WB Yeats: The influencers
WB Yeats had a close circle of friends, family and creative collaborators who had a profound impact on his life, writes Graham Clifford
Yeats could never have been accused of following the pack.
His independence, in both mind and in action, contributed to his genius and in a life less ordinary he pushed boundaries to their limits - whether that was in his personal relationships, fascination with the paranormal or changing attitudes to Irish politics and the thirst for national self-determination.
In Yeats's earlier years he befriended some of the greatest literary minds of the era in London, later love (both mutual and unrequited) enveloped his emotional senses while in the closing chapters of his life politicians and the 'ordinary man' who fought for Ireland's freedom left a lasting impression. Friends living in his beloved Sligo always provided him with support and a safe place.
Some would say Yeats was easily influenced but others conclude the poet and writer absorbed the uniqueness of those he met and each, in their own way, helped make the WB Yeats we so admire and cherish.
John Butler Yeats, 1839-1922
Spontaneous, philosophical and a gifted portrait artist there is so much of John Butler Yeats to be found in his gifted son. Born in Down and educated at Trinity College Dublin, John began his career as a lawyer. He would give lessons to William and his siblings on the Classics and intrigued the young poet with his views on atheism and aestheticism. John surprised his family and friends by changing careers mid-stream.
Susan Pollexfen (William's mother), whom John married in Sligo in 1863, was shocked by her husband's decision to call a halt to his legal career and instead study at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. He became an acclaimed artist of the era. Never financially secure though,he frequently moved from house to house and died in New York in 1922. John Butler Yeats is probably best known for his portrait of the young William.
Maud Gonne, 1866-1953
Some academics and Yeats scholars believe that Maud Gonne was a vital 'love object' for WB Yeats but that had she not existed he would have found another muse on which to obsess. The English-born revolutionary and actress first met Yeats in his home in Bedford Park, London when she was 23. She turned down repeated offers of marriage from Yeats telling him that to accept would be to deprive the world of his stunning poetry. She said: "marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you." It's claimed that no poet has celebrated a woman's beauty to the extent Yeats did in his lyric verse about Maud Gonne. From his second book to Last Poems, she became the Rose, Helen of Troy the Ledaean Body, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, Pallas Athene and Deirdre. She would marry Major John MacBride but the marriage did not last. In 1916 Yeats made his final marriage proposal to Maud Gonne but his biographer R.F. Foster believed it was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her.
Susan Mary 'Lily' Yeats, 1866-1949, and
Elizabeth Corbet 'Lolly' Yeats, 1868-1940
Known to their family and friends as Lily and Lolly, Yeats's sisters played a significant role in financing his work in the early part of his career. They also provided money for the family when their father John and brothers William and Jack struggled to get recognised in their respective fields. Lily took work as an embroiderer for the craftsman William Morris in London and Lolly trained as a nursery school teacher. It was their income that for years maintained the household of six adults. In 1902 the Yeats sisters joined their friend Evelyn Gleeson in establishing an all-woman craft and press business in Dundrum known as 'Dun Emer' and the first book published (in 1903) was 'In the Seven Woods'' - one of William's early books of poetry. In 1909, the sisters set up on their own as Cuala Press, Lolly again published her brother's writing - including Poetry and Ireland and Responsibilities - as well as work by Ezra Pound, J M Synge and later Patrick Kavanagh. Cuala ended up publishing over 70 titles in total, including 48 by WB Yeats. It's claimed William wasn't particularly close to his sisters, especially Lolly, despite the fact they played such an intrinsic role in his development as a published poet.
Lady Gregory, 1852-1932
A convert to Irish cultural nationalism Lady Gregory helped WB Yeats and Edward Martyn to found the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre. She married Sir William Gregory who owned Coole Park in Galway and, after he died, Lady Gregory devoted herself to making Coole a place where writers, such as Yeats, could gather. Her only child, Robert Gregory, died during the First World War, while serving as a pilot, an event which inspired Yeats's poems 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death' and 'In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.' Lady Gregory wrote Cathleen Ní Houlihan and The Pot of Broth with Yeats while her own works included numerous folk tales. Yeats wrote five poems about the Coole Park house and grounds which included 'The Wild Swans at Coole', 'I Walked Among The Seven Woods of Coole', 'In the Seven Woods', 'Coole Park, 1929' and 'Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931'. Lady Gregory died in 1932.
