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Yeats, William Butler (1865–1939), poet, was born on 13 June 1865 at 1 George's Ville, 5 Sandymount Avenue, Dublin, the eldest child of John Butler Yeats (1839–1922) and Susan Mary, née Pollexfen (1841–1900). His father was then still a barrister; shortly he would—to the discomfiture of his wife, and still more of her family—give up the law for the uncertain life of a portrait painter in bohemian London.


Background and youth

The Yeats family was, in Irish parlance ‘Ascendancy’, but not grand: clergymen, lawyers, Dublin Castle officials rather than landowners, married into a wide cousinage across the Irish protestant world. They were proud of their descent from the great Norman clan of the Butlers, and preserved the name in their christenings, but connections with the ducal Ormond line are tenuous at best. By the 1860s their position in the world had declined. Here as elsewhere W. B. Yeats's life is emblematic of its time, since this process reflects a wider slippage; the newly confident Irish Catholic bourgeoisie were advancing into social and professional redoubts from which they had been excluded by the privileged minority. A reaction to this conditioned the stuffy and self-conscious world of protestant Dublin, against which the young Yeats would chafe just as his father had done.

Yeats's mother's family, the Pollexfens of Sligo, were a different stock: also descended from gentry forebears, but originating in Devon. In the 1830s Yeats's maternal grandfather, William Pollexfen, had joined a branch of the family already settled in Sligo, married a cousin, and with another cousin William Middleton founded a prosperous shipping and milling business (with a profitable sideline in, among other things, wreckage rights). The Pollexfens were business people, property developers, and town councillors—ornaments of that forgotten class, the Irish Victorian bourgeoisie. They reacted with bafflement and hostility to the charming but unreliable John Butler Yeats—a brilliant talker, and eventually a first-rate painter, but cursed with a congenital inability to finish a painting or repay a debt.

W. B. Yeats and his younger surviving siblings—Susan Mary Yeats, called Lily (1866–1949), Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, or Lollie (1868–1940) [see under Yeats, Susan Mary], and John, known as Jack, Butler Yeats (1871–1957)—grew up conscious that their father's way of life was deeply disapproved of in Sligo, where they spent much of their childhood being looked after in the Pollexfen household. They all became distinguished artists in their own fields; and, significantly, they all succeeded by employing their Pollexfen qualities of thrift, common sense, and hard concentration along with the Yeats flair and vision. Looking at his eldest son's first work, and recognizing a true poetic voice, John Butler Yeats produced what his son later claimed was the only compliment to turn his head: ‘By marriage with a Pollexfen we have given a tongue to the sea-cliffs’ (Autobiographies, 23).

It was not, however, an easy, nor even a particularly precocious, ascent to Olympus. When W. B. Yeats (known to his family and intimates as Willie, a name he detested) was two, the family moved to London, living at a variety of lodgings before settling in the Bedford Park area of Hammersmith, then a kind of ghetto for aesthetes and artists. However, the children continued to be shipped back to Sligo for long intervals, travelling on small vessels belonging to the family firm. W. B. Yeats's earliest education was at a dame school in Sligo, and through coaching from family friends: a slow learner in some subjects, and a spectacularly idiosyncratic speller all his life, he none the less showed remarkable if wayward intellectual capacity early on, as well as a constitutional shyness which he learned to conceal beneath a mannered public pose. Both these characteristics—intellectual and psychological—were influentially shaped by his father's stimulating but aggressive didacticism. In London Yeats attended the Godolphin School in Hammersmith from 1877 but in 1881 John Butler Yeats once more transplanted the family back to Dublin. Here, the future poet completed his education at the Erasmus Smith high school, and subsequently—like his sisters—attended the Metropolitan School of Art from 1883 to 1885. By then he was writing copious but unpublished poetry; he first appeared in print in the Dublin University Review of March 1885, with some brief lyrics, followed later that summer by a Shelleyan verse drama called ‘The Island of Statues’.

By then Yeats was serving another apprenticeship too, in the circle of intellectuals who met at the Contemporary Club organized by the protestant nationalist C. H. Oldham, editor of the Dublin University Review. This actually had nothing to do with the strict unionist confines of Trinity College, Dublin, where Oldham was rather uncomfortably employed. Home rule politics were anathema in most Trinity circles, and these were the years of Parnell's growing ascendancy—and of the land war, which put paid to the few remaining rents coming to John Butler Yeats out of the small family properties in co. Kildare. He was himself a home-ruler (though he preferred Parnell's predecessor Isaac Butt—a family friend—to the icy and enigmatic Chief); both J. B. Yeats and his twenty-year-old art student son were regulars at Oldham's Club from its origins in late 1885. Through these eclectic gatherings they met the returned Fenian intellectual John O'Leary, once literary editor of the firebrand Irish People and still connected with nationalist journalism.

