William Butler Yeats Remembered

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | January 28, 2018 0


On this day 79 years ago, William Butler Yeats died in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, Menton, France. His epitaph:

Cast a cold Eye On Life,
on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

One of the “advantages” of being a native Dubliner is that you hail from the city which gave the world the largest number of Nobel Laureates for Literature in the 20th Century. Make a note, not Paris, not London, not New York but the small city known as Dear Old Dirty Dublin had no less than four! Surprisingly that elite group does not include Oscar Wilde or James Joyce but WB Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Seamus Heaney (1995). The popularity and enduring appeal of the poetry of William Butler Yeats was brought home to me recently by the reaction I got on Facebook and Twitter when I featured some excerpts. It is clear his phrases, insights and lyricism still endure and resonate in the modern world.


William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin. His father was a lawyer and a well-known portrait painter. Yeats was educated in London and in Dublin, but he spent his summers in the west of Ireland in the family’s summer house at Connaught. The young Yeats was very much part of the fin de siècle in London; at the same time he was active in societies that attempted an Irish literary revival. His first volume of verse appeared in 1887, but in his earlier period his dramatic production outweighed his poetry both in bulk and in import. Together with Lady Gregory he founded the Irish Theatre, which was to become the Abbey Theatre, and served as its chief playwright until the movement was joined by John Synge. His plays usually treat Irish legends; they also reflect his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism. The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The King’s Threshold (1904), and Deirdre (1907) are among the best known.

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;

WB Yeats – To Ireland in the Coming Times (1893)

After 1910, Yeats’s dramatic art took a sharp turn toward a highly poetical, static, and esoteric style. His later plays were written for small audiences; they experiment with masks, dance, and music, and were profoundly influenced by the Japanese Noh plays. Although a convinced patriot, Yeats deplored the hatred and the bigotry of the Nationalist movement, and his poetry is full of moving protests against it. He was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922. Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement. His poetry, especially the volumes The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), and Last Poems and Plays (1940), made him one of the outstanding and most influential twentieth-century poets writing in English. His recurrent themes are the contrast of art and life, masks, cyclical theories of life (the symbol of the winding stairs), and the ideal of beauty and ceremony contrasting with the hubbub of modern life.

William Butler Yeats was the eldest in a family “that had once had money, social influence and a history in Ireland.” By the 1860s, the family had only the history left. Yeats’s life coincided almost exactly with the decline of his class, as “a sense of cultural and social marginalization and insecurity haunted the Irish Protestant universe” from the 1860s on. “The new world of self-confident Catholic democracy” was taking over of Irish public life and redefining “Irishness.” As his sister Lily remarked with some bitterness some years after independence, “We are far more Irish than all the Saints and Martyrs – Parnell – Pearse – Madam Markiewicz – Maud Gonne – De Valera – and no one ever thinks of speaking of them as Anglo-Irish.”

The decline of the Irish Protestant universe was complicated, for Yeats, by his father’s preference for the bohemian life of an artist over the respectable career in law he had qualified for at Trinity College Dublin. For much of Yeats’s childhood – spent in Sligo, in London, and in Dublin – there was scarcely enough money for food and clothing, let alone money to pay for a good education; he speaks of having felt humiliated and of his youth as “a truly dreadful time.” His post-secondary schooling consisted of an undistinguished art school he abandoned when he was 20.

In Yeats’s early poetry, up to the volume, In the Seven Woods (1904), we can see the influences of English Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Symbolism. Two further influences were the occult and the languorous world of the Celtic twilight poets of the 1890s. Yeats saw himself as writing for Ireland and out of an Irish poetic tradition. However, his Ireland is the shadowy world of Celtic legend, rather than a contemporary reality. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” captures the essence of Yeats early poetry.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

WB Yeats – The Song of Wandering Aengus

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats – He Wishes for The Cloths of Heaven

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

WB Yeats – Down by the Salley gardens.

Yeats was interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity. His study with George Russell and Douglas Hyde of Irish legends and tales was published in 1888 under the title Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Yeats assembled for children a less detailed version, Irish Fairy Tales, which appeared in 1892. The Wanderings Of Oisin And Other Poems (1889), took its subject from Irish mythology.

Yeats’s middle period poetry can be read in the volumes from The Green Helmet (1910) to Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). Subject matter and attitude change. Love is dealt with in a more direct, questioning manner. Yeats still writes about Ireland, but it has become a real Ireland aspects of which irritates or puzzles him by their complexity. He now writes about real events, such as the death of Robert Gregory; and real people (Lady Gregory) and real places (Coole Park). With these changes comes a noticeable change in style from the meditative rhythms of the earlier verse to the more muscular rhythms and tighter syntax of this middle period. We can hear this new distinctive voice in the two poems below, “No Second Troy” and “Easter 1916”.

