When you are old and gray and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire, take down this book and slowly read, and dream of the soft look your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
W(illiam) B(utler) Yeats (1865-1939) was an Irish poet, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He is widely regarded as the best poet to write in English during the twentieth century, and was the driving force behind the Irish literary revival.
William Yeats was born on 13th June 1865 in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland. Yeats grew up as a member of the former Protestant Ascendancy at the time undergoing a crisis of identity.
In 1867, the family moved to England to aid their father, John, to further his career as an artist. At first the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother entertained them with stories and Irish folktales. John provided an erratic education in geography and chemistry, and took William on natural history explorations of the nearby Slough countryside. For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin toward the end of 1880, living at first in the city centre and later in the suburb of Howth.
In October 1881, Yeats resumed his education at Dublin’s Erasmus Smith High School. It was during this period that he started writing poetry, and, in 1885, Yeats’ first poems, as well as an essay entitled “The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson”, were published in the Dublin University Review. 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.” Yeats’ friendship with Gonne persisted, and, in Paris, in 1908, they finally consummated their relationship.
In 1890, Yeats co-founded the Rhymers’ Club with Ernest Rhys, a group of London based poets who met regularly in a Fleet Street tavern to recite their verse. The collective later became known as the “Tragic Generation” and published two anthologies: first in 1892 and again in 1894. He collaborated with Edwin Ellis on the first complete edition of William Blake’s works, in the process rediscovering a forgotten poem “Vala, or, the Four Zoas”.
Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology. He read extensively on the subjects throughout his life, became a member of the paranormal research organization “The Ghost Club” (in 1911) and was especially influenced by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.
By 1916, Yeats was 51 years old and determined to marry and produce an heir. His final proposal to Maud Gonne took place in the summer of 1916. However she again turned him down. That September, Yeats proposed to twenty-four year old George (Georgie) Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), whom he had met through occult circles.Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael.
In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was determined to make the most of the occasion. He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence, and sought to highlight the fact at each available opportunity.
Yeats found erotic adventure conducive to his creative energy, and, despite age and ill-health, he remained a prolific writer. He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, on 28 January 1939.