Yeats – Timeline

 

1649/1650 – Cromwell in Ireland

 

1691 – Revolt – Wild Geese

 

1695 – Penal Laws

 

1791 – Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen – 1st Revolt

 

1798 – 2nd Revolt – Death of Wolfe Tone

 

1801 – Act of Union

 

1803 – Robert Emmet Executed

 

1865 – Birth of William Butler Yeats. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen was the daughter of a wealthy family from County Sligo. Susan’s father’s political loyalties, that Ireland should remain under the British crown, were in direct opposition to her husband’s John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) who was sympathetic to the Nationalists and Home Rulers.

 

Yeats was born and educated in Dublin but spent his childhood in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century.

 

He never fully embraced his Protestant past nor joined the majority of Ireland’s Roman Catholics but he devoted much of his life to study in myriad other subjects including theosophy, mysticism, spiritualism, and the Kabbalah.

 

Yeats grew up as a member of the former Protestant Ascendancy at the time undergoing a crisis of identity. While his family was broadly supportive of the changes Ireland was experiencing, the nationalist revival of the late 19th century directly disadvantaged his heritage, and informed his outlook for the remainder of his life.

 

Yeats’ childhood and young adulthood were shadowed by the power shift away from the minority Protestant Ascendancy. The 1880s saw the rise of Parnell and the Home rule movement; the 1890s saw the momentum of nationalism, while the Catholics became prominent around the turn of the century. These developments were to have a profound effect on his poetry, and his subsequent explorations of Irish identity had a significant influence on the creation of his country’s biography.

 

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.

 

 

 

Between 1884 and 1886, William attended the Metropolitan School of Art. 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.

 

1885

 

–       Yeats’ first poems, as well as an essay entitled “The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson”, were published in the Dublin University Review.

 

–       Other pieces from this period include a draft of a play about a Bishop, a monk, and a woman accused of paganism by local shepherds, as well as love-poems and narrative lyrics on medieval German knights. The early works were both conventional and, according to the critic Charles Johnson, “utterly unIrish”, seeming to come out of a “vast murmurous gloom of dreams”.

 

–       Although Yeats’ early works drew heavily on Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and on the diction and colouring of pre-Raphaelite verse, he soon turned to Irish myth and folklore and the writings of William Blake. In later life, Yeats paid tribute to Blake by describing him as one of the “great artificers of God who uttered great truths to a little clan”.

 

–       His first significant poem was “The Isle of Statues”, a fantasy work that took Edmund Spenser for its poetic model. The piece appeared in Dublin University Review, but has not since been republished.

 

 

–       Yeats was involved in the formation of the Dublin Hermetic Order. The society held its first meeting on 16 June, with Yeats acting as its chairman. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was opened in conjunction with Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee, who travelled from the Theosophical Society in London to lecture.

 

1886

 

–       His first solo publication was the pamphlet Mosada: A Dramatic Poem, which comprised a print run of 100 copies paid for by his father.

 

–       Yeats attended his first séance. He later became heavily involved with the Theosophical Society and with hermeticism, particularly with the eclectic Rosicrucianism of the Golden Dawn.

 

The Stolen Child (Crossways 1889)

 

1887

 

–       The family returned to London

 

 

1888

 

–       Edits Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry & joins the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society

 

 

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.” Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with her beauty and outspoken manner, and she was to have a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter.

 

–       Yeats’ love initially remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her nationalist activism.

 

 

–       Published the collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, which arranged a series of verse that dated as far back as the mid-1880s. The long titular poem contains, in the words of his biographer R.F.Foster, “obscure Gaelic names, striking repetitions [and] an unremitting rhythm subtly varied as the poem proceeded through its three sections”

 

 

–       “The Wanderings of Oisin” is based on the lyrics of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology and displays the influence of both Sir Samuel Ferguson and the Pre-Raphaelite poets. The poem took two years to complete and was one of the few works from this period that he did not disown in his maturity. Oisin introduces what was to become one of his most important themes: the appeal of the life of contemplation over the appeal of the life of action. Following the work, Yeats never again attempted another long poem. His other early poems, which are meditations on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects, include Poems (1895), The Secret Rose (1897), and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

 

 

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”.

 

 

 

 

1891

 

–       Edits Representative Irish Tales

 

–       Organises with John O’Leary a meeting of a Young Irish League

 

–       Proposes marriage unsuccessfully to Maud Gonne (& again in 1894, 1899, 1900 & 1901)

 

–       Yeats published “John Sherman” and “Dhoya”, one a novella, the other a story. The two were re-published together in 1990 by The Lilliput Press in Dublin.

 

–       Death of Parnell

 

 

1892

 

–       Publishes The Countess Kathleen & Various Legends and Lyrics

 

–       Helps to found the Irish Literary Society in London

 

–       Founds the national Literary Society in Dublin

 

–       He wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

 

 

1893

 

–       Home Rule Bill passes the House of Commons, defeated in the House of Lords

–       Publishes Collection – The Rose

 

1894

 

–       Yeats met friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) of Coole Park

 

 

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.

