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William Butler Yeats
|"You were silly like us: your gift survived it all." So wrote W. H. Auden in "In Memory of William Butler Yeats," as he paid homage to one of his very few superiors among twentieth-century poets. William Butler Yeats was indeed a strange man, deeply intelligent and yet committed to spiritualism and the supernatural, philosophically questing and yet emotionally enslaved for decades to a woman who never encouraged his affections, aloof and aristocratic and yet riven by and giving gifted expression to the most basic of human urges. Yeats's gift not only survived his personal peculiarities, it drew upon them to nurture and sustain itself, and in the process fashioned the single greatest body of English-language poetry written in the last hundred years.|
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. He was the first of six children of John Butler Yeats, the son and grandson of Protestant clergymen, and Susan (Pollexfen) Yeats, whose father was a co-owner of a milling and shipping businesses. John Butler Yeats was admitted to the bar in January 1866, but a year later he abandoned his law career and moved to London, where his wife and infant children would join him several months later, in order to become an artist. Mrs. Yeats and her children would frequently return to Ireland for extended staysone of which lasted two yearswith her family in County Sligo. This area on the western coast would be a refuge for the poet, in both reality and imagination, throughout his life. Yeats attended grammar school in London, where his family continued to live until 1880, when the loss of his income from land holdings forced his father to move the family back to Ireland. He spent the next three years at Erasmus High School in Dublin, but at the completion of his studies, owing to his poor marks in classics and mathematics, he could not qualify for the entrance examinations to Trinity College. Therefore, he enrolled as a student at the Metropolitan Art College, partly in response to his father's view that everyone, whether intending to be an artist or not, should have some art training. One of his classmates was a young Ulsterman named George Russell, who would become one of Yeats's closest friends and, under his pen name of AE, a well-known poet. While a student at the Art College, Yeats began seriously to write poetry, and achieved his first important publication in 1885, when two short lyrics of his were printed in the Dublin University Review.
During this period, Yeats began to read widely in Irish poetry and translations of ancient Gaelic sagas, and made other contacts that would be decisive in shaping his thought and art. He befriended the Fenian leader John O'Leary, whose name, decades later, he would incorporate in the refrain of "September 1913": "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave." At O'Reilly's home, Yeats was introduced to a number of other Irish nationalists. In 1886, his friend and fellow poet Katherine Tynan brought him to his first seance, an experience that he found unnerving, but one which sparked his lifelong interest in the occult and the supernatural. With several friends, he founded the Dublin Hermetic Society, a theosophical organization devoted to the spiritualist notions of the controversial Madame Blavatsky.
In 1887, the Yeats family relocated in London, where Yeats joined the Esoteric Circle of the Theosophic Society. Asked to leave the group two years later, he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization dedicated to Rosicrucianism and ritual magic. In London, he also met fellow Irishmen Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and came to know a number of English poets, including older, established figures such as William Morris and William Ernest Henley, and his own contemporaries, such as Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson. In January 1889, bearing a letter of introduction from John O'Leary, a young woman named Maud Gonne knocked on Yeats's door and changed his life forever. Tall, red-haired, and striking, she was an intense Irish nationalist with little patience for dreaminess or ambiguity. Over the years, she would value Yeats as a friend and argue with him over political commitment, but she could never reciprocate the passionate attachment that transfixed him from the start. Over the years, she would consistently turn down his repeated proposalshis attachment would endure her bearing a child by one man and marrying anotherand she would remain the unattainable beloved who inspired and inhabited many of his finest poems.
In 1886, Yeats published his first book, a dramatic poem entitled Mosada. The following year, he edited an anthology called Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland, and the year after that a volume of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. In 1889 came his first appearance in book form as a lyric poet, the genre in which he would achieve his greatest triumphs, with The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. From the beginning, he showed himself to be a master of his craft. His early work was imbued with a haunting beauty, a soreness of heart born of a fundamental loneliness of spirit, and an idealistic longing to transcend the miseries and imperfections of the mundane world. These qualities would remain constants in his poetry as it went through many profound changes in the following years. In these early lyrics, his longings often took the form of a rather simplistic but beautifully expressed escapism, as in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," and he turned frequently to Irish myths and sagas as counterweights to the tawdriness of actual existence, as in "Who Goes with Fergus?" "When You Are Old," adapted in part from a sonnet by the sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard, is one of the finest and most famous of Yeats's early lyrics; it became significantly better known when lines from it were used in a Xerox television commercial in the 1960s. "The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland," which works some subtle changes upon Yeats's escapist theme, was one of the most accomplished and satisfying of the poems of this first phase of his career. But even his best poetry of this period is apprentice work when compared to the masterpieces that were still years in the future.
The year 1896 proved to be another turning point in Yeats's life, whose changes were once again precipitated by the making of new friends. One of these was Lady Augusta Gregory, the forty-four-year-old widow of a wealthy landowner. A playwright herself, she was interested in the prospect of an indigenous Irish arts movement. Her country estate at Coole would become a second home and a refuge for Yeats for many years, until her death in 1932. He had always been interested in poetic drama and had already published early examples in The Countess Cathleen (1892) and The Land of Heart's Desire (1894). With Lady Gregory and others, he founded the Irish Literary Theatre, out of which came the Abbey Theatre, which would grow into an Irish national treasure. In that same year of 1896, Yeats met John Millington Synge, who would succumb to Hodgkin's disease in 1909 at the age of thirty-eight. With Yeats's encouragement, Synge sharpened his dramatic talents and produced the comic masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (which, when presented by the Abbey in 1907, provoked riots for its purported slurs on Irish womanhood) and the tragic dramas Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows.
