Thursday, July 10, 2008
Written and compiled by George Knowles.
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet, dramatist, mystic and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. His poetry and writings were a display of his passion for Irish mythology and folklore mixed with mysticism and the occult Sciences. He was a driving force behind the Irish literary revival and a co-founder of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin. As a prominent public figure, he served for six years in the Irish Free State Senate (1922-28), and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, his nomination stated that: “…his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”.
Yeats was a third-generation Irishman, the eldest of four children. He was born on the 13th June 1865 in the seaside village of Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. His father John Butler Yeats was a lawyer turned Irish Pre-Raphaelite painter, while his mother Susan Pollexfen came from a wealthy family who had prospered in the milling and shipping business. His mother introduced Yeats and his two sisters: Susan Mary Yeats (1866-1949) and Elizabeth Corbet Yeats (1868-1940) to the Irish folktales and legends he would grow to love so much. His younger brother Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) followed in his father’s footsteps and become an accomplished artist.
Father - John Butler Yeats
In 1867 his father moved the family to London and settled in Bedford Park were he could study art. While there, Yeats attended the Godolphin School in Hammersmith before the family moved back to Dublin. In Dublin, he attended the Erasmus Smith High School, and in 1884, enrolled in Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art. While studying at the Metropolitan, Yeats met with the poet, dramatist and painter George Russell (commonly referred to as AE), whose interest in mysticism and theosophy inspired him to take a closer look at alternative religions. After reading numerous texts on the Tibetan Mysteries, Buddhism and other religious beliefs, he became fascinated in the subjects of reincarnation, spiritualism and occultism.
In the meantime Yeats had started to write, and gained his first publication merits in 1885, when two of his lyrical poems appeared in the Dublin University Review. In 1886, Yeats formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society, before returning to Bedford Park the following year to concentrate on his writing. Yeats quickly became involved in the literary life of London, making friends with fellow poets William Morris and W.E. Henley. In 1890 he and Ernest Rhys co-founded the Rhymers Club, whose members included other like-minded poets and writers from London’s literary elite. The group met regularly and published anthologies in 1892 and 1894.
While Yeats returned to Ireland nearly every summer, he was mostly kept busy in London, when not attending lectures or meetings at the Rhymers Club; he spent time in the British Museum of Natural History researching Irelands pre-Christian history. Yeats had always had a fascination for Irish legends and folktales, and as a part of an exploration of his Irish national heritage, he had hopes for an Irish literary revival. His study with George Russell and Douglas Hyde: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry was published in 1888. Yeats later wrote a less detailed version for children called: Irish Fairy Tales, published in 1892. The Wanderings Of Oisin And Other Poems published in 1889 is filled with sad longings, and was based on Irish mythology.
Yeats was often shy around women but made the acquaintance of many who became his friends, including the poet Katharine Tynan (1861-1931) and theosophist Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) founder of the Theosophical Society, which Yeats joined in 1888. The Theosophical Society provided Yeats with the intellectual outlet he needed to express his thoughts and feelings on mysticism, but lacked the deeper practical aspects of magical symbolism that he sought. For this he turned to “The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn”, led by a fellow researcher he first met while studying at the British Museum of Natural History, S.L. MacGregor Mathers.
Madame Helena Blavatsky - S.L. MacGregor Mathers
Yeats was admitted into the Golden Dawn's Isis-Urania temple as a Neophyte on the 7th March 1890, taking for his motto Demon est Deus inversus (D.E.D.I. for short), which translated reads as Devil is the reverse of God, a name he took from the writings of Madame Blavatsky. After fractious events led to the break-up of the original Golden Dawn in the early 1900’s, Yeats joined forces with Dr. Robert William Felkin and John William Brodie-Innes in the Amoun Temple of the newly formed “Order of the Stella Matutina”. Yeats completed his Theoricus Adeptus Minor sub-grade in 1912, advancing to the 6=5 grade of Adeptus Major in 1914, from which time he served as Imperator and Instructor of Ancient Traditions until 1922. Yeats eventually left the Order being disillusioned with the constant in-fighting and power struggles among its members.
Yeats set out his magical beliefs in a lecture to “Golden Dawn” members in 1901:
“I believe in the practise and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are:
(1) That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
(2) That the borders of our memories are shifting, and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols”.
In 1889 Yeats met the love-of-his-life Maud Gonne, a beautiful Irish actress who became a major focus in his future writings. Yeats worshipped Maud, but his love was hopeless lost. While she liked, admired and respected him, she was not in love with him; her passion was reserved for Ireland. She was a fervent Irish patriot, a rebel, commanding in voice and in person. She became a speaker for the Land League, founded the Daughters of Ireland (a nationalist organization), and helped to organize the Irish brigades that fought against the British in the South African War. It was Maud who influenced Yeats to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, but while she had devoted herself to political struggle, Yeats viewed her world with suspicion.
