William Butler Yeats

Bert Hornback looks at the work of the Irish poet, and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature.


There were three Yeatses.  And three other Yeatses.

And then three more.  And Yeats was so vast and various, there may be three more, and again three more.


The first three Yeatses are young, middle-aged, and old. The young Yeats published his first book of poems 1889, when he was twenty-four; one of his finest poems, “Down by the Salley Gardens,” was in it.   Then in 1893,  a  superb second book, with “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,”  “A Cradle Song,” “When You are Old,”  “Who Goes with Fergus?” and “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner.” Three more books in the next ten years, including “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” “The Song of the Old Mother, “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, “The Fiddler of Dooney,” then “Adam’s Curse,” “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water,” “The Mask”—and poems that beg to be sung, like “Brown Penny” and

                              A DRINKING SONG

                        Wine comes in at the mouth

                      And love comes in at the eye;

                      That is all we shall know for truth

                      Before we grow old and die.

                      I life my glass to my mouth,

                      I look at you, and I sigh.                               

Beginning with his 6th book, in 1914—called, perhaps significantly—Responsibilities—we come to the middle Yeats.  He is thirty-nine now.  And it’s not mythic Ireland he is writing about, but politics and other immediate realities—and mysticism, and things occult.

He wins the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, and soon after becomes—by the time he is sixty--an old man.  And he writes another one hundred and seventy poems, a lot of them about old age 

The young Yeats published a little book of ancient Celtic myths.  Many of his early poems deal with this “Romantic Ireland.”  The early poems are for the most part gentle, dreamy, beautiful. 

The middle poems change.  He wrote a poem about that change, called 

            A COAT 

      I made my song a coat

      Covered with embroideries

      Out of old mythologies   

      From heel to throat;

      But the fools caught it,

      Wore it in the world’s eyes

      As though they’d wrought it.

      Song, let them take it,

      For there’s more enterprise

      In walking naked.

The middle poems—many of them—are political, and argumentative.  Some are mystical, some historical.

And the old Yeats’s poems are often about old age, about the world’s madness, about love—and about sex. Here’s a little four liner he wrote in 1937, two years before he died.  It’s called  


You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attention upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?


There were three main women in Yeats’s life, and they all influence his poetry.  So another three Yeatses.

As a young man he met Lady Augusta Gregory.  Doorus House, near Kinvara, on the south side of Galway Bay, looks out toward the Atlantic one way, and to the limestone hills of the Burren the other way.  Robert Martin and another man were talking business, and Yeats and Lady Gregory sat at a small table by a window and talked.  Out of their talk that afternoon in 1896 grew what was first the Irish Literary Theatre and then the Irish National Theatre—which was the first National Theatre in Europe.  And it became such twenty years before Ireland was recognized as a nation!

Many of Yeats’s plays are about characters out of Irish history and mythology.  And they are all poetic dramas, verse plays.  It was Lady Gregory who taught Yeats, in a way, how to write plays.  And she, too, wrote plays—for their Irish Theatre.

In 1889 the young Yeats met Maud Gonne, a beautiful woman a year younger than he was.  They quickly fell in love.  And Yeats wrote two plays for her—plays about Ireland, and the mythic heroine Cathleen ni Houlihan.

Yeats proposed marriage to Maud at least five times.  The first four times she rejected him because he wasn’t serious enough about Irish revolutionary politics—and she was a serious revolutionary.

She married a man named John McBride, who was a revolutionary.  He was hanged by the British in 1916 for his part in the Easter 1916 uprising in Ireland.  In 1917 Yeats—now fifty-two—proposed to her again.  She rejected him again.  So he proposed to her twenty-two year-old daughter, Iseult, who also refused him.

Two weeks later he proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom he had met when she was a child of ten.  “George”—as he called her—was 25 now, and she accepted his proposal. They married three weeks later.  George and Willie—as she called him—had two children.  Each gets a poem:  “A Prayer for My Daughter,” one of his most beautiful poems, and “A Prayer for My Son.”

In 1918 Yeats bought a 16th century tower in County Clare, in the West of Ireland, restored it, and he and his wife and baby daughter moved in there, in 1919.  He wrote a poem, entitled “To be carved on a stone at Thoor Ballylee.”  And it is carved there:

I the poet, William Yeats,

With old mill boards and sea green slate

And smithy work from the Gort forge

Restored this tower for my wife George.

May these characters still remain

When all is ruin once again.

On their honeymoon, George Yeats started doing “automatic writing.”  She would sit at a table, holding a pen loosely in her hand.  And a spirit—her spirits all had names, and they gave them when they visited her—would move her hand, and write.

So the three women are Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne, and his wife George.Yeats was fascinated.  Soon he decided that having to do the writing herself—as well as be possessed by the visiting spirit—was too much for George, so he took over the writing, and the spirits spoke through her.  George’s “automatic writing” continued sporadically for nearly four years, from 1917 to 1921. 


Yeats also had three main mythic characters, who appear in his poems.  The first was Cathleen ni Houlihan, sometimes a beautiful young woman with yellow hair, sometimes “the poor old woman.”  She was played on stage by Maud Gonne.

Then there was Cuchulain, the great mythic Irish hero who fought against the sea.  “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” is a poem that appears in 1893, in Yeats’s second book.  He wrote “On Baile’s Strand,” a play about Cuchulain and his fight with the sea, in 1904.  Then two more plays about Cuchulain in 1910 and 1919.  Then his last play, completed just before he died, in 1939.  It is called “The Death of Cuchulain.”  And the poem he wrote two weeks before his own death, is called “Cuchulain Comforted.”

And then there is a wonderful old woman—Yeats’s creation—called “Crazy Jane.”  He writes seven “Crazy Jane” poems for his 1933 book, The Winding Stair, and another for Last Poems in 1939.  The finest, perhaps, is


                     I met the Bishop on the road

                    And much said he and I.

                    ‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,

                    Those veins must soon be dry;

                    Live in a heavenly mansion,

                    Not in some foul sty.’


                    ‘Fair and foul are near of kin,

                    And fair needs foul,’ I cried.

                    ‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth

                    Nor grave nor bed denied,

                    Learned in bodily lowliness

                    And in the heart’s pride.


                    ‘A woman can be proud and stiff

When on love intent;

                    But Love has pitched his mansion in

                    The place of excrement;

                    For nothing can be sole or whole

                    That has not been rent.’

Yeats continued writing right up to the end of his life.  He finished what was intended to be his last poem—“Under Ben Bulben”—in September of 1938, but then wrote one more play and two more poems in January of 1939.  A week after he finished the last of the poems, he died.

Ben Bulben is a magnificent flat-topped mountain in County Sligo, in the West of Ireland.  Yeats spent much of his childhood in its vicinity.  “Under Ben Bulben” ends with what Yeats wrote as his epitaph:

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

          How many times have I stood at the foot his grave in Drumcliff Churchyard, under Ben Bulben, and recited that wonderful long poem for him!  The first time was in 1961; I was twenty-six years old.  It’s 2017 as I write this—and I have stood there again, and said it for him again. 

                                        Cast a cold eye

                                        On life, on death.

                                        Horseman, pass by!

Bert Hornback is the author of five books on Dickens, books on George Eliot 
and Thomas Hardy, and The Ideal of Tragedy  and The Wisdom in Words. He is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Michigan and Saarland University.  Helives in Saarbruecken, Germany where he is the director of the Center for the Advancement of Peripheral Thought.

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