By Paul Feeney
An Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
William Butler Yeats is one of the many famous names to come from the original Golden Dawn. His poetry and writings were a display of his passion for mysticism and the Occult Sciences. These were largely expressed in various publications (e.g. Your Pathway), earning him the Nobel Prize in 1923 for literature. But more important was his desire and striving for knowledge of that which is beyond what we know and that of the unknown.
William Butler Yeats was third-generation Irish, born in Dublin on June 13, 1865. From day one he was up against a wall regarding his religious beliefs, for his grandfather was a deeply Orthodox Rector in the Church of England, while his father was a complete religious skeptic. With this conflict already in place, young William walked the very fine line of between faith and disbelief.
Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who eventually became a portrait painter. His mother, formerly Susan Pollexfen, was the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Silgo in the west of Ireland. Through both parents Yeats claimed Kinship with various Anglo-Irish Protestant families who are mentioned in his work. Normally, Yeats would have been expected to identify with his Protestant tradition-which represented a powerful minority among Ireland’s predominantly Roman Catholic population-but he did not. Indeed, he was separated from both historical traditions available to him in Ireland-from the Roman Catholics, because he felt repelled by their concern for material success. Yeat’s best hope, he felt, was to cultivate a tradition more profound than either the Catholic or the Protestant-the tradition of a hidden Ireland that existed largely in the anthropological evidence of it’s surviving customs, beliefs, and holy places, more pagan than Christian.
In 1883 Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he began meeting with other poets and artists. During his time here Yeats began to write: his first publication, two brief lyrics, appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885. When he moved to London in 1887, Yeats took up the life of a professional writer. He joined the Theosophical Society, whose mysticism appealed to him because it was a form of imaginative life far removed from the workaday world. The age of science was repellent to Yeats; he was a visionary, and he insisted upon surrounding himself with poetic images. He began a study of William Blake, and this enterprise brought him into contact with other visionary traditions, such as the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, the Swedenborgian, and the alchemical.
Yeats quickly became involved in the literary life in London. He became friends with William Morris and W.E. Henley, and he was a cofounder of the Rhymers’Club, whose members included his friends Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symons. In 1889 Yeats fell in love with a rebel, an Irish patriot, Maud Gonne, but the love was short lived.
From 1898, Yeats spent his summers in Coole Park, County Galway, at the home of Lady Gregory. Yeats the purchased an old Norman castle, this would become the setting of some of Yeats best poems.
Yeats devoted himself to literature and drama. He believing that the poems and plays would bring a national unity, which he thought would change Ireland. The Countess Catheen, was the opening play at the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, which Yeats was one of the originators. This later became the Abby Theatre in 1904. From 1899 to 1907, Yeats was in charge of the theater’s affairs. During this time he wrote some of his most famous poems, such as, Cathleen ni houlihan (1902), The hour Glass (1903), The Kings Threshold (1904), On Baile’s Strand (1905) and Deirdre (1907).
In 1917 Yeats published The Wild Swans at Coole. From here onward the reached the height of his achievement. The Tower (1928), named after the castle he had in the west of Ireland, and The Winding Stair (1929) went on to become some of his greatest verses and symbols of the Irish Civil War and the Easter Rising.
In 1913 Yeats spent some months at Stone Cottage in Sussex, with an American poet Ezra Pound. Pound was then editing translation of the no plays of Japan. The no drama provided a framework of drama designed for a small audience of initiates, a stylized, intimate drama capable of fully using the resources offered by masks, mime, dance, and song and conveying Yeats’s own recondite symbolism. Yeats own no drama included in such plays as Four Plays for Dancers(1921) and At the Hawk’s Wall(1916) and several others.
In 1917 Yeats proposed to miss Gerge Hyde-Lees and she accepted: and they were married. In 1919 his daughter, Anne Butler, was born and two years later his son, William Michael was born.
In 1922 Yeats accepted an invitation to become a member of the new Irish Senate, which in served for six years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This boosted Yeats and made him one of the most significant poets if the twentieth century. In 1936 his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935, which was a gathering of poem’s which he loved.
Yeats died in January 1939 while abroad. Arrangements to be buried in Ireland couldn’t be made so he was laid to rest in Roquebrune, France. The Second World War thwarted the movement of his body to Sligo, so it wasn’t until 1948 when he was buried in a Protestant churchyard in Drumcliffe.
Had Yeats ceased to write at the age of 40, he would be seen as a miner poet, but his late writings saw him set a Celtic revival, and independence through beauty of words. Yeats is remembered as one of the worlds best poets, and he will never be forgotten, as he lives on through his poems.
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