William Butler Yeats

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William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was a poet and leader of the Irish Literary Revival. He was heavily involved in the Dublin Theosophical Lodge, and was also interested in hermeticism, spiritualism, and Rosicrucianism.

The oriental turn to his poetry and that of Æ (George William Russell) was credited to their acquaintance with Mohini M. Chatterji.[1] In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Personal life

Early years and education

Marriage and family

Later years

The oriental turn to his poetry and that of Æ (George William Russell) was credited to their acquaintance with Mohini M. Chatterji.[2]

Literary career

Abbey Theatre

The Abbey Theatre was founded as Ireland’s national theatre, by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904 “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”. Its precursors were the Irish Literary Theatre and Frank and Willie Fay’s National Dramatic Society. With patronage from Miss Annie Horniman, premises were purchased on Old Abbey Street and on December 27th 1904, the Abbey Theatre opened its doors for the first time.[3]

Poetic style

Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923 was awarded to William Butler Yeats "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation".[4] Yeats writes about receiving the award in his Autobiography:

Early in November a journalist called to show me a printed paragraph saying that the Nobel Prize would probably be conferred upon Herr Mann, the distinguished novelist, or upon myself, I did not know that the Swedish Academy had ever heard my name.... Then some eight days later between ten and eleven at night, comes the telephone message from the Irish Times saying that the prize had indeed been conferred upon me; some ten minutes after that comes a telegram from the Swedish Ambassador; then journalists come for interviews. At half past twelve my wife and I are alone, and search the cellar for a bottle of wine, but it is empty, and as a celebration is necessary we cook sausages. A couple of days pass and a letter from the Ambassador invites me to receive the prize at Stockholm, but a letter from the Swedish Academy offers to send medal, money, and diploma to Dublin. I question booksellers in vain for some history of Sweden, or of Swedish Literature.... [A]mong my own books there is nothing but the life of Swedenborg which contains photographs of Swedenborg's garden and garden-house....
My wife and I leave Harwich for Esbjerg in Denmark, on the night of December 6.... A train-ferry brings us across some eighteen miles of sea, and so into Sweden, and while we are waiting for the train to start again, I see through a carriage window many faces, but it is only just as the train starts, when a Swedish interviewer says - for there are interviewers here also - "Did you not see all those people gazing at the Nobel Prize winner?" that I connect those faces with myself.... The diplomas and medals are to be given us by the King at five in the afternoon of December 10th.... On Thursday I give my official lecture to the Swedish Royal Academy. I have chosen "The Irish Theatre" for my subject, that I may commend all those workers, obscure or well-known, to whom I owe much of whatever fame in the world I may possess. If I had been a lyric poet only, if I had not become through this theatre the representative of a public movement, I doubt of the English committees would have placed my name upon that list from which the Swedish Academy selects its prize-winner.... On Saturday I see at the Royal Theatre a performance of my Cathleen ni Houlihan. The old father and mother are excellent and each performance differs but little from an exceedingly good Abbey [Theatre] performance, except for certain details of scene, and for differences of interpretation, made necessary by the change of audience.[5]

Theosophical Society involvement

Yeats was admitted as a member of the Theosophical Society on March 12, 1885, according to the General Membership Register at the Society's Adyar headquarters.[6] In December, 1889, he joined the Theosophical Society in England.[7]

Dublin Theosophical Lodge & London Esoteric Section

In late 1884 WBY's aunt Isabella Pollexfen Varley, married to an artist in London..., sent WBY a copy of A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism.... After obtaining it, WBY lent the book to his friend Charles Johnston...[who] had been considering a career in the church; instead he went to London to interview the founders of the movement, and on his return introduced Theosophy to Dublin. Johnston was an established friend of WBY since the days at Howth from 1881 to 1882.... Their paths would intersect through life, with Johnston turning up...at Madame Blavatsky's in London in the 1880s....; it was probably Johnston, together with Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism, who encouraged WBY in the new fad of Theosophy.

...this Theosophist involvement, and others like it, would be WBY's university. He had begun a long career of forming clubs, of organizing speculative conversations, of interrogating a widely assorted range of spiritual disciplines and secret knowledge. The organization..., which called itself the Dublin Hermetic Society, dates from 16 June 1885. Always Theosophically bent, the Hermetic Society became in April 1886 the Dublin Theosophical Society - a limitation which disappointed WBY, though he was impressed by the envoy sent by the Theosophist leader Madame Blavatsky.

