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||William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)|
Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Between the Celtic visions of The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and the intellectual, often obscure poetry of the 1930s, Yeats produced a tremendous amount of works. In his early career Yeats studied William Blake's poems, Emanuel Swedenborg's writings and other visionaries. Later he expressed his disillusionment with the reality of his native country. Central theme in Yeats's poems is Ireland, its bitter history, folklore, and contemporary life.
Once out of nature I shall never take
William Butler Yeats 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), who was interested in mysticism. His search inspired also Yeats, who at that time associated Protestantism with materialism, and like Blake, he rejected the Newtonian mechanistic worldview. This turn was a surprise to his father, who had tried to raise his son without encouraging him to ponder with such questions, but had given him Blake's poetry to read.
Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life. Esoteric studies, coupled with sense of humor and some healthy scepticism, were intertwined with his literary activities. In 1886 he formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society and took the magical name Daemon est Deus Inversus. He also visited Mme Blavatsky, the famous occultist, and joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, but eventually fell into disfavour with Blavatsky and was asked to resign.
The Rhymers' Club, which Yeats founded with Ernest Rhys, met each night "in an upper room with a sanded floor in an ancient
eating-house in the Strand called the Cheshire Cheese". Moreover, Yeats belonged
to the Golden Dawn and to its successor the Order of Stella Matutina
for thirty-two years. Aleister Crowley
joined the Golden Dawn at the age of twenty-three; he was not known as
the Great Beast, as he would call himself, but a "junior". From the beginning, Yeats and Crowley disliked each other.
Crowley turned out to be a brilliant student of magic, who rapidly
passed through the Order's examinations and initiations. In Crowley's
roman à clef, Moonchild
(1929), Yeats was portrayed as a "cadaverous Protestant-Irishman" named
Gates, whose "hair was long, lank and unkempt; his teeth were
neglected; and he had a habit of physical dirt which was so obvious as
to be repulsive even to a stranger."
Yeats's early verse appeared in 1885 in The Dublin University Review. About this time, he formed a friendship with Katharine Tynan, who had gained wide attention with her collection Louise de la Vallere and Other Poems
Yeats's family returned to Bedford Park, the two began a regular
corresponde. Probably in the summer of 1891, Yeats proposed to her; she
refused him but they remained friends. Tynan reviewed
Yeats's first books and published an interview with him in 1893.
In 1889 Yeats met his great love, Maud Gonne (1866-1953), an actress and Irish revolutionary, 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 IRB (the Irish Republican Brotherhood), a secret revolutionary organization. Maud had devoted herself to political struggle, but Yeats viewed with suspicion her world full of intrigues. When some of the IRB wanted to shoot the journalist and politician Frank Hugh O'Donnell, who allegedly had betrayed the organization, Yeats and Maud prevented this. (The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938, edited with an introduction by Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares, 1994, p. 118) A police report of 1899 concluded that Yeats was "a literary enthusiast, more or less of a revolutionary, and an associate of Dr Mark Ryan" - Ryan was a chief of the IRB in London. Basically it was Yeats's interest in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity that fuelled his passion for Irish nationalism. 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, Irish Fairy Tales (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
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. It moved in 1904 into the new Abbey Theatre,
named after the Dublin street in which it stood. Yeats worked as a
director of the theatre, writing several plays for it.
The Countess Cathleen, a verse drama, was performed with police protection. The Irish Catholic Church opposed the first performance on the grounds of alleged blasphemy. ". . . it is not a good play and in as much as it offends against the tenour of Irish history in regard to Theological connection and against the position of the Irish peasant in face of physical pain, it cannot be considered an Irish play. . . . (Irish Times, 9 May 1899) Another director at the theatre was the dramatist John Synge (1871-1909), Yeats's close friend, whose masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907) was greeted with riots. The Freeman's Journal claimed that the play was an insult to thee Irish people. "There is nothing in it that we have reason to be ashamed of," Synge told reporters. Largely because of the uproar over the portrayal of Irish peasants, some modifications were made in the dialogue. (Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas by Dawn B. Sova, 2004, pp. 207-210) When the play went on tour in England, in was hailed there with applause. Edmund Wilson once said, that Yeats's greatest contribution to the theatre was not his own plays but those of Synge.
