William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born at Georgeville, Sandymount Avenue, Dublin, the eldest child of John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen. His father, a barrister, later became an artist. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous shipping merchant in Sligo. John and Susan were married at St. John’s Church in Sligo in 1863. The couple had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood and were extraordinarily talented: William (Willie, b.1865 later W.B.) Susan (Lily b.1866), Elizabeth (Lollie, b.1868), Robert (Bobbie, 1870-73), John junior (Jack B, b.1871) and baby Grace (Gracie, 1875-76).
W.B. had a strong Sligo lineage from both of his parents. His mother Susan was born in Sligo, the daughter of William and Elizabeth Pollexfen. His paternal great grandfather Rev. John Yeats had served as rector at Drumcliffe Church, (1811-46), a short distance north of the town. His maternal great grandfather had started the Middleton milling and shipping businesses, later the Middleton & Pollexfen Company that developed into the largest business in 19th century Sligo, owning ships, were chandlers, had controlling shares in the Sligo Steam Navigation Company, and interests in the butter market as well as being general and grain merchants. The Pollexfens had, by now, moved from Union Place to Merville, a large house with sixty acres which would become home to the Yeats children with increasing frequency in future years.
In 1867, when W.B. was two, his father John decided to quit the bar and their comfortable life in Dublin and take up the uncertain life of an artist in London. Financial challenges were a constant feature, causing untold stress on Susan. She fell back on support from her family in Sligo. The annual summer holiday in Sligo was sometimes extended out of necessity, and at least once until Christmas. The longest stay was July 1872 until October 1874.
This set the seeds that would last a lifetime. Sligo’s landscape, culture and folklore became formative influences on both W.B. and Jack. For W.B., the landscape was central to his writing, Jack drew on the rolling waves and seafarers, the circus and horse racing which formed the core of his paintings. And while this was a time of joy and growth for the young family, it was also a time of great sadness, following the death of Bobbie from croup in 1873 and Gracie in 1876.
During this time, their father John largely stayed in London, living a bohemian life as an artist, while Susan brought the children up in the more conservative and strict environment of the Pollexfen household in Sligo. And while it is evident from early on that W.B.’s parents were very different people and largely incompatible, they did engender in him his love of stories and writing. His mother told him stories from her youth and his father, very much a free spirit, encouraged creative thought and freedom.
Indeed, in his unpublished memoirs, John Yeats described his concerns for his son:
‘I am continually anxious about Willy — he is almost never out of my thoughts. I believe him to be intensely affectionate but from shyness, sensitiveness and nervousness very difficult to win and yet he is worth winning. I should of course like to see him made do what was right but he will only develop by kindness and affection and gentleness.’ – John B. Yeats.
W.B. returned to London, where he went to school. Jack remained in Sligo with his grandparents from 1879-1887 and developed his passion for painting at Rosses Point, spending long Summer days staying at Moyle Lodge, visiting cousins at Bowmore Lodge and Elsinore Lodge.
After the family returned to live in Dublin in 1881, W.B. attended the High School, Harcourt St. He had his first works published in Dublin University Review, while he was a student at the Metropolitan School of Art. As he grew acquainted with other writers and artists, he took up the life of a professional writer, moving back to London with his family in 1887.
In 1888 they moved into No. 3, Blenheim Road, Bedford Park, where the family remained until returning to Dublin in 1902. It was in this house that W.B. and friends founded The Irish Literary Society in 1891. His early writings include The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), which gave notice that a young poet of some promise was in the making. The long title poem was an expression of Yeats’s fascination with Irish mythology, themes he explored in much of his earlier work and which he returned to later in life. He made a resolution about this time, to do for Ireland what Shakespeare did for England, i.e. write plays about important historical figures – he focused on mythological figures like Oisín, Diarmuid and Gráinne, Queen Maeve and Cuchulain, from ‘Ireland’s heroic past greatness’, and wrote six plays on Cuchulain.
O Oisin, mount by me and ride
To shores by the wash of the tremulous tide,
Where men have heaped no burial-mounds,
And the days pass by like a wayward tune,
from The Wanderings of Oisín, Book I (1889)
Following the death of the great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, the rise in military nationalism was at odds with Yeats’s views of Irish identity. This is despite his own foray into political nationalism. He disagreed with the premise that Irish freedom should be achieved through armed insurgency. He believed that a return to traditional values, based on heritage, history and folklore was central to shaping our Irish identity.
