February 15, 2012

W. B. Yeats

W[illiam] B[utler] Yeats [Ireland]

Winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature, Irish poet and playwright W. B. Yeats was a significant figure that brought together the Victorian age with 20th century modernism. Born and educated in Dublin, Yeats spent his childhood in county Sligo, where he grew interested in poetry at an early age and learning of Irish legends and stories of the occult, concerns which show up in his early poetry. Along with his brothers and sisters, Yeats was encouraged in his artistic activities. His brother, Jack would later become a noted painter, and his sisters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, became involved in the English Arts and Crafts Movement.

    The Yeats family also encouraged the changes then taking place in Ireland politically. Although they belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy, a shift in power was taking place, particularly in 1880 with the rise of Parnell and call of home rule. These issues would also play a large role in Yeats poetry and in his activities in the Irish Literary Revival.

     In 1876 the family moved to London, where the children were primarily home-schooled. In 1877, however, the poet entered the Godolphin school, which he attended—with mostly low grades—for four years.

     For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin in 1880, where Yeats resumed his education at Dublin's Erasmus Smith High School. There he began writing his own poetry, heavily influenced by Shelley and other Romantics. His first poems were published in Dublin University Review.

     Between 1884 and 1886, Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art, but he quickly realized that he was more interested in poetry and drama.

      The family returned to London in 1887. In 1890, Yeats founded, with Ernest Rhys, the Rhymers' Club, which met regularly in a Fleet Street Tavern, where its members, later described as "The Tragic Generation," recited their poems. He published his first volume, Crossways, in 1889.

     Soon after, Yeats also was highly attracted to paranormal and mystical activities, writing as early as 1892 about Blake and mystical  life. In 1911, he would join "The Ghost Club," whose members explored paranormal activities. He also was involved with semi-spiritual organizations such as the Dublin Hermetic Order, which he helped found the Dublin Theosophical lodge, and the Golden Dawn.

     In 1889 Yeats met Maud Goone, an ardent Irish Nationalist. The poet became obsessed with the beauty of this 23-year old, and passionately courted her; he was rejected because of his reluctance to participate in her nationalist activities. In 1891, he visited Goone in Ireland, proposing marriage, which she rejected. Over the years he proposed three times, but each time was refused. In 1903 she married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. Yet Maud continued to visit Yeats in London, and when she ultimately divorced MacBride, she and the poet continued to be friends, and, finally, in Paris the couple "consummated" their relationship.

     Yeats was introduced in 1896 to Lady Gregory, who also encouraged Yeats' nationalism and convinced him to focus on dramatic writing, influenced more by the Irish scene than by French Symbolism. Together with friends Edward Martyn, J. M. Synge, Seán O'Casey, and Padaic Colum, they established the Irish Literary Revival.

     In 1899,Yeats, Gregory, Martyn and George Moore founded the Irish Literary Theatre for the purpose of performing Irish and Celtic plays. Yeats wrote the group's manifesto, which declared, in part: "We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory...& that freedom to experiment which is not found in the theatres of English, & without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed." The group survived for just two years, but with the help of wealthy ladies Annie Horniman and Florence Farr, along with Synge who together acquired the Irish Literary Theatre's property in Dublin, the Abbey Theatre was established, one of the most important of Ireland's literary institutions.

     In 1909 in London Yeats me Ezra Pound, and from that year until 1916 Pound served as Yeats' secretary, the two wintering in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest. Their relationship began rather poorly when Pound sent poems by Yeats to Poetry magazine, containing Pound's unauthorized alterations, most ridding Yeats of Victorian prosody. But Pound also introduced Yeats to Noh theater while working on manuscripts by Ernest Fenollosa's widow. Yeats when on to write several versions of Noh plays, the first of which was At the Hawk's Well in 1916.

     That same year, Yeats begin to reassess some of his attitudes toward Irish Nationalism, concerns expressed the his poem, "Easter, 1916." At 51 years of age Yeats became determined to marry, and again proposed to Maud Goone, who again refused. Yeats rebounded with a marriage proposal to the 15-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, who agreed.

    The marriage was quite successful, despite the age difference, the two exploring automatic writing and the contact of spiritual guides which they called "instructors."

    In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, now presenting himself at the Royal Academy lecture as a standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and cultural independence.

     Because of the award, his sales increased, helping him to repay not only his own debts, but those of his father.

     The year before the Nobel, Yeats and been appointed to the first Irish Senate, and was re-appointed in 1925. Yeats made several notable speeches, arguing for divorce and attempting to bridge the Roman Catholic and Protestant divides. He chaired the coinage committed and changed the designs for the new Irish Free State. In health, he retired from office in 1928.

    He died in Menton, France on January 28, 1939.


Crossways (1889); The Rose (1893); The Wind Among the Reeds (London: E. Mathews, 1899); Poems (London: T. Fisher Unwin 1899); In the Seven Woods (1904); The Green Helmet and Other Poems (Stratford-upon-Avon, England: Sheakespeare Head Press, 1910); Poems (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912); Poems (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913); Responsibilities (London: Macmillan, 1914); The Wild Swans at Coole (1919); Michael Robartes and the Dancer (London and New York: Macmillan, 1921); The Tower (1928); The Winding Stairs and Other Poems (1933); Parnell's Funeral and Other Poems (1935); New Poems (1938); Last Poems (1938-1939); Narrative and Dramatic (1889-1923); The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1934)

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor

(from Responsibilities, 1914)

The Second Coming

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,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(from Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921)

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

1 comment:

hamsham said...

Here is another taste of Sligo spawned poetry http://m.soundcloud.com/hamsham/something-in-the-air