Aleister Crowley & William Butler Yeats Get into an Occult Battle, Pitting White Magic Against Black Magic (1900)


Aleis­ter Crow­ley—Eng­lish magi­cian and founder of the reli­gion of Thele­ma—has been admired as a pow­er­ful the­o­rist and prac­ti­tion­er of what he called “Mag­ick,” and reviled as a spoiled, abu­sive buf­foon. Falling some­where between those two camps, we find the opin­ion of Crowley’s bit­ter rival, the Irish poet William But­ler Yeats, who once pas­sion­ate­ly wrote that the study of mag­ic was “the most impor­tant pur­suit of my life….. The mys­ti­cal life is the cen­ter of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

Crow­ley would sure­ly say the same, but his mag­ic was of a much dark­er, more obses­sive vari­ety, and his suc­cess as a poet insignif­i­cant next to Yeats. “Crow­ley was jeal­ous,” argues the blog Rune Soup, “He was nev­er able to speak the lan­guage of poet­ic sym­bol with the con­fi­dence of a native speak­er in the way Yeats def­i­nite­ly could.” In a 1948 Par­ti­san Review essay, lit­er­ary crit­ic and Yeats biog­ra­ph­er Richard Ell­mann tells the sto­ry dif­fer­ent­ly, dri­ly report­ing on the con­flict as its par­tic­i­pants saw it—as a gen­uine war between com­pet­ing forms of prac­ti­cal mag­ic.

Hav­ing been eject­ed from the occult Theo­soph­i­cal soci­ety for his mag­i­cal exper­i­ments, writes Jamie James at Lapham’s Quar­ter­ly, Yeats joined the Her­met­ic Order of the Gold­en Dawn, “an even more exot­ic cult, which claimed direct descent from the her­met­ic tra­di­tion of the Renais­sance and into remote antiq­ui­ty.” At var­i­ous times, the order includ­ed writ­ers Arthur Machen and Bram Stok­er, Yeats’ beloved Irish rev­o­lu­tion­ary Maud Gonne, and famous magi­cians Arthur Edward Waite and Crow­ley. (Just below, see a page from Yeats’ Gold­en Dawn jour­nal. See sev­er­al more here.)


“When Crow­ley showed a ten­den­cy to use his occult pow­ers for evil rather than for good,” Ell­mann writes, “the adepts of the order, Yeats among them, decid­ed not to allow him to be ini­ti­at­ed into the inner cir­cle; they feared that he would pro­fane the mys­ter­ies and unleash pow­er­ful mag­ic forces against human­i­ty.” Crow­ley’s ouster lead to a con­fronta­tion in 1900 that might make you think—depending on your frame of reference—of the war­ring magi­cians on South Park or of Susan­na Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Nor­rell, or both. “Crow­ley refused to accept their deci­sion,” writes Ull­mann, and after some astral attacks on Yeats,

.… in Highlander’s tar­tan, with a black Crusader’s cross on his breast… Crow­ley arrived at the Gold­en Dawn tem­ple in Lon­don. Mak­ing the sign of the pen­ta­cle invert­ed and shout­ing men­aces at the adepts, Crow­ley climbed the stairs. But Yeats and two oth­er white magi­cians came res­olute­ly for­ward to meet him, ready to pro­tect the holy place at any cost. When Crow­ley came with­in range the forces of good struck out with their feet and kicked him down­stairs.

This almost slap­stick van­quish­ing became known as “the Bat­tle of Blythe Road” and has been immor­tal­ized in a pub­li­ca­tion of that very name, with accounts from Crow­ley, Yeats, and Gold­en Dawn adepts William West­cott, Flo­rence Farr and oth­ers. But the war was not won, Ell­mann notes, and Crow­ley went look­ing for converts—or victims—in Lon­don, while Yeats attempt­ed to stop him with “the req­ui­site spells and exor­cisms.” One such spell sup­pos­ed­ly sent a vam­pire that “bit and tore at his flesh” as it lay beside Crow­ley all night. Despite Yeats’ super­nat­ur­al inter­ven­tions, one of Crowley’s tar­gets, a young painter named Althea Gyles, was “final­ly forced to give way entire­ly to his bale­ful fas­ci­na­tion.”


Ellmann’s both humor­ous and unset­tling nar­ra­tive shows us Crow­ley-as-preda­tor, a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion the wealthy Eng­lish­man had appar­ent­ly earned, as “respon­si­ble gov­ern­ments exclud­ed him from one coun­try after anoth­er lest he bring to bear upon their inhab­i­tants his hos­tile psy­chic ray.” [Bren­da Mad­dox at The Guardian gives a slight­ly dif­fer­ent account of the Bat­tle, in which “Yeats, with a bounc­er, saw him off the premis­es, called in the police and end­ed up (vic­to­ri­ous) in court.” ] Yeats and the oth­er mem­bers’ dis­taste for Crow­ley sure­ly had some­thing to do with his preda­to­ry behav­ior. But the rival­ry was also indeed a poet­ic one, albeit extreme­ly one-sided.

As Crow­ley biog­ra­ph­er Lawrence Sutin writes, “the earnest­ness of the young Crow­ley could not com­pen­sate, in Yeats’ mind, for the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and rhetor­i­cal excess­es of his verse.” Yeats’ opin­ion “infu­ri­at­ed Crow­ley,” who indulged in the mag­ic of pro­jec­tion, writ­ing “What hurt him [Yeats] was the knowl­edge of his own incom­pa­ra­ble infe­ri­or­i­ty.” Crow­ley’s remarks are both “ridicu­lous,” Sutin com­ments, and apply “far more con­vinc­ing­ly to Crow­ley him­self.” Nev­er­the­less, Crowley’s “Mag­ick,” con­tin­ued to make Yeats uneasy, and he may have invoked Crow­ley in his famous line about the “rough beast” slouch­ing toward Beth­le­hem in 1919’s “The Sec­ond Com­ing.”

