William Butler Yeats was the finest modern poet in the English language. He was a great poet, a playwright, a theatre manager, a patriot, a senator, and a believer in fairies and ghosts.
He was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, Yeats was called “Willie” by his family, but mostly others called him as “WB”. He was the oldest of six children, all of them were dark and good-looking. Yeats was particularly close to his sister Susan (she was called Lily), who was a year younger than him. She and her younger sister, Lolly (real name was Elizabeth), were both very artistic and grew up to found “Dun Emer Industries”, a company renowned for embroidery and fine printing. They printed many editions of their brother’s books. A younger brother, Jack (born 1871), was independent, good humored, and very talented. He grew up to become one of Ireland’s greatest painters.
Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, was a man with powerful personality who had a huge influence on his children. Often he would read poems and stories to them from the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, and others. He had been trained as a lawyer, but soon decided that he wanted to be an artist, went to art school, and became a well-known portrait painter.
Susan Pollexfen, Yeats’s mother, was a quiet, withdrawn woman, the daughter of a well-to-do shipping family in Sligo. Always prone to depression, she was deeply affected by the death in 1873 of her son Robert, at the age of three. She fell into a despondency from which she never fully recovered. Before young Robert’s death, she claimed that she heard the call of the “banshee”, a wailing ghost of Irish folklore, who is said to prophesy the imminent death of a loved one.
When Yeats was at the age of two, his family moved to London, returning to Sligo for their summer holidays, but between the ages of seven and nine, Yeats lived in Sligo with his mother at “Merville,” the home of her parents. Her father owned a fleet of merchant ships, and Yeats would watch them on the river as they voyaged to and from England.
A firm believer in ghosts and spooks, Yeats claimed that he first saw a fairy at Merville. In Ireland in those days, many people (especially country people) believed implicitly in the supernatural. These fairies were often treacherous and dangerous. The poem like “The Stolen Child”, based on a popular legend, it was believed that fairies could kidnap you and force you to live with them. In “The Hosting of the Sidhe”, the poet imagines a vast number of fairies or “sidhe” riding on horseback across the land.
There was a pony at Merville, and several dogs with which the children chased rabbits. As a child, Yeats was a keen naturalist, particularly fond of moths, butterflies, beetles, and newts, which he occasionally collected in glass jars. He used to go rowing and sailing with his uncle in Rosses Point, a small seaside town close to Sligo, and he would fish for pike and trout in nearby rivers and lakes. Sometimes he would go fishing for mackerel in the sea at Sligo Bay.
The young Yeats went on long walks in the Sligo countryside and sometimes spent the night in caves in the woods. We can see his love for the area in many of his poems, which often mention local place names and landmarks, such as Ben Bulben, Knocknarea, Sleuth Wood, Glen-Car and Dooney.
Yeats was not a particularly gifted student at school he had great difficulty with spelling, but he began writing poetry at about the age of fifteen. His earliest poems, about witches and medieval knights in armor, were not very original, but his verse began to come alive when he wrote about Irish legends and myths, such as those of the folk hero Cuchulain, who was said to have superhuman powers. Yeats published his first poems in a Dublin magazine when he was twenty.
Also in his twentieth year, Yeats began attending a Dublin club where members discussed the political issues of the day, including that of Irish independence from Britain. Yeats wanted to work for political freedom too (but through artistic and cultural means, not by spending his life on committees).
Ever since the days at Merville, Yeats had been intrigued with the mystical, the paranormal, and the occult. At the age of twenty he helped to find the Dublin Hermetic Society (“hermetic” means “magical”), a group of students devoted to studying Indian philosophy and mysticism. This club later became The Dublin Theosophical Society (“theosophy” means "divine wisdom"). He attended his first se`ance the following year and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that promoted the study and practice of ritual magic. For much of his life, especially when he was young, Yeats was fascinated by séances, telepathy, and astral projection, and he spent a great deal of time having visions or trying to have visions of the supernatural. These interests are reflected in his poetry. The occult was very important to Yeats. He retorted that the occult was at the center of all that he did and thought.
In 1889, at the age of twenty-three, he met and fell in love with a beautiful actress called Maud Gonne, a revolutionary and a political firebrand. For many years they were the closest of friends. Most of his love poems are addressed to her like “The Fish” and “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”. He proposed marriage to her several times, but she repeatedly turned him down. In 1903, she married the Irish soldier, Major John MacBride, who was later executed for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916.
Yeats was also a playwright. In 1899 he founded, with his friend who is a playwright Lady Gregory, the Irish Literary Theatre. Its aim was to put on plays based on Irish subject matter and life. Many of the plays were staged, such as Yeats’s The Countess Kathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan (in which Maud Gonne played the leading role) were fiercely patriotic. A few years later, he established the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin (which survives to this day).
In 1911, Yeats met a tall, pretty young woman called GeorgieHyde-Lees. As a eighteen years old, she was a voracious reader, fluent in several languages, and interested in the occult. Soon, she joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. Although a romance did not begin at this time, they later courted and were married in 1917. In that year, Yeats bought and had restored an old Norman tower in Ballylee, County Galway, where he lived with Georgie during the summer. He wrote many poems there, including “To be carved on a stone at Thoor Ballylee”.
I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George;
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.
Shortly after Yeats was married, he believed he had established contact with various spiritual instructors and guides, working through his wife as a medium. Sometimes garbled messages, delivered through Georgie’s “automatic writing”, performed in a trance like state, formed the basis of his strange and mysterious book, A Vision.
The couple had two children, Anne Butler Yeats, born in 1919, who became an artist, and Michael Butler Yeats, born in 1921, who chose a career in politics and became like his father, a member of the Irish Senate.
There was a rebellion in Ireland in 1916, in which hundreds of people, including some of Yeats’s friends, were killed. Finally, the rebels surrendered and the British army stationed in Ireland and executed the leaders. Later, war broke out between the Irish rebels and British forces. This lasted for two years. A treaty was signed, but then civil war began between those who accepted the treaty and those who did not. “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, a sequence of seven poems, was written during this period.
Yeats served as a Senator in the first Irish Government, from 1922 to 1928, and worked hard to preserve Ireland’s rich cultural heritage with its architecture, ancient monuments, and manuscripts. He opposed censorship, fought for artistic freedom, and tried to improve the condition of Irish schools. While leading a committee to design new coins, he insisted that they reflect the agricultural economy of the nation. The coins showed a horse, a salmon, a pig, a bull, a chicken, a dog, and a rabbit. Until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Irish coins in circulation continued to display these animal designs. It was during this time, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (1923).
W.B. Yeats continued writing until he died in 1939 at the age of seventy-three. He was then living in the south of France, where he spent a good deal of time in his old age, partly for health reasons. Georgie lived on until 1968. Though buried in France, Yeats’s body was removed at the end of World War 2, transported to Ireland, and buried in 1948 in Drumcliffe churchyard, near Sligo. Under the mighty mountain, Ben Bulben (“Ben” is the Irish word for peak or mountain), the tombstone bears the poet’s epitaph, lines taken from his great poem, “Under Ben Bulben”:
“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!”
William Butler Yeats by Yeats, W.B. (William Butler), 1865-1939