William Butler Yeats Profile

Carolyn and I have admired the work of Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, who won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, and whose work was inspired by his mystical experiences. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, a movement that renewed interest in aspects of Celtic cultures, and he co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland in 1865. Yeats’ mother came from a wealthy merchant background, and his family was unusually creative. Jervis Yeats, William’s great-great-grandfather, was a well-known painter, and his father, brother, and sisters, were all painters or artists. In 1867, the family moved to London to aid their father in his career as a portrait painter.

Yeats received his initial education at home, where his mother entertained him with Irish folktales. He read poetry from an early age and was fascinated by Irish legends. In 1877, Yeats entered the Godolphin School in West London, where he studied for four years. Yeats had difficulty with language because he was tone-deaf. He was also a poor speller due to dyslexia, and so was “only fair” in his academic performance.

That same year Yeats began writing his first poetry when he was seventeen. He was influenced by the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, and he wrote early poems about love, magicians, monks, and a woman accused of paganism.

In 1880, Yeats’ family returned to Dublin for financial reasons. Yeats resumed his education at Dublin’s Erasmus Smith High School. His father’s studio was nearby, and Yeats spent a great deal of time there, where he met many of the city’s artists and writers. In 1885, the Dublin University Review published Yeats’ first poems, as well as an essay entitled The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson. Between 1884 and 1886, Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin.

In 1889, Yeats’ first volume of verse, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, was published. It is slow-paced lyrical poetry that tells the story of a mythical hero who embarks on a journey to the Land of Youth, and is notable for its use of vivid imagery, mythological references, and a sense of nostalgia for Ireland’s past.

Yeats had mystical experiences throughout his life, and he describes having had visionary encounters with spirits or supernatural beings since childhood. Yeats said that he had visions of a figure that appeared to be a spiritual guide and that this figure communicated with him, and provided him with insights and wisdom about life and art. Yeats was deeply interested in mysticism, the occult, and the esoteric, and these interests were reflected in his poetry and writings. For example, in the following excerpt from his poem Vacillation, Yeats describes how he felt during a mystical experience:

“While on the shop and street I gazed,
My body for a moment blazed,
And twenty minutes, more or less,
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

In 1890, Yeats joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society in Great Britain devoted to the study and practice of ritual magic, the occult, metaphysics, and spiritual development, and his interest in mysticism was further informed by Hinduism, astrology, spiritualism, and theosophical beliefs. Yeats also believed in fairies, that they are real, living creatures.

The late 19th Century saw a literary movement called The Irish Literary Revival, which was a flowering of Irish creative talent in poetry, music, art, and literature. There were two main hubs, London and Dublin, and Yeats was considered a major figure in this movement. In 1888, he published Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry, and in 1893, he published The Celtic Twilight, a collection of folklore and reminiscences from Ireland that were important to this moment.

Yeats also wrote plays. In 1903 he published On Baile’s Strand, about the Irish mythological hero Cuchulain, which was first performed at the grand opening of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904. The Abbey Theatre — which is one of Ireland’s leading cultural institutions — was co-founded in 1899 by Yeats, along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn. The Abbey Theatre was the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world, and the performances there played to a mainly working-class audience, rather than the usual middle-class Dublin theatergoers. Some of Yeats’ other plays included Dierdre and The King of the Great Clock Tower. In 1917, Yeats married Georgia Hyde-Less, who was 25 years younger, and they went on to have two children together. During their marriage, the couple experimented with various techniques for spirit contact, and communication with spirits, who they referred to as their “instructors.”

Yeats was politically motivated, and he was a part of the Irish Nationalist Movement that asserted that the people of Ireland should govern Ireland as a sovereign state. In 1922, Yeats was appointed Senator for the Irish Free State, and he served two terms, until 1928. His time as a senator allowed him to contribute to the cultural and political landscape of Ireland in different ways.

In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation,” beating out Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche.

In 1925, Yeats published a book-length study of various philosophical, astrological, and poetic topics titled A Vision, which he wrote while experimenting with “automatic writing” with his wife, and serves as a “meditation on the relationships between imagination, history, and the occult.” This work was substantially revised by Yeats in 1937.

In 1934, Yeats received a controversial Steinach operation (a half of a vasectomy) which supposedly “rejuvenated” him for the last five years of his life. Yeats was reported to find “new vigor, evident from both his poetry and his intimate relations with younger women,” which he described as a “second puberty.”

Yeats died in 1939 in Menton, France at the age of 73. During his lifetime, Yeats published more than 100 works of poetry, drama, and prose, and was a towering figure in the world of English literature. In 1989, sculptor Rowan Gillespie created an eight-foot statue of Yeats, that now stands in front of the Ulster Bank Building on Stephen Street in Sligo, Ireland.

Some of the quotes that William Butler Yeats is known for include:

There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame!

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure, nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

What can be explained is not poetry.

If suffering brings wisdom, I would wish to be less wise.

Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.

The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time.

How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.

Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams, Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

by David Jay Brown

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