Famous Irishmen – William Butler Yeats

One of the Emerald Isle’s most glorious poets, the late William Butler Yeats (b. 1865) began his life in Sandymount, Ireland.

This County Dublin native grew up in a time dominated by religious and political change, and his character was shaped by the events that swirled around him as a child.

Yeats parents were prominent descendants of the Protestant Ascendancy movement, whose message and legacy was gradually being diluted by new leadership and a changing Ireland.

The renewed popularity of the Catholic faith, as well as rising nationalism in the Emerald Isle, all triggered the waning power of this formerly-powerful group of Protestants – these cultural shifts influenced Yeats (and his work) as he reached maturity.

Fascinated by the old Irish myths, as well as occult beliefs, Yeats‘ early poems often referenced these supernatural topics. As a much older man, he let go of his magical thinking and embraced earthier, more realistic imagery.

However, he never lost of sense of wistful romance, which permeated his best work and gave it enormous charm…

The personal life of William Butler Yeats, who was obsessed with a beautiful and politically active woman named Maud Gonne, also figured prominently in his verse…

Raised in both London, England and Sligo, Ireland, the beauty of the Irish countryside inspired Yeats most – his lyrical poems celebrated the beauty of pastoral settings. Filled with a prism of emotions, Yeats’ work features a dazzling mixture of sunlight and shadow.

Yeats’ facility with language and meter called to mind the work of another lauded master, Edmund Spenser (who wrote the Faerie Queen in honour of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen).

Here is a verse from his poem, The Song of Wandering Aengus:

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.

The Poet’s Muse…

Some of Yeat’s most memorable poems capture a courtly, romantic spirit; others feature the searing torment provoked by unrequited love.

Obsessed with Maud Gonne (shown at left), an Irish nationalist and revolutionary who turned down multiple proposals of marriage from Yeats, much of his work resonates with romantic longing and frustration.

Gonne is one of the most infamous muses of all time – it is believed that Yeats perceived this woman, who married another man and bore two children with him, as “above reproach”, and thus forgave her anything…

Why should I blame her that she filled my days/ With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways/ Or hurled the little streets upon the great.

No Second Troy, W.B. Yeats

Yeats romanticized the beauty of Gonne in several well-known poems, including Leda and the Swan, Among School Children, and Diedre. Comparing his love to Helen of Troy (No Second Troy) and Leda (who laid with a swan) allowed him to add mythical elements to his work, which has a timeless and wistful air…

Gonne worked to secure the legacy of Irish culture; for this reason, she remained a powerful source of respect, admiration and inspiration throughout Yeats’ life…

The Later Years…

At age 51, Yeats decided it was time to father a child, and, after a last proposal to the widowed Maud, he was refused yet again. He moved on to his muse’s daughter, Iseult, who also turned him down.

In time, he settled on Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was only 25 years old; the pair married and raised two children together. Yeats was not a faithful husband, but Georgie, who clearly recognized the brilliance of her spouse, seemed philosophical about his infidelities.

At this stage, Yeats was still interested in automatic writing and other “spiritual” activities, and Georgie shared his passion for the occult…

Yeats received a Nobel Prize for his work in 1923, and he was proud to represent a now-independent Ireland. He continued his extramarital affairs, citing a “second puberty” triggered by a late-life vasectomy, and his verse seemed to grow in boldness and strength during this phase. It is quite likely that these passionate forays fueled his desire to write.

William Butler Yeats passed away in winter of 1939.

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