William Butler Yeats: Poetry, Passion and Vision

The 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth falls in June 2015 that has created a revival in interest about the life and work of the writer, poet, dramatist and essayist W.B. Yeats (1865-1939).

A pioneer of the literary world, he is generally considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. With playwright, Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), he was one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, for which he wrote many plays. He was a senator of the Irish Free State (1922-28) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, the first Irishman to be honoured with the award for … “his inspired poetry which, in a highly artistic form, gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

Born in Sandymount, Dublin, into the upper echelons of Anglo-Irish society he was educated in London at the Godolphin School and in Dublin at the Erasmus Smith High School and Metropolitan School of Art. He spent his early years between London, Dublin and Sligo with a strong need to explore the themes of existence and identity. He died at Roquebrune in the South of France survived by his wife and two children. In 1948 his remains were brought to his family place in Drumcliff, Co. Sligo. His epitaph is Cast a cold eye, On life, On death. Horseman pass by!

Poetry, Passion and Vision

In 1889 he fell in love with ‘a beautiful wild creature’, Maud Gonne (1865-1953), actress, revolutionary and ardent nationalist, popular political and social activist. His long sustained but unrequited love for her was to have enormous consequences for both his politics and his poetry. He was drawn to the occult and spiritualist experiment and became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890. Controversies in Ireland during the 1890s such as the Queen Victoria Jubilee riots in 1897 and the national effort to commemorate the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion increasingly captured and troubled Yeats’ imagination.

With the patronage of the older Lady Gregory his involvement in the beginning of the Irish Literary Revival in 1897 led to plans for a national dramatic movement, leading to his co-founding of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. The first production staged on 8 May of the same year was Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen, a seminal event in Irish cultural history. It was an instant cause celebre as a prelude to the Irish literary revival and founding of The Abbey Theatre in 1904.

His best known poems appeared in The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929); among them are ‘Easter 1916’, ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

Officially launched at the National Library of Ireland in 2006, the largest ever exhibition on the life and works of William Butler Yeats includes manuscript drafts of many of his greatest and best known poems such as Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children, and the first edition in pamphlet form of ‘Easter 1916’. It covers many aspects of the poet’s life and his development as a writer, while providing insight into Irish social, cultural and political life from the late 1800s to the 1930s. The exhibition also displays Yeats’ family treasures temporarily on loan including an illuminated copy of the Lake Isle of Innisfree, printed by one of his two sisters, Elizabeth Yeats, and includes family portraits painted by Edmund Dulac and John Butler Yeats.

In a unique event, four plays were performed in November 2006 at the National Library by the Dublin Lyric Players. Collectively known as the Cuchulain Cycle, they were written between 1900 and 1939 and are described as ‘masterpieces of the English-speaking theatre, containing some of the most beautifully wrought poetic language … The plays’ themes are similar to those which dominate Yeats’ poetry: the purpose of life and death, the significance of beauty and love, the place of action and commitment, heroism and idealism, in human destiny.

Ita Marguet, May 2015

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources in this text. It follows a visit to the exhibition in 2006 and a text on Yeats: the life and works of William Butler Yeats (December 2006) by Ita Marguet.