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

William Butler Yeats, more commonly known only as W.B.Yeats, who was he? 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 did not write in the national tongue), and regarded as one of the foremost figures of English language literature in the early 20th century.

And he also was the first Irish recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1923, later Irish laureates were George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney) - being hailed "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation".

Geographically, despite being a Dubliner and living abroad for long stretches, he is forever connected with Sligo ... the area which inspired much of his writing.

W.B.Yeats and Literature

Although born and educated in Dublin, William Butler Yeats spent large parts of his childhood far away 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, ending 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 from the metaphysical to the more robustly physical, the realistic. 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. Along with like-minded individuals like Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn he founded Dublin's Abbey Theatre, as a national theatre 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 read law, 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. As members of the (waning) Protestant Ascendancy, the Yeats family was nonetheless supportive of the changing Ireland, even though the nationalist revival directly disadvantaged them.

The political and social developments had a profound effect on Yeats' poetry, his explorations of Irish identity reflecting the changing times and attitudes. Though when he wrote of "we Irish", this inclusive term often jars with his somehow privileged background.

Apart from his later two terms as an Irish Senator, and his astounding dabblings with Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and the Golden Dawn ... what remains in most people's minds is Yeats' convoluted, curious love-life.

In 1889 he met Maud Gonne, a wealthy heiress and a Nationalist icon .. and a beauty in her youth. Yeats' fell for her in a big way, but Maud Gonne made it clear that a partner for her had to be, first and foremost, an ardent Nationalist. In 1891, Yeats nonetheless proposed marriage, only to be rebuffed - later writing that "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 blew a fuse. He tried to mock MacBride though letters and poetry, and rambled on about Maud Gonne's conversion to Catholicism.

Yeats then discovered his more understanding side, and went all touchy-feely, when Maud Gonne visited him for some solace ... as her marriage had effectively 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 51, Yeats was getting desperate for a child. He decided it was high time to marry, naturally once more proposing to the now ageing 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 almost grotesque 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 ... and to everybody'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. His initial non-response to the Easter Rising, only mentioning it in poetry in the 1920s, was telling.

Yeats was appointed to the first Seanad Eireann, the Irish Senate, in 1922 - and then re-appointed for a second term in 1925. His main contributions were on the debate on divorce, in which he accused both 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. And you may read between the lines, discovering his frustration with Maud Gonne's marital arrangements ...

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 sceptical 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, Yeats expressing 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.

Death, Burial, Reburial

William Butler Yeats died in Menton (France) 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.

Only in September 1948 Yeats' remains were moved to Drumcliff (County Sligo) in a state-sponsored event - the Minister of External Affairs being in charge of the operation, one 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 problem: Yeats was already buried in France, then dug up again, his bones put into an ossuary, then reassembled for shipment to Ireland. Forensics being what they where in the mid-1940s, evidence that all the bones, or even any of them, resting beneath Ben Bulben are actually Yeats' ... is a bit thin on the ground. Maybe a grave mistake?

Funniest Yeats Moment Ever

This has to go to the movie "Million Dollar Baby", where we see Clint Eastwood translating W.B.Yeats from the Irish into English. Apparently nobody told him that Yeats did not speak Irish as such, and wrote in English ...

Unfunniest Yeats Moment Ever

The poet once, and I mean literally once, visited a pub ... as W.B.Yeats had confessed that he had never been to a pub, Oliver St. John Gogarty dragged his colleague into Toner's, one of Dublin's several literary pubs, still open in Baggot Street today. Where W.B. had a sherry, declared himself unimpressed about the whole experience, and left again. reputedly never to darken a pub's doorstep again. What a bundle of joy!