Occult Kabbalism in the Poems of William Butler Yeats


Genevieve Pettijohn

William Butler Yeats published his poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ in December of 1890, an important year in his life due to his increased association with occult societies in London, United Kingdom. In ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ William Butler Yeats’ narrator asserts his desire to leave the “pavement gray” of his current locale and dwell on the mysterious island of Innisfree, with only bees, crickets, and linnets for a company.

Critics of the poem have highlighted several important aspects of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ including the spiritual journey undertaken by William Butler Yeats (Hunter); the island as an escape from sexuality (Merritt); and the island as a place of wisdom or foolishness, depending on varying historical perspectives on beans (Normandin). To these critics, it seems that an island is a place of refuge from a dangerous outside world — supposedly London specifically, although Merritt might broaden this interpretation to include all sexual encounters. While these critics acknowledge that an island is a place of escape, citing what William Butler Yeats himself has said about the Irish island Sligo, they fall short of recognising the full implications of his fascination with the occult.

His involvement with the Theosophical Society and later the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn has been observed by several critics; some of his later works are even interpreted with these considerations in mind. However, the teachings and philosophy of these societies, as well as William Butler Yeats’ interest in mysticism and his understanding of occult symbolism, have not fully been incorporated in an interpretation of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ I assert that the symbols which William Butler Yeats includes on the island — specifically the nine bean-rows — are meant to be examined in the light of the Kabbalism, numerology, and tarot cards to which these societies looked for inspiration in their occult practices. Through his inclusion of these symbols, William Butler Yeats is demonstrating mastery over the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s basic tenants, a mastery which he perhaps hoped would help him advance in rank in the society and further his studies of magic.

Although many critics interpret William Butler Yeats’ later poetic endeavours through the lens of his involvement in the occult, mysticism and the occult were surely on the forefront of William Butler Yeats mind during the publication of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ William Butler Yeats’ interest in occultism expanded after an 1886 visit to Dublin, Ireland, by Mohini Mohun Chatterji, Bengali member of the Theosophical Society manipulated by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to come to London as an authoritative “oriental.” Mohini Mohun Chatterji’s influence extended far beyond his week-long visit to London.

Already co-founder and president of the Dublin Hermetic Society, William Butler Yeats sought for a more rapid progression of his perceived innate abilities. William Butler Yeats’ honorary poem to Mohini Mohun Chatterji later in life suggests to Ken Monteith, author of ‘Yeats and Theosophy,’ that William Butler Yeats counted Mohini Mohun Chatterji as “the source of his theosophical interests.” Indeed, Mohini Mohun Chatterji’s arrival, coupled with William Butler Yeats’ increasing dissatisfaction with his own group’s “vaguely progressive self-improvement,” appears to have spurred William Butler Yeats’ ambition to join Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsk’s Theosophical Society in 1887. Even this society, however, did not satiate William Butler Yeats’ affinity for occult practices, and so William Butler Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890, the same year he published ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a society meant to “[follow] through the interest in ritual magic and study prescribed by Esoteric Theosophists,” another Hermetic group to which William Butler Yeats had previously belonged. According to Pat Zalewski in ‘The Magic Tarot of the Golden Dawn,’ the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England in 1888 and became an “immensely influential magical group [which] concentrated its teachings on applying the Tarot to the Kabbalah,” or the literature of Orthodox Judaism and Hebrew texts mingled with eastern texts.

The tarot cards and the Kabbalah no doubt played important roles in William Butler Yeats’ poetic compositions, not only because of his intrinsic interest in them but also due to his deeper desire to practice advanced magical arts. He had left the Theosophical Society of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky because her mystic experiments “did not satisfy his restless spirit of inquiry.” Increasingly attracted to “practical magic,” William Butler Yeats joined the Society of the Golden Dawn in March 1890. According to Ellic Paul Howe, a British occult writer, “[William Butler] Yeats’ membership of the Order […] had a notable influence upon his imaginative and poetical development.” Indeed, William Butler Yeats wrote in a letter that “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” The influence of the occult began to permeate his life and his writing. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ though one of his earlier works, is not excluded from this influence.

