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The Revolutionary Life of W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (June 13, 1865 – January 28, 1939) was an Irish poet, dramatist, mystic, and public figure from Sandymount, County Dublin. He is widely considered as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century in literature and regarded by some critics as among the greatest poets in all English language. Yeats is also considered a significant Irish and British literary pioneer and an irrevocable figure in Irish politics, having severed as a senator for two terms.

Early Life of W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born as the son of a famous Irish portrait painter and lawyer, John Butler Yeats. His whole family were Anglo-Irish and descended from a linen merchant, Jervis Yeats, who had served in the army of King William of Orange. Yeats’ mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, was a member of a wealthy Anglo Irish family of County Sligo that had played a role from the end of the 17th century in controlling the economic, political, social, and cultural aspects of Ireland. The Yeats financial life was more than okay, having been indulged in trade and shipping. Although W.B. Yeats took huge pride in being from an English descent, he was also very proud of his Irish nationality and ensured that his playwrights and poems included the Irish culture within its pages.

In 1867, John Yeats took his wife and five children to live in England but, unable to make much of a living, he was obliged to return to Dublin in 1880. William met a number of Dublin’s literary class at his father’s studio in Dublin at which he thought of producing his first poetry and an essay on the Ulster Scottish poet Sir Samuel Ferguson. Yeats found his early aspiration and muse in the prominent novelist Mary Shelley and the works of the English poet Edmund Spenser.

As years passed by and Yeats’s work became more specialized, he drew more and more inspirations from the Irish folklore and myths (specifically the one that emerged from County Sligo).

Yeats’s interest in the mystery and the unknown was quite unhindered from an early stage in his life. One of his school acquaintances, George Russell, a fellow poet and occultist, was an influential figure in his tendencies towards that path. Together with Russell and others, Yeats founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was a society for the study and practice of magic, esoteric knowledge and with its own secret rituals and ceremonies and elaborate symbolism. It was basically Hogwarts for adults.

Yeats also stomped on to be a member of the Theosophical Society, but he went back on his decision and left shortly.

William Butler Yeats drawn in charcoal
W.B Yeats sketched as a young man

W. B. Yeats’s Works and Inspirations

In 1889, Yeats published The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. Four years later, he kept shaking the literary world to its core by bringing forward his collection of essays entitled The Celtic Twilight followed in 1895 by Poems, in 1897 by The Secret Rose, and in 1899 he published his poetry collection The Wind among the Reeds. Besides his poetry and essay writing, Yeats had also developed a life-long interest in all things esoteric.

Yeats came to maturity at the beginning of the twentieth century and his poetry stands at the turning point between the Victorian period and Modernism, the conflicting currents of which affected his poetry.

In essence, Yeats is considered a remarkable pioneer in traditional poetic forms while recognized as one of the most incredible gurus in modern verse, which unequivocally signifies the versatility in his works. As he got older in life past the youth phase, he was influenced by aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite art, as well as the French Symbolist poets. He had a very strong admiration for the fellow English poet William Blake and developed a lifelong interest in mysticism. To Yeats, poetry was the most suitable way to examine the powerful and benevolent sources of human destiny. Yeats idiosyncratic mystical perspective drew on Hinduism, Theosophy and Hermeticism often more than Christianity, and in some instances, these allusions make his poetry difficult to grasp.

W. B. Yeats’s Love Life

Yeats found his first love in the year 1889 in Maud Gonne, a young heiress who was heavily involved in Irish politics and specifically the Irish Nationalist Movement. Gonne was the one who first admired Yeats for his poetry, and in exchange, Yeats found a muse and a delicate symphony in Gonne’s presence that made her have an effect on his works and life.

The Yeats family lost in conversation
Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), William Butler Yeats, unknown woman by Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

In a shocking turn of events, Gonne rejected Yeats’s proposal when he offered to marry him the first time. But Yeats was relentless as he proposed to Gonne a total of three times in three consecutive years. Eventually, Yeats ditched the proposal idea and Gonna went on to marry the Irish nationalist John MacBride. Yeats also decided to go on a lecturing tour to America and stay there for a while. His only other affair during this period was with Olivia Shakespear, whom he met in 1896 and parted with one year later.

National Endeavours

Also in 1896, he was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn. She encouraged Yeats’s nationalism and convinced him to continue focusing on writing drama. Although he was influenced by French Symbolism, Yeats consciously focused on an identifiably Irish content and this inclination was reinforced by his involvement with a new generation of younger and emerging Irish authors.

As the demand for the political separation of Ireland from Britain grew, Yeats became more involved with fellow nationalist literati such as Seán O’ Casey, J.M.Synge, and Padraic Colum, and Yeats—among these others—was one of those responsible for the establishment of the literary movement known as the “Irish Literary Revival” (otherwise known as the “Celtic Revival”). The Revival was an important uprising in the fields of literature for the Irish. The movement had a big and substantial role in the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Abbey Theatre (or Dublin theatre) was then established in 1904 and It grew out of the Irish Literary Theatre. Shortly after, Yeats worked together with William and Frank Fay, two Irish brothers with theatrical experience, and Yeats’s formidable secretary Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman, to establish the Irish National Theatre Society.