 

1897

 

–       Stays with Lady Gregory in Coole Park, discussing folklore and setting up theatre

 

–       Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – riots in Dublin provoked, in part, by Maud Gonne’s anti-British speeches

 

 

1899

 

–       The Irish Literary Theatre which was founded in Dublin. (It would become the Abbey Theatre). As its chief playwright, one of the first plays to be performed there was Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan, with Gonne in the title role.

 

–       Cathleen Ní Houlihan, a one-act play, is startlingly nationalistic, encouraging in its last pages that young men sacrifice their lives for the heroine Cathleen Ní Houlihan, who represents an independent and separate Irish state. The title character first appears as an old woman, at the door of a family celebrating their son’s wedding. She describes her four “beautiful green fields,” representing the four provinces, that have been unjustly taken from her. With little subtlety, she requests a blood sacrifice, declaring that “many a child will be born and there will be no father at the christening”. When the youth agrees and leaves the safety of his home to fight for her, she appears as an image of youth with “the walk of a queen,” professing that of those who fight for her: “They shall be remembered forever, They shall be alive forever, They shall be speaking forever, The people shall hear them forever.”

 

–       Publishes Collection – The Wind Among the Reeds

 

 

 

1903

 

 

–       To his horror, Maud Gonne married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. There were two main reasons why Yeats was so horrified. To lose his muse to another made him look silly before the public. Yeats naturally hated MacBride and continually sought to deride and demean him both in his letters and his poetry. The second reason Yeats was horrified was linked to the fact of Maud’s conversion to Catholicism, which Yeats despised. He thought his muse would come under the influence of the priests and do their bidding. The marriage, as forecast by both their sets of friends and relations was an early disaster. This pleased Yeats as Maud began to visit him in London.

 

 

–       Yeats’ friendship with Gonne persisted, and, in Paris, in 1908, they finally consummated their relationship. “The long years of fidelity rewarded at last” was how another of his lovers described the event. Yeats was less sentimental and later remarked that “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” The relationship did not develop into a new phase after their night together, and soon afterwards Gonne wrote to the poet indicating that despite the physical consummation, they could not continue as they had been: “I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.” By January 1909, Gonne was sending Yeats letters praising the advantage given to artists who abstain from sex.

 

–       Publishes Collection – In The Seven Woods

 

 

1904

 

–       Abbey Theatre Opens with Yeats as producer-manager

 

1907

 

–       Riots in the Abbey Theatre in response to J M Synge’s Playboy of the Weserm World

 

1908

 

–       Yeats met the American poet Ezra Pound. Pound had travelled to London at least partly to meet the older man, whom he considered “the only poet worthy of serious study.” From that year until 1916, the two men wintered in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest, with Pound nominally acting as Yeats’ secretary. The relationship got off to a rocky start when Pound arranged for the publication in the magazine Poetry of some of Yeats’ verse with Pound’s own unauthorised alterations. These changes reflected Pound’s distaste for Victorian prosody. A more indirect influence was the scholarship on Japanese Noh plays that Pound had obtained from Ernest Fenollosa‘s widow, which provided Yeats with a model for the aristocratic drama he intended to write. The first of his plays modelled on Noh was At the Hawk’s Well, the first draft of which he dictated to Pound in January 1916.

 

 

No Second Troy (The Green Helmet & Other Poems – 1910)

 

 

1910 – Publishes Collection – The Green Helmet & Other Poems

 

 

1911

 

–       At the age of forty-six Yeats met Georgie (George) Hyde Lees and they married on 20 October, 1917.

 

–       Despite warning 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’ 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.” During the first years of his marriage, he and George engaged in a form of automatic writing, in which George contacted a variety of spirits and guides they called “Instructors.” The spirits communicated a complex and esoteric system of characters and history, which the couple developed during experiments with the circumstances of trance and the exposition of phases, cones, and gyres.

 

1913

 

–       Home Rule Bill defeated in the House of Lords

 

–       Lane Gallery Dispute – Yeats Vs Catholic Cultural Hierarchy (W M Murphy)

 

–       Lockout of Workers in Dublin – James Larkin’s strike for Union Rights at by William Martin Murphy’s Dublin United Tramway Company

 

–       Connolly forms Irish Citizen Army

 

September 1913 – (Responsibilities – 1914)

 

1914

 

–       Publishes collection – Responsibilities

 

–       World War one begins

 

–       Home Rule Bill passed but suspended because of the war

 

The Cold Heaven – (Responsibilities – 1914)

 

1916

 

The emergence of a nationalist revolutionary movement from the ranks of the mostly Roman Catholic lower-middle and working class made Yeats reassess some of his attitudes. In the refrain of “Easter, 1916” (“All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born”), Yeats faces his own failure to recognise the merits of the leaders of the Easter Rising, due to his attitude towards their humble backgrounds and lives.