Yeats's own poetry continued to develop. Its language grew more colloquial, its rhythms more muscular, and its treatment of his obsessive themes more complex. All of these features were exhibited in "Adam's Curse" (1903), in which his hopeless passion for Maud Gonne is intertwined with the larger theme of the necessity to labor for anything of true value; this haunting work has been called the first undeniably great poem that Yeats ever wrote. Also in 1903, Maud profoundly shocked and dismayed Yeats with her sudden marriage to Major John MacBride, a man Yeats regarded as a boor and brute, and the antithesis of everything he believed in. MacBride would mistreat her and the couple would separate, although he would later distinguish himself as one of the heroes of the Easter Rising of 1916, the armed insurrection at the Dublin Post Office that signaled the beginning of the modern Irish independence movement.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, Yeats's verse demonstrated a new strength and directness, as seen as such poems as "A Coat" and "The Fisherman." In "The Fascination of What's Difficult," he implicitly ascribes this change to his forced immersion in the business of running the Abbey Theatreand thus, by extension, to the necessity of grounding himself in the real world. He also turned to more explicit treatments of contemporary public and political themes. After the bitter satire of "September 1913" came two poems in 1916 that explored the mysteries of heroism and self-sacrifice. One was "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," one of several poems that Yeats wrote to commemorate the loss of Lady Gregory's son in the First World War. The other was "Easter 1916," a profound meditation and tribute, whose tone, from its opening line, reflects the authority of a great artist writing at the height of his powers. The expansion of subject matter was, of course, dictated by the great rush of enormous eventsthe Irish Insurrection, the World War, the Russian Revolutionswirling around the poet and inhibiting access to ivory towers. The changes in style and angle of approach came about, at least in part, through Yeats's association with Ezra Pound, who had served Yeats in a secretarial capacity for extended periods in 1913 and for several years thereafter. In a remarkable act of deference born out of a dedication to his art over his ego, Yeats, established by then as one of the foremost poets of the age, had made himself a pupil of sorts to the brash young American expatriate, seeking to modernize his art and to remain relevant to evolving times and expectations.
In others of his poems, Yeats approached public subjects more obliquely, whether through the focus of traditional mythologies, as in "Leda and the Swan," or those of his own devising, as in "The Second Coming," which incorporated his theory of history as series of two-thousand-year cycles, each of which represented a reaction against its predecessor. This and many other symbolic dimensions of his thought were elaborated in the strange, dense prose work that he called A Vision (1925). He also fixed upon Byzantiumthe Byzantine Empire, with its seat in Christian Constantinople, especially in the fifth and sixth centuriesas the high point of civilization, a time and a place in which the physical, intellectual, and spiritual strands of life came together in an organic unity never equalled before or since. In "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats posits this place of his imaginings as a haven in which the soul can escape from physical decay and emotional confusion into an artistic and spiritual immortality.
These years saw great changes in Yeats's life as well as his art. In October 1917, after proposing once more to Maud Gonne and then, with equal unsuccess, to her daughter Iseult, Yeats married an English lady named George Hyde-Lees. Georgie, as she was called, delighted her husband on their honeymoon by attemptingor, in the opinion of some, fakingautomatic writing, and she later functioned as a spirit medium. They had two children, Anne in February 1919 (whose birth occasioned the splendid poem "A Prayer for My Daughter") and William Michael in August 1921. In 1922, after the establishment of the republic, Yeats was invited to become a member of the first independent Irish Senate, an office he held until 1928. And in 1923, his stature as a man of letters was given international recognition when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
William Butler Yeats
|On the heels of the difficult, symbolic verse that had come to dominate in his work, Yeats in the early 1930s made yet another change of direction and entered the last phase of his poetic career, that of the "wild old wicked man." After a lifetime of seeking to transcend the infirmities of the flesh and the eccentricities of the heart, he now embraced these inescapable components of the human condition and celebrated them in such vigorous, direct, and powerful poems as "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop," "Politics," and "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore." Another late masterpiece was "The Circus Animals' Desertion" (1938), in which, after a remarkable overview of his poetic career and the impulses that inspired some of his greatest works, he resigns himself to the need to "lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."|
After more than a decade of declining health, Yeats died of heart failure on January 28, 1939, on the French Riviera, and was buried in the coastal village of Rocquebrune. In 1948, his remains were brought back to Ireland and reburied, according to his wishes, in the shadow of Ben Bulben mountain in County Sligo. On his headstone appears his self-composed epitaph, the conclusion of his poem "Under Ben Bulben": "Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!"
Even while he was still alive, Yeats had come to be regarded as the greatest English-language poet of the twentieth century, and now, more than sixty years after his death, as the century is completed, no serious rival has emerged to challenge that assessment. In no other poet of the century do we find such consistent excellence, such lyrical and emotional intensity, and such probing and satisfying treatment of the great issues of human life. Yeats constantly revised and improved his work. Although he remained committed to traditional verse forms throughout his life, within those structures he experimented constantly with line length, with rhythm, and especially with off-rhyme, and in doing so opened up technical possibilities for generations of poets. His work became a lifelong quest to reconcile the separate and often troubling aspects of existence. Most writers reach a point at which they find the answers that they want, and their work then often becomes repetitious and complacent. For Yeats, the great questions remained unanswerednote how many of his poems end with a question markand he continued to write great poetry to the very end of his long and rich career.
Additional Resources: The Bibliography includes an extended list of writings about William Butler Yeats. Continue your Web Explorations by visiting Yeats Links.