Mary Poppins: Part Time Nanny, Full Time Witch | P.L. Travers and the Occult

by | Sep 27, 2018

IN THE LATE summer of 1926 author P.L. Travers stood on the doorstep of poet and Irish senator William Butler Yeats Dublin home soaked and disheveled—her arms bundled with the branches and berries she’d collected from the island of Innisfree. In return Yeats showed the 27 year-old the egg his canary had just laid. By Hollywood standards, Travers was no great beauty. Her dreams of achieving stage and silent screen stardom had sailed, and she’d only recently moved from Sydney to London in order that she might earn a wage reporting on the very theatrical world which was otherwise determined to reject her. Adding insult to injury, the boatman whom she had hired to charter her to and from Innisfree in the pouring rain had identified her landmark as Rats Island. But in truth, the Avalon of Yeats imagination didn’t actually exist. Yeats knew it and Travers knew it. For this reason, some say Mary Poppins, the fictional nanny from her book series, was born that day. Travers desired the unseen realm, and quite ironically, the branches and berries she’d collected in a torrential downpour attested to her devotion. Her preference was for witchery.

 

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WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS MEMBERSHIP WITH THE THEOSOPHICAL Society is no secret. But where Occult authors like L. Frank Baum found much satisfaction in Madame Helena Blavatsky and her society of experimental mystics, the Irish poet ultimately found little. When compared with a man of Yeats intellect and ambition, her members simply lacked the appetite and discipline for true Occultism. Though to be fair, it was Madame Blavatsky who manipulated the mystic Mohini Mohun Chatterji into leaving India for the United Kingdom. Chatterji would have a profound lifelong impact on both Yeats and Irish poet George Russell. In Yeats and Theosophy, author Ken Monteith suggested that Chatterji was “the source of his theosophical interests.”

Almost from the beginning Theosophy was beset by rows and splits. In 1890 Yeats would prove no exception. With the Theosophists behind him, Yeats became a First Order initiate of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, a brotherhood founded only two years earlier in England, with many of its members passing first through Theosophy—and likely already deprived of its inadequacies. In W.B. Yeats: A Life, author R.F. Foster affirms that the Golden Dawn’s mission was to reach even higher than Blavatsky’s already-lofty ambitions and “follow through the interest in ritual magic and study prescribed by Esoteric Theosophists.” Members of the Golden Dawn concentrated their teachings with the practicality of discipline by applying ritual magic, particularly the Kabbalah, to all things. His great love Maud Gonne was a member, as was the actress Florence Farr, Welsh author Arthur Machen and English authors Evelyn Underhill and Aleister Crowley whom, even in his own day, was world renowned and recognized as the wickedest man alive. As a First Order member, Yeats would have familiarized himself first with the Hebrew alphabet, understanding Hebrew Scripture with the mystically-perverse Kabbalah as its guide, meditation and divination practices of the tarot (a prized possession of his), and perhaps most importantly, intimate knowledge of the Tree of Life. Yeats later confessed in a letter that “the mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

It was Utopia he was after.

And much like Theosophy, the First Order simply couldn’t quill his insatiable appetite for the self-appointed divine. Yeats set his ambitions upon the Second Order of the Golden Dawn, a closed inner-circle scarcely populated with advanced practitioners of magic. Very few ascended into its upper ranks. Yeats however did. This was 1890—an important year for Yeats, because with his initiation into the First Order, so too was one of his greatest poems released.

For Genevieve Pettijohn, the poet’s 1890 publication of The Lake Isle of Innisfree is dripping wet with “Kabbalism, numerology, and tarot cards to which these societies looked for inspiration in their occult practices” to such a degree as to demonstrate “mastery over the Golden Dawn’s basic tenants.” Pettijohn further elaborates:

“Yeats further showcased his magical abilities in Innisfree by describing the sights and sounds on the island itself. Several personal accounts confirm that Yeats had special powers transcending the natural realm. Maud Gonne, the object of Yeats’ unrequited love, asserted in her Memoirs that Yeats was able to call upon spirits to communicate symbolic images to her; during one such session, she cried, ‘I see a figure holding out its hand with a skull in it,’ and the two knew they were spiritually compatible. Indeed, soon after joining the Golden Dawn, Yeats bragged that he could make ‘the visible world completely vanish and another world summoned by the symbol would take its place’”

From this mystical island of his mind, completely uninhibited by Christianity, the poet-Occultist could prove himself a conjurer of Magic capable of becoming one with the natural world, far away from the industrial society in which he resided. So one day in the late summer of 1926 a bedridden P.L. Travers arrived on his doorstep, arms bundled with branches and berries in a symbolic but astonishingly disciplined gesture which stated that she had brought his mystical island to him—or perhaps more importantly, she too had been there.

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POETRY BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER—and the Occult. But mostly the Occult. The paintings of Theosophist George William Russell often depicted fairies, angels, and saintly beings imbued with mystical dreamlike qualities. He was deeply involved in crafting one such composition when he heard something whisper into his ear.

The speaker said: “Aeon.”

Aeon was a term of Gnosticism and Manichaeism for the first created being and one of the orders of spirits that emanated from the Godhead. Russell took the whisper to be a sign—that and the open-faced book he came across in a library, in which the very word caught his eye. Russell began using Aeon to sign his manuscripts. Among his devoted readership, the founding member of the Theosophical Society of Ireland and editor of the Irish Statesman, leading literary journal of the nascent Irish Free State, was simply known as a symbol—Æ.

Australian P.L. Travers was one such devotee, and as fate would have it, she sent him a poem.

The 57 year-old editor of the Irish Statesman returned her stamped envelope with a check and an accompanying letter. In short, Russell loved her work. And perhaps more importantly, W.B. Yeats did too. Yeats thought she had “poetic merit,” Russell wrote, and “that means a good deal from him.” Oh, and another thing. If she was ever in Dublin, he said, stop by his home or office and say hello. Her poem was straightaway published.

Travers took him up on that offer.

The Australian author would involve herself in many liaisons with members of both sexes, but only from Æ would she receive a collection of endearing letters, often coated with colorful sketches, in which she was intimately referred to as “my angel.” In time Russell would come to believe that he and Travers had met in a former life. Their friendship would be devoted to such conviction until the end of his life in 1935, when Travers bid him farewell on his deathbed.

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IF HICCUPS COMPLICATED THE AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR and Æ’s reincarnated love affair, it was likely due to the fact that Travers was a womanizer. This according to Valerie Lawson, her own biographer. Though her circles of friends was gradually introduced and expounded upon through their liaison together, many of whom likely had a hand in typecasting Mary Poppins, the Australian author preferred the company of women. And yet after Æ, her subsequent love life was disastrous. There was “Francis Macnamara and then three women—Madge Burnand, Jessie Orage and an artist called Gertrude Hermes,” writes Valerie Lawson in Mary Poppins, She Wrote. “There was a lot of angst, a lot of intimacy. After that she turned her eye to the gurus.” Like Freemasonry, Theosophy was a fashionable—though perhaps closeted—pursuit for power-hungry socialites. As a leading Theosophist, her male lover had a phone book of connections. One of Russell’s own correspondences was with American Theosophist Henry A. Wallace, who would come to serve as 33rd Vice-President of the United States in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt White House. Soon after her arrival in Europe, Travers would become familiarize herself with Occultist George Gurdjieff.

As a central tenant of Gurdjieff’s teachings, mankind cannot perceive reality because man does not possess a unified consciousness. Rather, he lives in a hypnotic state of waking sleep. “Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies,” Gurdjieff said. For Gurdjieff, humanities ambition should be a conscious and collective mission of waking, because as things now stand, each individual soul is an island of subjective perspective. But if a soul could be woken, he would become a different sort of human altogether. The light at the end of his tunnel was Utopia.

