Yeats was born in Ireland in 1865 to Anglo-Irish parents. He wrote of his childhood in at least two books, one called Four Years and the other titled Reveries Over Childhood and Youth. He was not, he said, a particularly happy boy, and he is not really sure why. He says that nobody was really unkind to him. His grandfather’s austere religion seems to have frightened him, and if there was a spark of living, loving faith in the severe discipline of the family’s household prayers, Yeats missed it.
He did not blame them, however. Instead he complained that he was deprived of his childhood Christianity by Huxley and Tyndall:
Well, I had to know who they were, or rather, who Tyndall was. I knew about Huxley. Huxley and Tyndall are Thomas Henry Huxley and John Tyndall, two well known scientists of the 19th century, both of them strongly outspoken against Christianity. In 1874 Tyndall was the elected resident of the British Society for the Advancement of Science. He delivered the keynote speech to the society at their annual meeting in Belfast, and in that speech, according to Wikipedia, he:
gave a favorable account of the history of evolutionary theories, mentioning Darwin’s name favorably more than 20 times, and concluded by asserting that religious sentiment should not be permitted to “intrude on the region of knowledge, over which it holds no command”.
The speech made front pages in newspapers all over the western world.
There is considerable irony in Yeats’ deconversion. It’s hard to believe he even wrote this with a straight face:
I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible church, out of poetic tradition: a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, a bundle of images and of masks passed on from generation to generation by poets & painters with some help from philosophers and theologians. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and in poems only, but in tiles round the chimney-piece and in the hangings that kept out the draught. I had even created a dogma: ‘Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man, to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth.’
Apparently, in response to the outspoken, evangelistic atheism of Huxley and Tyndall, Yeats abandoned the Christianity of his youth, which he had only faintly understood. Instead, he dabbled in paganism, spiritualism, magic, and various esoteric philosophies for the rest of his life. It is as though he said, “Deprived of any belief in the God of Christianity by Huxley and Tyndall, because that would be unreasonable, I embraced a belief in goblins and hobgoblins, fairies, and things that go bump in the night.”
Another biographer, one who know him in his youth, wrote of attending a seance with him once in 1887:
We sat round a table in the darkness touching each other’s hands. I was quite determined to be in opposition to the whole thing, to disbelieve in it, and disapprove of it as a playing with things of life and death. Presently the table stood up slowly : the host was psychic. There were presences. The presences had communications to make and struggled to make them. Willie Yeats was banging his head on the table as though he had a fit, muttering to himself. I had a cold repulsion to the whole business. I took my hands from the table. Presently the spirits were able to speak. There was someone in the room who was hindering them. By this time I had got in a few invocations of my own. There was a tremendous deal of rapping going on. The spirits were obviously annoyed. They were asked for an indication as to who it was that was holding them back. They indicated me, and I was asked to withdraw, which I did cheerfully. The last thing I saw as the door opened to let me pass through was Willie Yeats banging his head on the table.
It is difficult to see how the evangelistic atheism of Huxley and Tyndall could have deprived him of Christianity but not of the shadowy, pagan mysticism he chose instead. It brings to mind the story of the demons cleared from the room, who returned, and finding it empty, brought in many more much worse than themselves, or of the Father Brown story, the one that ends:
It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.’ He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. ‘It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words:
‘He was made Man’.’
This, too, is something Yeats once knew, and seemed to find it difficult to shake free of. I posted the first stanza of this poem a few days ago, because I know that both of my daughters who are also young mothers (and their husbands) would connect with that last line of the first stanza instantly. The rest of it is just as moving- or even more so:
A PRAYER FOR MY SON
Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round;
And may departing twilight keep
All dread afar till morning’s back
That his mother may not lack
Her fill of sleep.
Bid the ghost have sword in fist:
Some there are, for I avow
Such devilish things exist,
Who have planned his murder, for they know
Of some most haughty deed or thought
That waits upon his future days,
And would through hatred of the bays
Bring that to nought.
Though You can fashion everything
From nothing every day, and teach
The morning stars to sing,
You have lacked articulate speech
To tell Your simplest want, and known,
Wailing upon a woman’s knee,
All of that worst ignominy
Of flesh and bone;
And when through all the town there ran
The servants of Your enemy,
A woman and a man,
Unless the Holy Writings lie,
Hurried through the smooth and rough
And through the fertile and waste,
Protecting, till the danger past,
With human love.
How the Creator must love his frail, feeble, and messy created human beings, in order to become one of us and suffer the indignities, the ignominies, of flesh and bone. How tragic that somebody who could write such lyrics could not truly believe them.
How amazing that the same Creator of all that there is and ever will be ( Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. Isaiah 44:6), also allowed his puny, small, frail and feeble creation to participate with him in the nurturing of… Himself