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School of Art in Dublin

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. ” (Ellman, 94) These words belong to William Butler Yeats and outline Yeats’s work as a poet. William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin and educated at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, and the High School, Dublin.

For three years he studied at the School of Art in Dublin, where with a fellow student, G. Russell, he developed an interest in mystic religion and the supernatural. ‘Mysticism’ in Yeats’ life In London he became a central figure in the bohemian circles where literary fashion and supernatural experimentalism met and often overlapped. Yeats was also involved into various Parisian subcultures, and experimenting with hashish and mescal. At the time these cultural underworlds served, for these intellectuals, as a kind of alternative university. This was especially true of occultism.

From his time at the School of Art in Dublin Yeats had been interested in various exotic and mystical theories and ideas. Later Yeats found the answers to his emotional and psychological requirements in the kind of occult society, the Order of the Golden Dawn. The combination of secret society and intellectual obstacle race appealed to him; he proceeded through its grades and rituals, devoted an astonishing amount of time to it, and used it to focus his wide-ranging reading in mystic and occultist writings. ‘Mysticism’ in Yeats’ work Theosophical beliefs and the occult formed much of the basis of his poetry.

National and spiritual liberation combined with Yeats’ occult ideas and this was reflected in the poems of vision and apocalypse which he wrote at this time: Thy great leaves enfold The ancient beards, the helms of ruby and gold Of the crowned Magi; and the king whose eyes Saw the Pierced Hands and Rood of elder rise In Druid vapour and make the torches dim; The Secret Rose The souls of the dead, the spirits and demons of the atmosphere, and the gods of pagan Ireland, alluded to throughout most of Yeats’ early occult poems and are the subject of the following: The Stolen Child, The Hosting of the Sidhe and The Unappeasable Host.

In the last of the preceding poems Yeats also attempts an odd synthesis of three distinctly different religious traditions. The Tuatha de Danaan of Celtic myth are juxtaposed with the Kabbalist’s “flaming West” and the Christian’s “Mother Mary”: The Danaan children laugh, in cradles of wrought gold, And clap their hands together, and half dose their eyes, For they will ride the North when the get-eagle flies, With heavy whitening wings, and a heart fallen cold: I kiss my wailing child and press it to my breast, And hear the narrow graves calling my child and me. Desolate winds that cry over the wandering sea;

Desolate winds that hover in the flaming West; Desolate winds that beat the doors of Heaven, and beat The doors of Hell and blow there many a whimpering ghost; O heart the winds have shaken, the unappeasable host Is comelier than candles at Mother Mary’s feet. The Unappeasable Host Somewhat superficial symbolism of Yeats’ earliest occult poems changes in his later poems, included in collection Responsibilities, into the themes centered in recognizable human experiences. For example, in Running to Paradise emerges the motif of self-liberation from the world of bitter experience, reaching out toward the sheer delight of moral freedom:

As I came over Windy Gap They threw a halfpenny into my cap, For I am running to Paradise; And all I need do is to wish Running to Paradise In addition the poem implies a profound view of the relation between the individual and his soul, both life and death and the cycles of rebirth. Mysticism and occultism ran through Yeats’ works of all periods interviewing sometimes with the themes of love and patriotism. Yeats wrote poems not only about seances and visionary experiences but also about transmigration and personal immortality and about the whole conflict between the body and the soul, man and God, and nature and Anima Mundi.

By means of these supernatural poems, he was convinced, he could best re-create in the modern world the mythologies of ancient India, Eleusinian Greece, and pre-Christian Ireland.

Bibliography: Ellman, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks, London and New York, 1948. Hone, Joseph. W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939. New York: Macmillan, 1943 Seidin, Morton Irving. William Butler Yeats: The Poet as a Mythmaker, 1865-1939. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1962 Stock, A. G. W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961

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