Gurdjieff’s star pupil however was the Russian esotericist Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky, whose lectures in London were attended by such literary figures as Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, and Gerald Heard. A researcher would tire himself out connecting the dots through this close-knit circle of literary and scientific acquaintances, so let me be brief. Aldous Huxley had been initiated into the mysteries of peyote through W.B. Yeats’ bitter rival, Aleister Crowley. Crowley found inspiration in Madame Blavatsky, who in turn studied under Nikolai Fedorov and Tsiolkovsky—Russian cosmists and fathers of the space race. On the American front, it was Crowley who mentored Occultist Jack Parsons, founder of JPL and father of American rocketry. This is interesting to note, since it is said that Crowley also initiated famed science fiction writer H.G. Wells into the mysteries of hashish. Not only was the famed science-fiction writer one of Darwin’s chief apostles, his own mentor was none other than Huxley’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Huxley. By tenaciously devoting his life to the human-ape relationship, Huxley was both revered and disdained by many as Darwin’s Bulldog. Through fantasy authors like Wells, Occult studies could be successfully blended and packaged to the public masses by indiscreetly promoting a fanatical faith in science as a cure-all to human misery.

With his own first published work, The Fourth Dimension, Ouspensky further explored the evolutionary ideas of Charles H. Hinton. For Hinton, an untenured mathematics instructor at Princeton, the fourth dimension was a mathematical concept represented by the cube, which essentially entailed our higher and immortal self. The fourth dimension is essentially just a walk-in closet for the hoarder of esotericism. In his book, Mystery School in Hyperspace, author Graham St. John writes of the Occultist:

“Hinton developed his views on the mystical and evolutionary significance of four-dimensional space. The fourth dimension was perceived to be the source of alternative modes of consciousness like those experienced by mystics, psychics, mediums, and others with evolved means of perception. For Hinton, the fourth dimension was not a mathematical abstraction, but a mode of perception integral to the development of human consciousness.” 

While bedding with Æ, the literary character who became Mary Poppins would be welcomed and massaged into being through Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s influences. It is reasonable beyond doubt that the Occult fostered her. But where the British nanny’s forward thinking sexuality is explicitly concerned, it is Gurdjieff who garnishes the gaze of today’s lesbian scholars. In spite of his professed advocacy of rigid gender roles, the Russian mystic created a rather odd and inclusive woman’s-only group in the 1920’s known as The Rope, whose members were billed as strong and successful professionals. In other words, none subscribed to traditional gender roles. But more specifically, all members happened to be lesbian.

Travis joined the group.

One of these women, Jessie Orage, scandalized the Gurdjieff community by wearing men’s trousers and smoking cigarettes. She and Travers also became lovers.

For this reason Travers never married. That Travers was not a nun is also safe to conclude. The author found herself writing “saucy erotica inviting readers to imagine taking off her undergarments” for orgasmic purposes, none of which brought her fame, but likely served among her inner-circle contemporaries as a coveted recipe in ritual magic. It was her ten year live-in relationship with Madge Burnand, daughter of the editor for Punch Magazine, and which her “hyper-discreet biographer begrudgingly described as intense,” that she wrote Mary Poppins. In her book, the British nanny was described as being 27 years of age.

It is likely no coincidence that Travers was herself 27 years of age when she stood on the doorstep of poet W.B. Yeats Dublin home soaked and disheveled—her arms bundled with the branches and berries she’d collected from the island of Innisfree.

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THERE IS A REFERENCE IN MADAME H.P. BLAVATSKY’S The Voice of the Silence, a treatise derived from the eastern-mystic The Book of the Golden Precepts, which deserves our attention. Blavatsky would in effect first introduce the Theosophist to Mary Poppins decades before Travers initiated the public into a willful participation with witchcraft.  The ascendancy spoken of here is perhaps the most coveted degree of the ancient Mystery Religion. We read:

“Then from the heart that Power shall rise into the sixth, the middle region, the place between thine eyes, when it becomes the breath of the ONE-SOUL, the voice which filleth all, they Master’s voice. ‘Tis only then thou canst become a “walker of the sky,” who treads the winds above the waves, whose step touches not the waters.”