While the mag­i­cal bat­tle between them might pro­voke more laugh­ter than curios­i­ty about their dif­fer­ent brands of mag­ic, Sutin notes a cru­cial dif­fer­ence that dis­tin­guish­es the two men: “where­as Crow­ley placed him­self in the ser­vices of the Antichrist ‘the sav­age God’ of the new cycle, Yeats’s fideli­ty was to ‘the old king,’ to ‘that unfash­ion­able gyre.’” The gyre, so cen­tral an image in “The Sec­ond Com­ing,” stands for Yeats’ the­o­ry of time and his­to­ry, and it belongs to an old mys­ti­cism and folk­lore that for him were syn­ony­mous with poet­ry.

Crow­ley viewed the occult as a source of per­son­al power—his rev­e­la­tions filled books devot­ed to explain­ing the phi­los­o­phy of Thele­ma (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will); ” Yeats was cer­tain­ly more of an “orga­ni­za­tion man… in his occult activ­i­ties,” writes Mad­dox, and sought to prac­tice mag­ic as a holis­tic activ­i­ty, ful­ly inte­grat­ed into his social, polit­i­cal, and aes­thet­ic life. His “pub­lic phi­los­o­phy,” as he called it, writes James, “pro­pounds an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly con­vo­lut­ed sys­tem that aims to inte­grate the human per­son­al­i­ty with the cos­mos.”

To under­stand Crowley’s mag­i­cal think­ing, we can prob­a­bly skip his poet­ry and attempt as best we can to the deci­pher his sev­er­al arcane, tech­ni­cal books full of invent­ed terms and sym­bols. To under­stand Yeats, as much as that’s pos­si­ble, we need to read his poet­ry, the purest expres­sion of his mys­ti­cal sys­tem and sym­bol­ic thought.

via Metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aleis­ter Crow­ley: The Wickedest Man in the World Doc­u­ments the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Moun­taineer

Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

W.B. Yeats’ Poem “When You Are Old” Adapt­ed into a Japan­ese Man­ga Com­ic

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Nix Nihil says:

    Thanks for post­ing this. This “mag­i­cal quar­rel” is the rea­son why I did my Mas­ter’s on Yeats and his “Vision.”

    While on a research trip to Lon­don this sum­mer, I spent two weeks in Crow­ley’s archives, and was thrilled to read his diary per­tain­ing to this episode, as well as the Fly­ing Rolls by Farr, and Let­ters from Yeats to AE and Lady Gre­go­ry boast­ing of vic­to­ry. Crow­ley, too, claimed vic­to­ry (of course). Despite his humil­i­a­tion and arrest, the order did fall to chaos and even­tu­al­ly dis­in­te­grate. So, who had the last laugh? Fas­ci­nat­ing stuff!

  • Patrick says:

    Hi Nix.

    I’d love to read your research if it is avail­able. My exact area of inter­est.


  • Vicki Burns says:

    Crowley’s ego aside, his lega­cy of Thele­ma, the OTO and his mag­ick­al sys­tem are any­thing but evil. Did the author even read any of his works?

  • Christian Giudice says:

    This is one of the most unin­formed pieces on Crow­ley that I have ever read, and I have read many. Bram Stok­er was nev­er a mem­ber of the Gold­en Dawn, Crow­ley did not con­sid­er him­self a black magi­cian: both Yeats and him knew that the dis­tinc­tion was a pet­ty one. And actu­al­ly, to under­stand Crow­ley, his lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing his poet­ry, is fun­da­men­tal.

  • jonathan d wint says:

    Invert­ed pen­ta­cle? Nev­er in a mil­lion years… the arti­cle takes tiny bits of his­to­ry and tries to make them into a joke.. any of these men what’s 1000 times bet­ter than the author of this piece of trash

  • Nick Farrell says:

    The writer appears to have fall­en into the trap of believ­ing Crow­ley too much. Yeats was only dim­ly aware of Crow­ley who was was a low grade. He was blocked from entry to the Por­tal grade because a Gay club, which Crow­ley was a mem­ber, had just been raid­ed and fur­ther scan­dals were expect­ed as police inves­ti­gat­ed the mem­ber­ship list. Yeats lat­er said “the Sec­ond Order is not a reform school.” The the Bat­tle of Blythe Road account is pret­ty wide of the mark too. Crow­ley tricked the land­lord into let­ting them in and changed the locks. Yeats showed up with a local cop… Crow­ley had no wish to be arrest­ed because that would cause him prob­lems so he agreed to leave. There was no court case over the mat­ter. As sources the news­pa­pers are very unre­li­able in report­ing any­thing to do with Crow­ley or the Gold­en Dawn. You might like to look at “King over the Water” by er me

  • Michael K says:

    ‘King Over The Water’ by Mr. F (above) is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

  • Kerry Ann Morgan says:

    I am going to go check out ‘King Over the Water’ by Mr. F. right now. I am writ­ing a nov­el but the research is fas­ci­nat­ing and help­ful. I live near where Crow­ley once spent 4 months in “par­adise” and pre­fer facts to inspire my fic­tion. :)

    So which was it? A nifty bat­tle or just a please-leave-ok- thing?

    Thank you-

  • Kerry Ann Morgan says:

    Mr. Nick Far­rell has writ­ten sev­er­al books on relat­ed sub­jects and should absolute­ly be tak­en a look at on King Over the Water looks real­ly inter­est­ing. I am fol­low­ing you on Ama­zon now and look for­ward to read­ing your work.


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