William Butler Yeats was born 150 years ago. He was an outsider in so many ways – a Protestant from the merchant classes never entirely at home in the big houses of the landed gentry, a nationalist with a pronounced Anglo-Irish accent, a poet revered in universities who never sat for a degree, the list goes on.
Renowned for his glittering and insightful poetry, there was so much more to Willie Yeats. A shy and introverted man he felt that the artist should not only develop his craft but fully engage in public affairs. Thus, he immersed himself in the “national question” and thoroughly embraced his Irish identity.
He believed that knowledge should be shared, and traveled widely around Ireland giving lectures to workingmen and women. My grandfather told me of a talk “Mister Yeats” gave at the Mechanics’ Institute in Wexford on “The Necessity of Creating an Irish National Theatre.”
Apparently the lecture was stirring but what impressed the workers most was that Yeats refusal to leave the building until every last question was answered.
He did create an Irish National Theatre with Lady Gregory from the ground up - finding suitable premises, hiring actors, writing and soliciting plays, down to counting the proceeds and paying the bills. All this from a man with little experience of handling money – his father was an impecunious artist who ended up in New York City dependent on the charity of others.
Though aware of his own genius, Yeats was generous to anyone with talent. A world figure at 39, yet he listened to both the personal and professional criticisms of a supremely confident, but unpublished, 20-year old James Joyce.
He never doubted that Synge’s Playboy of the Western World would be performed wherever people loved great playwriting. Likewise, he stood by the prickly Sean O’Casey through thick and thin, taking to the stage when the Abbey Theatre audience rioted in protest against the young socialist’s attitude to sex and religion in The Plough and the Stars.
A man of many interests, Mr. Yeats went mano-a-mano with the scandalous Aleister Crowley over the stewardship of The Golden Dawn, a hermetic magical society. Crowley, a man of powerful intellect wrote with some glee that for all Yeats’ gifts he could not imagine the gangly, ungainly poet engaged in any kind of sexual endeavor.
And yet, the cerebral Mr. Yeats was not without his successes with the ladies. Alas, the one closest his heart, Maud Gonne, led him a not-so-merry dance. The poet wrote “White Birds” immediately after his proposal of marriage was refused by the wily Maud who promised that instead of a plunge into matrimony they would forever be united like “white birds on the foam of the sea.”
Despite this greatest of literary kiss-offs, Willie persevered with his suit for further decades. However, he did gain the ultimate revenge by proposing to Maud’s daughter, Iseult. One can only imagine Mama’s reaction.
And yet, the world is a much richer place because of the many lovelorn lines penned by Mr. Yeats in the pursuit of his stony beloved.
Is there a more profound yet succinct poet – one who gets to the heart of the matter with the least fuss? I often think his following lines perfectly distill and encapsulate the tragedy of our national and religious divisions:
“Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start
I carry from my mother’s womb a fanatic heart”
While his pithy statement “a terrible beauty is born” says so much about the flawed redemption of the 1916 uprising.
Perhaps more than anyone Yeats saw that the new Ireland created in 1922 had merely exchanged masters – Catholic bishops for British royalty. In a speech in 1925 when the Irish Free State was about to outlaw divorce, he spoke somewhat presciently, “We (Irish Protestants) are no petty people. Your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.”
Outsider he might have been but this often-unworldly poet had his finger on the pulse of Ireland, and could see that theocracy of any kind limits and ultimately damages a society.
Rave on, Mr. Yeats, 150 years young, your words and actions still resound across the ages.