Since William Butler Yeats’ curiosity was not satisfied with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s society, his pursuit of the mystic continued in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Evidence suggests that William Butler Yeats had interest in gaining access to the Second Order of the Golden Dawn, or Roseae Rubis et Aureae Crucis, an inner circle in which more advanced magic would be practised. Ten years after ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ he wrote a pamphlet entitled, ‘Is the Order of the R.R. et A.C. to Remain a Magical Order?’, indicating his concern for the purity of inner circle. This Second Order was highly selective. While those in the First Order “had to […] know the Hebrew alphabet, understand the basic significance and attributions of the [Kabbalistic] Tree of Life, and be familiar with the symbolic import of divinatory systems like the tarot,” those in the Second Order indulged more fully in magic. William Butler Yeats demonstrated early proficiency in action and in writing. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one indication of this proficiency.

Critic Mario D’Avanzo argues that the Kabbalah was extremely important to William Butler Yeats as he wrote ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Besides referring to the literature of Orthodox Judaism and Hebrew and eastern texts, the Kabbalah also expressed “the nature of God and his divine emanations which were represented diagrammatically as the Tree of Life.” Asserting that William Butler Yeats studied the Kabbalah during the composition of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ Mario D’Avanzo notes the parallels of the poem between the ‘Biblical Song of Solomon’. A “[Kabbalistic] interpretation” of the ‘Song of Solomon’ in conjunction with ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ implies that “the interaction of the speaker and the lake isle […] conforms fully to the [Kabbalistic] concept of the individual’s achievement of order and mystical unity with […] the earthly presence of God.” William Butler Yeats exemplifies this “mystical unity” in his ability to “hear lake water lapping,” though he stands on a road far removed from the island. Perhaps even his ability to hear the water “in the deep earth’s core” is evidence of the mystic power and unity with God’s earthly presence. Here we can already see elements of the occult seeping into William Butler Yeats’ writing as he includes Kabbalistic instances of unity with God in his poem.

William Butler Yeats demonstrated through ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ not only his understanding of the Kabbalah but also of numerology and tarot cards. One element of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ that is particularly fascinating is the “nine bean-rows.” One interpretation of the bean-rows is put forward by Shawn Normandin. He examines the relationship that William Butler Yeats had with the Theosophical Society between 1887 and 1890, especially William Butler Yeats’ connection to Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who “drew much of her wisdom from ancient philosophers,” especially Pythagoras. Normandin highlights the potential duality of the meaning of beans in William Butler Yeats’ poem: “To go to Innisfree and plant ‘bean-rows’ may, from a Thoreauvian perspective, reap austere wisdom, or it may, from a Pythagorean perspective, amount to the betrayal of wisdom […]. The simple word bean condenses the struggle of a poet caught between London and Sligo [the asserted inspiration for Innisfree].” Normandin’s interpretation is instructive in that it incorporates the historical fact that William Butler Yeats was a member of the Theosophical Society and most likely read Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Pythagoras-saturated writings. However, Normandin does not go so far as to examine the occult interpretations of the number of bean rows — nine. In their book about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Chris Zalewski and Pat Zalewski explain the Kabbalistic theology behind certain numbers and concepts in the occult. According to this theology, there are three stages of “Light” — the potential co-creator of the universe along with “Sound” — which become increasingly more solid. The third stage, Ain Soph Aur or Limitless Light, is made up of nine Hebrew letters. Chris Zalewski and Pat Zalewski explain that the nine Hebrew letters “constitute the unmanifested steps or spheres […] so that at the number nine we cannot progress further without returning to unity.” Nine, it appears, is an important number for both the Kabbalah and the tarot deck.

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February 8, 2022 15:53

“Deep heart’s core” not “deep earth’s core”

Catarina Elvira
Catarina Elvira
Reply to  Angela
March 2, 2022 07:16

Dear Angela,

Unfortunately, that is how the author expects to keep the wording on the article, so it will remain unchanged until further notice, but we appreciate the fact you took your time to point it out to us.

Thank you for your comment.



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