William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s first Nobel Literature laureate – he received the award in 1923, two years before George Bernard Shaw – was born in Sandymount in Dublin in 1865. However, he spent much of his early life in County Sligo, which he considered to be his spiritual home. Painting rather than poetry was more in the Yeats bloodline. His father and brother, both called John, were distinguished painters as was his ancestor Jervis Yeats, a Williamite soldier who benefitted from the defeat of King James in 1690.
Despite his impressive corpus of poetry and the fact that people constantly quote some of his best lines – how many ‘Terrible Beauties’ have been born since he wrote Easter 1916? – Yeats is probably best known, in popular consciousness at least, for his doomed relationship with Maud Gonne. They met in 1889. According to Yeats she brought into his life ‘a sound, as of a Burmese gong’. Presumably that was intended as a compliment but it was hardly designed to set the pulses of the 23 year old beauty racing. He first proposed to her in 1891. Sh refused him. He waited for another eight years before trying again. With the same result. He popped the question for a third time in 1900. Again, her answer was ‘no’. Proving that he was a perennial optimist or someone who didn’t take no for an answer he tried again in 1901. He got no for an answer. Instead, a few years later she horrified Yeats by marrying fellow Irish nationalist John McBride and, to his additional chagrin, became a Catholic into the bargain. The marriage, to Yeats’s intense satisfaction, was a disaster.
In 1908 Yeats had the even greater satisfaction of finally, after almost twenty years of forbearance, consummating his relationship with Maud Gonne. How well it went from her point of view can possibly be surmised from the letter she sent him in January 1909 suggesting that artists who abstained from sex would reap the rewards in their work. Either way they never re-consummated their relationship.
Yeats was very much a public figure throughout the early part of the 20th century. His co-founding of the Abbey Theatre, his aristocratic nationalism – which apparently included membership of the revolutionary organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood – and two stints as a Senator of the newly formed Irish Free State, ensured that he lived much of his life far from the stereotype of the secluded, reclusive poet.
After the execution of Major John McBride in 1916 he proposed to Maud Gonne for a fifth time. Again he was rejected. He then turned his attention to her daughter Iseult with the same result. Eventually Yeats did find happiness in his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees, who, although only half the poet’s age, became his accomplice in some strange spiritualistic experiments and an excellent partner for the ageing artist.
W.B.Yeats, a man whose tangled love life inspired some wonderful poetry, was born 149 years ago, on this day.
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