William Blake, 1757-1827
The renowned English poet and artist died almost three decades before Yeats was born but he is credited with being one of his most significant influences. Yeats paid tribute to Blake by describing him as one of the "great artificers of God who uttered great truths to a little clan". Few, if any, have developed such an understanding of Blake's work as Yeats. He was especially attracted to the philosophical and mystical undercurrents of Blake's work. Yeats first read Blake at the age of 15 when his father gave him a book of his poetry. He wrote in his essay 'William Blake and the Imagination' that: "when one reads Blake, it is as though the spray of an inexhaustible fountain of beauty was blown into our faces".
George Russell, 1867-1935
Said to have been Yeats's oldest friend, the Armagh-native first met William when they both studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. As well as being a successful writer, editor, critic and poet Russell was also a mysticism writer and devotee of theosophy which would have appealed to Yeats. He worked for many years for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) founded by Horace Plunkett. Russell was an active supporter of the Irish Literary Renaissance and editor, from 1910, of The Irish Statesman. He was noted for his exceptional kindness and generosity towards younger writers: Frank O'Connor termed him "the man who was the father to three generations of Irish writers", and Patrick Kavanagh called him "a great and holy man." Russell died of cancer in Bournemouth in 1935 and Yeats attended his funeral in Dublin.
Ezra Pound, 1885-1972
Pound fascinated Yeats and vice versa. The expatriate American poet, working as the foreign editor of several American literary magazines in London in the early 1900s, helped discover the likes of T.S Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. In 1918 he was responsible for the serialisation of Joyce's 'Ulysses'. Yeats first met Pound in 1909 and over the course of the next seven years they wintered in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest in East Sussex with Pound effectively working as Yeats' assistant. Here they would work for 10 weeks each year, reading and writing, walking in the woods and fencing. Pound later moved to Italy and in January 1933 he met with Benito Mussolini for whom he showed great support. As a result Yeats expressed admiration for the Fascist Italian leader on a number of occasions and he wrote three 'marching songs'-never used-for the Irish General Eoin O'Duffy's Blueshirts.
Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927
Childhood friends, the paths of the London-born daughter of the Artic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth and that of Yeats were to criss-cross frequently over the following decades. A young William would visit Constance and her younger sister Eva at the family home, Lissadell House, in Sligo. It's said the sisters were influenced by his artistic and political ideas while Yeats was taken by their sheer beauty. Yeats wrote the poem, 'In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz', in which he described the sisters as "two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle," - the gazelle being Constance. She became an integral part of the independence struggle and performed with Maud Gonne, Yeats' muse, in several plays at the Abbey Theatre - an institution that played such an important part in the rise of cultural nationalism. Constance was sentenced to death for her part in the 1916 Rising but this was commuted to life in prison because she was a woman.
John O'Leary, 1830-1907
It was when John O'Leary returned from penal servitude in England that his friendship with Yeats flourished. While a medical student at Trinity College the Tipperary man joined the revolutionary Fenian Brotherhood. In 1863, after a trial, he was convicted of treason and felony and banished from Ireland for 15 years. O'Leary maintained a lifelong conviction that an Irish nationalist political élite could emerge and his tenacious hold on this belief, which Yeats found inspiring, virtually defining 'Romantic Ireland' to the young poet. So when O'Leary died on St. Patrick's Day 1907 the impact on Yeats was substantial. In his epic poem 'September 1913' Yeats laments the death of O'Leary with the line: "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone; it's with O'Leary in the grave."
JM Synge, 1871-1909
John Millington Synge first met Yeats in 1896 and together, joined by Lady Gregory and George Russell, they formed the Irish National Theatre Society which later established the Abbey Theatre. Synge's masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, was first performed at the Abbey on January 26th, 1907. It was met with riots by Irish nationalists who viewed the play as an offence to public morals and an insult to Ireland. Furious with such a form of censorship Yeats returned from Scotland to address the crowd on the second night and called in the police. Yeats referred to this incident in a speech to the Abbey audience in 1926 on the fourth night of Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, when he declared: "You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius? Synge first and then O'Casey?"
Arthur Symons, 1865-1945
It was the vividness in description that particularly attracted Yeats to Arthur Symons' poetry. The Welsh-born poet was educated privately spending much of his younger years in France and Italy. His works were included in 'The Symbolist Movement in Literature' - which brought French Symbolism to the attention of Anglo-American literary circles and became a major influence on WB Yeats. Indeed it's believed Yeats use of symbolism in the 'Wanderings of Oisin' owes much to Symon's style of symbolic poetry. A member of the Rhymers Club (the London-based poet's group co-founded by Yeats) Symons also visited the Aran Islands and Coole Park with Yeats in 1896.