THE ABOVE quote from Auden’s elegiac poem no doubt refers to the fact that William Butler Yeat’s was influenced throughout his entire life by occult, mystical and astrological interests. In 1911 Yeats became a member of “The Ghost Club” – a paranormal investigation society – and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890 (where he made an enemy of that infamous scamp, Aleister Crowley). He would remain in a splinter branch of the Order until 1921. Yeats was also, like many 19th century figures, influenced by the famous extoller of flimflam and humbug Emmanuel Swedenborg. Fortunately for us, however, he was also influenced by the unrivalled visionary William Blake (who renounced Swedenborg) and so, as Auden states, despite this belief in tarot, ghosts, magic/magick, angels, etc., the work survives all of this. (Both Yeats’ secretary, Ezra Pound, and his patient wife, Georgie, both deemed his occult proclivities hokum but those who wish to further explore Yeats’ ideas should consult A Vision (1925).)
Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865 into a prosperous and artistic family: his father, John Butler Yeats, was a law-student-turned-artist and his brother, Jack, would became an accomplished painter. Indeed, Yeats himself studied at the School of Art, Dublin, but quickly lost interests in any artistic ambitions involving a brush. His first significant poetry publication was the collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) which is bogged down in peaty Irish mythology; this, and much other early work, is capable of overwhelming the Yeats neophyte. Thus, those discovering him for the first time should go straight to the best in The Collected Poems: everything post-1918 is a treat of Brobdingnagian scale and The Tower (1928) is the cream; which includes hit after hit of genius, such as:
On the soul’s journey. How it is whirled about, Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach, Until it plunge into the sun; And there, free and yet fast, Being both Chance and Choice, Forget its broken toys And sink into its own delight at last.
As a symbolist Yeats’ poems are wrapped up in layer after illusory layer and are open to as much debate and interpretation as one has breath and patience for – language, especially such as is mystical in nature, is often chosen to suggest both abstract and concrete themes. Yeats is also one of the greatest masters of the traditional forms and eschewed modernism; though, he did experiment later in life.
Maud Gonne and George (Georgie) Hyde-Lees were the two great loves of Yeats’ life. He first met Gonne in 1889 and pursued her until his last proposal to her in 1916; however, they had consummated their relationship in 1908 though, sadly, Gonne encouraged a relationship of abstinence thereafter but, if nothing else, their one-night tryst yielded the poem ‘A Man Young and Old’:
Though nurtured like the sailing moon In beauty's murderous brood, She walked awhile and blushed awhile And on my pathway stood
Yeats, at the age of 51, married the twenty-four year old Georgie in 1916 and gave him the children, Anne and Michael, he had long desired. The marriage was, by all accounts, a happy one and Georgie an indulgent wife: even to the extent of admitting a small army of mistresses to weep at his deathbed. Yeats died in Menton, France, on 28 January 1939. Initially his body was buried at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin but was later, as per his wishes, moved to Sligo, Ireland. His epitaph, taken from a late poem, ‘Under Ben Bulben’, reads:
Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by.
Notes and asides:
- As playwright, Yeats was instrumental in creating an Irish national theatre and his nationalist play ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’ is credited as having incited the 1916 Easter Rising
- Yeats served as a senator of the Irish Free State from 1922-1928
- Upon hearing that he had won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature Yeats’ first reaction was to ask “How much is it worth?”
- Foster, R. F. (1997). W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. I: The Apprentice Mage. New York: Oxford UP
- Foster, R. F. (2003). W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915–1939. New York: Oxford UP
(Until Foster’s two volume biography of Yeats is surpassed it remains the go-to source, but it is not insurmountable.)
This piece on W.B. Yeats was written by Jacob Knowles-Smith, an enthusiastic and always helpful supporter of Poets United.
If you would like to learn more about Jacob you can do so by checking out his “The Life of a Poet” interview (found here on Poets United) or by visiting his poetry blog First Boredom, Then Beer. Jacob will be regular writer in the Poet History series so expect more of his insightful and informative writing to come.