Thursday, June 17, 2010

Yeats and Theosophy

William Butler Yeats is one of the names continually trotted out by Theosophists as an example of Blavatsky’s influence on the arts. Yeats visited her in London in the late 1880s and wrote of his brief interaction with her. This in turn has yielded numerous studies on Yeats and Theosophy. One of the latest is Timothy Materer’s chapter on “Occultism” in the volume, W.B. Yeats in Context. As is usual with these attempts, it is a fount of misinformation: In 1888 Yeats helped found an Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society [wrong] to explore magical rituals and verify spiritual phenomena [wrong]…Blavatsky thought that Yeats’s magical experiments would further harm her reputation [wrong], which had been damaged earlier by her fraudulent practice of spirit communications in India [wrong]; Yeats was asked to leave the Society in 1889 [wrong].

The book that this is taken from, W.B. Yeats in Context, was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year, and features 38 contributors who deal with the various aspects of his life and times. It sells for $110. dollars U.S. In 2007, the publisher, Routledge, issued Yeats and Theosophy by Ken Monteith. A more misleading title could not be imagined. While it gives much on Celtic folklore and William Blake, little insight is provided into what this Theosophy that so influenced him actually was. Instead the reader is treated to second hand information garnered from other books and nuggets like: Theosophy counted quite a few Irish members….G.R.S. Mead…was a member of the Hermetical Students group Yeats helped found in Dublin, and that George Russell wrote The Kabbala Unveiled [sic]. It doesn’t matter that Mead was born in England and lived his life there, this is the state of “academic” research in the 21st century, the same academic research that ridicules HPB’s inaccuracies! And the price for it is $123. dollars U.S. Most of these studies are really more about discourse analysis versus philosophic reading of a literary text. In that case, Daniel Gomes’s recent thesis on Yeats can be read on line for free here.

For anyone seeking accurate information on the subject, Jerry Hejka-Ekins' paper on “The Theosophy of William Butler Yeats” published in The Works and Influence of H.P. Blavatsky Conference Papers, 1998, remains one of the more reliable studies of Theosophy’s influence on Yeats. Perhaps Mr Hejka-Ekins will one day allow his paper, “William Butler Yeats and the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society,” presented at the Theosophy and Theosophic Thought Seminar at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in San Francisco in1997 to be published.

One statement that has been repeated over and over again in anything written about W.B. Yeats and his connection with Theosophy is that he was expelled from the Society. This calls for some clarification. Relatively few people were ever actually expelled from the Theosophical Society during Blavatsky’s lifetime, especially in England. It must be supposed that the Esoteric Section is meant, but the reasons given are always murky. The matter can be rectified by information given in a notice sent out from London by the E.S. in April 1891. Yeats’s name is given in a list of recent “Resignations” from the group. So anyone who writes that Yeats was expelled or asked to leave the T.S./E.S. is only exposing their own ignorance.

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