William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 in London to an Anglo-Irish family. His father John Butler Yeats was a well-known painter, who had married Susan Pollexfen, from a wealthy family of County Sligo, in western Ireland. Educated in London and Dublin, Yeats spent childhood holidays in Co. Sligo. He studied for three years as an art student in Dublin, where he developed an interest in mysticism and the occult, and began a lifelong involvement with the Rosicrucian organisation, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Abandoning art for a literary career at the age of 21, Yeats edited William Blake’s poetry and began to write his own. His early work was influenced by Shelley and the Pre-Raphaelite poets, and drew on Irish mythology for subject matter.
In 1889 he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful Englishwoman and political revolutionary with whom he fell in love. He proposed marriage to her several times, but was turned down. She was to marry John McBride in 1903 and divorce him two years later.
In 1896 Yeats became friendly with Augusta, Lady Gregory, who had a strong interest in Gaelic culture and the theatre. Together they founded the Irish National Theatre company, later known as the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin. Yeats wrote plays in both prose and poetry while continuing to produce volumes of verse.
His later poetry developed a plainer style and often dealt with personal and political subjects; he was close to several republican figures and wrote about the struggle for Irish independence in poems such as Easter 1916. Maud Gonne’s exhusband, John MacBride, was a leader in the Easter Uprising and was executed in 1916. After his death Yeats again proposed to Maud Gonne, and when rejected, proposed to her daughter Iseult, who also refused him.
That year he purchased Thoor Ballylee, a tower on Lady Gregory’s land at Coole Park in County Galway. Anxious to marry and have a family, in 1917 the 52 year old Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was 27 years younger. They had two children during what seems to have been a successful marriage, and lived at the tower through the 1920’s. Georgie shared his interest in the supernatural, and her experiments with automatic writing influenced his work. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
Yeats served as a senator of the new Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928. He had romantic affairs with a number of younger women, and despite health problems, continued to write poetry, dramas and essays, as well as editing the Oxford Book of Modern Verse. He died in 1939 at the age of 73.