Blavatsky relished in the Yogi, “formed of the wind; as a cloud from which limbs have sprouted out.” The sky-walker, she called him, is a transcendent master so benevolently evolved as to behold “the things beyond the sea and stars; he hears the language of the Devas and comprehends it, and perceives what is passing in the mind of the ant.” From the physical plane his “astral body is organized as a vehicle,” and he can even “travel through the pure akasha from globe to globe” and to any number of astral planes—or as she would aptly describe in other writings, “there are millions and millions of worlds and firmaments visible to us” by which we can travel, but “there are still greater numbers beyond those visible to the telescopes, and many of the latter kind do not belong to our objective sphere of existence.”

Travers would even refer to Poppins in her books as the “Great Exception.” In Theosophical terms, this means that “she has gone beyond the evolution of humanity and her life now stands in contrast to those who have not yet reached this stage.” Writing for Theosophical Society’s Quest Magazine, Helene Vacht further described Poppins as one who “resembles a guardian angel, demon, or cosmic being who comes from time to time to visit Earth.” For the guardian of hidden knowledge in Mesopotamian epics, Poppins is apkallu.

In Enochian terms, Poppins is a Watcher.

So begins the Mary Poppins series. Poppins first appears as an unidentified alien shape, “tossed and bent under the wind,” like the coming cloud of Theosophy. Jane and Michael Banks notice that the shape is carried by the east wind and flung at the gate, then lifted by the wind and carried to the front door.

Upon accepting the position as nanny, Michael Banks asks, “You’ll never leave us, will you?”

To this Poppins replies, “I’ll stay till the wind changes.”

Vacht adds: “She never settles with the Banks family for very long, but while she is there, she teaches the family, primarily the children, about the deeper meaning of life. She does this through magical outings with the children during the day or at night when the children dream or wake up and seem to leave their room.”

In one such episode, Jane and Michael are invited to walk the sky and participate in a celestial circus, which is quite opposite from an earthly circus, mind you. Here the constellations become living animals that perform a dance of the Wheeling Sky, and in the great Mystery tradition, the circus master is the sun. This is all in honor of Mary Poppins, of course—their Ascended Master. Though Michael is given the moon to hold, it soon shrinks away. The sun then schools the two children on the nature of reality. The read is asked to ponder: was Michael truly holding the moon and—just as importantly, while considering their ritual magic—is any of their experiences in the heavens real? One might further ask, have they truly ascended into the heavens to begin with?

“Then,” said Jane wonderingly, “is it true that we are here tonight or do we only think we are?”

The Sun smiled again, a little sadly. “Child,” he said, “seek no further! From the beginning of the world all men have asked that question. And I, who am Lord of the Sky—even I do not know the answer!”

Poppins appetite is for the reality behind this illusion—Maya; an exacting discipline which cultivates a complete manipulation of the natural world, where garden parties may be attended under the sea and tea-time might be celebrated from the ceiling. For Poppins, contact with our own shadow—and on Halloween of all nights—is a rhythmic dance with the unconscious, or in Jungian psychology, welcoming the part of ourselves that is unknown. Poppins can even master the reality beyond by visiting other planets. Nature itself might also be summoned, such as a star named Maia from the Pleiades cluster of the Taurus constellation, who accompanies them while Christmas shopping. Though Poppins world is completely unexpected, it is only so because of the ceremonious.

When a disembodied voice calls Jane and Michael to the zoo late at night, they come to learn that animals run the zoo after hours while the people are thrust into cages. Though the lion believes he is the king of the animals—as many of us would likewise conclude—it is a huge hooded snake that truly runs the show. In a rather familiar—and dare I say predictable—Occultist twist, Poppins calls him “cousin.” Her identity has been further given away. Though an Ascended Master, she is in ultimate allegiance to the worldwide worship of the Serpent, and is indeed—to some degree—of his kind. She will later wear the skin he has shed as a belt buckle.

Lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage writes: “Mary Poppins has become what one writer calls ‘untouchable and distant,’ but I would use the word ‘exalted.’ She is morphing into archetypal forms. Æ suggested the goddess of destruction and empowerment, Kali—and Travers did not disagree.” She further adds: “I believe what we are dealing with here is a lesbian butch. A guardian/warrior archetype who combines military discipline with a Gurdjieffian mysticism that enables her to ascend to the stars and commune with the animals.”

Poppins possessed such uncanny ability and divine-like nature as to meddle with the affairs and aftermath of Titanomachy, or the War of the Titans, which ended in victory for the Olympian gods—according to Greek mythology, anyway. By invoking a statue of Neleus to come alive in the park—thereby redirecting the Nephilim spirit back to this side of consciousness—one might wonder if Mary were revoking Poseidon’s decision to blackball his son.

“What is your father’s name? Where is he?” Jane was almost bursting with curiosity.

“Far away. In the Isles of Greece. He is called the King of the Sea.” As he spoke, the marble eyes of Neleus brimmed slowly up with sadness.

Among the endless cycles of moon magic and the nanny’s constant comings and goings, all of which occurs over the course of several books, the Occultists personal devotion to the study of—and perhaps even mastery over—reincarnation plays a heavy hand. Once more we turn to the image of a bedridden Travers on the doorstep of Occultist W.B. Yeats for inspiration. Writes C. Nicholas Serra in To Never See Death: Yeats, Reincarnation, and Resolving the Antinomies of the Body-Soul Dilemma:

“…scattered among hundreds of poems, twenty-six plays, and dozens of essays, Yeats’s vision encompasses time before time and worlds before creation, a thousand myriads of worlds ultimately extending outward into unutterable realms of Negative Existence and no-thing-ness. He attempted to chart the psychology of incarnation, the interplay of the individual soul and the World Soul, the Anima Mundi and the Divine, the immanent divinity and the transcendent and Absolute—of which the metaphysical calculus surrounding his theories of reincarnation are only one fraction.”

Travers was certainly not shy in introducing Yeats lifelong devotion to her children audience. When a starling visits the nursery at Cherry Tree Lane, the wise bird is able to commune with Mary Poppins and the babies, John and Barbara. What’s more, the reader becomes aware that everyone involved, including the toddler twins, perfectly understand the language of the wind, the stars, and the sunlight. After the starling laments that the children will soon forget everything concerning the knowledge and whereabouts of their transmigration, the children protest. Never the less, they soon forget. And so it goes. One might wonder why Poppins possesses intimate knowledge of the hidden realms once described in Plato’s Phaedo and The Republic while the children were destined to forget. But that is not to say that she herself has not once forgotten. It is up to the Banks children now to relearn through a lifetime of devotion in Occult studies all that is hidden from human knowledge—that is, if they should hope to model themselves after their beloved teacher.

In Mary Poppins Comes Back, published the year of Æ’s death in 1935, a new baby is born to the Banks household. This completes five children, Jane and Michael, the toddler twins John and Barbara, as well as the new baby girl Annabel. Once more, the wise starling returns. Annabel’s birth is a indeed a pronouncement of glad tidings. The starling asks the newborn soul to tell the fledgling accompanying him where she came from. the newborn Annabel’s response is nothing short of haunting, for we read:

“I am earth and air and fire and water,” she said softly. “I come from the Dark where all things have their beginnings. I come from the sea and its tides, I come from the sky and its stars, I come from the sun and its brightness—and I come from the forest of earth. Slowly, I moved at first always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be. And when I had dreamed my dream I awoke and came swiftly. I heard the stars singing as I came and I felt warm wings about me. I passed the beasts of the jungle and came through the dark, deep waters.”

“It was a long journey! A long journey indeed!” said the starling softly, lifting his head from his breast. “And ah, so soon forgotten!”

Once again, as any Occultist would come to expect, the soul of every newborn, including that of Annabel, soon forgets.

With Mary Poppins, “she turned that mystical conception into a domestic one, and actually made it more compelling,” writes Edward Rothstein at the New York Times. “Poppins regularly opens a door into dimensions outside ordinary space and time for the benefit of her charges: a star from the Pleiades constellation comes to Earth in the form of a girl, a statue of a Greek god comes to life to play with Jane and Michael, an ancient crone grows fingers made of barley-sugar. Mary Poppins herself seems a creature of the heavens temporarily brought to Earth.”

