One of Sligo most famous sons is Nobel Prize winning poet, W.B Yeats. Buried at Drumcliff’s St Columba’s Church cemetry, his epitaph read’s:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by
W.B. Yeats Biography
William Butler Yeats (W.B. Yeats) was born on June 13, 1865 in Sandymount, Dublin to parents John Butler Yeats and Susan (Pollexfen) Yeats. His mother came from a wealthy merchant family in Sligo town who owned a milling and shipping business and soon after he was born, the family relocated to the Pollexfen home in Merville, Sligo and it was during this time that he fell in love with Sligo and it’s scenic beauty, which is evident in some of the poetry he wrote.
In 1874 at the age of nine, he moved with his family to London but eventually returned to Ireland in 1880, living at first in the suburbs of Harold’s Cross and later Howth. In October 1881, Yeats resumed his education at Dublin’s Erasmus Smith High School. His father’s studio was nearby and William spent a great deal of time there, where he met many of the city’s artists and writers. During this period he started writing poetry, and, in 1885, the Dublin University Review published Yeats’s first poems, as well as an essay entitled “The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson”. Between 1884 and 1886, William attended the Metropolitan School of Art—now the National College of Art and Design—in Thomas Street. His first known works were written when he was seventeen, and included a poem—heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley—that describes a magician who set up a throne in central Asia. Most of his early work was mainly devoted to Irish culture, with some poems based on his own personal experiences of his life in Sligo.
In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist.Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with her beauty and outspoken manner and she had a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter. In later years he admitted, “it seems to me that she brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.” Yeats’s love initially remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her nationalist activism.
In 1891, he visited Gonne in and proposed marriage, but she rejected him. He later admitted that from that point “the troubling of my life began”. Yeats proposed to Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused each proposal, and in 1903 she married the Irish nationalist, Major John MacBride, a marraige that ended in 1908.
In 1896, Yeats was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn. Gregory encouraged Yeats’ nationalism, and convinced him to continue focusing on writing drama. Although he was influenced by French Symbolism, Yeats concentrated on an identifiably Irish content and this inclination was reinforced by his involvement with a new generation of younger and emerging Irish authors. Together with Lady Gregory, Martyn, and other writers including J. M. Synge, Seán O’Casey, and Padraic Colum, Yeats was one of those responsible for the establishment of the “Irish Literary Revival” movement. Apart from these creative writers, much of the impetus for the Revival came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and the more recent folk song tradition in Irish. One of the most significant of these was Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.
In 1899, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and George Moore established the Irish Literary Theatre for the purpose of performing Irish and Celtic plays. The ideals of the Abbey were derived from the avant-garde French theatre, which sought to express the “ascendancy of the playwright rather than the actor-manager à l’anglais.” The group’s manifesto, which Yeats wrote, declared, “We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted & imaginative audience trained to listen by its passion for oratory … & that freedom to experiment which is not found in the theatres of England, & without which no new movement in art or literature can succeed.”
The collective survived for about two years but was not successful. Working with two Irish brothers with theatrical experience, William and Frank Fay, Yeats’s unpaid yet independently wealthy secretary Annie Horniman, and the leading West End actress Florence Farr, the group established the Irish National Theatre Society. Along with Synge, they acquired property in Dublin and on 27 December 1904 opened the Abbey Theatre. Yeats’s play Cathleen Ní Houlihan and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News were featured on the opening night. Yeats remained involved with the Abbey until his death, both as a member of the board and a prolific playwright. In 1902, he helped set up the Dun Emer Press to publish work by writers associated with the Revival. This became the Cuala Press in 1904, and inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, sought to “find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things.” From then until its closure in 1946, the press—which was run by the poet’s sisters—produced over 70 titles; 48 of them books by Yeats himself.
In September 1917, Yeats, now 52, proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), known as George, whom he had met through Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends—”George … you can’t. He must be dead”—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’s feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael. Although in later years he had romantic relationships with other women and possibly affairs, George herself wrote to her husband “When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were.”