 

 

During séances held from 1912, a spirit calling itself “Leo Africanus” apparently claimed it was Yeats’ Daemon or anti-self, inspiring some of the speculations in Per Amica Silentia Lunae. He was admitted into the Golden Dawn in March 1890 and took the magical motto Daemon est Deus inversus—translated as Devil is God inverted or A demon is a god reflected. He was an active recruiter for the sect’s Isis-Urania temple, and brought in his uncle George Pollexfen, Maud Gonne, and Florence Farr. Although he reserved a distaste for abstract and dogmatic religions founded around personality cults, he was attracted to the type of people he met at the Golden Dawn. He was involved in the Order’s power struggles, both with Farr and Macgregor Mathers, but was most notably involved when Mathers sent Aleister Crowley to repossess Golden Dawn paraphernalia during the “Battle of Blythe Road”. After the Golden Dawn ceased and splintered into various offshoots, Yeats remained with the Stella Matutina until 1921.

 

In 1917 Yeats bought the Norman tower ‘Thoor Ballylee’ near Coole Park in Galway for his summer home

 

“The Wild Swans at Coole” was published in 1919.

 

The civil war broke out in Ireland 1922

 

He was elected to the Irish senate in 1922, where he served for six years before resigning to due to failing health.

 

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 honor 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.”[54] 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 capitalize 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.

 

 

1922

 

–       Appointed to the first Irish Senate

 

–       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 “crystallize” the partition of Northern 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”.

 

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.

 

 

1925

 

–       With George’s assistance he wrote A Vision, Yeats’ attempt at explanation for his elaborate philosophy and use of symbolism in his poetry.

 

1928

 

–       He retired from the Senate 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 skeptical 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.

 

Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929)

 

 

In 1933, Yeats participated in his first of many BBC radio broadcasts. He was also living in his home ‘Riversdale’ at Rathfarnham, near Dublin when not spending winters in warmer climes.

 

 

At the age of seventy-three William Butler Yeats died, on 28 January 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. He was first buried there then as were his wishes, in 1948 re-interred “under bare Ben Bulben’s head” in Drumcliff churchyard, County Sligo, Ireland. His gravestone is inscribed with the epitaph Cast a cold Eye, On Life, On Death. Horseman.pass by!

 

 

Yeats is generally considered one of the twentieth century’s key English language poets. He was a Symbolist poet, in that he used allusive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his career. Yeats chose words and assembled them so that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggest other abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant. His use of symbols is usually something physical that is both itself and a suggestion of other, perhaps immaterial, timeless qualities.

 

 

Unlike other modernists who experimented with free verse, Yeats was a master of the traditional forms. The impact of modernism on his work can be seen in the increasing abandonment of the more conventionally poetic diction of his early work in favour of the more austere language and more direct approach to his themes that increasingly characterises the poetry and plays of his middle period, comprising the volumes In the Seven Woods, Responsibilities and The Green Helmet.

 

His later poetry and plays are written in a more personal vein, and the works written in the last twenty years of his life include mention of his son and daughter, as well as meditations on the experience of growing old. In his poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion“, he describes the inspiration for these late works: “Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

 

 

While Yeats’ early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore, his later work was engaged with more contemporary issues, and his style underwent a dramatic transformation. His work can be divided into three general periods. The early poems are lushly pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornate, and, at times, according to unsympathetic critics, stilted. Yeats began by writing epic poems such as The Isle of Statues and The Wanderings of Oisin. After Oisin, he never attempted another long poem. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. Yeats’ middle period saw him abandon the pre-Raphaelite character of his early work and attempt to turn himself into a Landor-style social ironist.

 

Critics who admire his middle work might characterize it as supple and muscular in its rhythms and sometimes harshly modernist, while others find these poems barren and weak in imaginative power. Yeats’ later work found new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he began to work out for himself under the influence of spiritualism. In many ways, this poetry is a return to the vision of his earlier work. The opposition between the worldly-minded man of the sword and the spiritually-minded man of God, the theme of The Wanderings of Oisin, is reproduced in A Dialogue Between Self and Soul.

 

Some critics claim that Yeats spanned the transition from the nineteenth century into twentieth-century modernism in poetry much as Pablo Picasso did in painting while others question whether late Yeats really has much in common with modernists of the Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot variety. Modernists read the well-known poem “The Second Coming” as a dirge for the decline of European civilisation in the mode of Eliot, but later critics have pointed out that this poem is an expression of Yeats’ apocalyptic mystical theories, and thus the expression of a mind shaped by the 1890s. His most important collections of poetry started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). In imagery, Yeats’ poetry became sparer, more powerful as he grew older. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair (1929), and New Poems (1938) contained some of the most potent images in twentieth-century poetry.

 

Yeats’ mystical inclinations, informed by Hindu Theosophical beliefs and the occult, provided much of the basis of his late poetry,[83] which some critics have judged as lacking in intellectual credibility. The metaphysics of Yeats’ late works must be read in relation to his system of esoteric fundamentalities in A Vision (1925).

 

His 1920 poem, “The Second Coming” contains some of literature’s most potent images of the twentieth century.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

According to some interpretations “the best” referred to the traditional ruling classes of Europe who were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements. The concluding lines refer to Yeats’ belief that history was cyclic, and that his age represented the end of the cycle that began with the rise of Christianity.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

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