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Tread Softly : The Tumultuous Life of W.B. Yeats

Nowadays, poetry is mainly read in school, studied in textbooks and analysed in exams. Not many read poetry for pure enjoyment anymore, and therefore a lot of the lustre of these poets has gone out. But not very long ago, poetry was once alive, vibrant and widely read. Poets were celebrities and people would clamour to get ahold of their latest works. One such poet now relegated to the “classics” is W. B. Yeats. His poems are still being quoted in wedding speeches and anniversary cards today. But who was Yeats? Where did he come from, and how did he come to write such moving words?

 

Read my short bio for the story behind this poet’s life.

The Cloths of Heaven by W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin in 1865. His father was a painter and his mother came from a wealthy land-owning merchant family. In 1867, they moved to England to help his father’s career.

 

For the first ten years of his life, he and his siblings were taught at home.  His mother regaled them with folk tales from Ireland and his father would take him natural history lessons out in the countryside. At age 11, he attended a local boy’s school. Upon returning to Ireland with his family several years later, he attended Dublin’s Erasmus High School. This is where he began to develop an interest in poetry and writing. The Dublin University Review was the first to publish his poems in 1885. His early poetry was heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with themes drawing upon Irish folklore and mythology.

Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent

In 1887, the family returned to London and Yeats joined the Rhymer’s Club, a club for young male poets whereby they would meet together in a local pub and share their work. Yeats also had a deep life-long interest in the paranormal and the occult. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as a well as a London-based “ghost club” (one of the first of it’s kind) which would investigate hauntings and UFO sitings. In 1892, he wrote: “The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write”. He also studied Hinduism under preeminent Theosophist Mohini Chatterjee. Throughout his life he was very active in different esoteric orders.

 

His first major work was a serialised poem called “The Island of Statues”, published in the Dublin University Review. After this, he self-published two collections of poetry. As with “The Island”, these were extremely long-form poems, a style which he never again attempted. 

 

The love of his life was Maud Gonne, a English heiress and fierce Irish Nationalist. He fell deeply in love with her but she rejected his marriage proposals - he proposed three times! He later said that this time in his life was where “the troubling of his life began”. She soon after married another man and converted to Catholicism, which appalled him. However, the marriage was soon a failure, and Gonne reignited her relationship with Yeats. Their love affair didn’t last and their friendship ended as well in 1908. He proposed to her for the last time at 51 years old, and she again refused. That same year he proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, 25 years his junior. Despite this huge age gap, their marriage was a successful one and they had two children together, Anne and Michael. Georgie shared many of his interests, and together they engaged in automatic writing, transcribing poetry and philosophy supposedly channeled through them by spirit guides.

 

Yeats was partially responsible for the Irish Revival Movement, lead by a group of poets who turned their attention to Irish themes and the translation of ancient poetry and songs from Gaelic to English.

Yeats in 1923, photographer unknown.

In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He used the opportunity to present himself and his work as the voice of Irish nationalism and independence. The award lead to increase interest in his work and his books began to sell in numbers, and Yeats began to earn a decent living for the first time in his life.

Through his old age, Yeats continued to work prolifically, writing poetry, compiling volumes of verse and translating the Upishanads from Sanskrit to English. His poetry shows over the years an abandoning of the conventions of traditional verse, becoming freer and more personal in subject matter, on the themes of his children and growing old. His abiding interest in mystical and paranormal themes did not help his reputation as an intellectual, as such interests are often looked down on. 

 

He died in 1939 at the age of seventy-three. As per his wishes, he requested a simple burial in France and to be later transported back to Ireland with no fuss. In 1948, his body was finally interred at St Columba’s Church in Drumcliff, County Sligo with minimal fanfare. 

Some of my favourite Yeats quotes…

“I bring you with reverent hands, The books of my numberless dreams.”

"I have spread my dreams under your feet; 

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

"And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow"

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