This Day In Literary History
On June 13th, 1865, the legendary Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats was born. He was born in Dublin, but spent most of his early childhood living in County Sligo.
Yeats' father, John, was a famous painter. His brother Jack would become an acclaimed artist as well. Young William, however, was interested in poetry, Irish folklore, and the occult.
The Yeats family belonged to the Protestant aristocracy, which was pro-British. While William was growing up, a nationalist revival in Ireland caused the Protestants to fall out of power.
The Catholic Church was able to take power in Ireland because most nationalists were middle class Catholics. Protestants were seen as traitors to Ireland. Many nationalists who hadn't been Catholic before were now converting.
Although the Protestant William Butler Yeats would become one of Ireland's greatest nationalist heroes, he never converted to Catholicism. Yeats loathed the Catholic Church, which he believed was more interested in grabbing power for itself than in Irish nationalism.
At the age of twelve, Yeats began his formal education after being educated at home by his father. He was a below average student. An early report card noted that he was "Only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling."
During his high school years, Yeats discovered his passion for poetry. Percy Bysshe Shelley became one of his literary idols. By this time, his family had moved back to Dublin and William hung out with the city's writers and artists.
In 1885, at the age of twenty, Yeats had his first poems and an essay published in the Dublin University Review. His early work would be heavily influenced by Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and the pre-Raphaelite style.
Soon, however, Yeats would develop his trademark style of poetry, which was steeped deep in symbolism and influenced by Irish folklore, mythology, and the writings of William Blake.
Although other modernist poets were experimenting with free verse, Yeats preferred writing in traditional formats with rhyme and meter. One of his first major works was Mosada (1886), a play in verse.
While pursuing his interest in the occult, Yeats became a member of the famous Golden Dawn magical order and struck up a close friendship with fellow member and legendary occultist Aleister Crowley.
Around this time, Yeats struck up a friendship with Maude Gonne, an heiress, art student, and fellow Irish nationalist. He fell in love with her, but it was a mostly unrequited love.
Like Maude, Yeats had belonged to a then fledgling nationalist group called the Irish Republican Army (IRA). As the IRA became more militant, Yeats distanced himself from its violent wing.
He wanted no part of violence, believing that he and other writers could use their words to further the cause of Irish nationalism, which would be more effective than violence.
Yeats was devastated when Maude married another man, fellow nationalist Major John MacBride. However, the marriage soon came to an end - but not officially. Unable to divorce in Ireland, they went to Paris, only to be denied by the court there.
Maude remained in Paris with her son while John returned to Ireland. Maude and Yeats rekindled their friendship. They finally became lovers, but ultimately drifted apart.
By 1890, the Yeats family had moved to London, where William co-founded the Rhymers' Club, a group of poets that met regularly in a Fleet Street pub to read their works.
In 1899, Yeats and his friends Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore founded the Irish Literary Theatre, which was devoted to Irish and Celtic plays. Its first production was a double bill featuring Yeats' play The Countess Cathleen and Lady Gregory's Spreading the News.
Yeats would remain a lifelong Irish nationalist, but kept his political beliefs mostly to himself as violence escalated between the Irish nationalists and British police and soldiers. He continued to write nationalist poetry.
In 1916, Yeats proposed marriage to his old love Maude Gonne, whose estranged husband had been executed by the British. He really wanted to just take care of the poor woman, whose life had been ruined by her devotion to violent political activism and her addiction to drugs.
Yeats and Maude didn't marry. At 51 years of age, what he wanted most of all was to have a child. He ultimately married Georgie Hyde-Lees, a young woman of 25. Despite the age difference, their marriage was happy. They had two children.
Georgie shared Yeats' interest in the occult, especially spiritualism and automatic writing. They conducted seances in their home and experiments with trance states. This resulted in Yeats' non-fiction study of the paranormal, A Vision (1925).
By 1922, the Irish nationalists had won a surprising victory in the Irish War of Independence. Although the war actually ended in a truce, Southern Ireland was recognized as a free state republic within the United Kingdom.
Yeats became a senator in the new republic; when the issue of legalizing divorce came up for debate, he fought hard against the Catholic Church's attempt to legislate its doctrine against divorce, comparing the effort to a modern inquisition.
In December of 1923, Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was a huge symbolic victory for an Irishman to win the award so soon after Southern Ireland won its independence.
For Yeats, winning the Nobel Prize also resulted in financial success. His publisher took advantage of the publicity, and his book sales took off. Though his later poetry would still be steeped deep in mysticism, it would also become devoted to more contemporary issues.
William Butler Yeats died in 1939 at the age of 73. He remains one of Ireland's greatest poets.
Quote Of The Day
“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” - William Butler Yeats
Today's video features a reading of William Butler Yeats' classic poem, The Stolen Child. Enjoy!