thirst for Knowledge

      What was special about Yeats was that instead of going in for strange experiences for their own sake he wanted exact and coordinated knowledge, which apart from other things, would provide for his own poetry a set of symbols with real and. universal validity. He hoped to reach directly the supernatural reality from which the poet’s images were derived. For Yeats, becoming the great poet that he wanted to be, the need for integrating all things and expressing them in imperishable form, also involved discovering the secret pattern of things.

      Yeats hoped to locate the secret pattern of things with the aid of magic. Yeats was seeking a system of thought which would enable him to think all things into unity. Through the theosophists, Madame Blavatsky and her esoteric circle, through the writings of Sinnett, Mac Gregor Mathers and the Order of the Golden Dawn, he had been led to explore a literary tradition of great antiquity and of an impressive lineage. Western occultism merged with that of India, and both merged with the visions, dreams and beliefs of Irish folk lore. Yeats's mind moved dramatically through a bewildering variety of reading as well as of physical experience. ‘It ran its course between many antitheses.’

      The peculiarity of Yeats’s genius, as also its significance lies in the fact that he deliberately continued to study the occult all his life and successfully embodied much of it for his poetic purposes. But the occult, which almost took the place of religion with Yeats, influenced his whole personality in such a subtle and mysterious way that it is not always easy to see which of its manifestations are at work at a particular time.


      Yeats’s occultism, like his mysticism is very much a part of his poetic material. What constitutes Yeats’s remarkable achievement as a poet is that he is able to transform this occultism into something very poetic and convincing.


“The peculiarity of Yeats’s genius lies in the fact that he deliberately continued to study the occult all his life and successfully embodies much of it for his poetic purposes.” Comment.

“Yeats’s occultism, like his mysticism is very much part of his poetic material.” Comment.

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