Saturday, June 13, 2015

June 13 - Birthday of W. B. Yeats, 150 Years Ago

This day was born in 1865 Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in Sandymount, Dublin. He was a favorite poet of my mother and her grandfather was one of the first people to introduce Yeats to a Dutch audience.

Yeats' parents moved to London when he was two years old, but he spent time in Sligo with his grandparents. My mother, Hilda van Stockum, also visited Sligo a lot because her family vacationed there. She enjoyed bring her six children to Sligo and pointing out Benbulbin to us, noting that Yeats had written a poem about it and that it was now called "Yeats Country".

Yeats studied art in Dublin and then returned to London, where he met other writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Even though he was born Protestant, he became involved in the cause of Irish nationalism, in part because in 1889 he met Maud Gonne, the "beautiful, brilliant, and fiery revolutionary" (words of Garrison Keillor).

Meeting Gonne was, Yeats said, when "the troubling of my life began." Yeats fell in love with her,  founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin and wrote plays for her to star in. They shared an interest in mysticism and the occult. They enjoyed what they referred to as a "metaphysical marriage."

In 1908, he wrote in a notebook: "She believed that this bond is to be recreated & to be the means of spiritual illumination between us. It is to be a bond of the spirit only." He wrote the poem "The Bronze Head" about Maud Gonne in 1938.

Yeats proposed a more conventional marriage to her on many occasions, but she turned him down. In 1916 he proposed to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult, who also said no. In the end he married Georgina Hyde Lees.

For many years, Yeats' approach to Irish nationalism was through the country's mythology and folklore. He wanted to remind people of what pagan Ireland was like. His early poems, including The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), were heavily influenced by Celtic mythology.

He published collections of traditional Irish myths, including Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and Irish Fairy Tales (1892). Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, the same year that Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Millay married my mother's uncle, Eugen Boissevain.

Yeats wrote, of his medal:
It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, 'I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young.'
In time, Yeats shed his Celtic mantle and his poems gained in power. His greatest work was written after he was 50. He also became directly involved in politics and served for six years as a senator for the Irish Free State. He remained the director of his Irish Literary Theatre - now renamed the Abbey Theatre - until his death in 1939. He died in France, with his wife and "his latest mistress" (says Keillor) at his bedside.


Charles Boissevain in his newspaper Het Algemeen Handelsblat wrote of his travels to the West of Ireland and references much of Yeats' poetry.

Roselinde Supheert, in "Irish Patriot Aliens: The Irish Cause and the Early Perception of Yeats' Work in the Netherlands" (in Peter Liebregts and Peter van de Kamp, editors, Tumult of Images: Essays on W. B. Yeats and Politics, pp. 183-190) credits Boissevain (whom she curiously calls "de Boissevain") with introducing Yeats to the Dutch.

Boissevain's knowledge of Ireland and especially Sligo is easily explained. He married an Irish women, Heloise MacDonnell, and the MacDonnells vacationed every summer in Sligo.

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