W. B. Yeats

Summary

William Butler Yeats (pronunciation

Yeats was born in Dublin and went to school there, but spent his childhood in Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth, and from an early age he was fascinated by both Irish legend and the occult. Such subjects are dealt with in the first phase of his writing, which lasted until around the turn of the century. In 1889 he published his first collection of poems, and these quiet and lyrical poems are indebted to Edmund Spenser and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as having a poetic bent that can be traced back to the Pre-Raphaelites.

From around 1900, Yeats”s poetry became more physical and realistic. He largely abandoned the transcendental outlook of his youth, but his writing continued to be filled with masked spirituality and to express cyclical perceptions of time. Over the years, Yeats developed several essentially different ideologies, which Michael Valdez Moses has labeled radical nationalism, classical liberalism, reactionary conservatism, and nihilism.

Childhood and youth

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a linen merchant and a descendant of Jervis Yeats, who fought for William III of England. Jervis”s grandson Benjamin had married Mary Butler, who belonged to a lowly landowning family from Kildare. At the time of his marriage, John Yeats was studying law, but dropped out to study art at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in Sligo who had made their fortune in the milling industry and ship trading. Soon after William was born, the family moved to Sligo to live with his mother”s family, and the young poet came to regard the area as his spiritual and childhood home. Its landscape became, both literarily and symbolically, ”the land where his heart was”. The Butler Yeats family was very artistic: brother Jack was to become a prominent artist, while sisters Elizabeth and Susan were involved in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Yeats was a native of Ireland”s Protestant upper class, which at the time was undergoing an identity crisis. Although his family was fairly sympathetic to the changes taking place in Ireland, the resulting nationalist tide was directly unfavourable to a man of Yeats”s background, and would affect his prospects for the rest of his life. In 1997 his biographer R.F. Foster wrote that Napoleon I”s adage that to understand a man you must know what was happening in the world by the time he was 20, applies well to Yeats. Yeats”s childhood and youth were overshadowed by the shift in power away from the Protestant upper classes. The many political upheavals would make a profound imprint on his writing, and the contemporary exploration of Irish identity profoundly shapes his work.

In 1876, the family moved to England to facilitate his father”s career as an artist. At first, the children were home-schooled. Their mother entertained them with stories and folktales from her home village. The father provided them with an irregular education in geography and chemistry, and took William on natural history excursions to the countryside. On January 26, 1877, the young poet was enrolled at Godolphin Elementary School, where he attended for four years. He did not particularly excel at school, and an early review read ”only mediocre. Possibly better at Latin than any other subject. Very deficient in spelling.” He had problems with mathematics and languages, but was fascinated by biology and zoology. For financial reasons, the family moved back to Dublin towards the end of 1880, initially living for a time in Howth. In October 1881, Yeats continued his education at Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin. His father”s studio was nearby, and William spent much time there, meeting many of the city”s writers and artists. It was during this period of his life that he began to write poetry, and in 1885 his first poems and an essay entitled ”The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson” were published in the Dublin University Review. Between 1884 and 1886 Yeats attended the National College of Art and Design on Kildare Street. The oldest surviving poems were written when he was seventeen, and include a poem heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who is described as a magician who erected his throne in Central Asia. Other poems from this period include drafts of a drama starring a bishop, a monk and a woman accused of paganism by local shepherds, and an epic poem about German knights in the Middle Ages. According to critics, his early works were conventional and, in the words of Charles Johnson, “utterly un-Irish”. Although Yeats”s early writing borrowed heavily from Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and the language and colouring of the Pre-Raphaelites, he soon turned to Irish myths and folklore and to the writing of William Blake. In his older days, Yeats praised Blake by describing him as one of God”s great creators who brought great truths before a small clan.

The young poet

The family returned to London in 1887. In 1890 Yeats helped found the Rhymers” Club with Ernest Rhys, a society of poets in London who met regularly at an inn in Fleet Street to read their poems. The society later became known as “The Tragic Generation” and published two anthologies (1892 and 1894). Yeats collaborated with Edwin Ellis in the publication of the first collected edition of William Blake”s works, helping to rediscover a lost poem, “Vala, or, the Four Zoas.”

