The magical thinking of WB Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the most celebrated poets in English. And one of the most difficult to talk about in relation to belief.

He was born into a Protestant Ascendency family. His grandfather had been the Church of Ireland rector of Drumcliff in County Sligo. And Yeats himself tells a familiar, almost clichéd story about what took away any Christian faith in his upbringing. It was, he said, empirical science. Charles Darwin and John Tyndall, as for many other Victorians, persuaded Yeats that Christianity was a fraud.

But he found that a wholly materialist view of the world was not adequate for his searching, speculating mind. In this he was, again, not unlike many another non-Christian Victorian. In the first instance, Yeats followed Matthew Arnold in understanding Celtic identity as peculiarly alert to faerie. Yeats’s early endeavours as a writer were to distil Irish folk narratives and myths into verse and prose, describing a world where there was always a chance of seeing a spirit or “eternal beauty wandering on her way”.

Yeats, in another Victorian-like way, filled the gap in his early spiritual life with theosophy and then with a commitment to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. After infighting led to the dissolution of this secret society, Yeats maintained his commitment to magical thinking. And his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917 deepened yet further his sense that he lived among the revelations of other worlds.

Georgie persuaded her husband that she could contact unknown “instructors” who communicated with the poet through her “automatic” writing. Yeats was amazed. He accepted his wife’s mediumship and believed that the writing – there was a huge amount of it – came indeed from the spirits. They gave to Yeats, as he understood it, “metaphors for poetry”.

Yeats’s letters contain an extraordinary number of accounts of magical thinking. And it is simply not possible to know the extent to which the poet really believed what he wrote. The evidence seems to point to the idea that he believed sincerely. He did not, for sure, question his wife’s claims of mediumship.

With this background – both initially Protestant and then mysteriously supernatural – it would be easy to think that Yeats was simply an antagonist of Catholicism. As with so much about this poet – who thought like William Blake that truth could exist in two directly contradictory statements – little is straightforward. There is a lot of antagonism, for sure. Yeats developed a particular dislike for lower- and middle-class Catholics, especially those of Dublin, thinking they cared for nothing except money. Among these people, Yeats concluded, was not to be found any concern for beauty.

Yeats’s version of Irish history also privileged Protestant achievement. When he imagined his own intellectual ancestry, it was comprised of Goldsmith, Berkeley, Swift and Burke. A Protestant inheritance indeed. As a senator in the Irish Free State, Yeats energetically disagreed with Catholics (for instance, on divorce). He worried deeply about the division between the Free State and the North, fearing that if the former became too dominantly Catholic, partition would be even more confrontational.

But that is not quite the whole story.

In one important sense, Yeats’s commitment to occult organisations and beliefs enabled him as a young man to escape from any alignment with either Catholic or Protestant faiths. And in 19th-century Ireland, as in the 20th century, that was a potentially enabling position. Yeats the occultist did not have to take sides – and in turn escaped from association with the violent conflict that taking sides too often involved. His remote youthful relationship was, to some degree, a liberating strategy in a fractured country.

We can say a little more. Yeats was deeply invested in ritual. His instincts in this respect are more Catholic than Protestant: life lived where “all’s accustomed, ceremonious” is exactly what he wishes for his daughter. Yeats had Catholic friends – perhaps the most famous, early in his life, was the spare, sparse poet Lionel Johnson. Maud Gonne, the woman for whom he had a largely unrequited love, converted to Catholicism. And, most notably, some of Yeats’s early poems are remarkably moving stories from what might be thought Catholic folklore.

Take The Ballad of Father Gilligan (1890). In this poem an old priest is too tired to visit a dying man. But his place is taken, he learns, by an angel, visiting on his behalf. When Father Gilligan awakes and realises this, Yeats has him say:

“He who hath made the night of stars
For souls who tire and bleed,
Sent one of His great angels down
To help me in my need.

“He who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care,
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.”

Those are not the lines of a man unable to sympathise imaginatively with a priest’s prayer.

Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and has written widely on Yeats