The colourful life of Irish poet and Nobel prize winner W. B. Yeats

A young William Butler Yeats

A young William Butler Yeats - Credit: Archant

In the latest article of our series on the lives and times of those who have been celebrated with commemorative blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the colourful life of Irish poet and politician W. B. Yeats.

William Butler Yeats, pictured in 1923 aged 58

William Butler Yeats, pictured in 1923 aged 58 - Credit: Archant

The first Irishman to win a Nobel Prize, William Butler Yeats’ life coincided with the establishment of a free Irish state. He served two terms as an Irish Senator, was instrumental in the Irish literary revival and helped found The National Theatre of Ireland, commonly known as The Abbey Theatre.

Born in 1865, he was the eldest of six, born in Dublin to John Butler Yeats, a lawyer turned painter, and Susan Mary Pollexfen, the daughter of a wealthy business family from County Sligo. In order to pursue his ambition of becoming a portrait painter, Yeats’ father moved the family to London.

In 1867 they moved to 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, where they remained until 1873. One of Yeats’ sisters was born at the address and almost 100 years later the plaque, erected in 1957, led Sylvia Plath to inhabit the house.

As a boy, Willie – a nickname he detested – was home-schooled and became captivated by his mother’s storytelling. She was a fond fan of folk and these early experiences were to influence much of his life as a writer.

There were extended stays at the Sligo home of his grandparents before the family finally settled in the bohemian Bedford Park area of Hammersmith in 1879.

Enrolled at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, Yeats exhibited great intellectual capacity but was a slow learner, particularly with language and mathematics.

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A surviving school report states: “Very poor in spelling... Mathematics: Still very backward.” He grew fond of the outdoors, both in London and Ireland, and found an early interest in biology and zoology.

Owing to financial strains the family returned to Ireland where Yeats completed his high school education. He spent time at his father’s studios, which were frequented by writers and artists, and subsequently attended the Metropolitan School of Art, later the National College of Art and Design.

By this point he was already writing copious, but unpublished, amounts of poetry. His first lyrics appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885 and were followed, that summer, with a Shelleyan-style verse drama, The Island Of Statues.

It was also during this period that Yeats read diligently on subjects of the occult, eastern philosophy and various branches of spiritualism, and attended his first séance.

In 1887, the family returned to London and three years later Yeats founded the famous Rhymers’ Club. Initially the group of poets – which included Ernest Rhys, founding editor of the Everyman Library and father of Evelyn Waugh’s childhood playmate, Stella – met at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. The group, later dubbed the Tragic Generation, published two anthologies and Oscar Wilde attended some of their private meetings.

Back in Bedford Park life was dogged by family tensions and unpaid butcher’s bills, but also characterised by a circle of acquaintance which included the Wildes, William Morris – in whose workshop one of Yeats’ sisters trained as an artist – and George Bernard Shaw. The walls were even adorned with original Morris wallpaper.

By 1888, Yeats apparently knew the Wildes well enough to be invited to Christmas dinner, and managed on one occasion to unintentionally frighten one of Wilde’s sons by telling him an un-Wildean fairy story. Yeats’ attraction with Wilde was not just as an ex-pat middle-class Irish Protestant, but as a conscious phrase-maker who “always dismissed question with epigrams”.

Incapable of speaking any French, Yeats visited Paris on a number of occasions, experiencing a diverse range of subcultures where he experimented with hashish and mescal. This type of lifestyle helped further broaden an already open mind.

Yeats first met Maud Gonne (1866–1953), a 23-year-old heiress and ardent Irish nationalist, in 1889. He developed an obsessive infatuation which led him to propose marriage on at least three occasions, commenting that “the troubling of my life began”.

In 1890 Yeats was initiated in to the Order of The Golden Dawn and adopted the name Demon Est Deus Inversus (Devil Is God Inverted). He was attracted to the society as it best suited his own emotional and spiritual requirements. The order was devoted to magical research and not the achievement of transcendence.

By 1899, Yeats, who years earlier had been introduced to Lady Gregory (1852–1932) by Edward Martyn (1859–1923), established the Irish National Theatre Society.

In 1904, The Abbey Theatre opened its doors to an eager public which could view John Butler Yeats’ portraits as they loitered in the lobby. The first performances were of Gregory’s Spreading the News and Yeats’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

Like Karl Marx he was a committed admirer of Balzac, the only novelist whose work he read consistently, and in 1905 bought a 40-volume edition of The Human Comedy.

By 1913, Yeats had been approached by a young American named Ezra Pound. Pound had come to London to meet his hero, having already corresponded with him. He considered Yeats to be “the only poet worthy of serious study”. At one point Pound acted as Yeats’ secretary and took dictation of the first draft of a one-act play, At The Hawk’s Well.

According to reports, when Yeats was living at an address by Euston Square Station (then 18 Woburn Buildings) in the years just before the First World War, he was visited every Monday at 8pm by a group of poets. Those present included T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and John Masefield, who described the sitting room as “the most interesting in London”.

Later at his Faber & Faber offices – now The School of African and Oriental Studies – Eliot proudly displayed a photograph of Yeats on his mantelpiece. The photograph sat next to one of his pen pal friend, Groucho Marx.

Dubbed “the toff wot lives in the Buildings” by locals, Yeats cut a strange figure at the Euston Square address. He was often to be seen walking the surrounding streets swinging his arms wildly. In Dublin, where he was better known, people realised he was possessed by the muse, which inspired his writing, rather than by drink.

Once, when Yeats was visited by the classic scholar E. R. Dodds and accompanied by the writer Louis MacNeice, Dodds asked whether he had ever seen any of the spirits. Yeats was a little piqued with the question but grudgingly responded that he had not. However, with a flash of triumph he retorted that he had often smelt them.

Yeats finally married at the age of 51 having met his bride, Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), known as George, through occult circles. She was a loving wife and produced two children, which was something Yeats particularly desired.

After Irish Independence in 1922, Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate and in 1924 he was selected to sit on a Coinage Committee which decided the designs for the new currency.

Some 16 years before his death, in 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On receipt of the award he said: “I consider this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature; it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State.”