Yeats developed a lifelong interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology. He read a considerable number of books on these subjects throughout his life, and was particularly taken by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. As early as 1892 he wrote that if he had not read so much about magic he would never have written a line about Blake, nor would The Countess Kathleen have come into the world. The mystical world, he said, was the centre of everything he did, thought and wrote. The approach to life also led Yeats to the study of Hinduism and the theosophist Mohini Chatterjee, which together established the basis for his later writing. Some literary critics, however, have argued that these influences lack intellectual acuity; W.H. Auden may be singled out in particular, who dismissed parts of Yeats”s work as a grown man”s spectacle of hocus-pocus and Indian nonsense.

The first major poem by Yeats was “The Isle of Statues”, an imaginative work in the lyrical form of Edmund Spenser. The text was published in the Dublin University Review but has never since been republished. His first book was Mosada: A Dramatic Poem (1886), which was published in 100 copies and paid for by his father. It was followed by The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), with poems from the mid-1880s onwards. The title poem contains obscure Gaelic names, repetitions and rhythms which are varied as the poem progresses through its three sections.

“The wanderings of Oisin” is based on the texts of the Ossian Cycle from Irish mythology, and shows the influence of both Sir Samuel Ferguson and the Pre-Raphaelites. The poem took two years to compile and is one of the few works from the period he did not lament in his old age. Oisin introduces what was to become one of Yeats”s most important themes: the primacy of the contemplative life over the life of action. After this work, Yeats would never again use the longer format for his poems. His other early poems, which consist of meditations on love or mystical or esoteric subjects, include Poems (1895), The Secret Rose (1897), and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

In 1885 Yeats participated in the formation of the Dublin Hermetic Order. The Society held its first meeting on 16 June, with Yeats as its president. In the same year, the Dublin Theosophical Lodge was formed in collaboration with the Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee, who travelled from London to give lectures. Yeats attended his first séance the following year. He later became deeply involved with the Theosophical Society, and with Hermeticism, in particular with Golden Dawn”s eclectic Rosicrucianism. During a seance in 1912, it is said that a spirit called himself Leo Africanus and posed as Yeats”s demon or anti-self, which inspired some of the thoughts in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. He was admitted to the Golden Dawn in 1890, and adopted the motto Daemon est Deus inversus (The Devil is God inverted, or A Demon is the Mirror Image of God). He took an active part in building the sect”s Temple of Isis-Urani, and enlisted his uncle George Pollexfen, Maud Gonne, and Florence Farr. Although he distanced himself from abstract and dogmatic religions built around personality cults, he was attracted to the kind of people he met in Golden Dawn. He was involved in the Society”s power struggles, both with Farr and Macgregor Mathers, but especially when Mather sent Aleister Crowley at the “Battle of Blythe Road”. After Golden Dawn disbanded and split into countless small groups, Yeats stuck to Stella Matutina until 1921.

Maud Gonne

In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, who was then 23, expecting a substantial inheritance, and an ardent nationalist. She was 18 months younger than Yeats, and had admired “The Isle of Statues” so she sought to become acquainted with its author. Yeats became obsessed with her beauty and outspokenness, and she would have a lasting and striking effect on his future writing and life. Looking back on his life in his old age, Yeats admitted that at this time, when he was only looking at the outside, she had entered his world like “a Burmese gong which, after one deafening stroke, left many pleasant reverberations.” Yeats”s love was unrequited partly because he did not want to participate in her nationalist activism. His only love affair at this time was with Olivia Shakespear, whom he first met in 1896 and divorced the following year. In 1895 he visited Gonne in Ireland and proposed, but was rejected. He later said that at that point the troubles in his life began. He proposed to Gonne three more times, in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused all the times, and in 1903, to Yeats” chagrin, she married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride.

