W B Yeats : Life and Work

A Life in Poetry

William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet & one of the foremost figures of 20th-century English literature.

Born in Sandymount, County Dublin, he is one of only two poets born in the (then) United Kingdom to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (the other being Seamus Heaney, also Irish), & the only poet brought up in London to have been awarded that honour. Yeats’s poems remain among the nation’s favourites – whether the ‘nation’ is Great Britain or Ireland, & range from love ballads & 19c retellings of folk-tales through to symbolist, visionary, spiritual & political 20c poetry of such sophistication & depth that it continues to be explored & researched by literary academics the world over, 150+ years after his birth.

Under Ben Bulben

Yeats spent two-thirds of his first 30 years in London, with half of that time spent in the Utopian Arts-&-Crafts community of Bedford Park, the world’s first garden suburb.

Young Willie Yeats was just two years old when his lawyer father decided to take Willie & his mother, Susan Pollexfen Yeats, daughter of a successful Sligo merchant, with him to London where he would abandon law & look for work as a portait painter. So Willie, with his sisters, Elizabeth & Susan, & his brother Jack, moved, like many migrant families, between London, where they survived modestly, Sligo, & occasionally Dublin, where they could rely on family support in straitened circumstances.

The family moved to 8 Woodstock Road in Bedford Park in 1879 & young Willie attended Godolphin (then a boys’ school) until age 16 when they moved back to Dublin, returning to London when he was 20, moving back to 3 Blenheim Road, Bedford Park, where they remained until 1902 with Willie finally leaving home in the mid-1890s.

The Early Poems

No-one who knows Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, inspired as much by Chiswick Eyot, an island in the Thames near Old Chiswick Village (less than a mile from Bedford Park), as by the Sligo island it recalled so vividly for him, & written in his Blenheim Rd, Bedford Park, bedroom, can be unaware of the art produced from the urban-vs-rural, London-vs-West-of-Ireland, tension in the life Yeats’s artist father had given the family in even this most pastoral of suburbs. (That poem’s publication in the National Observer by its poet-editor W.E. Henley who lived half-a-mile away was, like Yeats’s subsequent publication by his Blenheim Rd next-door-neighbour, Elkin Matthews’ publishing house The Bodley Head, part of the joy of living at the centre of Bedford Park’s literary milieu.)

Cloths of Heaven

No-one who knows Had I the Heavens’ Embroidered Cloths can have missed the importance – in WBY’s early poetic imagery – of the Arts-&-Crafts movement in West London, & of the work of William Morris, for whom WBY’s sister embroidered rich mediaeval tapestries & costumes at Kelmscott House three-quarters of a mile away on the Thames.

And anyone familiar with Yeats’s complex response to Ireland’s struggle for independence, voiced in poems such as Easter, 1916 will know of the impact of Bedford Park’s progressive thinking, and of the Yeatses’ visitors there, such as John O’Leary and Maud Gonne, not least in developing WBY’s political poetry & drama, with its complex view of all that was to happen in 20c Ireland &, eventually, throughout the British Empire.

Land of Heart’s Desire

Land of Heart's Desire

Sligo, in the West of Ireland, remained Susan Pollexfen Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire & became, through her talk of Irish stories & legends & the freedom of family summers spent there, Willie’s dream of an alternative to industrialised urban Victorian city beyond Bedford Park’s tree-lined avenues. Significantly his first staged play entitled Land of Heart’s Desire, told the old story of a young woman being lured away from the marital home to a magical place & he wrote the play in response both to dramas he’d seen enacted at the Bedford Park Club & to a request from Florence Farr whom he’d seen act in one of those dramas.

Thus the idea for an Irish National Theatre was born in Bedford Park in 1894, & the Irish Literary Society, which is still a significant force in London literary life today, was formed in the Yeats’s Blenheim Rd home in December 1892.

The Capital as Cultural Hub

Of course Yeats, & the Yeats family, with their unique collective contribution to poetry, drama, painting, arts & crafts, are only part of an ongoing cultural exchange between Ireland & London — between the rest of the world & London, in fact: a cultural exchange in which many Irish artists, writers, composers, actors, political thinkers (not to mention journalists, lawyers etc or the more-frequently cited construction workers, domestic servants, teachers & nurses) found employment in the capital. It would be difficult to imagine English literature without Farquhar, Congreve, Addison, Steele, Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, 19c painting without Maclise & Archer-Shee, music & song without Moore, Wallace, Balfe, Sullivan & Stanford, or British 19c politics without Burke, O’Connell, or Parnell… all of them Irish.

But it was a cultural exchange which went both ways in allowing Irish artists & writers the support and media/publishing/theatre networks to develop cultural identity, as evidenced not simply by the Yeats poems that Ireland took to heart, but by the plays, inspired by amateur dramatics and Bedford Park theatrical ‘experiments’, that led to Yeats’s controversial Abbey Theatre plays and the founding of the first state-subsidised theatre in Europe which has continued to play a vital part, over the years, both in bringing Irish drama to London (& the USA etc) as well as developing the Irish theatrical talent continues to dominate theatre as it has done over the two preceding centuries.  

Getting to know Mr Yeats

Under Ben Bulben

Look out for lectures and literary walks on our events page, join London’s Irish Literary Society, explore Yeats’s Collected Poems, read Roy Foster’s two-volume literary biography, The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 and The Arch Poet 1915-1939 or, to fully experience the West of Ireland where Yeats found inspiration for the poetry and plays he wrote in Bedford Park, visit the Yeats International Summer School now in its 61st year under Ben Bulben in Sligo’s magnificent Yeats Country!

Down by the Salley Gardens

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow–white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow–white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

Easter 1916

I

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth–century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

II

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain–glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

III

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse–hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long–legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor–cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

IV

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.