Modern Classic: William Butler Yeats
Born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, William Butler Yeats was gifted with prodigious energies, pursuing interests not only in poetry, but in esoteric philosophy, folklore, painting, theater, and politics. Although the elaborate style of his early poems displays a Pre-Raphaelite influence, and his unrequited love for the beautiful Maud Gonne, an ardent revolutionary, permeates the work, Yeats was not the delicate poet retreating from the world to polish his songs in solitude.
Yeats grew up in County Sligo and London. In 1884, while studying art in Dublin,Yeats met the poet George Russell, and together they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society, dedicated to the study of magic and ritual. Simultaneous with the beginnings of his exploration of the occult,Yeats also embraced the cause of Celtic nationalism. England had banned Gaelic, attempting to absorb Ireland more completely into its empire, but Yeats envisioned an Irish literature with its roots in Irish history, mythology, and folklore. These myths and stories continued to appear in his own work right up to his last poem, “Cuchulain Comforted,” written just two weeks before his death, which ends “They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” When Yeats finally married in 1917 at age 52, he and his young wife, Georgianna Hyde-Lees, discovered on their honeymoon her talent for automatic writing. From his wife's communications with the spirit world, and his own occult studies, Yeats developed the elaborate system of symbols used extensively in his work from A Vision (1925) onward.
Harriet Monroe had met Yeats in Chicago in 1912 while he was on an American tour. When she began soliciting work for the first issues of Poetry, she sent Yeats one of the announcements. Ultimately, Ezra Pound, who served both as Yeats's unofficial personal secretary at the time and as the magazine's foreign editor, forwarded five of Yeats's poems—with corrections suggested by Pound himself! These poems were published in the magazine's third issue in December 1912, restored to their original form as Yeats demanded. (In letters, Pound referred to Yeats as “Big Bill” to differentiate him from William Carlos Williams, or “Little Bill.”) Partly as a result of Pound's influence, Yeats's mature style became sparer and more colloquial within the framework of the traditional verse forms he used throughout his career. This change of style is seen in “The Fisherman,” which appeared in Poetry in 1916, with its freckled fisherman in “grey Connemara clothes” casting his line in “a place / Where stone is dark under froth.”
In 1913 Yeats received Poetry's first Guarantor's Prize, which occasioned a great deal of controversy and argument between the editor and her foreign correspondent. Monroe wanted to award the prize to Vachel Lindsay, the poet she had discovered and who was often in need of cash. But Pound pressed the case for Yeats by letter, writing to Monroe:
About the [£50] prize. It must be offered to Yeats. If he is so dam'd opulent as not to need it, he will probably return it. As for its not being adventurous to offer it to him, I dont see that it is our job to be adventurous in this case but to be just . . . If you give it to Yeats, you, FIRST make the giving of this particular prize serious, you establish a good tradition. The person who receives it after Yeats is considerably more honoured than if he received it after Lindsay, or after any other man who can not yet be taken seriously as an artist. . .After more back and forth, Monroe informed Pound of the newly established Levinson Prize, to “go to the best American poem”; and Pound responded characteristically: “with this last imbecility I will have nothing to do. . . either this rotten £50 is an honourable award for the best poem, or it is a local high school prize for the encouragement of mediocrity. Either it must be respectfully offered to Mr. Yeats, or the americans must admit that they are afraid of foreign competition.”
Monroe ultimately acquiesced to Pound's urgings and awarded the Guarantor's Prize to Yeats. With £10 Yeats commissioned a commemorative book-plate as an acknowledgement of the award. As to the remaining £40, he wrote to Monroe saying that it should be given to Pound himself: “I suggest him to you because, though I don't really like with my whole soul the metrical experiments he has made for you, I think those experiments show a most vigorous imaginative mind. He is certainly a creative personality of some sort, though it is too soon yet to say what sort. His experiments are perhaps errors, I am not certain; but I would sooner give the laurel to vigorous error than to any orthodoxy not inspired.”
In 1914 both Yeats and Lindsay appeared at a banquet honoring the Irish poet sponsored by Poetry in Chicago. Over the years, Poetry published nearly three dozen of Yeats's poems, including several of his most well-known lyrics, such as “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” “The Magi,” “The Fisherman,” and “A Prayer for My Daughter.”
In addition to founding the Abbey Theater in 1904, Yeats also served six years as senator for the Irish Free State beginning in 1922. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Yeats died on January 28, 1939, in the south of France, but is buried in Drumcliff, County Sligo. His epitaph, taken from his poem, “Under Ben Bulben,” reads:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!