William Butler Yeats - Irish Poet With Sligo Connections

A Short Biographical Sketch of Ireland's First Nobel Prize Laureate

W.B.Yeats - well, at least his statue, as on public display in Sligo
••• W.B.Yeats - well, at least his statue, as on public display in Sligo. © Bernd Biege 2015

Who exactly was William Butler Yeats, more commonly known only as W.B.Yeats? Often mispronounced by fans of Keats (W.B.'s surname is correctly pronounced "Yayts", not "Yeets"), he was born on June 13th, 1865, and died on January 28th, 1939.

Today, he is remembered as Ireland's "national poet" (though he never wrote in the Irish language) and regarded as one of the foremost figures of English language literature in the early 20th century.

In 1923 he became the first Irish recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, paving the way for later Irish laureates including George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney.  Yeats was hailed "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation".

W.B. Yeats was born a Dubliner and lived abroad for long stretches, but he is forever connected with County Sligo - the area which inspired much of his writing.

The Writing of W.B.Yeats

Although born and educated in Dublin, William Butler Yeats spent large parts of his childhood northwester Ireland in County Sligo. Appreciating and studying poetry already in his youth, he was also fascinated by Irish legends and "the occult" in general from an early age. Those otherworldly topics feature heavily in his first artistic phase, which ended around the turn of the century. Yeats' first collection of poetry was published in 1889 - slow-paced, lyrical poems that reflect Elizabethan and Romantic influences, such as Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Starting around 1900, Yeats' poetry developed away from the stuff of legends and metaphysical topics towards the more physical and realistic themes. Officially renouncing many of the more transcendental beliefs of his earlier years, he still displayed a huge interest in both physical and spiritual "masks", and cyclical theories of life.

Yeats also became one of the (if not the) most important of the Irish Literary Revival. Though Yeats is most remembered for his poetry, he was also a playwright. Along with like-minded individuals like Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn he founded Dublin's Abbey Theatre, as a national theater of Ireland (1904). He also served as a director of the Abbey for many years. The first two plays ever staged at the Abbey (together with a play by Lady Gregory in a "triple bill") were Yeats' On Baile's Strand and Cathleen Ní Houlihan.

Critically speaking, W.B.Yeats is among the few writers who actually wrote and published their best works after being awarded the Nobel Prize, notably The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929).

W.B.Yeats - Life and Love

William Butler Yeats was born into an Anglo-Irish Dublin family. His father John Yeats initially trained to become a lawyer, abandoning this to study art in London. Yeats' mother Susan Mary Pollexfen came from a wealthy Sligo merchant family. All members of the family chose artistic careers - brother Jack as a painter, sisters Elizabeth and Susan Mary in the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Yeats family was rather well-to-do but still supported the nationalist change that rocked Ireland, even though it directly disadvantaged them.

The political and social developments which took place in the early 20th century had a profound effect on Yeats' poetry and his explorations of Irish identity reflecting the changing times and attitudes. Though it is important to remember that when he wrote of "we Irish", the inclusive term didn't always fit with his fairly privileged background.

Yeats was a fascinating character who served two terms as an Irish Senator and dabbled with little known religious beliefs such as Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and the Golden Dawn. However,  people are usually most interested in Yeats' complicated and curious love-life.

In 1889 he met Maud Gonne, a wealthy heiress and a Nationalist icon. Yeats' fell for her in a big way, but Maud Gonne made it clear that her future partner had to be, first and foremost, an ardent Nationalist.

Yeats signed up to the cause and proposed marriage in 1891, only to be rebuffed - later writing that the denial was when "the troubling of my life began". Apparently not quite getting the message, Yeats again proposed marriage in 1899, 1900 and 1901, only to be rejected again, again, and yet again. When Maud Gonne finally married Major John MacBride in 1903, the poet was furious. He tried to mock MacBride though letters and poetry and rambled on about Maud Gonne's conversion to Catholicism.

Yeats forgave all when Maud Gonne visited him for looking for comfort as her marriage ended in disaster, after the birth of a son (Sean MacBride). Though a one-night-stand between Yeats and Maud Gonne came to nothing.

By 1916, and at the age of 51, Yeats was desperate for a child. He decided it was high time to marry, naturally once more proposing to the now aging Maud Gonne (newly widowed by British firing squad during the aftermath of the Easter Rising). When she turned him down yet again, Yeats switched to his terrible Plan B - a marriage proposal to Iseult Gonne, Maud's 21-year-old daughter. This also came to nothing, so Yeats finally settled on the slightly older (but at 25 still less than half his age) Georgie Hyde-Lees. To everyone's surprise she not only accepted, but the marriage seems to have worked quite well.

W.B.Yeats and Politics

Despite his family history, Yeats was an Irish Nationalist - with a strong yearning for a (largely imagined) "traditional lifestyle". He initially displayed revolutionary spirit (even being a member of paramilitary groups), but soon distanced himself from active politics and hardly acknowledged the Easter Rising in his work.

Yeats was appointed to the first Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, in 1922 - and then re-appointed for a second term in 1925. Perhaps thinking of Maud Gonne, Yeats' main contributions were on the debate on divorce, in which he accused both the government and Catholic clergy of recreating "medieval Spain". Pulling no punches, he declared that "marriage is not to us a sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each other to live together". Despite this thunderous attack, divorce remained illegal in Ireland until 1996. 

Under the impression of the general politics after the First World War, the Wall Street Crash, and the Great Depression, Yeats became more and more skeptical about democratic forms of government and anticipated a reconstruction of Europe through totalitarian rule. His friendship with Ezra Pound introduced him to the politics of Benito Mussolini, and Yeats expressed admiration for "Il Duce" on several occasions. On the home front, he wrote three "marching songs" for the Irish Blueshirts, a (sizeable) fascist splinter group led by General Eoin O'Duffy.

W.B. Yeats' Death, Burial, and Reburial

Throughout his life, W.B. Yeats regularly traveled to France. It was there that William Butler Yeats died in Menton on January 28th, 1939. According to his wishes, he was buried after a discreet and private funeral service at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin - "if I die bury me up there and then in a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo." Which did not work out, as the Second World War broke out and Yeats' mortal remains were stuck in France.

Finally, in September 1948, Yeats' remains were moved to Drumcliff (County Sligo) in a state-sponsored event - and in a great twist of fate, the Minister of External Affairs who was in charge of the operation was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne.

Yeats' epitaph is taken from the last lines of his late poem Under Ben Bulben:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

There is, however, a slight potential problem: Yeats was already buried in France, then dug up again, and his bones put into an ossuary, before being reassembled for shipment to Ireland. Forensics being what they were in the mid-1940s, there is little hard evidence that all the bones, or even any of them, resting beneath Ben Bulben actually belong to Yeats.

Fun Facts about W.B. Yeats

If you have seen the movie "Million Dollar Baby", you may have spotted Clint Eastwood translating W.B.Yeats from the Irish language into English. Apparently, no one told him that Yeats did not speak Irish and only wrote in English.

What IS true is that W.B. Yeats only visited a pub exactly one time in his entire life. W.B.Yeats confessed that he had never been to a pub so his friend Oliver St. John Gogarty dragged him into Toner's, one of Dublin's several literary pubs, (which is still open on Baggot Street today). W.B. had a sherry, declared himself unimpressed about the whole experience, and left - and supposedly never ever stepped foot in a pub again.