Today is the birthday of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (books by this author), born in Sandymount, Ireland (1865), and considered one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. Some of his most famous poems are “Easter, 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923.
Yeats was committed to writing about Ireland and national identity. He once said, “I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think I shall hold that conviction to the end.” He was a fervent Irish nationalist and even served six years in the Senate, the Dáil Éireann. About Ireland, Yeats said, “We are a nation of believers.”
As a child, he was homeschooled and then sent to art school to follow in the footsteps of his father, a famous portrait painter. One of his school reports said, “Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling.” Undeterred, he quit art school and devoted himself to poetry. His collections include In the Seven Woods (1903), Responsibilities (1904), and The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910).
W.B. Yeats became quite famous in his lifetime. As a young poet, he went to visit fellow poet Paul Verlaine in Paris and later, poet Ezra Pound became his secretary for a time when they shared a cottage for several months in Sussex. Yeats cut a dashing, if unkempt figure about London at one time, with one friend remarking, “Yeats was striding to and fro at the back of the dress circle, a long black cloak drooping from his shoulders, a soft black sombrero on his head, voluminous black silk tie flowing from his collar, loose black trousers dragging untidily over his long, heavy feet.”
Yeats met the great, unrequited love of his life, Maud Gonne, in London. She was tall, beautiful, devoted to Irish nationalism, and didn’t return his ardor. He wrote several plays for her, like The Countess Kathleen (1892) and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), in which Gonne played the starring role. Yeats proposed to her three times over several decades and each time she refused. The last time she rejected him, he proposed to her daughter, who said no, as well. When Yeats met Maud Gonne, he famously said, “The troubles of my life began.” In the end, at 52, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees and had two children. They lived in a tower on the outermost edge of Ireland and practiced spiritualism and automatic writing. Yeats had many lovers over the years, but Georgie forgave him.