The Magical as a Political Stand in ” Dream of the World’s End” by W.B. Yeats


This is what The Green Sheaf's minimalist cover looked like for each volume, having only a span of one year of publication.
Fig. 1. Pamela Colman Smith. The Green Sheaf Volume I. 1903. Yellow Nineties 2.0 Public Domain


Dream of the World’s End” is a short story written by W.B. Yeats, featured in volume 2 of the little magazine publication The Green Sheaf. This volume incorporates elements of dreams and magical realism with almost every text, forming a commonality regarding its theme. Created in 1903 by Pamela Colman Smith, this magazine’s purpose was to display emerging writers and artists’ experimental creations.

With the artistic freedom that came with this, it was a popular magazine that had accomplished thirteen issues published during its life from 1903-1904. The Green Sheaf was a publication based in London that was supposed to be an experimental magazine for promising artists to explore their talents. It can be seen as an early magical realist magazine; fantasy is apparent in all the stories. 

 With elements of the unknown and magical realism in this specific volume, it can be seen as a creative experiment for the authors to write about issues that they care about while having the means to make a compelling story at the same time. This exhibit aims to figure out how Yeat’s religious beliefs mixed with magical realism in this specific text encourage the fin-de-Siecle political resistance and question the popular British hegemony in Ireland.

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Fig. 2. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

Born in 1865, William Butler Yeats was a famous Irish poet who won numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. He dabbled in various forms of the arts, including theatre, literature and poetry. Yeats’s father played a huge role in inspiring a young W.B.’s artistic expression by dropping out of law school to aspire to become a painter ( Holdeman 2). Not following the traditional norms of what a man should be during this time, Yeats was born in Ireland and raised in London due to his father’s pursuits. Yeats’s religious background was heavily influenced by nineteen-century science, debunking many religious claims that were previously believed. Furthermore, Yeats’s father was an advocate of skepticism, which made Yeats all the more curious about his spirituality, which eventually leads to him crafting the ” Dream of the World’s End.”

Having disdain for England for its involvement and treatment with Ireland, “The British sometimes justified their empire in Ireland and elsewhere by describing those over whom they held sway as savages” (Holdeman 7). Yeats sought to answer political and spiritual questions that had emerged in the author’s early years. Both politics and spirituality are two continuous themes that Yeats has used in his works to get his point across. He was ultimately a proud nationalist that admired his homeland’s traditions, folklore, myths and belief system. Having been in London for some time, Yeats viewed it as a ” modernized place” ( Holdeman 7), which had forgotten its culture and became too industrialized for its own good, something which Yeats despised. He used his literary career to not only fulfill his artistic expression but also, command attention to the injustices that his homeland was facing during this period. 

Spirituality and religion were the most appealing nuances in Yeats’s literary career, which lead to him joining a group called the “Theosophical Society” (Holdeman 18). However, individuals in this group thought Yeats to be too extreme in his pursuit of mysticism and knowledge about the unknown, which led to him being expelled from the group. Shortly after this, Yeats joined an occult group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with a familiar face in it, Pamela Coleman Smith, the Green Sheaf little magazine founder and editor.


Dream of the World’s End by W.B. Yeats

This text focuses on an unnamed protagonist’s dream or nightmare of the world, ending in a judgement day like fashion. In this dream, the setting is a city like Paris; some people are trying to be the best version of themselves in their judge’s eyes while others are indifferent to it being their final day. The devil disguised as an ordinary man comes from the sky, casting out sins to each individual. The protagonist wakes up from his nightmare in fear and thinks someone was in his room, toying with his mind. He concludes and relates this sensation to a biblical verse, “ One who shall come as a thief in the night,” and the story ends.

His text in the magazine appears to be about judgement day ( a Christianity belief) where the devil comes in his dream to cast contracts out to those who have sinned. Remember, Yeats was not exposed to religion as much as his literary peers due to his family and society’s developing trust in science and philosophy. The concept of dreams is used in this text; the main protagonist dreams of this nightmare and, like the other works in The Green Sheaf Volume 2 (except “ How Master Constants Went North by Christopher St John and “At Departing” by Lucilla), uses dreams as a theme/lens in order to tell each story. The reason is unknown; the Green Sheaf was for artists to experiment. Dreams allow the author to use magical elements and fantasy motifs to shape their individual story. Yeats decides to use religion in the dream theme to make a political statement about the ruling religion in Ireland ( Christianity) due to the British rule. 

Yeats’ work shows how different individuals are since there are different reactions to the world’s end. The power of choice, not following the status quo of being a god-fearing man, speaks to the bigger picture of being a proud Irish nationalist and not submitting to British dominance. While some characters in the story are god-fearing, they do their best to be a model citizen, in Ireland, many individuals obeyed the British hegemony and did not question it, which infuriated Yeats.  The Green Sheaf has no political agenda, so Yeats can freely write his discontent without any worry. 

Yeats’s Involvement with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

Formed in the final decade of the 19th century in England, this cult-like literary group enticed Yeats’s to join and become a prominent figure in it. According to Billings, the main goal of this organization was to “discuss the role of the order within western esotericism and its teachings concerning the soul” (21); as we have learned, Yeats had been neglected the opportunity to learn about his spiritual self during his formative years, after being excommunicated by the Theosophical Society, it was only a matter of time for Yeats to find a new group to express his undisclosed spirituality.