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

WB Yeats – September 1913

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being as she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

WB Yeats – No Second Troy

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

WB Yeats – An Irish Airman foresees his death

The site of the demolished Coole House

The final phase of Yeats’s poetry begins with “The Tower” (1928). Yeats constructs himself as a very self-conscious bard in poems like “The Tower” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. He publicly celebrates Ireland’s culture which he sees embodied in Coole Park and Lady Gregory and which for him become emblematic of a nostalgically remembered Anglo-Irish Ascendancy dispensation. He contemplates old age and its difficulties, and meditates on the function of art in life. Yeats was also an Irish Senator, reflected in the poem, “Among School Children”, together with “Sailing to Byzantium”, can serve as exemplary verse from the last phase of Yeats’s poetry.

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy –

WB Yeats – Among School Children

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

WB Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man, and though I prayed all day
And that old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

WB Yeats – The Pilgrim

yeats mural

Coole Park, Co. Galway, the seat of the remarkable Augusta Gregory handmaiden of the Irish Literary Revival, Founder of the Abbey Theatre and muse to the poet William Butler Yeats who wrote five poems about or set in the house and grounds: “The Wild Swans at Coole”, “I walked among the seven woods of Coole”, “In the Seven Woods”, “Coole Park, 1929” and “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”. Disgracefully in 1941 Coole House, then in the ownership of the Irish State, was demolished on “economic grounds” in an act of wanton philistinism. Happily hindsight today has not tried to defend this act and as well as the magical Coole Lake where the “Wild Swans” congregate each autumn the “Seven Woods” interspersed with turloughs (seasonal Karst lakes) lend the grounds an appropriate mythical quality.

I HAVE heard the pigeons of the Seven Woods
Make their faint thunder, and the garden bees
Hum in the lime-tree flowers; and put away
The unavailing outcries and the old bitterness
That empty the heart. I have forgot awhile
Tara uprooted, and new commonness
Upon the throne and crying about the streets
And hanging its paper flowers from post to post,
Because it is alone of all things happy.
I am contented, for I know that Quiet
Wanders laughing and eating her wild heart
Among pigeons and bees, while that Great Archer,
Who but awaits His hour to shoot, still hangs
A cloudy quiver over Pairc-na-lee.

WB Yeats – In the Seven Woods, 1904

Under my window ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven’s face,
Then darkening through ‘dark’ Raftery’s ‘cellar’ drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What’s water but the generated soul?

W.B. Yeats ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931

The woods at Coole

Nearby to Coole Park in 1918 Yeats’s bought and renovated an Irish keep or tower house. Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’s monument and symbol; in both aspects it had multiple significance. It satisfied his desire for a rooted place in a known countryside, not far from Coole and his life-long friend Lady Gregory. To live in a Tower complemented, perhaps, his alignment with a tradition of cultivated aristocracy which he had envied and a leisured peace which he had enjoyed. A Dialogue of Self and Soul” dramatizes the conflicting claims of life and death.

Thoor Ballylee

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,

WB Yeats – A Prayer for my Daughter

W.B. Yeats with his daughters

While the Soul represents all that would lead Yeats out of life, the Self encompasses the part of Yeats’ nature that is responsive to the beauty, as well as the horror, of life. In Section I the Soul’s command to ascend “the winding ancient stair” and seek deliverance from the endless cycle of rebirth is countered by the Self’s contemplation of Sato’s sword, a symbol of the passions man experiences in lifetime after lifetime.

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
“Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul.

WB Yeats – A Dialogue Of Self And Soul

THE TREES are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.”

The Wild Swans at Coole

Wild Swans at Coole Lake

I bring you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams,
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams,
I bring you my passionate rhyme.

WB Yeats – A Poet to His Beloved

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

WB Yeats – The Second Coming

“The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos,
both Beautiful, one a gazelle.”

William Butler Yeats’ – In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz

Lissadell House, Co. Sligo


“That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?”

“Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

WB Yeats – Easter 1916

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree – WB Yeats

Yeats made these recordings for the wireless in 1932, 1934 and the last on 28 October 1937 when he was 72. He died on January 28 1939. The photograph shows him sitting before the microphone in 1937.

A bloody and a sudden end,
Gunshot or a noose,
For Death who takes what man would keep,
Leaves what man would lose,
He might have had my sister,
My cousins by the score,
But nothing satisfied the fool
But my dear Mary Moore,
None other knows what pleasures man
At table or in bed.
What shall I do for pretty girls
Now my old bawd is dead?

WB Yeats – John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs Mary Moore.

WINE comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

W.B. Yeats – A Drinking Song

A poem often associated with the not entirely unrequited love between Yeats and Maud Gonne. One of the great unrequited (almost) love stories in literature is of the poet William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne McBride. In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old heiress and ardent Nationalist. Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with her beauty and outspoken manner, and she was to have a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter.

Maud Gonne

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

When you are old – WB Yeats

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Suppression of breath
He knows death to the bone —
Man has created death.;

WB Yeats – Death

Drumcliffe Church

Yeats died on January 28, 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France and was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin after a private funeral but according to his wishes his body was moved after the war in 1948 to Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo, where Yeats’s great-grandfather was the Church of Ireland Rector for more than 30 years in the early 19th century. Here Yeats is buried under a gravestone inscribed with one of his last poems, “Under Ben Bulben”: In this poem Yeats outlined how and where he was to be buried and even included the epitaph he wanted inscribed on his gravestone:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman pass by.

Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo


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