William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin into an Irish Protestant family. His father, John Butler Yeats, a clergyman’s son, was a lawyer turned to an Irish Pre-Raphaelite painter. Yeats’s mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a wealthy family – the Pollexfens had a prosperous milling and shipping business. His early years Yeats spent in London and Sligo, a beautiful county on the west coast of Ireland, where his mother had grown and which he later depicted in his poems. In 1881 the family returned to Dublin. While studying at the Metropolitan School of Art, Yeats met there the poet, dramatist, and painter George Russell (1867-1935). He was interested in mysticism, and his search inspired also Yeats. This was a surprise to his father who had tried to raise his son without encouraging him to ponder with such questions. Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life. In 1886 Yeats formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society and took the magical name Daemon est Deus Inversus. The occult order also attracted Aleister Crowley.
As a writer Yeats made his debut in 1885, when he published his first poems in The Dublin University Review. In 1887 the family returned to Bedford Park, and Yeats devoted himself to writing. He visited Mme Blavatsky, the famous occultist, and joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, but was later asked to resign. In 1889 Yeats met his great love, Maud Gonne (1866-1953), an an actress and Irish revolutionary who became a major landmark in the poets life and imagination. Yeats worshipped Maud, whom he wrote many poems. She married in 1903 Major John MacBride, and this episode inspired Yeats’s poem ‘No Second Troy’. “Why, what could she have done being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn.” MacBride was later executed by the British.
Through Maud’s influence Yeats joined the revolutionary organization Irish Republican Brotherhood. Maud had devoted herself to political struggle but Keats viewed with suspicion her world full of intrigues. He was more interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity. His study with George Russell and Douglas Hyde of Irish legends and tales was published in 1888 under the name Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Yeats assembled for children a less detailed version, IRIS FAIRY TALES, which appeared in 1892. (see also Wilhelm Grimm.) THE WANDERINGS OF OISIN AND OTHER POEMS (1889), filled with sad longings, took its subject from Irish mythology.
In 1896 Yeats returned to live permanently in his home country. He reformed Irish Literary Society, and then the National Literary Society in Dublin, which aimed to promote the New Irish Library. Lady Gregory first saw W.B. Yeats 1894 – “…looking every inch a poet,” she wrote in her diary – and again two years later. Their relationship started in 1897 and led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Irish National Theatre Society and moved in 1904 into the new Abbey Theatre, named after the Dublin street in which it stood. Yeats worked as a director of the theater, writing several plays for it. Another director was the dramatist John Synge (1871-1909), Yeats’s close friend, whose masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907) was greeted with riots. Yeats’s most famous dramas were CATHLEEN NI HOULIHAN (1902), in which Maud Gonne gained great acclaim in the title role, and THE LAND OF HEART’S DESIRE (1894). Yeats did not have in the beginning much confidence in Lady Gregory’s literary skills, but after seeing her translation of the ancient Irish Cuchulain sagas he changed his mind. Cathleen ni Houlihan has been cretied to Yeats but now it is considered to be written by Lady Gregory – the idea came from Yeats and he wrote the chant of the old woman at the end. (see ‘Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush’ by Colm Toibín, New York Times Review of Books, August 9, 2001)
An 1899 police report described Yeats as “more or less revolutionary,” and in 1916 he published ‘Easter 1916’ about the Irish nationalist uprising. It referred to the executed leaders of the uprising and stated: “Now and in time to be, / Wherever the green is worn, / All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
Ezra Pound, whom Yeats met in 1912, became his fencing master and secretary in the winters of 1913 and 1914. Pound introduced Yeats to Japanese Noah drama, which inspired his plays. In early 1917 Yeats bought Thoor Ballyle, a derelict Norman stone tower near Coole Park. After restoring it, the tower became his summer home and central symbol in his later poetry. At the age of 52, in 1917, he married Georgie Hyde-Lee, who was 26. Although Keats first had his doubts, the marriage was happy and they had a son and a daughter. However, before the marriage Yeats had proposed Maud Gonne, but he was also obsessed with Gonne’s daughter Iseult, who turned him down. During their honeymoon Yeats’s wife demonstrated her gift for automatic writing. Their collaborative notebooks formed the basis of A VISION (1925), a book of marriage therapy spiced with occultism.
The change from suggestive, beautiful lyricism toward the spare and tragic bitterness was marked in Yeats poem ‘September 1913’ in which he stated: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.” During the civil war Irish Free State soldiers burned many of Yeats’s letters to Maud Gonne when they raided her house. At the start of the war Yeats went to Oxford, but then returned to Dublin, becoming a Senator in the same year. As a politician Yeats defended Protestant interests and took pro-Treaty stance against Republicans. Maud Gonne’s son, Sean MacBride, was imprisoned without trial under emergency legislation that Yeats had voted for.
THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1917) was set on the Coole Park, the estate of Yeats’s friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory. Yeats registers the death of Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory’s son, and Mabel Beardley, sister of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley. The tone of the work is reflective, almost conversational, and occasionally the poet lets loose his bitterness and grief of the past. Yeats also returns to his relationship with Maud Gonne, who rejected his love.
In 1932 Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters and in 1933 he was briefly involved with the fascist Blueshirts in Dublin. While in Mallorca Yeats became seriously ill. He tried to meet Robert Graves who refused to see him. In his final years Yeats worked on the last version of A VISION, which attempted to present a theory of the variation of human personality, and published THE OXFORD BOOK OF VERSE (1936) and NEW POEMS (1938). Yeats died in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. In ‘Under Ben Buiben,’ one of his last poems, he had written: ” No marble, no conventional phrase; On limestone quarried near the spot / By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman; pass by!” Yeats’s coffin was taken in 1948 to Druncliff in Sligo, but there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the bones.- “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”