W B Yeats and Magic
W B Yeats was mocked in his lifetime and even more posthumously as “ Black Magician.” His intense interest in occultism was many times in the line of suspicion for his intellect. People were reluctant to digest that a person of such caliber should take interest in magic.
But Yeats was undeterred and his views on magic, occultism are really impressive. From deep and detailed involvement with the occult, he developed his own unique synthesis of occult views. Fortunately, little synthesis or speculation is needed to reveal those views. Yeats himself left voluminous critical essays explaining his poetic principles in detail. Of particular importance to the subject of the occult is a 1901 essay unambiguously titled “Magic.” There, Yeats outlines his spiritual beliefs thus:
I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are –
(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.
(Yeats, “Magic,” p. 29.)
Describing his own beliefs, Yeats speaks of spirits creating “visions of truth,” and outlines doctrines he is convinced are ancient. The most important elements of occultism are present: higher truths in a spirit realm understandable by ancient doctrines and accessible through symbols. While Yeats does not call this spirit realm “hidden,” it is implicitly so. After all, the “single mind” and “great memory” are not realms of ordinary experience, or Yeats would hardly need to call it a matter of belief. And symbols as the access-points of that spirit realm really function as keys to what is not otherwise readily accessed. It is the practitioner of magic, of course—Yeats himself—who holds those keys and controls access. He is in a privileged position to reveal that realm only to those who understand the symbols—that is, the initiates.
Yeats goes on, speaking of visions during séances and dreams. He says, “Our most elaborate thoughts, elaborate purposes, precise emotions, are often, as I think, not really ours, but have on a sudden come up, as it were, out of hell or down out of heaven.” (Id., p. 50.) Man is thus a conduit for something greater from the spiritual realm. But dreams and visions are not the only link with his “great memory” lurking invisibly in the spirit realm. Yeats gives primacy to symbols, and he describes his belief in symbolism .