Yeats maintained his friendship with Gonne, however, and in 1903 their relationship was consummated. Yeats did not speak of the matter with any sentimentality, but remarked that the tragedy of sexual life is the eternal innocence of the soul. The night they spent together did not mean that their relationship entered a new phase, and not long afterwards Gonne wrote to Yeats that despite their bodily union they could not continue as before: ”I have prayed so earnestly that all earthly desire might be removed from my love for you & beloved, because I love you, I have prayed & I pray so still that the bodily desire which you have for me may be taken from you also”. In January 1909, Gonne sent Yeats a letter praising the progress of artists who abstain from sex. Nearly 20 years later, Yeats would recall the night with Gonne in the poem “A Man Young and Old”:

In 1896 Yeats was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn. Lady Gregory encouraged Yeats” nationalism, and persuaded him to continue writing for the theatre. Although influenced by the French Symbolists, Yeats focused on a distinctly Irish content and this was due to his acquaintance with a younger generation of Irish writers. Along with Lady Gregory, Martyn, and other writers such as J.M. Synge, Seán O”Casey, and Padraic Colum, Yeats was one of the founders of the so-called Irish literary renaissance. Apart from the authors” own creativity, they drew inspiration from translated works of medieval Irish fairy tales, Ossetian poetry, and later Irish folk tales. One of the most important in this circle was Douglas Hyde, who later became the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.

Abbey Theatre

In 1899, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Martyn, and George Moore founded the Irish Literary Theatre with the aim of performing Celtic and Irish plays. Abbey”s ideals were drawn from the avant garde of French theatre, and Yeats wrote the group”s manifesto, which reads, “We wish to find in Ireland an unspoiled and imaginative audience, taught to listen by its passion for oratory… & that freedom of experiment which does not exist in the theatres of England, & without which no new movement in art or literature can progress.”

The group survived for about two years and was not successful. However, through the collaboration of this theatre experiment, the Irish National Theatre Society was created. The founding members managed to acquire a property in Dublin and open the Abbey Theatre on 27 December 1904. Yeats” play Cathleen Ní Houlihan and Lady Gregory”s Spreading the News were performed on the first night. Yeats remained active with the Abbey until his death, both as a board member and as a prominent playwright. In 1902 he helped found the Dun Emer Press to print the stories of Irish Renaissance writers. In 1904 the company was renamed the Cuala Press, and influenced by the Arts and Crafts, they sought to find Irish works. Run until its closure in 1946 by the poet”s sisters, the press produced over 70 titles, 48 of which were written by Yeats himself.

Yeats met the young American poet Ezra Pound in 1913; Pound had travelled to London at least partly to make the acquaintance of the elder poet, whom he considered the only poet worthy of closer study. From that year until about 1916, the two men wintered at Stone Cottage near Ashdown Forest, where Pound was Yeats”s secretary by name. The friendship took a wonderful turn when Pound arranged for Poetry magazine to publish some of Yeats”s poems with Pound”s own unauthorised transcriptions. The changes were due to Pound”s distaste for Victorian prosody. A more indirect consequence of the friendship was that Pound provided Yeats with the works of the Japanese playwright Noh, which Pound had come across through Ernest Fenollosa”s widow, and which were to serve as a model for a kind of aristocratic drama Yeats intended to begin writing. The first work based on Noh was At the Hawk”s Well, which he dictated to Pound in January 1914.

In his early work, Yeats” aristocratic attitude was expressed in an idealisation of the Irish peasant, and a desire to renounce poverty and suffering. The rise of the revolutionary movement among the Catholic lower middle classes changed his mind on this point. His new political stance can be seen in his 1913 poem ”September”, which is an attack on the Dublin employers and a defence of the Irish labour movement. In the poem “Easter 1916”, Yeats acknowledges his own failure to understand the value of the leaders of the Easter Rising, due to their humble background and way of life.

Marriage to Georgie

Yeats was 51 in 1916 and had reached the point where he wanted to marry and have an heir. His last proposal to Maud Gonne was in the summer of 1916, but in his eyes she was an unsuitable wife because she had a history as a violent revolutionary politician, with a series of personal disasters behind her that included the abuse of chloroform and a troubled marriage to John MacBride – an Irish revolutionary who was to be executed by the British military for his involvement in the Easter Rising. Yeats biographer R.F. Foster has commented that Yeats acted out of a sense of duty rather than an honest desire to actually marry Gonne. The proposal of marriage was made in an impersonal and indifferent manner and with conditions, and he both hoped and expected to be rebuffed.

After she declined, he turned to her daughter from a previous relationship with Lucien Millevoye, Iseult Gonne, who was 21 at the time. Her life had hitherto been tragic: she had been presented as her mother”s nephew, abused by her stepfather, and later became one of the more violent members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). She had asked Yeats to marry her when she was fifteen, but when he proposed on this occasion, when she was twenty-one, she declined. Yeats would later refer to this period in his life as his ”second puberty”.

