Born in Dublin in the year 1865, William Butler Yeats would go on to become universally recognized by his peers as the greatest poet of this century writing in the English language. This recognition would come as early as 1828, a decade before his death with the publication of arguably his finest volume, The Tower (Fraser, 207). The son of one time attorney and later well known painter John Butler Yeats, W. B. Yeats was of partially Cornish and Gaelic decent, born near Dublin and raised between both England and Ireland.
Though born in Dublin and raised between England and Ireland, Yeats would develop, through his mother, a love for the west country of Ireland that would last all his life. Parts of his childhood and later vacations would be spent in County Sligo, the childhood home of both his parents. Yeats would later depict his beloved County Sligo in such works as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. These works would serve as a symbol of his imaginative escape from the disappointments and unpleasant realities of life (Magill, 1957). Yeats’s childhood would be broad in education and personal experiences.
Yeats would become a youth full of internal contradictions, often spawned by his desire to question all that he was taught. Spiritually, educationally, and personally, Yeats seemed to himself pulled in different directions, unable to decide on a clear path. These internal contradictions would come to shape the writer and man that he would one day become. Much of childhood for Yeats was spent in London, where he attended the Godolphin School. At the age of fifteen, Yeats returned to Dublin and attended the Erasmus Smith School. In the tradition of his family, Yeats studied art from 1883 to 1886.
Yeats also found intellectual stimulation in his fathers reading, often aloud. Through this and his own personal initiative, … Yeats discovered Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and the Pre-Raphaelites, explored popular works on Eastern mysticism, became interested in Irish myths and folklore, and perhaps most important, met the poets and intellectuals of the Irish Literary Revival, many of whom were to remain lifelong friends (Magill, 1957). Yeats soon discovered that his first love was poetry not painting. Soon began Yeats’s love affair with Ireland and Irish literature that would last the rest of his life.
Yeats’s spiritual outlook would play a significant role in his life and his works. Born into a Protestant family, with a paternal grandfather and great-grandfather having been Anglican clergymen, religion was a constant presence in Yeats’s childhood. Yeats began to abandon the religion of his Rationalist upbringing and made a new religion out of poetic tradition (Kunitz, 1560). Yeats’s interest in the occult and mysticism comes about early in life, an influence which would come to partially define Yeats to his world of readers, whether accurately or inaccurately.
Yeats sought in his writing to create a fresh tradition and a unique style. He attempted to create a literature that was Irish in subject matter and tone. Yeats strove to reawaken in his people a sense of the glory and significance of Ireland s historical and legendary past (Magill, 1958). Yeats found his vehicle to accomplish just that in Irish mythology and folklore. Offering an answer to Yeats’s search for a personal and individual mythology, Yeats found a treasury of symbols hitherto unused in English poetry (Magill, 1958).
Turning mythical figures into private symbols was the vehicle by which Yeats sought to translate his life to mystical events represented by the symbolism of Irish mythology. G. S. Fraser had this to say of Yeats and the type of man that his writing represented. The very fact that the young man could so easily concoct a new Religion for himself-out of Irish folklore… and anything that came handy-is evidence of a rather unreligious nature; evidence of a blithe and irresponsible temperament, that of a young man sure of his genius, and unconvicted of sin (Fraser, 211)..
Yeats adult life is often divided into three periods. The first was passed in London where he belonged to a group of fin de sieclepoets. Ernest Rhys and Yeats founded the Rhymers Club, of which Yeats was not the young star, but rather overshadowed by his contemporaries, Dowson and Lionel Johnson. During this time, Yeats wrote the Celtic twilight, highly indicative of his mystical tendencies and affiliations. A period of symbolism, ornamentation, easy music, and too great facility, he dabbled in the occult and sought the answers to life he could not seem to unravel in his own mind by means of traditional explanations.
Returning to Ireland in 1896, Yeats found himself caught up in the Irish Revolution. In the center of the conflict was the love of his life, Maud Gonne. It is at this point in his life that his plays and poems, though beautiful, began to repeat themselves (Kunitz, 1560). Yeats young life would soon be drastically changed, as he would meet Lady Gregory who, in essence, would save him from himself. Rehabilitating the confidence of the young writer and providing Yeats something to work for, Lady Gregory resurrected Yeats.
Together, along with J. M. Synge, they founded the Irish Literary Theater, which would become the Abbey Theater and the Irish Academy. Yeats wrote several plays for the Abbey, though the most successful and well remembered were his patriotic propaganda piece, Cathleen ni Houlihan and the tragedy Deirdre. Here we see one of Yeats’s greatest contributions to his Ireland in the founding of the Irish National Theater. Writing and producing plays for the Abbey, the middle period of Yeats’s life would come to a close. Yeats’s work and focus would now take on a more practical value.
