W B Yeats : Life and Work

A Life in Poetry

William Butler Yeats (13 Jun 1865 — 28 Jan 1939), b. Sandymount, Co. Dublin, Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20c English literature is one of only two poets born in the (then) UK, and the only one brought up in England, to win the Nobel Prize (Seamus Heaney having been born and grown up in the North of Ireland). Yeats’s poems are among the nation’s favourites — whether the ‘nation’ is Great Britain or Ireland — and range from love ballads and 19c folk-tale retellings through to symbolist, visionary, spiritual and political 20c poetry of sophistication and depth that continues to be explored/researched by academics the world over, 150+ years after his birth.

Under Ben Bulben

Yeats spent 20 of his first 30 years in London, half that time in the Utopian Arts-&-Crafts community at Bedford Park, the world’s first garden-suburb: he was just two when his father, County-Down-born John Butler Yeats,abandoned a Dublin law career in favour of portrat painting and brought, Willie, his mother, Susan Pollexfen Yeats, daughter of a Sligo merchant, and Willie’s sister Elizabeth, to London where the growing family moved frequently between houses, and between London, Dublin and Susan’s native Sligo, moving into Bedford Park’s Woodstock Rd in 1879 while Willie attended Godolphin (then a boys’ school) until age 16, then back to Dublin, returning to London when he was 20, and to 3 Blenheim Rd, Bedford Park, in 1888 where they remained until 1902.

The Yeats Siblings

Under Ben Bulben

Yeats’s three siblings all showed a talent for art and craft work, Susan becoming a leading embroiderer with Wm. Morris’s daughter May at the hive of industry that was Kelmscott House on the Thames nearby, and Elizabeth and Jack studying art at the Chiswick School of Art (the site that is now ArtsEd) with Elizabeth going on to become a painter and art-teacher, and founding, with Susan after the family left Bedford Park, Ireland’s craft industry in the Dun Emer Guild and Cuala Press Jack B Yeats, seven years younger than Willie and brought up primarily by Sligo grandparents until he joined the family in Blenheim Road at age fifteen, worked first as an illustrator before going on to develop the distinctive style that saw him win Ireland’s first Olympic Medal (in the arts and culture section) and go on to become Ireland’s greatest 20th-century artist.

The Early Poems

No-one who knows Yeat’s’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree, inspired as much by Chiswick Eyot in the Thames by Old Chiswick (a mile from Bedford Park) as by the Sligo island it so-vividly conjures, and written in his Blenheim Rd 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 Arts-&-Crafts in West London, and the work of William Morris, for whom WBY’s sister embroidered rich mediaeval tapestries and 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 and drama, with its complex view of all that was to happen in Ireland and, eventually, throughout the British Empire and the 20c world.

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 and became, through her talk of Irish stories and legends, and the freedom of family summers spent there, Willie’s dream of an alternative to the industrialised urban Victorian city beyond Bedford Park’s winding tree-lined avenues. Significantly his first staged play, entitled Land of Heart’s Desire, told the old story of a young woman 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 and to a request from Florence Farr whom he’d seen act in those dramas.

Thus the idea for an Irish National Theatre was born in Bedford Park in 1894, with the Irish Literary Society (still a significant force in London literary life today) already founded in the Yeats’s Blenheim Rd home in Dec1892.

The Capital as Cultural Hub

Yeats, and the Yeats family, with their unique collective contribution to poetry, drama, painting, arts and crafts, are only part of an ongoing cultural exchange between Ireland and London (and between the rest of the world and London): an 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 and nurses) found employment and success 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 and Archer-Shee, music and song without Moore, Wallace, Balfe, Sullivan and Stanford, or British 19c politics without Burke, Wellington, O’Connell, or Parnell… all of them Irish.

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

Getting to know Mr Yeats

Under Ben Bulben

Look out for lectures and literary walks on our events page. Discover Yeats’s poems on The Poetry Hour read by Seamus Heaney, Edna O’Brien and Fiona Shaw. 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.

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Phase Two backers include:

  • London's Royal Academy, Dukes Education, Embassy of Ireland, London Borough of Hounslow, The Tabard (Yeats's local!), The Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation, Jimmy Page and Scarlett Sabet, Rowan Williams, Bob Geldof, Marie Heaney, Jeremy Vine, Carmen Callil, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Polly Devlin, Tom Paulin, Roy Foster, Edna and Michael Longley, Fergal Keane, Kevin McNally, Phyllis Logan, Shevaun Wilder, Ciarán Hinds, Martin and Joyce Enright, Marina Warner, Joseph Hassett, countless poets, actors, academics, Yeats fanatics, and lovers of all the arts, and literally hundreds of local Bedford Park residents, all shown on Crowdfund website and all of whom helped us reach our £134,000 target to include Enwrought Light by Conrad Shawcross RA plus stone base, engraving, interpretive signage, groundwork, delivery & installation, to be installed by Yeats's birthday, 13th June 2022.

Phase One backers (pre-Crowdfund-website) include:

  • Anne-Marie Fyfe, Lab 99 Web Design, Land of Heart's Desire Literary Walks, Frances O'Leary, Kate McAlister, Joseph Hassett, Chiswick Pier Trust, Patrick Corcoran, Miles Parker, Tom Sleigh and Anthony Byrne, plus gifts in kind & donations from Ciarán Hinds, Polly Devlin, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Irish Literary Society, London Buddhist Vihara, Embassy of Ireland (London), Embassy of Ireland (Washington) and local businesses and architect/design/planning professionals and consultants, all of whom, between them, covered £24,500 of Phase#1 project costs pre-2021 incl. organisational set-up, launches, lectures, website-build, IT services, arboricultural, topographical, technical, architectural, heritage impact assessment surveys, reports & all planning consultancy costs.