WBY was deeply affected by his first experience of an Eastern holy man..., Mohini Chatterjee (Chaterji).... Rather than expounding Sinnett's ideas (which owed more to Western Occultism), [Chatterji] broadcast the more existentialist principles of Samkara.... Thus in Dublin, during April 1886, [Chatterji] preached the necessity to realize one's individual soul by contemplation and the illusory nature of the material world. To WBY,...Theosophy could not have been presented more attractively.[8]

[WBY had moved to join the rest of his family in London by April 1887.] As early as the summer of 1887 WBY had found his way to the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky, recently arrived in England; the introduction was effected by Charles Johnston....[9] For the rest of the autumn [in 1888], he...[was] periodically paying visits to the growing Blavatsky entourage in Holland Park. In December he joined her recently established Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society.[10]

[He had an] inclination towards magical experimentation and the verification of natural phenomenon. For this reason, he strongly backed the formation of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, devoted to such rituals; he joined it in December 1888, and renewed his pledges on 20 December 1889, along with the celebrated Annie Besant among others. [Severance][11]

Ignoring for the most part the complex cosmology of the Society itself, Yeats took from Theosophy the doctrines which can be made readily comprehensible in Hough's succinct summary:[12]

The idea of an age-old secret doctrine, passed on by oral tradition from generation to generation. He found a God seen only as the boundless, Absolute, impassible, unknowable, indescribable. He found a world consisting of emanations from this Absolute, and souls who were sparks or separated fragments of the same substance. Their object was to return to the One from which they came, but to accomplish this they have to make a long pilgrimage through many incarnations, live through many lives both in this world and beyond. [13]

Other Esoteric Interests

Meeting Mohini Chatterjee, working with Madame Blavatsky, joining and then running the Order of the Golden Dawn, becoming an adept in Stella Matutina - all contributed to Yeats's practical experience with the supranormal. Supplementing these practical experiences were the Theoretical works Yeats studied, including works by Jacob Boehme, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and Paracelsus, as well as Celtic bardic material and Vedanta. Yeats's own personal attempt at writing an esoteric text comes to us as A Vision, a work that critics have called his personal mythology. As his letters attest, however, Yeats privately called the material in A Vision his "public philosophy," and admitted that he had a different private philosophy that was not contained in A Vision.[14]

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn / Stella Matutina

In his autobiography, Yeats says that he was initiated into "The Hermetic Students" (an organization that had "a different name among its members") in "May or June 1887" in a "Charlotte Street Studio" (Autobiography, 124). R. A. Gilbert dates the birth of the Golden Dawn as February 1888, "when its creator (Dr. William Wynn Westcott) and his cronies (Dr. William Robert Woodman and Samuel Liddell Mathers) signed their pledges of undying allegiance to themselves." In the Golden Dawn membership list, Yeats is listed as 0 = 0, Neophyte, in March of 1890. We may never know the true date on which Yeats joined the Golden Dawn. Yeats says that he was spending his days at the British Museum, where he met MacGregor Mathers, who had already written The Kabbalah Unveiled. Yeats and Mathers became friends. Yeats was twenty-two and Mathers thirty-six or thirty-seven (Autobiography, 123). Mathers invited Yeats to join the Golden Dawn.

Yeats liked the approach of the Golden Dawn better than that of the more passive Theosophical Society: "After I had been moved by ritual, I formed plans for deeds of all kinds. I wished to return to Ireland to there some public works: whereas I returned from meetings of the Esoteric Section I had no desire but for more thought, more discussion" (Memoirs, 27)....Yeats was a full-fledged, initiated member of the Order of the Golden Dawn by March, 1890. He chose the Latin motto, Demon est Deus Inversus.... Despite his curiosity about diabolism, Yeats's...motto did not have much to do with it, although scholars claim a connection.... The Latin word for devil...is diabolus, not demon.... This mistranslation has caused a misunderstanding about what Yeats really meant.... The word "demon" has been demonized. In it's original Latin form, daemon meant a spirit - a genie or genius - who gave intuition, insight, and inspiration.... Demon est Deus Inversus labeled Yeats as one who recognized that a genius descends to its chosen human and invests him with power.

