W.B. Yeats, Magus

“Yeats may have been carrying around in his head a kind of vastly complicated zodiac, a system for explaining the whole of human life and its history, but as he writes to her [his wife, Georgie] of calming down a hysterical devotee of the Golden Dawn, or discussing with the Indian mystic, Shri Purohit Swami, how to handle the difficult Mrs Foden in Spain, it all feels nicely ordinary. The endless drafts of A Vision were the means by which Yeats could continue to work on his theory of the imagination, an enabling marriage of the everyday and the mystical as important as the enabling presence of George to send a clean pair of pants or respond to W. B.’s request to “get the washstand legge mended – I have a desire to find myself in full glory”. History, Magic and William Butler Yeats


“Magic imbrued Yeats’ thinking so profoundly that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the strands without rending the garment.”

Kathleen Raine, a poet deeply influenced by Yeats, offered a useful formula: “For Yeats magic was not so much a kind of poetry as poetry a kind of magic, and the object of both alike was evocation of energies and knowledge from beyond normal consciousness.” The salient word there is “evocation,” casting the poet as a magus conjuring verbal spirits, not from his imagination but from a higher, or a deeper, place.”

“The Rosicrucian societies that formed in Germany in the early seventeenth century were based upon this principle of the unbroken transmission of the prisca theologia—the one true faith of which all organized religions are but pale, debased reflections—by a succession of necromancers. Yeats would have known by heart the description of the magician’s powers from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus:

These metaphysics of magicians, And necromantic books are heavenly; Lines, circles, signs, letters, and characters; Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires. O, what a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honor, of omnipotence, Is promised to the studious artisan!”

W.B. Yeats, Magus – Lapham’s Quarterly.

2 thoughts on “W.B. Yeats, Magus

  1. Yes! And that article also turns Yeats into a latter day version of the Ancient Egyptian God Thoth, who transcribed the will and the words of the Gods for humans to comprehend them, as a sort of interpretor, if you will.
    “In the case of Yeats, however, the relationship is far from simple. Following hermetic teaching, the correspondences between the word and the ideal it reflects are mystical: the symbol has a life of its own, outside the mind. Yeats needed magic not for his thematic material but for the power to accomplish this alchemy, to transmute the wisdom from above into verbal formulas comprehensible here below.”


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