Biography of W.B. Yeates

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born at Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. His father John Yeats was a talented portrait painter. William's brother Jack Butler Yeats was also an artist, and his sisters Elizabeth and Lily assisted in the establishment of the Dun Emer (later Cuala) Press.

Much of Yeat's childhood was spent in London, where he attended the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, but he also spent time in Dublin and County Sligo, in Western Ireland. At the age of fifteen, he attended Erasmus Smith School, Dublin, then studied art for three years, turning to literature at the age of 21. His first book, a play titled Mosada, was published in 1886. It was followed by two books of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). In 1888, he edited a collection titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which included some of his fairy verse. He became one of the leading figures in the Irish literary renaissance.

In London he was a founder of the Rhymers' Club and friend of Ernest Rhys, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, William Morris, W. E. Henley, and Arthur Symons. In Ireland, he was associated with J. M. Synge, "AE" (George W. Russell), Douglas Hyde, George Moore, and Lady Gregory. He helped to establish the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 (later the Abbey Theatre). His poems and plays have become world famous. He was a member of the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
The occult and mystical side of his Yeats and work received less publicity than his literary work, yet he believed that his poetry owed much to his occult studies. In 1892, he wrote: "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 have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."

His interest in the writings of Theosophists led to the formation of the Hermetic Society, Dublin, and he presided over its first meeting on June 16, 1885. While in London at the end of 1888, he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. In 1890, he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, taking the magical motto "Demon Est Deus Inversus," (DEDI) and continued to be associated with the Golden Dawn over some thirty years. In April 1900, he clashed with Aleister Crowley, also an order member in a leadership crisis.

Yeats' book Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) contains studies of the mystic element in Blake and Shelley and another essay is titled "The Body of the Father Christian Rosencrux." Another essay titled "Magic" commences: "I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, and what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magic illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the minds when the eyes are closed."

After his declaration, he related how once an acquaintance of his, gathering together a small party in a darkened room, held a mace over "a tablet of many coloured squares," at the time repeating "a form of words," and immediately Yeats found that his "imagination began to move itself and to bring before me vivid images…." It was S. L. MacGregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn, states Yeats, "who convinced me that images well up before the mind's eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory."

In a lecture on "Psychic Phenomena" before the Dublin Society for Psychical Research (reported in the Dublin Daily Express, November 1913), he spoke of most amazing experiences during his investigation, which lasted for many years, and declared that so far as he was concerned, the controversy about the meaning of psychic phenomena was closed. But he was not "converted," in the true sense of the word, since he was a born believer, and he had never seriously doubted the existence of the soul or of God.

Lecturing on "Ghosts and Dreams" before the London Spiritualist Alliance in April 1914, he gave another clear account of his beliefs and experiences. In his book Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), he spoke as a poet and mystic in dealing with some of the deeper issues of Spiritualism.

In 1917, he married Georgia Hyde Lees and discovered that his wife was a medium and capable of automatic writing. In 1934, Yeats wrote a one-act play "The Words Upon the Window-Pane" built around a Spiritualist séance at which the spirit of Jonathan Swift communicated. He showed considerable courage in making known some of his occult beliefs, although he did not publicize his Golden Dawn connections.

His mystical inclinations, stimulated by the Hindu religious philosophy of the Theosophical Society that had also attracted fellow poet "AE," continued to develop. When in his sixties, he became friendly with the Hindu monk Swami Shri Purohit and wrote introductions to the Swami's autobiography An Indian Monk (Macmillan, London, 1932) and his translation of the book by the Swami's guru titled The Holy Mountain (Faber, London, 1934). In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the Bhagaved-Gita under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna (Faber, London), which he dedicated "To my friend William Butler Yeats" on the poet's seventieth birthday. In the same year, the Swami also published a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided a perceptive introduction. He had planned to travel to India to assist the Swami in translating the ten principal Upanishads, but eventually the work was completed by the two friends at Majorca in 1936.

Yeats died January 28, 1939, in the town of Roquebrune, overlooking Monaco, and was buried in the cemetery there until nine years later, when his remains were transferred to the churchyard of Drumcliffe, near Sligo.