As an English major at Reed College, I experienced a semester-long combined seminar on William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. To be honest, I probably liked Eliot’s poetry more, and I wrote a just-slightly-tongue-in-cheek paper on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, although I did not have the chops to turn it into a Broadway musical, which is why I am not rich and famous.
Nevertheless, I knew that Yeats was important too. We discussed him only as poet and advocate of Irish cultural identity, not as ceremonial magician, as prose writer, nor as Irish senator.
I heard something about A Vision, his esoteric Compleat Theory of Everything, but when I found a copy in the library, I bounced off it like a brick wall. I lacked the background to understand, quite simply, and of course I knew next to nothing about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in the early 1890s.
I picked up a lot more over the years, including reading about his long, sexually frustrated (for twenty-odd years) romantic friendship with the beautiful Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne — who was a magician too, at least until the gunfire of the 1916 Easter Rising drowned that out.
Unknown to Yeats, Gonne had an affair with a French journalist and secretly gave birth to a boy, who died at the age of 2; she returned with her lover to the child’s tomb to conceive again, believing that reincarnation would bring back the lost son.
Then last November, in a session of the Western Esotericism Group at the American Academy of Religion, Thomas Willard of the U. of Arizona mentioned an unfinished novel by Yeats that I had never heard of, The Speckled Bird [for the title’s origin, see note below].
Between 1896-1902, “at a point in his career when he was dramatizing his occult experiences in fiction [such as] The Secret Rose, a sequence of stories that embody the conflict between the natural and spiritual worlds,” Yeats made four attempts at this autobiographical novel [General Editor’s Introduction, The Speckled Bird].
Its central character, Michael Hearne, “is dominated by three passions: his love of Margaret [Maud Gonne], his desire to gain access to the invisible world by means of occult knowledge and techniques, and his wish to devise an appropriate ritual for the inauguration and practice of the Celtic Mysteries” [ibid.].
Michael and Margaret plan a series of rituals based on the quest for the Grail, and in a letter he tells her, “We will only make a beginning, but centuries after we are dead cities shall be overthrown, it may be, because of an air that we have hummed or because of a curtain full of [magical] meaning that we have hung upon a wall.”
And when Michael and Maclagan, the character based on S. L. Mathers, are walking in the British Museum’s Egyptian Rooms, Maclagan says, “The old gods are worshipped still in secret and what we have to do is make their worship open again.”
In the most-developed version, Michael Hearne abandons the plan for a Celtic esoteric order and sets off on a journey with Maclagan to Arabia and Persia — which did not occur in Yeats’ real life.
Yeats and Gonne’s Celtic-mystery groups never happened. Outer-world events — the First World War (1914–18), the Irish rebellions (1916, 1919–21) foundation of the Irish Free State (1922), and then its subsequent civil war (1922–23) — were just a little too distracting.
Some would argue that the Fellowship of the Four Jewels carried on something of Yeats’ and Gonne’s idea, and in the person of Ella Young, it has a slight connection with the development of West Coast Pagan movements in the 1960s.
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Note: I am not sure what “the speckled bird” meant to Yeats, although he knew that it came from Jeremiah 12:9. Christian commentators regard the bird as emblematic of the church.
The metaphor is of small birds mobbing an owl or other raptor. Jeremiah seems casual about bird identification, but maybe his audience knew if he meant a Eurasian eagle-owl or some kind of large hawk.