William Butler Yeats – Romantic Revolutionist

“Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and She has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.“  The Celtic Twilight, by W. B. Yeats, 1893.

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) is widely considered as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was an Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer. Yeats studied poetry when he became fascinated by Irish legends. In December 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. 

Yeats was born in Dublin, the 13th of June, 1865. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In his later years Yeats served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others.

“Together with Lady Gregory he founded the Irish Theatre, which was to become the Abbey Theatre, and served as its chief playwright until the movement was joined by John Synge. His plays usually treat Irish legends; they also reflect his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism. The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The King’s Threshold (1904), and Deirdre (1907) are among the best known. His poetry, especially the volumes The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), and Last Poems and Plays (1940), made him one of the outstanding and most influential twentieth-century poets writing in English. His recurrent themes are the contrast of art and life, masks, cyclical theories of life.“ From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969. Photographic portrait of William Butler Yeats by Alice Broughton.

The Muse

At the end of 1886 Yeats moved to London with his family. There he wrote poems, plays, novels, and short stories – all with Irish characters and scenes. In addition, he produced book reviews, usually on Irish topics. In London, he fell in love with Maud Gonne. She was an English-born Irish republican revolutionary and actress. She is well known for being the Muse and long-time love interest of W. B. Yeats. He dedicated to her his plays The Countess Kathleen (1892), and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which featured her as the personification of Ireland in the title role.

“The Cat and the Moon“ by W. B. Yeats

The cat went here and there

And the moon spun round like a top,

And the nearest kin of the moon,

The creeping cat, looked up.

Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,

For, wander and wail as he would,

The pure cold light in the sky

Troubled his animal blood.

Minnaloushe runs in the grass

Lifting his delicate feet.

Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?

When two close kindred meet,

What better than call a dance?

Maybe the moon may learn,

Tired of that courtly fashion,

A new dance turn.

Minnaloushe creeps through the grass

From moonlit place to place,

The sacred moon overhead

Has taken a new phase.

Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils

Will pass from change to change,

And that from round to crescent,

From crescent to round they range?

Minnaloushe creeps through the grass

Alone, important and wise,

And lifts to the changing moon

His changing eyes.