W. B. Yeats’s Mysticism in Poetry

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      One very remarkable thing about Yeats was his continued search for a system or pattern which could give unity and coherence to his beliefs This search led him to the study of magic, theology astrology, and the teachings of Plato and Plotinus. His interest in the occult had also a lot to do with this search. This also led to his developing a system of his own in his prose work, A Vision. The system developed in A Vision, is curious mixture of the elements of magic, mysticism, mythology and philosophy.


      Mysticism is sometimes seen by some people as spiritualism and clairvoyance, hypnotism and objective psychological states, and happenings. Some other people see it as the rare state of consciousness available only to contemplative saints.

      More than all this, mysticism is being conscious of not only of a divine presence in nature but also the existence of an essential identity of being between Man, Nature and God.

The Role of ‘Magic’

      In a letter to O’Leary in 1892 Yeats wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study, I could not have written a word of my Black Book, nor could the Countess Cathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.

      The note of mysticism runs throughout Yeats’s poetry and the world of his poetry remains the world of a mystic visionary in which the gods and fairies of the Celtic mythology live again.

Yeats’s Reading

      Yeats was quite well-read and not only in theosophy and occult works but also in Plato and the Neo-Platonists. He was influenced by Hindu ‘Upanishads”, by St. Thomas Aquinas, by Berkeley, Blake, Kant and Nietzsche. There was also the influence of the Ballasts and the Rosicrucianists.

      The result of all this is that there is a distinct phase in Yeats’s poetic development when the world of his poetry appears not in full sunlight or the clear neutrality of a grey day but in starlight and twilight and the unearthly cold light of dawn and under visionary fires. Even the rhythms at this stage of his work are half entranced, like a man walking alone, lost in a train of visionary thoughts, or incantatory as if he thought of poetry as a priestly vocation. At that stage, in his work the human figures are few and belong to ancient times, or to all times. There is a hermit or two and an old priest, there are Druids and heroes out of old legends and vaguely medieval queens. This world is thickly populated by supernatural beings, fairies who have not forgotten their divinity-flaming angelic presence, and vaguely distinct voice which are emanations from the poet but are not the voice of the whole flesh-and-blood man. Even in his imagery he creates a world to reflect his spirit.

      The scene of most of the poetry of this time is the human soul; all the figures are Shelleyian who wander like a day dream, through dim wilderness of the mind. Yeats’s vision around this time moves from darkness through the half-light into the white radiance of eternity. The poetry at this time is constantly figuring the aloof twilight companies of dream with whom Yeats was most at home. There are glimpses of angelic hosts disappearing into the dawn of eternity, the flashing feet of a multitude. The point was that all things are supernatural as well as natural have their day and are. merged at last in God.

Influence on Yeats

      A Theosophical or Hermetic Society was founded in New York in 1875 and ten years later its London headquarters were also opened by the founder Madame Blavatsky. She was greatly interested m what she had seen in India—the spiritual body taking control of the physical body. This goal was ‘Nirvana’, in which lower self is dead. Under the influence of these people Yeats came to believe in reincarnation. Of equal interest to Yeats were the visions of trancelike state, which arise from the examination of symbols and which stimulated his imagination in a big way.


      Whatever one may think of Yeats’s mystic tendencies, this much is certain that to Yeats these meant a search of a non-materialistic world. This search was very vital to Yeats. It was the beginning of Yeats’s life-long search for symbols and thought-forms and images and his answer to fears he had about the separation of spirit and matter in the modem world.


“The note of mysticism runs throughout Yeats’s poetry and the world of his poetry remains the world of a mystic visionary.” Comment.

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