Although strongly nationalist in belief, Yeats was not able to participate in the violence of 1916 Easter Rising.

He did reflect on that violence in his poem Easter 1916:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what of excessive love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse-
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.

Having set up a name for himself, Yeats was very much welcomed by a lot of critics and literary audience. Yeats met Georgiana (Georgie) Hyde-Lees in 1911 and soon after fell in love with her and got married in 1917. She was only 25 years old and Yeats was over 50 at the time. They had two children and named them Anne and Michael. She was a huge supporter of his work and shared his fascination with the mystics. Around this time, Yeats also bought Ballylee Castle, near Coole Park, and promptly renamed it Thoor Ballylee. It was his summer residence for much of the rest of his life until nearly his death. After his marriage, he and his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing, Mrs Yeats, contacting a spirit guide she called “Leo Africanus.”

Politics

Yeats’s poetry was adopted into a Celtic Twilight mood in his earlier work, but soon enough it became heavily affected by the surrounding livelihood and turned into a mirror of the struggle of the classes in Britain and no longer became about the mystics. Thrown in the plethora of cultural politics, Yeats’s aristocratic pose led to an idealization of the Irish peasant and a willingness to ignore poverty and suffering. However, soon after, the emergence of a revolutionary movement from the ranks of the urban Catholic lower-middle class made him reassess his attitudes.

In 1922 the Free State Government appointed him a Senator in Dáil Éireann. He went head to head against the Catholic Church on many occasions over the subject of divorce. He imposed that the position of the non-Catholic population on such subject and many others were disregarded by the Catholic community. He feared that the Catholic attitude would run rampant and consider themselves the supreme religion in everything. His efforts were significantly seen by the Catholics and the Protestants.

In his later life, Yeats was to question whether Democracy was the right way forward. He became interested in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement. He also wrote some ‘marching songs’ that were never used for General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, a quasi-fascist political movement. In these years he also had a string of affairs although he and Georgie remained married to each other.

During his time as a senator, Yeats warned his colleagues, “If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North [the Protestants] … You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation.” As his fellow senators were virtually all Catholics, they were offended by these comments.

Yeats’s politics and ideologies were controversial to say the least and very ambiguous. He distanced himself from Nazism and fascism in the last few years of his life and kept his stances to his own.

W. B. Yeats’s Legacy

W.B Yeats Statue Sligo
W.B Yeats Statue Sligo

One can say, in the period of the turn of the 19th century, Yeats represented an outpost with a front line moved out far forward of the stubbornest and traditional idealism. When pragmatism tried to make a poet a leisure worker, Yeats’s efforts to reverse the world and break the norm deserves admiration.

In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman to win this prize and be honoured for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

Here is one of the examples of his unique works. The poem The Second Coming by Yeats was written in 1920. The poem simply begins with the image of a falcon flying away from its human master in the fear of being shot. In medieval times, people would use falcons or hawks to catch animals at ground level. In this image, however, the falcon has gotten itself lost by flying too far away. This lost falcon is a reference to the collapse of the traditional social arrangements in Europe at the time Yeats was writing. The poet uses symbolism; the falcon getting lost is a symbol for the fall of civilization and the chaos which will follow.

There is one more strong image of The Second Coming: it is Sphinx. The poet takes the violence which has taken over society as a sign that “the Second Coming is at hand.” He imagines a sphinx in the desert; we are to think that this is a mythical animal. This animal, and not Christ, is what is coming to fulfil the prophecy from the Biblical Book of Revelation. The sphinx here is a symbol for the beast; the devil who will come to our world to spread chaos, evil, destruction and finally death.

W. B. Yeats’s Death

W. B Yeats in a black and white photograph
W. B Yeats as an older man

In 1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee for the last time. Much of the remainder of his life was outside Ireland, but he did lease a house, Riversdale in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham from 1932. He wrote prolifically through the final years of his life, publishing poetry, plays and prose. In 1938 he attended the Abbey for the last time to see the premiere of his play Purgatory. The Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats was published on that same year.

After suffering from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, Yeats died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France on January 28, 1939, at age 73. The last poem he wrote was the Arthurian-themed The Black Tower.

Yeats’s wished to be buried in Drumecliff at his hometown in County Sligo. He was first buried at Roquebrune but then his body was exhumed and moved there in September 1948. His grave is considered a famous attraction in Sligo where many people come to visit. The epitaph written on his tombstone is the last line in one of his poems titled Under Ben Bulben and reads “Cast a cold eye on life, on death; horsemen, pass by!”. The County is also home to a statue and memorial building in Yeats’s honour.

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