During the 1890s, Yeats was open about his Golden Dawn membership and the prominent place that ceremonial magic held in his life. His work reflects that openness.... By 1900, however, Yeats's period of naive openness had come to an end. He was shocked to discover that, according to his publisher, A. H. Bullen, there was great hostility to his work because he was considered heterodox.... The Name "Order of the Golden Dawn" was changed to Stella Matutina after 1901, but the group's reputation was still tainted by the sensational publicity [surrounding problems with Mathers related to Aleister Crowley, and with a couple who had stolen a complete set of Order documents and were later arrested for some sort of "immoral activities"]. Yeats was starting the Abbey Theatre, a very public kind of work. He thus needed to publicly distance himself from the Order. After the 1901 essay entitled "Magic" appeared in Ideas of Good and Evil, public documentation of Yeats's occult activities declines. Yeats not only remained a member of Stella Matutina until March, 1923, he also acted as Imperator of Amoun Temple from 1914 to 1923.[15]


[Yeats'] spiritistic investigation in any sizeable amount occupied only about five years out of nearly seventy-four (Mrs. Yeats agrees with this estimate): roughly between 1911 and 1916. What was Yeats' motive?... [He did not long] to be convinced of the supernatural. He was already convinced of the supernatural. Though his visions had grown thinner, there is no evidence that he doubted the spiritual world he had long seen as lying behind visions, behind everything.

No, Yeats himself gives the reason for his spiritistic right-about-face. The spirits were conceived as having power (he says in some unpublished papers) to "reunite the mind and soul and body of man to the living world outside us"; and that reunion he coveted for mankind. Microcosm must rejoin macrocosm; the white and yellow, again form one egg; humanity, be convinced of its indestructibility. Undoubtedly Yeats suffered from a certain curiosity, and liked the idea of getting in touch with his old just-dead collaborator George Pollexfen, and was not averse to new types of proof; but his main motive was neither morbid nor small, being the passionate hope of finding a proof of immortality comprehensible to everybody. In a diseased world, only such proof could medicine men back to soul- health and, by changing their inner perspective, change their outer lives radically and fast, thus improving human relations, purifying politics, and spiritualizing art. Few could tread the path of vision; most required a short cut. Séances might provide the short cut. Once Yeats got this idea, he pursued it as relentlessly as Ahab the whale.

Blavatsky warned against the practice, saying the danger was black magic; few dabbling in "phenomena" were strong enough to avoid hooking up with the lower forces of the goetia. Blake, too, cried anathema. Though he did not deny ghosts (having met one on the stairs), he compared them most unfavorably to the glorious realities of the imagination. Swedenborg frowned more dourly, being against all mediumship but his own, and was especially angry at the passive kind which wipes out instead of heightening the will. And Yeats' Hermetic Order put the crowning touch on the interdiction. It said man's Higher Self must wake, not sink into sleep. Any trafficking with the gods or the disembodied dead must be in full, not muted, consciousness.

Thus Yeats' decision to investigate spiritistic phenomena was a bold one. It required the sense of urgency of a lawyer seeking evidence to save a client from hanging. Moreover, aside from the humanitarian motive, he had a "scholarly" one. Having noted analogies between Irish country stories and modern spiritism, he proposed, in the interest of learning, to make a careful comparison: "I was comparing one form of belief with another, and like Paracelsus, who claimed to have collected his knowledge from midwife and hangman, I was discovering a philosophy."[16]


The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists 54 articles by and about Yeats, including many in The Lamp, a Canadian journal. For a complete listing of his works, see Wikipedia. Here are some of his most significant works:

Other resources

The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists 49 articles by or about Yeats.


  1. ”Chatterji, Mohini Mohun,” The Theosophical Year Book, 1938 (Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 172.
  2. ”Chatterji, Mohini Mohun,” The Theosophical Year Book, 1938 (Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 172.
  3. Abbey Theatre | Amharclann na Mainistreach
  4. Nobel Prizes and Laureates | The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923
  5. Willam Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of Willam Butler Yeats. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1965), 358-77.
  6. Theosophical Society General Membership Register, 1875-1942 at http://tsmembers.org/. See book 1, entry 3528 (website file: 1B/18).
  7. Debbie Elliott email to Janet Kerschner. March 24, 2017. Debbie had been transcribing the membership ledgers at the TSE.
  8. R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914. (Oxford University Press, 1997), 45-8.
  9. Ibid., 62.
  10. Ibid., 78.
  11. Ibid., 101-3.
  12. Terence Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), Chapter 1.
  13. Graham Hough, The Mystery Religion of W.B. Yeats. (London: Harvester, 1984), 39.
  14. Susan Johnston Graf, W. B. Yeats - Twentieth-Century Magus: An In-Depth Study of Yeats's Esoteric Practices and Beliefs, Including Excerpts from His Magical Diaries. (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2000), xv.
  15. Ibid., 7-17.
  16. Virginia Moore, The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954), 218-20.