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W.B. Yeats: A Journey through Mysticism, Magic, and Poetry

W.B. Yeats, a prominent Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature, captivated readers with his mystical and enchanting poems. Yeats’ work is characterized by his exploration of the intersection of magic, mysticism, mythology, and philosophy. This brief article delves into the life and work of W.B. Yeats, with a particular emphasis on the mystical nature of his poetry. We will examine passages from his poems that embody these mystical qualities and analyze the influence of his beliefs on his art.

Early Life and Literary Beginnings

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. He was raised in a creative and intellectual family, with his father, John Butler Yeats, being a renowned painter and his siblings also involved in various artistic pursuits (1). Yeats’ early exposure to art, literature, and folklore laid the groundwork for his interest in mythology, mysticism, and the supernatural.

In his youth, Yeats was drawn to the works of William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which inspired his fascination with the romantic and mystical aspects of poetry (2). Yeats’ first collection of poetry, “Crossways” (1889), showcased his interest in Celtic mythology and the supernatural, themes that would persist throughout his career (3).

Mysticism, Magic, and the Occult

Yeats’ lifelong search for a system or pattern to provide unity and coherence to his beliefs led him to explore various disciplines, including magic, theology, astrology, and the teachings of Plato and Plotinus (4). This quest stemmed from his desire to reconcile the seemingly disparate aspects of life, such as the spiritual and the material or the personal and the universal.

His involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that practiced ceremonial magic and explored esoteric spirituality, provided Yeats with a framework for understanding the mystical and magical aspects of existence (5). The Golden Dawn’s teachings drew from sources such as Kabbalah, alchemy, tarot, and astrology, which all contributed to Yeats’ understanding of the world and his poetic expression.

III. A Vision:

Yeats’ interest in the occult and mysticism culminated in his prose work, “A Vision” (1925). This book, a product of Yeats’ automatic writing sessions with his wife, George Hyde-Lees, presents a complex system that interweaves elements of magic, mysticism, mythology, and philosophy (6). “A Vision” outlines a cyclical conception of history, dividing human experience into 28 phases, each corresponding to a specific archetype and symbolized by the phases of the moon (7).

The ideas in “A Vision” permeate much of Yeats’ later poetry, providing a framework for understanding his work’s mystical and magical elements. The cyclical nature of history and the human experience found in “A Vision” are echoed in poems such as “The Second Coming” (1919) and “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928).

Mystical and Magical Passages in Yeats’ Poetry:

a. “The Stolen Child” (1886):

In this early poem, Yeats employs Irish folklore to create a mystical atmosphere. The poem tells the story of a child lured away by fairies to a magical realm:

“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” (8)

This passage showcases Yeats’ fascination with the supernatural and his desire to escape the harsh realities of the human world. The poem’s mystical allure lies in the contrast between the mundane, sorrowful world of humanity and the enchanting, carefree realm of the fairies.

b. “The Celtic Twilight” (1893):

In “The Celtic Twilight,” Yeats explores the mysticism of ancient Irish legends and the lingering presence of the supernatural in modern life:

“Wandering in a half-light where the past seemed to mingle with the present, I came upon old tales that made one feel, not only how much stranger the world was than one had thought, but that it was stranger than one could think.” (9)

This passage highlights the connection between the mythical past and the present, with the ancient legends imparting an otherworldly quality to contemporary life. Yeats’ fascination with the mystical arises from his belief that there is a deeper, hidden reality beneath the surface of everyday existence.

c. “The Second Coming” (1919):

“The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’ most famous poems and embodies the cyclical, apocalyptic vision of history presented in “A Vision.” The poem describes the collapse of the existing order and the emergence of a new, mysterious era:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” (10)

This passage conveys a sense of chaos and impending doom, illustrating Yeats’ belief in the cyclical nature of human history. The mystical undertones of the poem arise from the notion that the world is on the brink of a profound, almost unfathomable transformation.

d. “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928):

“Sailing to Byzantium” is another poem steeped in Yeats’ mystical vision, as it depicts the poet’s spiritual journey towards a transcendent realm:

“O sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity.” (11)

In this passage, Yeats implores the sages to guide him towards a higher plane of existence, where the soul is freed from the constraints of the mortal world. The poem’s mystical qualities are evident in its invocation of otherworldly beings and the yearning for a spiritual transformation.

Conclusion

W.B. Yeats’ poetry is infused with mysticism and magic, reflecting his lifelong search for a system that could provide unity and coherence to his beliefs. His exploration of the occult, mythology, and esoteric spirituality provided a rich foundation for his poetic imagination, as seen in works such as “A Vision” and various poems. The mystical and magical passages in Yeats’ poetry offer a glimpse into a world beyond the mundane, inviting readers to ponder the mysteries of existence and the transcendent potential of the human spirit.

References:

(1) Foster, R. F. (1997). W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. I: The Apprentice Mage. Oxford University Press. (2) Jeffares, A. N. (1988). W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet. Palgrave Macmillan. (3) Yeats, W. B. (1889). Crossways. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co

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