Sue Young Histories

William Butler Yeats 1865 - 1939

September 08, 2008

William Butler Yeats 1865 - 1939 was an Irish poet and dramatist, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. Yeats was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. A pillar of both the Irish and English literary establishments, in his later years Yeats served as an Irish Senator for two terms.

William Butler Yeats was an advocate of homeopathy, and of spiritualism and Emanuel Swedenborg. Yeats was impressed by Henry David Thoreau and wished to live on Innisfree in a similar idyllic way.

Yeats’ friend Francis Thompson was the son of homeopath Charles Thompson, and his friend Arthur William Symons was an advocate of homeopathy. Another friend Oscar Wilde wrote about homeopathy. Another friend, Lady Gregory was a neighbour of homeopath Frederick Hervey Foster Quin, as they both lived in Queen Anne’s Mansions. Yeats was also a friend of William Alexander Ayton Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, and Edmund John Millington Synge.

William Butler Yeats was a member of the Golden Dawn, and he was previously a member of the Dublin Hermetic Order and the Dublin Theosophical Order. He was introduced to Alfred Percy Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism by his aunt Isabella Pollexfen Varley, and Yeats also became a member of the Bedford Park set through his friend John Todhunter.

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a descendant of Jervis Yeats, a Williamite soldier and linen merchant who died in 1712. Jervis’ grandson Benjamin married Mary Butler, daughter of a landed family in County Kildare. At the time of his marriage, John Yeats was studying law, but abandoned his studies to study art at Heatherley’s Art School in London. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family in County Sligo who owned a prosperous milling and shipping business.

Soon after William’s birth the family relocated to Sligo to stay with her extended family, and the young poet came to think of the area as his childhood and spiritual home. Its landscape became, over time, both literally and symbolically, his “country of the heart”.

The Butler Yeats family were highly artistic; his brother Jack went on to be a highly regarded painter, while his sisters Elizabeth and Susan - known to family and friends as Lollie and Lily - became involved in the Arts and Crafts movement

Yeats’ childhood and young adulthood were shadowed by the power shift away from the minority Protestant Ascendency. The 1880s saw the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Home rule movement, the 1890s the momentum of nationalism, while the Fenians became prominent around the turn of the century. These developments were to have a profound effect on his poetry, and his subsequent explorations of Irish identity had a significant influence on the creation of his country’s biography…

In 1876, the family moved to England to aid their father, John, to further his career as an artist. At first the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother entertained them with stories and folktales from her county of birth. John provided an erratic education in geography and chemistry, and took William on natural history explorations of the nearby Slough countryside.

On 26 January 1877, the young poet entered the Godolphin primary school, which he attended for four years. He did not distinguish himself academically, and an early school report describes his performance as “only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling.” Though he had difficulty with mathematics and languages, he was fascinated by biology and zoology.

For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin toward the end of 1880, living at first in the city center and later in the suburb of Howth. In October 1881, Yeats resumed his education at Dublin’s Erasmus Smith High School. His father’s studio was located nearby and William spent a great deal of time there, and met many of the city’s artists and writers.

It was during this period that he started writing poetry, and in 1885 Yeats’ first poems, as well as an essay entitled The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson, were published in the Dublin University Review.

Between 1884 to 1886, William attended the Metropolitan School of Art—now the National College of Art and Design—in Kildare Street. His first known works were written when he was seventeen, and include a poem heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley which describes a magician who set up his throne in central Asia. Other pieces from this period are a draft of a play involving a Bishop, a monk, and a woman accused of paganism by local shepherds, as well as love-poems and narrative lyrics on medieval German knights…

Although Yeats’ early works drew heavily on Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and on the diction and colouring of pre-Raphaelite verse, he soon turned to Irish myth and folklore and the writings of William Blake. In later life, Yeats paid tribute to William Blake by describing him as one of the “great artificers of God who uttered great truths to a little clan”…

The family returned to London in 1887. In 1890, Yeats co-founded the Rhymers’ Club with Ernest Rhys, a group of London based poets who met regularly in a Fleet Street tavern to recite their verse. The collective later became known as the “Tragic Generation” and published two anthologies: first in 1892 and again in 1894.

Yeats collaborated with Edwin Ellis on the first complete edition of William Blake’s works, in the process rediscovering a forgotten poem “Vala, or, the Four Zoas.” In a late essay on Shelley, Yeats wrote, “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound… and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”

Yeats had a life long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology. He read extensively on the subjects throughout his life and was especially influenced by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.

As early as 1892, he wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my William Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

His mystical interests—also inspired by a study of Hinduism, under the Theosophist Mohini Chatterjee, and the occult—formed much of the basis of his late poetry…

During 1885, Yeats was involved in the formation of the Dublin Hermetic Order. The society held its first meeting on 16 June, with Yeats acting as its chairman. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was opened in conjunction with Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee, who traveled from the Theosophical Society in London to lecture.

Yeats attended his first séance the following year. He later became heavily involved with the Theosophical Society and with hermeticism, particularly with the eclectic Rosicrucianism of the Golden Dawn.

During séances held from 1912, a spirit calling itself ”Leo Africanus” apparently claimed to be Yeats’ Daemon or anti-self, inspiring some of the speculations in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. He was admitted into the Golden Dawn in March 1890 and took the magical motto Daemon est Deus inversus—translated as Devil is God inverted or A demon is a god reflected.