Fig. 3. Rose-cross symbol according to Order of Golden Dawn, ca. 1900, 3 June 2007. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

With the soul of a human being the coveted item of discussion amongst this group’s members, religion was a central idea that its members (including Yeats) believed to be a salvation of sorts from the industrialization, loss of faith, and colonization of individuals. ” Perfect knowledge of Self is required to attain Knowledge of Divinity, for when you can know the God of yourself it will be possible to obtain a dim vision of the God of All” ( Billings 86). The concept of self concerning Yeats is essential; having a sporadic and infrequent life until he was older. It is speculated that Yeats found his writing stride and style after being a part of this group.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn impacted Yeats; in regards to his work in the Green Sheaf, it is evident that religion and magical realism is incorporated in the text to display the deeper meaning of one losing their faith and no longer caring about a situation like judgement day, somewhat shrugging it off and going back to routine life. The city in the story can be used as a metaphor for Ireland being tortured by Britain rule and losing their sense of self, faith and home. As Billing states, the dream of the group was ” to rise from a seeming mixing of disparate and possibly conflicting traditions into a whole dedicated towards the knowledge and realization of divinity for its members” (88). This idea of self-realization is an essential concept in regards to Yeats’s work; with Ireland’s identity being stolen by the British Empire, the author wanted a shift in the paradigm, with the focused text in mind, having a dream of the world ending and not being phased speaks to the message of not being intimidated by Britain. It is legislation and policies that worked to undermine Ireland’s core beliefs and traditions.


Britain’s Rule in Ireland in the early 19th Century

There was a need for change in Ireland during the early 19th century, and it started with getting out of the grasp of British rule. Ireland struggled economically while under Britain’s control, ” The structural and institutional weaknesses were the consequence of unsympathetic and ill-thought-out British policy towards Ireland” ( Hopkinson 6). With the British Empire essentially having control over Ireland, many citizens held a bitter view on what was happening, including Yeats. The difference being, Yeats had a national platform aside from politics to speak out his disdain for Britain. 

The concept of Irish nationalism was mentioned earlier. Yeats was an advocate for Ireland’s best interest as a whole; however, a new form of nationalism was needed to hunker down and resist the British rule. It was a movement referred to as ” New Nationalism” ( Hopkinson 12). Its ultimate goal was economic and societal change; this movement was a domino in disbanding the British from Ireland because the change was free from British influence. Furthermore, new nationalism was heeded by scholars and aristocratic families; Yeats was a famous literary figure in Ireland during this time, works like ” Dream of the World’s End” amongst his other texts played a role in self-identification and a sense of pride within the Irish community. This internal battle became an external one through the early 1900s, reaching a physical boiling point in 1917; Irish nationalists were at the beginning stages of forcing a change through violence. The objective was still a simple one, ” Underlying everything was the rejection of British rule” ( Hopkinson 13); it was writers like Yeats who challenged the social structure of his country, thus forcing the hand of its citizens through the pen. 

Yeats’s text to the British ruling body can be seen with the religion Christianity in work. Since the 17th century, Christianity had ” made an excellent impression in Britain” ( Singh 26); with the empire being in Ireland, Christianity migrated to Ireland, forcing a paradigm shift within the author’s society. As mentioned earlier, Yeats was not exposed to religion as a child due to his family, ” Dream of the World’s End” can be seen as a political statement against the British Empire, using their familiar religion to show how futile their attempts to control the Irish population is. Since a handful of individuals in the story do not seem to react to judgement day, Yeats is trying to prove that the Irish citizen is not fearful of their God, which is an empowering message for a fin-de-siecle political resistance that eventually transitioned into the Irish War of Independence in 1919. 


The fin-de-siecle political resistance in Ireland was one of the country’s most important historical events. Not only did Ireland end up gaining liberation from British rule, they became an independent and socially progressive country on their own accord. Yeats was a pioneer in this matter, challenging the status quo of his country. He was a complex individual who had many different stories inside of him to tell. With his unique upbringing, exposure to several cult-like groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he was able to gain inner/spiritual independence throughout his work. The Green Sheaf Volume II helped establish Yeats as a creative and intellectual writer during his formative years. Pamela Colman Smith may have been the magazine’s creator, but it is due to artists like Yeat’s that made this publication an essential piece of historical literature for study. As mentioned before, the Green Sheaf had no prerequisites for what one could write. With this specific volume focusing on the theme of dreams, ” Dream of the World’s End” represents the loss of Ireland’s identity and the dreams of its citizens being controlled by an outside force. Yeat’s usage of religious beliefs with the added element of the fantasy literature in this specific text encourages the fin-de-Siecle political resistance. It demands freedom from the British Hegemony in Ireland during this period. W.B. Yeats used this theme to rebel against the abandonment of timeless culture, convictions, and nationalistic pride that Britain seemed to take from his homeland in Ireland.

Works Cited:

Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Independence. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Singh, Mamta. Oriental and Occidental Contemplations in the Poetry of Nobel Laureates: R. Tagore, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, Ann Arbor, 2015. ProQuest

Billings, Louis Albert, I., II. The Nature, Structure, and Role of the Soul in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Ann Arbor, 2007. ProQuest

Holdeman, David. The Cambridge Introduction to W.B. Yeats. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, doi:10.1017/CBO9780511607349.

Yeats, W.B., and Pamela Colman Smith. “The Green Sheaf Volume 2: Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities: Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, 1 Jan. 1970,