After the death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, Yeats believed that Irish political life had lost its significance, and felt that the vacuum left by politics might be better filled by literature, art, poetry and drama dedicated to Irelands national heritage, its culture and legends. In 1893, his first effort towards this end was a volume of essays called The Celtic Twilight. In 1896 Yeats returned to live permanently in his home town of Dublin, were he set about reforming the Irish National Literary Society in efforts to promote a new Irish Library.
Charles Stewart Parnell
In 1897, Yeats met Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, with whose patronage he founded the Irish Literary Theatre, which later became the Irish National Theatre Society. In 1904 the theatre moved to new premises and was re-named the Abbey Theatre, after the street in Dublin on which it stood. Yeats remained a director of the theatre for the rest of his life, writing several plays for it, his most famous being The Land Of Heart's Desire (1894) and Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902). Another director was the dramatist John Synge (1871-1909), a close friend of Yeats whose masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907) was greeted with riots.
Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory - Coole Park
Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory was an Irish aristocrat, who after the death of her husband Sir William Gregory in 1892, had become involved in efforts to arouse Irish nationalism through an appreciation of Irish literature and speech. She had collected a vast store of old legends and folklore about Ireland, which Yeats found matched with his own researches of Irelands ancient rituals and beliefs. From 1898, Yeats spent his summers at Lady Gregory's home in Coole Park, County Galway. Later he bought a derelict Norman stone tower situated in the same neighbourhood as Coole Park, called Thoor Ballylee. After restoring it, the tower became his permanent summer home and a central symbol in his later poetry.
In 1899, Yeats asked Maud Gonne to marry him, but she rejected him, and four years later married Major John MacBride, an Irish soldier who shared her feelings for Ireland and her opposition to what she perceived as English oppression. MacBride was one of the rebels later executed by the British government for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916, while Maud herself was imprisoned for her part. After his death, Maud remained active in movements for the release of Irish political prisoners. Their son Sean MacBride later became foreign minister of Ireland and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Due to his association with Maud, a police report of 1899 describes Yeats as “more or less revolutionary”, perhaps he was, but never physically, only literarily, in 1916 he published Easter 1916. 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”. In 1902 when his play Cathleen ni Houlihan was first performed in Dublin, it was Maud who played the title role.
During the winters of 1913-14, Yeats vacationed in England, spending time at Stone Cottage in Sussex with his friend the American poet and critic Ezra Pound. Pound, who was acting as his secretary at the time, was also editing translations of the Nō dramas of Japan, which caught the imagination of Yeats. Yeats thought that the Nō dramas could be re-designed for a small audience of initiates, using the resources offered by masks, mime, dance and song to convey his own recondite symbolism, and set about writing what he considered their equivalent in his plays: At the Hawk's Well (first performed 1916) and Four Plays for Dancers (1921).
Ezra Pound in 1913
By the age of 52, having constantly been rejected by the love-of-his-life, Yeats became obsessed with her daughter Iseult Gonne, who also turned down his advances. A few weeks later he proposed to 26-year-old Miss Georgie Hyde-Lees, while half his age she accepted and they married in 1917. Yeats at first doubted the marriage would work, but they were happy. During the honeymoon Georgie demonstrated her gift for automatic writing, and the notebooks they made of their sessions, later formed the basis of A Vision (1925). They had two children, a daughter Anne Butler Yeats born in 1919, and a son William Michael Yeats in 1921.
In 1922, Yeats turned his attention to politics, and on the formation of the new Irish Free State, accepted an invitation to become a member of the Senate. Yeats served on the Senate for the next six years, where as a politician he defended Protestant interests and took a pro-Treaty stance against the Republicans. This put him at odds with his old flame Maud Gonne, for under the Emergency Legislation that he voted for, her son, Sean MacBride was imprisoned without trial.
In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and became a celebrated figure, recognized as one of the most significant English-language poets of the 20th century. In 1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee for the last time, much of his remaining life was spent outside of Ireland. In his final years with his health declining, he worked on the last version of A Vision (first published in 1925). This was followed in 1936 with his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1892–1935), a collection of his most favourite poems, and New Poems (1938). Also in 1938, he attended the Abbey theatre for the last time, to see the premier of his play Purgatory.
Yeats in 1930
After suffering from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, Yeats died on the 28th January 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. He was buried first at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in France, until in accordance with his final wishes, his coffin was moved to Drumcliffe, County Sligo, aboard the Irish Navy corvette L.E. Macha in September 1948. His grave is now a famous attraction in Sligo, bearing his own unique epitaph, taken from one of his last poems Under Ben Bulben in which he wrote: “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’ gravestone with his famous epitaph.
Yeats once said, “the place that has really influenced my life most is Sligo”. Sligo is also home to a statue and memorial building in his honor.