In September of the same year, Yeats proposed to the 24-year-old George (Georgie) Hyde-Lees (1892-1968), whom he had met in occult circles. Despite the warnings of well-meaning friends, she accepted, and the marriage was a happy one, despite the age difference and Yeats”s regret during the honeymoon. At this time Georgie wrote to her husband, “When you are dead people will talk about your love affairs, but I will say nothing because I will remember how proud you were.” The couple had two children, Anne and Michael.

During their first year of marriage, the couple began using automatic writing, during which George made contact with spirits and guides, whom they called “instructors.” The spirits, the couple believed, communicated through a complex and esoteric system of characters and stories and came to them through trances and with the help of various tools. Yeats spent much time preparing the material for what would be titled A Vision (1925).

Nobel Prize

In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he was determined to make the most of the situation. Aware of the symbolic value of the winner being Irish so soon after Ireland”s independence, he tried to emphasise this fact as often as possible. He responded to the many letters of congratulation by saying: ”I consider that this honour is less due to me as a person than it is to me as a representative of Irish literature, and this is connected with Europe welcoming the new Free State”.

In his acceptance speech at the Swedish Academy, he took the opportunity to describe himself as the standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and cultural independence. In his own words, “The theatres were empty buildings rented by English travelling theatre companies, and we wanted Irish plays and Irish actors. When we imagined these plays, we saw before us everything that was romantic and poetic, because the nationalism to which we subscribed – the nationalism to which every generation subscribes in moments of despair – was romantic and poetic.”

The prize meant that sales of his books increased, and his publishers knew how to market them. For the first time in his life, he had money and was able to pay off his debts and those of his father.

Old age

In the spring of 1925, Yeats published A Vision, and his health had stabilised. In 1922, he had been elected to Ireland”s first Senate, and was re-elected for a second term in 1925. Early in his term, a debate arose over whether divorce should be allowed, a debate that Yeats saw as essentially a matter of a dispute between the Catholic population and the Protestant minority. When the Catholic Church lodged a formal refusal to authorise divorce, the Irish Times countered by writing that to forbid it would be to alienate Protestants and to consolidate the partition of Northern Ireland. Yeats responded to all this by delivering a series of speeches attacking the ambitions of the government and the clergy, likening their tactics to those of medieval Spain. “To us marriage is not a sacrament, but is considered to depend on the love between man and woman, and the physical desire inseparable from it, is sacred. We base this conviction on ancient philosophy and modern literature, and in our view it is the most sacrilegious thing one can do to force two people who hate each other to continue living together, and to us there seems no reason to allow them to live apart if they are not thereby allowed to remarry.” The ensuing debate has been described as one of Yeats”s finest public moments, and it was the prelude to his distancing himself from the pluralism he had previously espoused in order to explain religious strife. His language became increasingly confrontational and charged.

In 1924, he chaired the Coin Committee that was to decide on the design of the new state currency. Aware of the symbolic power inherent in the currency”s imagery, Yeats was deeply involved in this. He was pleased when Percy Metcalfe”s work was approved. In 1928 he retired from the Senate due to ill health.

Towards the end of Yeats”s life, and especially after the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression when some began to question the ability of democracy to deal with financial crises, Yeats seems to have returned to his aristocratic sympathies. In the aftermath of the First World War, he became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of democratic government and welcomed a political reordering of Europe through totalitarianism. His association with Ezra Pound drew him to Benito Mussolini, for whom he expressed his admiration on several occasions. He authored three marches – which were never used – for the Irish general Eoin O”Duffy”s Blueshirts. However, when Pablo Neruda invited him to Madrid in 1937, he replied that he supported the republicans against the fascists, and in the last years of his life he distanced himself from Nazism and fascism.

After undergoing a “vasectomy” in 1934, at the age of 69, an operation performed by Eugen Steinach to improve his potency, he felt he had a new vigour both through his poetry and through his love affairs with younger women. Yeats had several affairs with poet and actress Margot Ruddock and writer and sexual radical Ethel Mannin, among others. He believed that the erotic escapades had a beneficial effect on his poetry, and despite his advanced age and poor health, he remained a prominent writer. In 1936 he became editor of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935.