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 credited 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. ('Lady Gregory's Toothbrush' by Colm Toibín, New York Times Review of Books, August 9, 2001)
Ezra Pound, whom Yeats met in 1912, served as his fencing master and secretary in the winters of 1913 and 1914. Pound introduced Yeats to Japanese Noh 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 Bertha Georgie Hyde Lees. Georgie, who was 26 and came from a well-to-do family, was fluent in French, German and Italian. Her father had died in 1909. She once confided to Yeats, that her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all alcoholics.
Although Yeats 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), about marriage, occultism, and historical cycles. Most readers gave it a lukewarm reception. Gradually Georgie's role dwindled to copyist, editor, housekeeper, and nurse, and by the early 1930s she was too tired for sexual contact.
The change from suggestive, beautiful lyricism toward disillusionment 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. In 1916 Yeats 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." Although Irish politics was a central theme in many of Yeats's writings, he made clear a distinction between political and religious propaganda and art. At the start of the war, Yeats went to Oxford, but then returned to Dublin. In 1922 he became a senator in the Irish Free State. 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. The tone of the work is reflective, almost conversational, and occasionally the poet lets loose his bitterness and grief of the past. Yeats registers the death of Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory's son, and Mabel Beardley, sister of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley. Yeats also returns to his relationship with Maud Gonne, who had rejected his love.
1932 Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters. Never a
sophisticated political thinker, and favoring the leadership of the
few, Yeats was briefly involved in 1933-34 with the fascist Blueshirts
in Dublin and wrote some marching songs for them. Between 1935 and his
death, Yeats usually condemned fascism and communism in the same
breath. Only a few of his plays were produced in Germany during the
Nazi reign. The Countess Cathleen
was put on stage in 1934. The play was sponsored by the archdiocese of
Cologne. Quite possibly, Yeats would have been delighted in the
performance of The Unicorn from the Stars at the Kammerspiele München in March 1940 - it ended in an uproar. Otto Falkenberg, the director, emphasized the play's pacifist motives. Cathleen ni Houlihan was performed at the Stadttheater Giessen in October 1939 and Land of Heart's Desire in April 1944 at the Munich theatre, just before the Big Air Battle over Munich.
Love affairs, catalyzed by the "Steinach operation" Yeats underwent in 1934, came and went. He had a relationship with the British actress and poet Margot Ruddock and Ethel Mann, a journalist, novelist, and advocate of sexual liberation. In his final years Yeats worked on the last version of A Vision, which attempted to present a theory of the archetypes of human personality, and published The Oxford Book of Verse (1936) and New Poems (1938).
After finding breathing and walking difficult, Yeats tried to recover his health in the south of France. He spent a month in Monte Carlo and Menton with the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald, the last of his female friend and lover. At one point he said to his wife that it was harder for him to live than to die. While staying at Cap Martin he fell terribly ill. Yeats died in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. He was buried at Roquebrune. 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."
The Rose Tree
"O words are lightly spoken",
"It needs to be but watered",
But where can we draw water",
For further reading: Yeats, the Man and the Masks by Richard Ellman (1948); Swan and Shadow by Thomas Whitaker (1964); Yeats by Denis Donaghue (1976); Yeats at Work by Curtis Bradford (1978); The Poetry of W. B. Yeats by Louis MacNeice (1979); New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares (1984); W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares (1988); W.B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland by Donald T. Torchiana (1992); W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914, Vol. 1, by R. F. Foster (1997); Stone Cottage by James Longenbach (1998); The Life of W.B. Yeats by Terence Brown (1999); W. B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares (2001); Yeats: The Irish Literary Revival and the Politics of Print by Yug Mohit Chaudhry (2002); W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914, Vol. 2, by R. F. Foster (2002); Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats by Ann Saddlemyer (2002); W. B. Yeats: A Life, II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 by R. F. Foster (2003); Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by David A. Ross (2009) - Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn: Short lived but influential Western occult order. The founding of the Golden Dawn is based on a manuscript of alleged antiquity, but which may have been a forgery. The Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order was established on March 1, 1888. Yeats was initiated into the temple on March 7, 1890. - Other famous writers born in Dublin: Thomas Moore, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett. - See other writers interested in occultism: Arthur Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley - Suom.: Yeatsilta on julkaistu valikoima Runoja (1966) Aale Tynnin suomentamana. - Note: James Connolly (1870-1916) and Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) were Irish political figures, Pearse also an author. They participated in the Easter Rising in 1916 and were executed by the British authorities.