Yeats was an active recruiter for the sect’s Isis-Urania temple, and brought in his uncle George Pollexfen, Maud Gonne, and Florence Farr. Although he reserved a distaste for abstract and dogmatic religions founded around personality cults, he was attracted to the type of people he met at the Golden Dawn. He was involved in the Order’s power struggles, both with Florence Farr and Macgregor Mathers, but was most notably involved when Macgregor Mathers sent Aleister Crowley to repossess Golden Dawn paraphernalia during the “Battle of Blythe Road.”

After the Golden Dawn ceased and splintered into various offshoots, Yeats remained with the Stella Matutina until 1921… In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a twenty-three year old heiress and ardent Nationalist. Maud Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Maud Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance.

Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with her beauty and outspoken manner, and she was to have a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter. Looking back in later years, he admitted “it seems to me that she [Maud Gonne] brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.”

Yeats’ love remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her nationalist activism. His only other love affair during this period was with Olivia Shakespeare, whom he had first met in 1896, and parted with one year later.

In 1895, he visited Maud Gonne in Ireland and proposed marriage, but was rejected. He later admitted that from that point “the troubling of my life began.” Yeats proposed to Maud Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused each proposal, and in 1903, to his horror, married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride

In 1896, Yeats was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn. Lady Gregory encouraged Yeats’ nationalism, and convinced him to continue focusing on writing drama.

Although he was influenced by French Symbolism, Yeats concentrated on an identifiably Irish content and this inclination was reinforced by his involvement with a new generation of younger and emerging Irish authors. Together with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and other writers including Edmund John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Padraic Colum, Yeats was one of those responsible for the establishment of the ”Irish Literary Revival” movement.

Apart from these creative writers, much of the impetus for the Revival came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and the more recent folk song tradition in Irish.

One of the most significant of these was Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired…

In 1899, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and George Moore established the Irish Literary Theatre for the purpose of performing Celtic and Irish plays. The ideals of the Abbey Theatre were derived from the avant-garde French theatre, which sought to express the “ascendancy of the playwright rather than the actor-manager à l’anglais.”

The group’s manifesto, which Yeats himself wrote, declared “We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted & imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory… & that freedom to experiment which is not found in the theaters of England, & without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed.” … The collective survived for about two years and was not successful.

However, working together with two Irish brothers with theatrical experience, William and Frank Fay, Yeats’ unpaid-yet-independently wealthy secretary Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman, and the leading West End actress Florence Farr, the group established the Irish National Theatre Society. This group of founders was able, along with Edmund John Millington Synge, to acquire property in Dublin and open the Abbey Theatre on 27 December, 1904.

Yeats’ play Cathleen Ní Houlihan and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News were featured on the opening night. Yeats continued to be involved with the Abbey Theatre until his death, both as a member of the board and a prolific playwright.

In 1902, he helped set up the Dun Emer Press to publish work by writers associated with the Revival. This became the Cuala Press in 1904, and inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, sought to “find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things.” From then until its closure in 1946, the Cuala Press—which was run by the poet’s sisters—produced over 70 titles; 48 of them books by Yeats himself…

In 1913, Yeats met the young American poet Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound had traveled to London at least partly to meet the older man, whom he considered “the only poet worthy of serious study.” From that year until 1916, the two men wintered in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest, with Ezra Pound nominally acting as Yeats’ secretary.

The relationship got off to a rocky start when Ezra Pound arranged for the publication in the magazine Poetry of some of Yeats’ verse with Ezra Pound’s own unauthorised alterations. These changes reflected Ezra Pound’s distaste for Victorian prosody. A more indirect influence was the scholarship on Japanese Noh plays that Ezra Pound had obtained from Ernest Fenollosa’s widow, which provided Yeats with a model for the aristocratic drama he intended to write.

The first of his plays modeled on Noh was At the Hawk’s Well, the first draft of which he dictated to Ezra Pound in January 1916…

Yeats proposed to twenty four year old George (Georgie) Hyde Lees (1892-1968), whom he had met through occult circles. Despite warning from her friends—“George … you can’t. He must be dead”—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on October 20. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’ feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon.

Around this time George wrote to her husband “When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were”. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael.

During the first years of his marriage, he and George engaged in a form of automatic writing, which involved George contacting a variety of spirits and guides, which they termed “Instructors”. The spirits communicated a complex and esoteric system of characters and history which they developed during experiments with the circumstances of trance and the exposition of phases, cones, and gyres.

Yeats devoted much time to preparing this material for publication as A Vision (1925). In 1924, he wrote to his publisher Thomas Werner Laurie admitting: “I dare say I delude myself in thinking this book my book of books”…

After undergoing the Steinach operation in 1934, when aged 69, he found a new vigour evident from both his poetry and his intimate relations with younger women. During this time Yeats was involved in a number of romantic affairs with, among others, the poet and actress Margot Ruddock, and the novelist, journalist and sexual radicalist Ethel Mannin.

As in his earlier life, Yeats found erotic adventure conducive to his creative energy, and despite age and ill-health he remained a prolific writer.

In 1936, he undertook editorship of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935.

Having suffered from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, he died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France on 28 January, 1939…

Yeats’ later work found new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he began to work out for himself under the influence of spiritualism

Yeats’ mystical inclinations, informed by Hindu Theosophical beliefs and the occult, formed much of the basis of his late poetry…


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