It may be Bloomsday as I write this and Ireland’s most treasured writer James Joyce may be the name on everyone’s lips, but last weekend another of our literary greats hit a milestone. If he were still alive today, William Butler Yeats would have reached the ripe old age of 150.
Yeats was one of Ireland’s finest poets and left a large canon of work behind when he passed away in 1939. Still studied in schools and universities all over the world today, he led an interesting life and his work is some of the most important in Irish literature. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about the life and work of WB Yeats…
The Yeats Family
WB Yeats came from a wealthy and highly creative family. His ancestor was Jervis Yeats, a well known Williamite soldier who made a living as a linen merchant, and was also a skilled painter. His grandson, Benjamin, married a woman named Mary Butler. Descended from the powerful Butlers of Ormond, when they married it was decided the couple and their subsequent family would keep both Bulter and Yeats as names. This marriage also consolidates the influence both families had in many areas, ensuring that they would be wealthy for many years to come. William’s father was John Butler Yeats (1839 - 1922), who started his adult life as a law student, but later abandoned his studies in favour of art. He married Susan Mary Pollexfen, a lady from a wealthy merchant family in Sligo. The couple had four children, all of whom ended up becoming prominent figures in the Irish arts scene; the couple’s other son Jack is one of the most renowned Irish painters of the 20th century.Soon after William was born in 1865, the family relocated to his mother’s family home in Merville, Sligo. The beautiful rural surroundings and quiet life there came to be very special for him, and he thought of it as both his childhood and spiritual home. In fact, much of his work was inspired by the scenery in the local area. The family were members of the Protestant Ascendancy, which for his father’s generation would have been very beneficial since they were the most privileged members of society. For William and his siblings however, it was somewhat more troublesome. The nationalist movement in Ireland was gaining pace and with it came greater influence and support for Catholics, meaning that being a Protestant (and even worse, a rich one) meant you were automatically on the opposing side whether you liked it or not. This was another aspect of his family life that became a huge influence on Yeats’ work. While the family was always supportive of the shift in power, there was naturally some resentment at play too.
In 1867 the family moved to London so John could pursue his studies in art. The children were home schooled for a time before the family settled. William was a largely mediocre student, with his best subject being latin. In 1880 they made the return to Dublin again. Yeats finished his school education and spent much of his spare time in his father’s studio, where he first came into contact with the city’s creative circles. It was around this time that he first started writing poetry, and by the age of 20 while a student at the Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design) his first poems were published in the Dublin University Review.
You may also be interested in checking out our blog post on 10 of The Best Irish Poets
Yeats and Maud Gonne
From when he was very young, Yeats had a great interest in mythology, mysticism and the occult. This is what influenced much of his early work (as well as the poets Shelley and Spencer). By 1889 at the age of 24 he had published his first poetry collection, entitled The Wanderings of Oisin. Based on the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology, it took him two years to complete and is the only long line poem he ever wrote. In that same year he was to meet the woman who would become his muse and the love of his life; Maud Gonne. She was a passionate Nationalist with an outspoken personality, and he instantly fell in love with her. She had no romantic interest in him however, mostly because of his political and religious views which were so opposed to her own. She maintained a friendship with him nonetheless since she was a great admirer of his work, and they wrote to each other while Yeats lived in London (he and his family had returned there in 1887). In 1891, he went to visit Maud in Ireland and proposed to her, but she turned him down. This, he later said, was where ‘the troubling of my life again’.
He remained undeterred and proposed a second time in 1899, a third time in 1900 and yet again in 1901. She rejected him each time.
To add further pain to these rejections, Maud eventually married Major John MacBride, a man Yeats completely detested, in 1903. He was another passionate nationalist and Maud converted to Catholicism in order to marry him. They had a son, Sean MacBride (who went on to become a politician and influential human rights activist) in 1904, but shortly after his birth the marriage came to an end. Yeats was obviously quite happy about this, especially when his friendship with Maud was renewed. They began to visit each other and finally in 1908 had a very brief relationship. After they had spent their first night together, Maud asked that they not continue the relationship anymore. Again, they continued to be friends and Yeats supported her as her life took a downward turn. John MacBride was executed in the 1916 Rising and she was thought to have developed a chloroform addiction. In 1916 he proposed one last time, although this time it was mainly out of pity. He knew she would be an unsuitable wife, and he desperately wanted to marry and produce an heir. When Maud turned him down yet again, he instead proposed to her 25 year old daughter from her second marriage, Iseult! Once again, he was turned down. At the age of 51, Yeats finally married. His wife was 25 year old Georgie Hyde Lees, and despite many critics the marriage was a success. They had two children (Anne and Michael), and while not exactly a passionate relationship - Yeats was known to have had affairs - it was at least a supportive one. The couple worked together on an occultist project, compiling a complex detailing of the messages communicated to them through seances which the poet published in 1925 under the title ‘A Vision’.
Yeats’ Later Life
In 1922 Yeats had firmly established himself as a literary great in Ireland, which was just coming out of a period of turmoil and conflict as a newly formed independent state. In what he thought of as a symbolic gesture, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the same year and was also elected to the Senate for the first of two terms. He was a regular commentator on the events taking place in the country and for the most part, his views were respected. He was re-elected in 1925, but was forced to give up his seat in 1928 due to his failing health. In the years before his death he enjoyed a new lease of creative energy and became a prolific writer once again. He died in 1939 in Menton, France, and as per his wishes was buried with minimum fuss in the cemetery nearby. He requested that a year later ‘when the newspapers have forgotten me’, he would be reinterred in his beloved Sligo. Although the process took something longer than a year, he was eventually brought to his final resting place in Drumcliff, county Sligo, in 1948. The person who took charge of the operation was, fittingly, Maud Gonne’s son Sean MacBride. Some of Yeats’ last works are his most beautiful, moving away from the political commentary he had become fixated on and taking on a more personal and reflective approach.
Poetic Style and Themes
Yeats was a traditionalist when it came to poetry. While his peers were experimenting with free verse, he was sticking to tried and tested conventions. Throughout his writings he was heavily inspired by Irish folklore and used ornate language and symbolism. There are three main stages of his work that run accordance with his youth, middle age and later years. As a young poet, his writings were elaborate and ornate, and what experts call ‘pre-Raphaelite’ in tone. He wrote long poems that were epic in style and filled with mystical, romantic imagery. As he matured, his interests turned to contemporary issues and social commentary. At this time Ireland was in the midst of the independence movement, the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent civil war. His style became more modernist and explicit, but still with traditional form and rhythm characteristic of all of his work. Finally in the last decade or two of his life when he was enjoying a creative rejuvenation, his work turned back towards the mystical and symbolic style of his early poems. his work became much more spiritual, personal and internal. He reflected on the concept of his impending death as well as other things, and included some of the strongest imagery in 20th century poetry with his later work. Two of Yeats’ most enduring and most well known poems (and regularly recited by Irish students) are two from his early period; The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Aptly, they each focus on the two things he cared about the most in his life; the beauty of county Sligo, and winning a soulmate:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day,
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
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