Friday, November 5, 2010

Poet History # 9 - W.B. Yeats

Perfecting the work – W. B. Yeats

“The intellect of the man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work.”

William Butler Yeats (13 June, 1865 – 28 January 1939)

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.
          from ‘In Memory of William Butler Yeats’ by W. H. Auden

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.

             from ‘All Soul’s Night’

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 she 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?”

Key collection:

The Tower (1928)

Key Poems:

All Soul’s Night
The Sorrow of Love
The Wild Swans at Coole
Sailing to Byzantium

Further reading:

- 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.


  1. My favorite poet, always and forever, William Butler Yeats, whom I first heard about from a Smiths song and whose poetry I have persued and perused happily for the last seventeen years.
    This was an excellent recap with great information.

  2. Jacob, you have once again written an erudite, interesting and informative history. I'll bet you got all A's at university!!!!!! I didnt know any of this information and it definitely makes me interested in this poet. I wish he had written a memoir, as his relationships sound worthy of a movie, at the very least!Well done! Loved every word!

  3. I agree with Cami, this was a wonderfully informative and entertaining read. (what Smith's song, I wonder?)

    I first discovered Yeats in an equally roundabout way. I was watching an episode of the old hospital drama "St. Elsewhere" in which a mental patient, Ralph, quotes from Yeats' "The Second Coming":

    "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"

    It made me curious, and since Ralph kindly identified the poet, I investigated. I've been a fan of yeats ever since, and "The Second Coming" remains my favorite poem of his.

    Randomly, the band The Cranberries did a song that mentions John Butler Yeats, the father.

  4. An inspiration and giant of English literature. When will his like be seen again?

  5. Jacob,
    I have really enjoyed your account of the interesting life of W.B. Yeats.
    In September this year my husband and I spent a week in Ireland. We spent two days visiting the Sligo area, including the churchyard in Drumcliffe, County Sligo where W.B.Yeats is buried. We also got to see the small Lake Isle of Innisfree, as in the words of his poem. A very worthy poet to feature.
    Well done, Eileen

  6. I'm glad that you all enjoyed it.

    I think the Smiths song is 'Cemetery Gates'?

    @Sherry - there is a collection of autobiographical essays, quite good.

  7. Cemetary Gates.
    "Keats and Yeats are on your side..."

  8. Love this info here on Yeats...make me want to investiage him even more...his mystical adventures with this society and seening how he blended it into his poetry...Great poet that I am looking forward to learning more about....bkm


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