Rothstein concludes, “Eventually the children learn that ‘Appearances are Deceptive.’ They learn, that is, that there is a split between the inner life and outward appearance, between the magic of Mary Poppins and her thoroughly adult facade. This is not a reflection of hypocrisy. Both realms are necessary. Authority, order, precision—mocked in the film and on Broadway—are intertwined with her magic.”

For Travers, childhood contains a powerfully penetrating, seemingly contradictory double vision of the adult—a melding of two realms. With a domesticated nanny for their guru, Jane and Michael and their younger three siblings could observe authoritarian order and rigid precision crowned with the wild-eyed realization of magical freedom. Poppins is a caricature of the self-effacing master of discipline and self-knowledge which Gurdjieff demanded of his disciples. She is in essence a woman of her own design and, as a well-noted promoter of liberated sexuality, a true graduate of The Rope. She contains within her being the multi-dimensional awareness of Ouspensky and Hinton and the manipulative prowess of Yeats, particularly the esoteric evolution necessary to conjure Innisfree for the undisciplined child. Poppins comes to us not from any ordinary coven of witchery. She is an ascended Master, having undergone the spiritual transformations of initiation. Much like her male counterpart Superman, who was developed in precisely the same decade, Poppins is an Occult Messiah.

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HER BELOVED FRIEND FROM ANOTHER LIFETIME was dead. In 1939, just four years after she bid Æ farewell in bed, Travers adopted the grandson of his publisher—one of them, anyways. This connection between Æ and the opportune child is often noted, as is the sobering fact that he was also a twin. Hard pressed on which of the two she should take, the author turned her attention between both boys lying in separate beds, but couldn’t make up her mind.

The children’s grandfather said: “Take two, they are only small.”

Travers consulted her astrologer. Together they agreed upon Camillus. Only Anthony remained behind in bed. Camillus was raised believing he was the only son of a wealthy sugar baron, and that his father had died about the time of his birth. That lie was almost exposed when Anthony appeared at their home in Chelsea at 17 years of age. Travers wouldn’t have it. She promptly threw the boy out.

According to the twins’ biological older brother, Joseph Hone, Travers’ decision to separate the boys and then concoct a false reality surrounding his origin brought both lives to ruin. “Pamela Travers saw herself as Mary Poppins and thought she could play Poppins with poor little Camillus,” Joseph Hone told the Mail. When Walt Disney finally coaxed the intransigent author to Hollywood in order that she might become an instant millionaire overnight, her son was incarcerated in England for drunk driving without a license. Camillus Hone had become a boozer.

One fateful day he had met his twin brother in a bar and realized he’d been lied to about everything.

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TO SAY PAMELA TRAVERS DISFAVORED Walt Disney’s 1964 production of her title character is an understatement. As the decades passed—while Travers watched Poppins endlessly promoted with the glop of nostalgia; crowned with the royalty of a beloved classic—the bitterness inside of her curdled. Travers would come to hate Disneyland’s counterfeit. Disney’s script had turned the tables on her narrative and centered on bad parenting. The strong and successful women of Gurdjieff’s Rope were now demoted to suffragettes so silly they’d be hacked to bits with Carrie Amelia Nation’s hatchet and immediately swept up by the parading brooms of the temperance movement. Disney was sloppy with Theosophy. His magic boiled down to parrot-knobed umbrellas and over-sized mouse gloves. His alchemy was the proper antidote of sugar matched with astral-laughter and his esoteric end-game was the rediscovered gnosis of childish irresponsibility in every kite flying mother and father. And besides, Julie Andrews was too beautiful and sang too sweet a tune. Or as lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage put it—Disney’s Poppins simply wasn’t butch enough.

It’s a shame really—the Satanic Panic, which swept through the church like hellfire in the closing decades of the 20th century, never thought to peek in on 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

 

-Noel

 

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