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Waite, Arthur Edwardlocked

(1857–1942)
  • R. A. Gilbert

Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942)

by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1921

Waite, Arthur Edward (1857–1942), mystic and historian of occultism, was born on 2 October 1857 at Brooklyn, New York, the son of Charles Frederick Waite, an American merchant marine captain of Lyme in Connecticut, and his common-law wife, Emma Lovell, whose family were involved in the East India trade. In 1858 Captain Waite died at sea, shortly before the birth of a second child, Frederica. Unhappy in New England, Emma Lovell took her children back to England where, rejected by her family, she raised them in the northern suburbs of London in a genteel poverty alleviated by fervent devotion to the Roman Catholic church to which she had turned for solace. Sacramental Christianity was to remain a profound influence on Waite's mature thought, but such orthodoxy as he professed was lost in the trauma of his sister's death in 1874 which led him away from the church and towards spiritualism. This he rejected as a creed but it served to introduce him, by turns, to theosophy, to alchemy, and to the work of the French occultist Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant; 1810–1875). However, it was not these aspects of the ‘occult revival’ (the term now applied to the mid-nineteenth century reawakening of educated interest in alchemy, magic, and other aspects of occultism that had previously been treated with ridicule) which were the principal influences on Waite. His thought and writing were largely moulded by the conflicts and tensions of his private life, beginning with his unacknowledged illegitimacy.

As he completed his two terms at St Charles's College, Bayswater—the only formal education he ever received—and passed out of adolescence, Waite turned briefly to ideas of the priesthood. Such vocation as he may have had, however, did not include a call to celibacy and he took up instead his always precarious literary career. As a poet he met with little success but his early studies of the various occult sciences and The Mysteries of Magic (1886), which he translated from Levi's original, all show the critical acumen that would become the hallmark of his mature writing. They also illustrate his ambivalent attitude to occultism in general. Further conflict entered his life in 1888 through an unhappy marriage, on 7 January, to Ada Alice Lakeman (1867–1924), the sister of Dora, Waite's first and only love; Dora married, also unhappily, the Revd Granville Stuart-Menteath. If not materially, Waite undoubtedly psychologically neglected his wife and daughter, Sybil (b. 1888), as he turned inward towards his esoteric studies. These bore immediate fruit and the 1890s were Waite's most prolific decade with ten books, fifteen works edited or translated, and the first independent journal in this field, the Unknown World, to his credit.

Waite also entered, in January 1891, the hermetic order of the Golden Dawn which enabled him to indulge in ceremonial without the constraints of Catholic orthodoxy. However, he was never truly an occultist: in all his work he presented himself as a non-denominational mystic, seeking to propagate what he termed the 'secret tradition'—a knowledge, preserved down the ages, of the way by which man can be spiritually regenerated and attain divine Union, or 'realization in God'. It is ironic that the works in which he clearly expresses this are not those by which he is known. If his most important works of the 1890s were his editions of alchemical texts, issued between 1892 and 1896, the most popular was Transcendental Magic (1896), his translation of Levi's Dogme et rituel de l'haute magie. Similarly the collections of poems he published in the Edwardian era, A Book of Mystery and Vision (1902) and Strange Houses of Sleep (1906), are now forgotten, while The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910) and the pack of cards designed under his supervision by Pamela Colman Smith became, as they remain, the most popular pack ever published. They were followed by another commercially successful work, the contents of which were anathema to Waite: The Book of Ceremonial Magic (1911).

Other strings remained to be added to Waite's bow. In 1901 he became a freemason and rapidly entered every masonic order open to him as a part of his quest for yet further aspects of the secret tradition. He wrote now on the French mystic Louis Claude de Saint-Martin; on the Hebrew cabbala; on the Holy Grail; on the Rosicrucians; on freemasonry; and yet more on alchemy. As part of his active life in esoteric circles he played a prominent part in the tribulations of the Golden Dawn and helped to found the Alchemical Society, while in the everyday world he weaned Arthur Machen away from despair and back to a productive career.

Waite's own career was now crystallizing. For nine years, from 1899 to 1907, he was a manager for Horlicks, the malted milk company, but from 1908 onwards he depended solely on income from his writing. London proved to be an increasingly uncongenial setting for the journalism that had become an essential supplement to books that were never financially rewarding; The Way of Divine Union (1915), his finest work, sold badly (and is now virtually unknown), and he decided to move. Eventually, in 1919, he moved to Ramsgate from where he returned only to arrange contracts and to oversee the offshoot of the Golden Dawn that he had created in 1915. The long-suffering Ada Waite died in 1924 but her death had little effect on his work, and on 15 August 1933 he married Mary Broadbent Schofield (b. 1885), who had been his unpaid secretary for ten years.

Waite's final years were taken up with completing his studies of the secret tradition: The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross (1924), The Secret Tradition in Alchemy (1926), The Holy Kabbalah (1929), and The Holy Grail (1933), are the new or revised works on which his reputation largely rests. His last book was his autobiography, Shadows of Life and Thought (1938), and although it reveals little enough of his outer life it contains within it the clearest statement of his own beliefs. Waite died at Gordon House, Bridge, near Canterbury, on 19 May 1942, unnoticed in death as in life, and was buried at Bishopsbourne, Kent.

It is ironic that works of lesser importance in Waite's own eyes—his translations of Levi's work and the brilliantly innovative tarot cards designed under his guidance—have ensured that his influence is still felt in the ‘New Age’ movement, a movement that embodies all that Waite rejected in occultism. This effect of his work is balanced, however, by its influence in varying degrees on writers as diverse as W. B. Yeats, Charles Williams, Arthur Machen, Evelyn Underhill, and T. S. Eliot, and in the wider field of the history of ideas. Through his critical and historical studies of occultism in all its forms, and even more by his carefully edited alchemical texts, Waite brought order out of the chaos of the occult revival and enabled the study of both the history and content of ‘rejected knowledge’ to become academically acceptable. It is the growing awareness of his importance in this field that has finally brought him the wider acclaim he always deserved.

Sources

  • A. E. Waite, diary, 1902–3, 1909–10, 1912–13, 1915–42, priv. coll. [Gilbert collection, Bristol]

  • A. E. Waite, Shadows of life and thought (1938)
  • R. A. Gilbert, A. E. Waite: magician of many parts (1987)
  • E. Howe, The magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972)
  • private information (2004)
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.
  • personal knowledge (2004)

Archives

  • priv. coll., Waite MSS
  • Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, London, high council library

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1880–1938, priv. coll.
  • J. B. Trinick, pencil drawing, 1920, repro. in A. E. Waite, A new encyclopaedia of freemasonry (1921)
  • A. L. Coburn, photograph, 1921, priv. coll.
  • A. L. Coburn, photograph, 1921, NPG [see illus.]
  • E. O. Hoppé, photographs, 1927, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£4667 4s. 3d.: probate, 12 Oct 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

private collection