Monday 11 December 2017

WB Yeats: A man of many phases

Yeats packed an awful lot into his 73 years. A literary genius, Nobel Prize-winning poet, lover, senator and philosopher, he yearned to understand and to experience raw human emotion on a grand scale. His was a life with few parallels. 'WB@150' offers a digested version of his story through the decades

WB Yeats, aged 58.
WB Yeats, aged 58.
WB Yeats aged 43.
WB Yeats, aged 23.
WB Yeats, aged 30.

The Early Years: 1865-1885 - Born in Sandymount in Dublin on June 13th, 1865 to Susan Mary Pollexfen, who came from a wealthy merchant family in Sligo town, and John Butler Yeats, who is best remembered for his artwork.

The Yeats family were originally part of a weakening Protestant Ascendency in the country. Soon after his birth Yeats and his parents moved to his mother's family home in Merville, Sligo before leaving for England in 1867.

His sister Susan Mary (known as Lily) was born in 1866 while Elizabeth (Lolly) arrived in 1868.

In 1871 his brother Jack, who would become one of Ireland's greatest painters, was born.

The children were initially educated at home before William entered the Godolphin School in West London in 1877. He found it difficult to conform and his four-year period here was unremarkable.

The family returned to Dublin toward the end of 1880, living in Harold's Cross and later Howth.

In 1881, Yeats resumed his education at Dublin's Erasmus Smith High School.

Inspired by artists and writer friends of his father, Yeats began to write his own poetry and in 1885, the Dublin University Review published Yeats's first poems, as well as an essay entitled 'The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson'. A wordsmith star had been born.

The Boy becomes a man: 1885-1895

A critical decade that would shape Yeats's life. Between 1884 and 1886, William attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Thomas Street where he befriended the likes of George Russell - the talented writer, poet and critic.

Yeats's first known works were written when he was 17, and included a poem, heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley, about a magician who established a throne in central Asia.

As he moved into his 20s, he became open to other influences. He was particularly intrigued by Irish mythology and folklore and the writings of William Blake.

In 1887 the family returned to London and in 1890 Yeats co-founded the Rhymers Club - where a group of poets would meet regularly in the 'Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese' Fleet Street tavern to recite verse.

Amongst the members were Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. His first solo publication was the pamphlet 'Mosada': A Dramatic Poem (1886), which had a print run of 100 copies paid for by his father.

Three years later The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems was published.

In March 1890 Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn - an organisation devoted to the study of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities.

He first met Maud Gonne in 1889 and instantly fell for the 23-year-old English heiress.

In 1891, he visited Gonne in Ireland and proposed marriage, but she rejected him.

Unrequited love and literary conquests: 1895-1905

Yeats proposed to Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901.

She refused each proposal, and in 1903, she married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride.

This 'unrequited' love inspired many of Yeats's greatest works. In 1899, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and George Moore established the Irish Literary Theatre.

In 1904 he helped establish the Irish National Theatre Society which led to the formation of the Abbey Theatre.

Yeats's play Cathleen Ní Houlihan was featured on the opening night.

Yeats remained involved with the Abbey until his death, both as a member of the board and a prolific playwright.

Changing political ideology: 1905-1915

In 1909, Yeats met the American poet Ezra Pound and the two men worked closely together for the next seven years. They wintered in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest, with Pound acting as Yeats's secretary. Meanwhile the emergence of a nationalist revolutionary movement amongst the mostly Roman Catholic lower-middle and working class forced Yeats to doubt his earlier assertion, seen in the poem 'September 1913', that "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, It's with O'Leary in the grave." His views changed as he began to recognise that the desire for self-determination was very much still alive amongst the Irish masses.

Acceptance, fatherhood and worldwide acclaim: 1915-1925

As war raged across Dublin on Easter week 1916, Yeats distanced himself from the conflict though he was a former member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Much of his poetry inspired by the events of 1916 were held back from publication until 1920.

Indeed many claim he sheltered his revolutionary opinions until 1922, when he was appointed Senator for the Irish Free State.

His final proposal to Maud Gonne took place in mid-1916 but Yeats, now 51, was not devastated by her rejection.

Indeed in 1917 he asked Gonne's daughter Iseult (then 21) for her hand in marriage, but she too said no.

Three weeks later Yeats married the English socialite George Hyde-Lees (25).

Two years on, their first child Anne was born and, in 1921, George, also known as Georgie, gave birth to a son named Michael.

In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The prize led to a major increase in the sales of his works and for first time in his life he had money and was able to repay his own debts as well as his father's.

The final chapter: 1925-1939

Reappointed for a second term to the Seanad in 1925 Yeats completed A Vision - the study of various philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics in the same year.

He retired from the Seanad in 1928 because of ill health.

Until his death both his work and romantic life flourished.

Yeats is said to have had romantic relations with, a number of other women.

He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, on January 28th, 1939 and was buried locally.

His homecoming would come almost 10 years later.

In September 1948, Yeats's body was moved to Drumcliff, Co Sligo, on the Irish Naval Service corvette LÉ Macha. Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne MacBride, and then Minister of External Affairs officiated at the removal.

Yeats's epitaph is taken from the last lines of 'Under Ben Bulben', one of his final poems: "Cast a cold Eye on Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by."

Irish Independent

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