Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn [Amazon, Local Library] by Kathleen Raine.

Raine Yeats the Tarot and the Golden Dawn

This slender monograph was developed from a paper presented in scholarly sessions on Yeats in 1968, published in 1972, and revised in 1976. In its closing passage, it refers to itself as “this most superficial study of Yeats’s use of the symbolism of magic acquired through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” (74). Author Kathleen Raine appears to have been in the vanguard of academic research on the esoteric interests and activities of Yeats. She is the dedicatee (“to whom else …?”) of George Mills Harper’s much lengthier 1975 Yeats’s Golden Dawn.

Raine’s preliminary remarks on the historical sources and general applications of Tarot symbolism are sensible and well-informed. She follows these with a history of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, citing reliable sources from among those available in the 1960s and 70s, but here she makes a few odd blunders. For example, she takes the “Roseae Rubeae” and “Aureae Crucis” to have been the “two higher degrees” of the Inner Order (5), when the Inner Order in fact had three grades and “The Ruby Rose and Cross of Gold” was the name of the Order itself.

The 1976 second edition is very amply illustrated in black and white with images of Tarot cards and drawings from Golden Dawn ritual manuscripts. These are all fascinating and well chosen to support the text. I was especially intrigued by the inclusion of cards from the Tarot packs actually owned and used by Yeats and his wife, even though his was a quite conventional Italian deck and hers was the familiar Marseilles design.

At the outset of the second of the text’s two sections, Raine demonstrates that the Stella Matutina ritual for the Zelator grade includes conscious paraphrasing from William Blake (42-3). Her suggestion that pioneering Blake editor Yeats was then necessarily involved in the original composition of the ritual depends crucially on the rather dubious “if the passage belongs to the original text and is not a later addition.” As a general matter, her analyses are weakened by taking the Regardie exposures of the later Stella Matutina rituals as authentic texts of the Golden Dawn order in which Yeats had been initiated. She would have been better served, in fact, to work from Aleister Crowley’s exposures published in The Equinox as Book II of “The Temple of Solomon the King.”

Although Raine consistently disparages Yeats’s esoteric antagonist Crowley as an author of “bad verse” (46), she did find it worthwhile to include reproductions of many Frieda Harris Tarot cards with long captions quoting Crowley on the cards’ symbolism. She even surprised me by suggesting that Yeats’s The Resurrection (1931) may have had a debt to Crowley (47-8). However, I think she erred in pointing to Liber Legis III:34 as the influential text, when Yeats was quite evidently riffing on the Hellas chorus by Shelley (“The world’s great age begins anew”)–a text familiar and dear to Crowley, who used it for the solar benediction at the end of his theatrical ceremony “The Rite of Mars.” (A corollary question: Was Liber Legis influenced by Shelley?)

The most important element of Raine’s study, and one with which I take no exception, is her explanation of the relationship of Yeats’s magical training to his literary production. I am now perhaps sufficiently motivated to read Yeats’s A Vision, which has been on my shelf for decades.