The mysticism that had been found previously in his work would dwindle. His poetry became more based in reality, less ambiguous and more direct. This period would be the least mystical of his career. A brief digression must be made in order to examine the influence of Maud Gonne on the life and work of W. B. Yeats. Yeats met the fiery revolutionary in 1889. He fell deeply in love with her and would propose to her in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1916. Gonne had no use for Yeats’s proposals. However, she did have a use for his talents. Gonne would use Yeats for his ability as an orator.
Maud Gonne, dragging him at her heels on nationalist agitations, soon found that he was a natural orator and could easily dominate committees (Fraser, 210). Maud Gonne would continue to turn Yeats proposals down, yet she continued to be the catalyst for the finest love poetry Yeats would ever create. Gonne would once ask for Yeats’s help in London, ending a brief but happy love affair with Olivia Shakespear. Sensing divided loyalty, Shakespear would end the affair and it was shortly thereafter that Lady Gregory would save Yeats from a potentially more tragic end, like the poets of the tragic generation (Fraser 210).
Yeats labeled himself a socialist, one who despised the middle classes, and his ideal Ireland was divided between a hard-riding Protestant of fine artistic tastes and a devout Catholic peasantry, full of instinctive wisdom and preserving a living folklore (Rogers, 384). In spite of Yeats’s theoretic dissociation from contemporary Irish life and politics, he could not escape his environment, the less so because he was in love, and was to be for two decades (Magill, 1958).
The love of Yeats life, Gonne would keep this mystic, otherworldly figure grounded in the real world, a world that love and heartbreak would not allow him to escape. This anchor to the world of reality would continue to drive Yeats to strive for the creation of the Ireland of his dreams. Still, later in life, Yeats would realize that the clerical and bourgeois Free State set up in 1922 bore little relation to his dreams. After being turned down by Gonne yet again in 1916, Yeats would propose to her daughter, Iseult, in 1917 and once again be rejected.
Later in 1917, Yeats suddenly married Georgie Lees. In 1918 he began restoration of his tower at Coole and settled on the coast. Yeats soon fathered a daughter in 1919 and a son in 1921. The third period of his life had begun. The third stage of Yeats life was a diverse one, in which some of his best works would be created and he would come to push the world of Irish literature to a new realm. Becoming a member of the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928, Yeats emerged heavily on the social scene.
Meanwhile (it was years later before he acknowledged it), he had discovered that Mrs. Yeats was a medium, who did automatic writing (Kunitz, 1561). The mystic side of Yeats was reborn, incurring with it heavy criticism from his peers for his outlandish and deeply held beliefs. Unashamed and unafraid of the consequences, Yeats would face harsh ridicule by revealing such statements as his belief in fairies. In 1923, Yeats would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soon Yeats himself realized what the world would soon admit, when he was young, he said, his Muse was old; now he was old but his Muse was young (Kunitz, 1561). Nobody argued with Yeats statement.
One critic had this to say. He is perhaps the only poet in history whose last work was his best. The taut bareness of the phrases, the stark beauty, the sharpness, the simplicity, the objectivity, he had never achieved in youth came to him in old age (Kunitz, 1561). Yeats would continue to advance his art and poetry throughout the course of his life. Yeats was more of a revolutionary and more of a contributor to English Literature than any of his peers, and arguably one of the largest contributors in history.
W. B. Yeats was a complex man with a steady vehicle for his ideas. Yeats was a many of diverse interests and causes. Though involved in various movements, differing schools of thought, a constant search for the truth and a fight for the individuality and self-worth of Ireland, Yeats never abandoned his primary vehicle, poetry. Though he went on to write much more than simply poetry, he always came back to his first love. Yeats was a poet at his deepest, most personal level. Yeats had the unique ability to take fantasy, mysticism ,and the unknown and use it as an analogy to examine and explain the human condition.
In Yeats’s poetry is seen a message as broad and diverse as the man himself. Always questioning, constantly striving to explain and make analogous to the folklore of his native land, Yeats poetry serves as a record of Yeats’s personal struggle. One analysis of the poetry of Yeats capsulizes its meaning thusly, “What the poems record is the continuous conflict between the claims of a prophetic wisdom, a sense of insulation against the terrors of history, and, on the other hand, the claims, rewards, and pains of the moment” (Scott-Kilvert, 208).
Still full of internal contradictions and constantly questioning conventional knowledge, Yeats would reach the twilight of his days. More fresh now and full of ideas, Yeats would continue to lead the way for his younger counterparts. Yeats would die at seventy-three, disillusioned with his Ireland and his life, but that he loved them both still is unquestionable. Struggling to come to terms with reality and truth, Yeats would die with his best work to come, and his mind still able to produce it.
He died perhaps the greatest poet yet created by Ireland, and the greatest of his time in England. Had he died at a younger age that might not have been the case. The undisputed leader of Irish intellectual life, Yeats saw himself, as Horace Gregory put it, to be a citizen of two worlds, the visible and the unseen, walking as envoy from each into the other (Kunitz, 1561). Desmond Fitzgerald said of Yeats work that, He opened to us the soul of our own country like a book.