The young Yeats was already noted for his ‘poetic’ character, alternately vague and intense, and for the charisma lent by his dreamy good looks and passionate outbursts of eloquence. Pronouncing accurately that Willie Yeats was the only club member who possessed literary genius, O'Leary was an invaluable connection to literary outlets like The Gael as well as Irish–American publications run by his political friends, such as John Boyle O'Reilly's Boston Pilot. The nature of Yeats's very early published verse certainly owes something to the kind of journal where he knew he could get it published. None the less it seems clear that the young Yeats adopted what was called at the time ‘advanced’ nationalism, and may have taken the Fenian oath about 1886 before returning to London, with the rest of the family, early in 1887. This was not, however, incompatible with a belief in home rule, and—after Gladstone's adoption of the cause in 1886—a settled expectation that it was inevitable. Later in life W. B. Yeats would recall that the cultural revolution which—in his view—brought about the actual revolution of 1916–21 began after the shattering fall of Parnell in 1891. But in many ways the political and literary initiatives embraced by Yeats and his friends in the 1880s, such as the Young Ireland literary societies, should be seen as the creation of a cultural agenda in anticipation of a coming independence, achieved through the constitutional efforts of the apparently all-conquering Parnell . . . .

By 1914 Yeats, in his fiftieth year, was at a crossroads in life; old adversaries like George Moore thought he had written himself out. He had become a celebrated figure in English as well as Irish literary life. The years up to the First World War saw him become an established lion in the London social safari, sought after by hostesses like Lady Cunard, lunching at the Asquiths', an influential member of Edmund Gosse's academic committee of the Royal Society of Literature, the recipient of a civil-list pension from 1910 (for which ‘advanced’ Irish nationalists refused to forgive him). In 1915 he turned down a knighthood. He had achieved enormous success on the American lecture tour circuit, making extended visits in 1903–4, 1911, 1914, 1920, and 1932. He was a firm supporter of the Home Rule Bill, passed, with difficulty, by 1914, but suspended for the duration of the war, and made some eloquent speeches supporting it; but his Fenian connections had apparently lapsed. His life remained divided between Coole in the summers and his celebrated Bloomsbury rooms in Woburn Buildings, where he held court on Monday evenings, for much of the rest of the year. During the winters of 1913, 1915, and 1916 he spent much time in an Ashdown Forest cottage, accompanied by the young American poet Ezra Pound (who married Olivia Shakespear's daughter Dorothy) as secretary and amanuensis. Pound and Yeats certainly influenced each other, though the traffic was not as one-way as the American liked to suggest; from the early 1900s Yeats's verse had been striving towards the colloquial voice, as well as the ellipsis and condensation, which bewildered some critics when he published his path-breaking collection Responsibilities in 1914. The bitter interrogations of poems like ‘To a Wealthy Man …’, ‘September 1913’, and ‘To a Shade’ were also inspired by a series of public controversies in Irish life, where Yeats had opposed what he saw as the philistinism of the new Irish bourgeoisie—notably over the vexed question of municipal support for a modern art gallery to house the pictures offered by Gregory's nephew, the art dealer and connoisseur Hugh Lane—an issue left hanging when Lane went down with the Lusitania in 1915, leaving the disposition of the paintings legally (though not morally) uncertain.


The Irish revolution and its aftermath, 1916–1930

Yeats's distancing from conventional nationalism, his disillusionment with modern Irish life, and his apparent absorption into the English establishment, should all be borne in mind as the background to his response to the shattering Irish rising of Easter 1916. It was as much of a shock to him as to most other people, and his first reaction—as he wrote to Gregory on 11 May—was that ‘all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics’ (11 May 1916, Letters, 613). With the execution of the insurgents he began to feel an unwilling admiration for the self-sacrifice of those involved—who included John MacBride, Maud Gonne's estranged husband. Yeats's feelings (and their ambiguity) are powerfully interrogated in the key poem ‘Easter 1916’, composed between the execution of the insurgents in May and the end of September. It was circulated in a privately printed edition but not published for four years—partly because he feared jeopardizing the cause of reclaiming Lane's picture collection for Ireland (a campaign in which he and Gregory were lobbying English politicians), partly because his own feelings were in the process of crystallization. ‘Easter 1916’, in its intellectual complexity, subtle shifts of mood and form, and use of internalized dialogue, marks a new level in Yeats's ‘political’ poems; but it was also a last, elegiac appeal to Gonne to turn from fanatical abstractions and join him in a celebration of life. At the same time his sympathies were moving towards the revolutionary cause even before the Lloyd George government mounted its campaign against the IRA in 1920 by means of the ‘black and tan’ mercenary forces, which Yeats assailed in poems and speeches. By the time of the rising he was already negotiating to buy the ancient Norman tower of Ballylee in Galway, near Coole; during the Irish revolution of 1916–21 he decided to move back to his native country and, as he had put it early on, ‘begin building again’.

The upheavals of Irish politics also brought Yeats back into public life. In 1923 he was nominated to the senate of the new Irish Free State, where he took an active role over the next five years, chairing the committee appointed to choose a new coinage for the country, and making celebrated speeches against the imposition of Catholic social teaching in Irish constitutional law. He used his public position on occasions like the Tailteann games (August 1924), as well as his platform in the senate, to further the cause. But the tide of opinion was against him, and the attitudes he struck during the 1920s and 1930s would be held against him in perpetuity. At the same time his espousal of artistic freedom and celebrated pronouncements against the prohibition of divorce (1925) conferred a special position in Irish public life. And though he saw himself as seeking, and finding, an ‘Anglo-Irish solitude’, he could not stop throwing himself into public controversy when the opportunity arose.

Yeats's international status was recognized by the award of the Nobel prize in 1923, which brought him some financial capital for the first time in his life; the lecture which he gave on the occasion, published in ‘The Bounty of Sweden’, stands as one of his most influential essays in autobiography.