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William Butler Yeats

Yeats is sometimes, misguidedly, defined by his lifelong infatuation with a woman, Maud Gonne, who rejected his proposals of marriage on at least four occasions. He then proposed to her daughter, and was again rejected. These biographical details convince many casual readers that Yeats was clearly an ineffectual aesthete whose art arose from his personal failings. This view of Yeats, however, as a tortured artist blind to how ridiculous he appears to other people misses the greatness of Yeats’ work which arises because he is all too aware of how ludicrous he appears to others . His poems are laden with self mockery, poking fun at his own pomposity. In Broken Dreams, for instance, he becomes the ‘poet stubborn’ writing of Maud’s beauty when ‘age might have chilled his blood’.

My first experience of Yeats was during my first English Literature A Level class: the very first text we were given was Leda and the Swan. I remember Mrs Smallwood asking my class what we thought the poem was about. Well, I read it through twice and was immediately struck by, firstly, the power of the language and, secondly, the horror of what was happening. The rest of the students were looking blankly at the poem so I struggled to explain what I thought was happening, although I was shocked by what I read: a woman was being violently raped by a swan. Over the years I have come back to the poem and I now realise that the shock is not the act of rape itself, but the suggestion that Leda may be complicit in it, that her ‘vague fingers’ may not want to push Zeus from her ‘loosening thighs’. It is this courage to look with unflinching honesty at the difficult, complex and, sometimes, very uncomfortable truth that characterises Yeats’ work.

Yeats was not afraid to say publically when he was wrong or when he didn’t have an answer. Easter 1916, possibly his most famous poem, and certainly one of his most oft quoted, begins with an acknowledgement that he was mistaken to scorn the leaders of the uprising and ends with his failure to explain the significance of the event beyond his belief that a ‘terrible beauty’ had been born. Through exposing these frailties and accepting that he has no more answers than his readers, but doing so with a mastery of structure and language of exquisite power, makes him to Irish literature what Shakespeare is to English literature.

Should we be grateful that Maud Gonne still rejected Yeats even after their one night of consummation? If she hadn’t she would not have been his unobtainable Helen of Troy and we would not have that rich vein of mythology, complexity and longing which marks the greatness in his poetry. His logic may sometimes have been inconsistent; his ideas may, at times, have been bizarre; and some of his greatest poetry may have arisen from a misguided obsession but there is no doubting the power of his writing.

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Born in Sandymount, County Dublin

Yeats’ parents, John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Pollfexen, came from wealthy Irish Protestant families. His father originally studied law, but abandoned this soon after his marriage to become a painter.
1865 - 1867

Yeats’ family moved to live near his mother’s family.

Yeats’ poetry is imbued with allusions to Irish myth and legend which he learnt from his mother and during childhood holidays in Sligo.

Yeats meets John O’Leary, the Fenian and ex-political prisoner.

O’Leary had a massive impact on Yeats, and especially on his ideas about the heroism that Ireland required to become an independent nation, but Yeats felt modern Ireland lacked. O’Leary’s influence is most clearly seen in the refrain from Yeats’ September 1913.

Yeats’ brother, Jack B Yeats, painted this portrait of John O’Leary


Publishes Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

In his introduction Yeats wrote: “People think I am merely trying to bring back a little of the old dead beautiful world of romance into this century of great engines and spinning Jinnies. Surely the hum of wheels and clatter of presses, let alone the lecturers with their black coats and tumblers of water, have driven away the goblin kingdom and made silent the feet of the little dancers.”

Publishes his first full length collection of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems

The poems in this collection are full of allusions to Irish myth and legend. The idea of developing a fully realised Irish culture arising from these stories dominated much of Yeats’ later work.

Review of his work by Oscar Wilde


Yeats meets Maud Gonne

Yeats was so struck by Maud’s beauty that she became his life long muse.

Yeats meets Lady Gregory of Coole Park

Lady Gregory was a patron of the arts; founded the Abbey Theatre with Yeats and Edward Martyn; and her home at Coole Park provided both a place for Yeats to write for many summers and inspiration for his poetry. It is now a nature reserve following the demolition of the house itself in 1941.

Visit Coole Park


Yeats hears that Maud Gonne has married John Macbride.

Yeats, about to begin a lecture, is shocked to hear that Maud Gonne has married the soldier and political activist John Macbride. This was a misguided marriage, reputedly made out of spite towards Lucien Millvoye. Maud divorced MacBride two years later claiming he was violent and abusive. MacBride, however, did make an appearance in Yeats’ poem Easter 1916 where he is almost redeemed, almost.

Read a letter to John Macbride regarding his marriage


Maud Gonne writes to Yeats about the consummation of their love

Maud Gonne writes to Yeats about the consummation of their love the previous night. It appears that Yeats and Gonne consummated their (or at least Yeats’) love only once. As poetry lovers we should be grateful that Gonne continued to reject his approaches.

Gonne's letter


Yeats marries Georgie Hyde-Lees.

We don’t know how shocked Yeats was to have a marriage proposal accepted, however we can be fairly sure he was still brooding on previous rejections when he proposed to Georgie. To maintain her husband’s waning interest during their honeymoon Georgie ‘discovered’ that she had the ability to produce ‘automatic writing’. This appealed to Yeats’ interest in spiritualism and magic and led to his philosophic work A Vision -

Yeats' Vision


Yeats proposes marriage to Iseult Gonne. She declines.

After several marriage proposals to her mother are rejected Yeats proposes marriage to Iseult Gonne. She declines.

Having been elected a Senator of the Irish Free State Yeats gives his first speech in the Senate

Yeats was seen as a towering intellect of the Irish Free State and the year following his election to the Senate he also received a D. Litt from Dublin University and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was now the ‘public smiling man’ he describes in Among School Children.

Yeats' lecture on receiving the Nobel Prize


Yeats publishes The Tower named after Thoor Ballylee Castle, his current home.

The poems contained in The Tower show Yeats as an older, more contented and more settled public figure, but still burning with passions and contradictions of his youth. Yeats’ Tower suffered serious flood damage in 2010 but has recently reopened as a museum:

The Tower


Yeats dies.

Yeats was originally buried in France, however in 1948 his body was reburied in Drumcliffe cemetery, County Sligo and the final three lines form his poem Under Ben Bulben inscribed upon his grave.

Yeats' Burial Site


Mike Scott of the rock group The Waterboys performs a number of concerts of songs based on Yeats’ poems.

Yeats is an integral part of the Irish literary scene. Many Irish singers and songwriters have adapted his poems. This may, however, be the most complete integration of Yeats and music and was later released as an album:

The Waterboys

About the Contributor

Peter Tomkins is an English teacher, writer and consultant. Through his career as a Head of English, Vice Principal and head teacher he has always reached back to poetry to show him the way forward.

Yeats Poetry: A Level Scheme of Work
25 carefully-planned lessons with notes, visual stimuli and engaging activities and tasks.
Yeats Poetry: Guide for A Level
Intelligent close readings of all 15 poems, including notes on Yeats’ use of style, setting, themes and ideology