William Butler Yeats
Born: June 13, 1865
Died: January 28, 1939
Often called the greatest lyric Irish poet of all time, William Butler Yeats was one of the driving forces behind the Irish Literary Revival. He also co-founded the Abbey Theatre and the Dun Emer Press, and served as an Irish Senator from 1922-28.
Yeats had a keen interest in transcendentalism and his works reflect his lifelong relationship with fairies of Irish folktales and mystical states. He translated The Ten Principal Upanishads (1938) with Shri Purohit Swami and was admitted into The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society (whose founder, VIP Madame Blavatsky, reportedly used hashish). He wrote in 1892, "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.'"
Yeats was first introduced to hashish (and dance) by the writer Arthur Symons, who he met in 1890.
In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a young heiress who became passionately involved in the Irish nationalist movement. Although she rejected his many marriage proposals, Gonne greatly influenced Yeats's life and work. In February 1894, Yeats and Gonne traveled to Paris, where they took hashish together. In December 1896, Yeats again visited Paris and took hashish.
In the chapter ‘Concerning saints and artists’ of his autobiographic essay "Discoveries" (1906), Yeats wrote:
I took the Indian hemp with certain followers of Saint-Martin on the ground floor of a house in the Latin Quarter. I had never taken it before, and was instructed by a boisterous young poet, whose English was no better than my French. He gave me a little pellet, if I am not forgetting, an hour before dinner, and another after we had dined together at some restaurant. As we were going through the streets to the meeting-place of the Martinists, I felt suddenly that a cloud I was looking at floated in an immense space, and for an instant my being rushed out, as it seemed, into that space with ecstasy. I was myself again immediately, but the poet was wholly above himself, and presently he pointed to one of the street-lamps now brightening in the fading twilight, and cried at the top of his voice, ‘Why do you look at me with your great eye?’
There were perhaps a dozen people already much excited when we arrived; and after I had drunk some cups of coffee and eaten a pellet or two more, I grew very anxious to dance, but did not, as I could not remember any steps. I sat down and closed my eyes; but no, I had no visions, nothing but a sensation of some dark shadow which seemed to be telling me that some day I would go into a trance and so out of my body for a while, but not yet. I opened my eyes and looked at some red ornament on the mantel-piece, and at once the room was full of harmonies of red, but when a blue china figure caught my eye the harmonies became blue upon the instant. I was puzzled, for the reds were all there, nothing had changed, but they were no longer important or harmonious; and why had the blues so unimportant but a moment ago become exciting and delightful? Thereupon it struck me that I was seeing like a painter, and that in the course of the evening every one there would change through every kind of artistic perception."
Yeats's book The Secret Rose (1897) pursued his self-proclaimed themes of the 'war of the spiritual with the natural order' and 'all the history of various quests for the ideal & very phantastic.' "Much of the mise-en-scene seems inspired by the Parisian prophetic and millenialist fringe culture" and Yeats wanted to parade 'all the modern visionary sects' before his reader. "The Secret Rose reflects another arcane subculture too: it was no accident that the language was by turns narcotic and hallucinogenic. Yeats had learnt to take hashish with the shady followers of the mystic Louis Claude de Staint-Martin in Paris, and with [Henry] Davray and Symons the previous December. In April 1897 he experimented with mescal, supplied by Havelock Ellis, who recorded that 'while an excellent subject for visions, and very familiar with various vision-producing drugs and processes, [Yeats] found the effect on his breathing unpleasant; 'he much prefers haschich', which he continued to take in tablets, a particularly potent form of ingestion." Yeats kept a "visions notebook" and continued to experiment with hashish and mescal in 1898, when "helped by hashish pellets" he wrote, "My soul takes comfort in many excellent divinations." (Foster)
In his book, Swendenborg, Mediums, Desolate Places (1914) Yeats wrote, "Much as a hashish eater will discover in the folds of a curtain a figure beautifully drawn and full of delicate detail all built up out of shadows that show to other eyes, or later to his own, a different form or none, Swedenborg discovered in the Bible the personal symbolism of his vision."
William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 for what the Nobel Committee described as "his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."
Sources: Foster, R. F.; W. B. Yeats: A Life (Oxford University Press, 1998)
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