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. His reply to many of the letters of congratulations sent to him contained the words: “I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State.” Yeats used the occasion of his acceptance lecture at the Royal Academy of Sweden to present himself as a standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and Irish cultural independence. As he remarked, “The theatres of Dublin were empty buildings hired by the English travelling companies, and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical, because the nationalism we had called up—the nationalism every generation had called up in moments of discouragement—was romantic and poetical.” The prize led to a significant increase in the sales of his books, as his publishers Macmillan sought to capitalise on the publicity. For the first time he had money, and he was able to repay not only his own debts, but those of his father.
By early 1925, Yeats’ health had stabilised, and he had completed most of the writing for “A Vision” (dated 1925, it actually appeared in January 1926, when he almost immediately started rewriting it for a second version). He had been appointed to the first Irish Senate in 1922, and was re-appointed for a second term in 1925. Early in his tenure, a debate on divorce arose, and Yeats viewed the issue as primarily a confrontation between the emerging Roman Catholic ethos and the Protestant minority. When the Roman Catholic Church weighed in with a blanket refusal to consider their anti position, the Irish Times countered that a measure to outlaw divorce would alienate Protestants and “crystallise” the partition of Ireland.
In response, Yeats delivered a series of speeches that attacked the “quixotically impressive” ambitions of the government and clergy, likening their campaign tactics to those of “medieval Spain. Marriage is not to us a Sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each other … to live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry.” The resulting debate has been described as one of Yeats’s “supreme public moments”, and began his ideological move away from pluralism towards religious confrontation.
His language became more forceful; the Jesuit Father Peter Finlay was described by Yeats as a man of “monstrous discourtesy”, and he lamented that, “It is one of the glories of the Church in which I was born that we have put our Bishops in their place in discussions requiring legislation”. During his time in the Senate, Yeats further warned his colleagues: “If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North … You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation”. He memorably said of his fellow Irish Protestants, “we are no petty people”.
In 1924, he chaired a coinage committee charged with selecting a set of designs for the first currency of the Irish Free State. Aware of the symbolic power latent in the imagery of a young state’s currency, he sought a form that was “elegant, racy of the soil, and utterly unpolitical”. When the house finally decided on the artwork of Percy Metcalfe, Yeats was pleased, though he regretted that compromise had led to “lost muscular tension” in the finally depicted images. He retired from the Senate in 1928 because of ill health.
Towards the end of his life—and especially after the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression, which led some to question whether democracy could cope with deep economic difficulty—Yeats seems to have returned to his aristocratic sympathies. During the aftermath of the First World War, he became sceptical about the efficacy of democratic government, and anticipated political reconstruction in Europe through totalitarian rule. His later association with Pound drew him towards Benito Mussolini, for whom he expressed admiration on a number of occasions. He wrote three “marching songs”—never used—for the Irish General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts.
At the age of 69 he was ‘rejuvenated’ by the Steinach operation which was performed on 6 April 1934 by Norman Haire. For the last five years of his life Yeats found a new vigour evident from both his poetry and his intimate relations with younger women. During this time, Yeats was involved in a number of romantic affairs with, among others, the poet and actress Margot Ruddock, and the novelist, journalist and sexual radical Ethel Mannin. As in his earlier life, Yeats found erotic adventure conducive to his creative energy, and, despite age and ill-health, he remained a prolific writer. In a letter of 1935, Yeats noted: “I find my present weakness made worse by the strange second puberty the operation has given me, the ferment that has come upon my imagination. If I write poetry it will be unlike anything I have done”. In 1936, he undertook editorship of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935.
He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, on 28 January 1939. He was buried after a discreet and private funeral at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Yeats and George had often discussed his death, and his express wish was that he be buried quickly in France with a minimum of fuss. According to George, “His actual words were ‘If I die bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo’.” In September 1948, Yeats’ body was moved to Drumcliff, County Sligo, on the Irish Naval Service corvette LÉ Macha. The person in charge of this operation for the Irish Government was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne MacBride, and then Minister of External Affairs. His epitaph is taken from the last lines of “Under Ben Bulben”, one of his final poems:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
Attempts had been made at Roquebrune to dissuade the family from proceeding with the removal of the remains to Ireland due to the uncertainty of their identity. His body had earlier been exhumed and transferred to the ossuary.