William Butler Yeats – About
William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin and raised in Sligo. His family was Protestant. His father struggled to make a living as a painter, and his mother was interested in fairies and astrology. His parents must have encouraged his artistic bent and he became one of Ireland’s finest poets. In this essay, I’ll describe the biography of Yeats through the lens of some of his greatest work.
Yeats began writing as a teenager and the muse for his earliest work was rural Ireland and Celtic mythology. In 1892 he sought to become part of an Irish literary revival and compiled a book, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, by interviewing storytellers in rural communities: “At sea, when the nets are out and the pipes are lit, then will some ancient hoarder of tales become loquacious, telling his histories to the tune of the creaking of the boats” (Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, v). In this book, Yeats includes a story called Jamie Freel and the Young Lad, told to him by Miss Letitia Maclintock. The story concerns a girl kidnapped by fairies and rescued by Jamie Freel. Right after this selection in his book, Yeats includes his own poem, The Stolen Child, also about fairy kidnappings, with a refrain of; “Come away! O, human child! /To the woods and water wild,/With a fairy hand in hand,/For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” (Yeats, The Stolen Child, lines 9-13). In the introduction to his book, Yeats reveals his understanding and love of the Celt: “We have here the innermost heart of the Celt in the moments he has grown to love through years of persecution, when, cushioning himself about with dreams, and hearing fairy-songs in the twilight, he ponders on the soul and on the dead. Here is the Celt.” (Yeats, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, viii-ix).
The muse for Yeat’s middle years was the beautiful Irish activist Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889 and who inspired many poems, including The Sorrow of Love, written in 1891. Yeats idealized Gonne, pursuing her for several years and she rejected several offers of marriage from him. M.L. Rosenthal wrote a book called Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats, and in its introduction he described Maud’s influence on Yeats: “Maud became a symbol for him of Ireland, she also came to symbolize conscience, classical and renaissance beauty, and heroic energies without an adequate objective in the modern world” (Rosenthal, xxxiv). The Greek allusions in the middle stanza of the poem do suggest that Yeats sees the girl as both a Classical beauty and a tragic figure: “A girl arose that had red mournful lips/And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,/Doomed like Odysseus and the laboring ships/And proud as Priam murdered with his peers” (Yeats, The Sorrow of Love, lines 5-8) In 1893 Yeats published a book of poems called The Rose which included one of his enduring works, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Much like Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond, the speaker in this poem wishes to build a cabin and live in self-sufficient solitude by a lake. He says that he will have peace there, for peace drops from “the veils of morning to where the cricket sings” (Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, line 6 ). Yeats begins the poem in future tense: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”(Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, line 1) but he ends the poem in present tense: “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey/ I hear it in the deep heart’s core” (Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, lines 10-12 ). By calling the reader back to the present, he is strengthening the experience, asking the reader to “hear” the tidal rhythms of the poem, and emphasizing the importance of natural experience that can be held in memory for comfort.
In his middle age, Yeats became politically active, fighting for Irish independence from Britain. During this time he wrote Easter 1916 (in 1916) about the Irish uprising. He also wrote Leda and the Swan, and The Wild Swans at Coole during this time period.
In 1917, when he was 52 years old, he married Georgiana Hyde-Lees, a medium, and the couple produced two children. Georgiana influenced Yeats to further develop his mysticism and theories of the occult. Shortly after the first World War, Yeats wrote The Second Coming, a poem that reveals the cosmological theories Yeats had been working on. Yeats envisioned time in 2,000 year cycles embodied in spiraling cones called gyres. As the gyre spun completely around, disintegration and chaos resulted for the current age, then a new cycle was born with a new dominant culture. The Second Coming describes the end of the gyre, before Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and the advent of the Christian age. The imagery of the spinning gyre is present in the opening lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….( Yeats, The Second Coming lines 1-4) In 1922, Yeats became a senator for the Free Ireland. In 1923, Yeats received the Nobel Prize. He wrote the famous Sailing to Byzantium in 1928 as old age was approaching. With the help of patroness Lady Gregory, he had long ago established a National Irish Theatre and he wrote several plays throughout his lifetime, including Nine One Act Plays in 1937. One of the last poems Yeats wrote is Under Ben Bulben. The last several lines foretell his own death and burial:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid. An ancestor was rector there Long years ago, a church stands near, By the road an ancient cross. No marble, no conventional phrase; On limestone quarried near the spot By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by! (Yeats, Under Ben Bulben, lines 85-95)