After a long illness, he died on 28 January 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Menton, France. He was buried after a quiet funeral in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. He had often spoken to his wife about death and expressed his wish to be buried quickly in France, and then transferred to Sligo. In September 1948, his remains were moved to Drumcliffe in County Sligo. His epitaph is taken from the last lines of one of his last poems, “Under Ben Bulben”:

W.B. Yeats is widely considered a key figure in English-language poetry of the 20th century. He can be considered a symbolist in that he uses allusive images and symbolic structures throughout his career. Yeats chooses words and puts them together in such a way that, in a particular sense, they allow for even more interpretations that may seem more meaningful than the first obvious ones. His use of symbols is usually something physical which is used both in the direct sense and to express other, perhaps intangible, timeless qualities. Unlike most modernists who experimented with free verse, Yeats was also able to demonstrate a mastery of the traditional art of verse. The influence of modernism on his work is evident in the increasing move away from conventional lyrical language to a more outspoken and direct approach that characterizes his poems and dramas during his mid-career, with works such as In the Seven Woods, Responsibilities, and The Green Helmet. His later poetry and dramas are written in a more personal vein, and the works written in the last twenty years include direct mentions of his son and daughter, and meditations on growing old. In his poem “The Circus Animals” Desertion” he describes the source of inspiration these years.

In 1929 he lived at Thoor Ballylee, near Gort in County Galway (where he had had his summer residence since 1919) for the last time. Most of the rest of his life was spent outside Ireland, but he rented Riversdale house in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham in 1932. He wrote prolifically in his final years, publishing poetry, drama and prose. In 1938, he gave the Abbey its last performance, at the premiere of his Purgatory. His autobiography was published the same year.

While Yeats”s early poems make extensive use of Irish myths and folktales, his later poetry is more concerned with contemporary issues and his style underwent a dramatic change. The chronology of his work can be divided into three periods; the early poems are Pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornamented and at times – at least according to detractors – stilted. Yeats began writing epic poems such as “The Isle of Statues” and “The Wanderings of Oisin”. After Oisin, he never wrote another long poem. His other poems from the first period are lyrical and deal with love, mysticism or the esoteric. Yeats”s middle period is marked by his abandonment of the Pre-Raphaelite and his attempt to become more socially satirical. Those who prefer his middle period tend to emphasise the musky rhythm and harshness of the poetry, while those who dislike it find it lacking in pictorial power and barbed. In the last period of his poetry, the imaginative and mystical systems that he established under the influence of spiritualism reappear. In many ways, his last phase can be said to be a return to the visions of his youth. The opposition between the worldly man with his sword and the spiritual man with his God – the theme of “The Wanderings of Oisin” – recurs in “A Dialogue Between Self and Soul”.

Some literary critics argue that Yeats marks the literary transition between the Romantic 19th century and the Modernist 20th century, in the same way that Pablo Picasso did in the visual arts. Others have questioned whether Yeats really had so many points of contact with modernists of the calibre of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The modernists read his “The Return” as a depiction of the decline of European civilization and considered it akin to Eliot, but in recent years critics have pointed to Yeats”s apocalypticism and mysticism, which is typical of the 1890s. His most important poetry collections began with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). The imagery becomes more restrained in Yeats”s older days, but also more powerful. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stairs (1929), and New Poems (1938) contain some of his most admired poems.

Yeats”s predilection for mysticism, mediated by Hindu theosophy and the occult, shaped a considerable part of his last poetry. Those who are negative about these phenomena criticise these works for lacking thoughtfulness; they include, for example, W.H. Auden. The metaphysics of Yeats”s later works must be read in relation to the fundamental esoteric systems of A Vision (1925).

His 1919 poem, “The Return”, is often cited as a source of imagery that poets would use to depict the 20th century:

For the anti-democratic Yeats, “the best” referred to Europe”s traditional upper class, which was incapable of protecting traditional culture from materialism and mass culture. The concluding lines reflect Yeats”s belief that history was cyclical, and that his era represented the end of a cycle that began with the advent of Christianity:

Sources

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  1. William Butler Yeats
  2. W. B. Yeats