Yeats published The Celtic Twilight, a volume of folktales and poems, in 1893, which underlines his growing interest in ‘faery stories and customs’. He drew on the tales recounted to him by local people in Sligo, Rosses Point and Ballysadare. Mary Battle, housekeeper of his uncle George Pollexfen, told him of the habits and customs relating to unexplained phenomena, and imbued Yeats with her belief in the existence of spirits in other dimensions. He shared a common interest in astrology and the occult with his uncle George and these were central themes in Yeats’s writing. All four Yeats siblings were closest to their Uncle George Pollexfen, with whom they stayed, as individuals, from the late 1880s until his death in 1910.
W.B. wrote in Introduction to The Celtic Twilight 1893 edition,
‘I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined. I have, however, been at no pains to separate my own beliefs from those of the peasantry, but have rather let my men and women, dhouls and faeries, go their way unoffended or defended by any argument of mine.’
In 1896 W.B. moved away from the family home to live independently. He met Lady Augusta Gregory that summer. She opened her house to the literary figures of the day and he spent part of every summer for nearly two decades at Coole, Co. Galway. They collaborated in several publications.
Together with Lady Gregory he founded the Irish National Theatre, later to become the Abbey Theatre. He wrote some of the early plays for the theatre, including Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), Cathleen Ní Houlihan (1902) and The Countess Kathleen (1900), written for his muse, the beautiful and redoubtable Maud Gonne, who played the leading part. Yeats asked Maud to marry him several times, the first of these in 1899, but on each occasion she refused – resulting in splendid poems of unrequited love.
As Ireland veered towards military confrontation with the British, culminating in the 1916 Rising, so too did Yeats’s poetry change in those fractious years of the early 20th century.
He gradually discarded the lyrical nature of his writing, his verse more sparse and direct, focussing on the dynamic changes in society. In the aftermath of the Rising – its leaders executed by the English, transforming public opinion to favour the republican cause – Yeats said “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me,” and his poem Easter 1916 is an expression of his mixed views on the insurrection itself, his admiration for the blood sacrifice of its leaders tempered with a realistic appraisal of their actions.
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
from Easter 1916 (1920)
A characteristic trait throughout his life was continuously editing and re-revising his earlier work and republishing it. He was always experimenting as poet and playwright, developing old and new themes, including the occult, spiritual interests, India, Japanese Noh style plays and automatic writing.
He joined a secret society called The Golden Dawn, a group that believed in the practice of ritual magic and he remained a long standing member of this group, exploring related themes in some of his work. He dreamed of setting up his ‘Castle of Heroes’ on Castle island in Lough Key, where 20th century Ireland might commune with its mystical past. In old age he regretted this didn’t materialise.
In the early years of the 20th century, Yeats was involved extensively with the Abbey Theatre, managing and writing up to 10 plays in this period. The Yeats household including W.B. was supported financially in the 1890s-1902 by his sisters Lily (Susan Mary Yeats) and Lollie (Elizabeth Corbet Yeats).
In 1902 Evelyn Gleeson established an art and crafts co-operative, the Dun Emer Industries employing Lily to supervise the embroidery department and Lollie to start a printing press, at considerable loss in their incomes. By 1908 Lily & Lollie had set up independently as Cuala Industries. W.B. advised on ‘suitable’ books to publish, often a source of contention.
In 1917 W.B. married Georgie Hyde-Lees (whom he called George), 27 years his junior and with whom he had two children Anne and Michael. They lived in England and Dublin and bought 82 Merrion Square in the Winter of 1921. In the aftermath of the War of Independence and during the Irish Civil War they lived at Thoor Ballylee, a 14th century de Burgo four-storey tower-house they owned. It had a thatched cottage attached, which they repaired and extended to make comfortable rooms.
He was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922. A year later in 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote some of his finest work in the following years, and as Europe began its turbulent road to the Second World War, he published his final volume of poetry, titled New Poems, in 1938. The following year, he died in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour Cap-Martin, in the south of France. His body was interred in the cemetery of Roquebrune, but subsequently repatriated to Sligo after the end of the war, to his final resting place in Drumcliffe Graveyard.
His posthumous volume, Last poems and two plays, which included the testamentary Under Ben Bulben and the play completed on his death-bed, The Death of Cuchulain, appeared in July 1939.
Not any god alive, nor mortal dead,
Has slain so mighty armies, so great kings,
Nor won the gold that now Cuchulain brings.
from The Death of Cuchulain (1939)