I wrote this and read it at several annual W.B. Yeats Society of New York poetry awards ceremonies, at which the winners of cash prizes are introduced and present their winning entry and a few of their other poems.
Anglo-Irish William Butler Yeats was born June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland, the eldest son of Susan Mary Pollexfen and internationally known painter and intellectual, John Butler Yeats, and brother of pioneer print artisans Elizabeth and Susan and esteemed modern painter Jack Yeats.
One of the great English-language poets, W.B. was also deeply involved in Irish nationalism. He was appointed a Senator of the Irish Free State in 1922 and is also remembered as an important cultural leader, playwright, and founder of Dublin’s famous Abbey Theatre.
In his poems, Yeats maintained a fairly strict adherence to traditional verse forms, although after 1910 his poetry became more modern in its concision and imagery, partly because of the influence of his friends Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
As an artist, Yeats spanned the transition in poetry from 19th century formalism to 20th century modernism. His most important poetry collections started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). As he got older, his poems became sparer and more powerful. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stairs (1929), and New Poems (1938) contain some of the most potent images in 20th century verse.
His famous poems include:
In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance lecture, he presented himself as a standard-bearer for Irish cultural independence. He said, “The theatres of Dublin were empty buildings, hired by the English traveling 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."
Throughout his adult life, Yeats lived and relished the life of the Great Poet, but as he was dying in France in 1939, he also showed he had a much more modest side when he told his wife Georgie, “If I die, bury me up there" [he meant the town churchyard at Roquebrune, near Monaco]. "And then in a year’s time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”
Yeats died on January 28th of that year. He was 73. In September 1948, his remains were moved to Sligo’s Drumcliff Churchyard. His inscrutable epitaph is taken from "Under Ben Bulben," one of his final poems:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
After Yeats’s death, poet W.H. Auden wrote his famous “memory” of the man, referring to the exceptionally cold weather at the time, even on the French Riviera, and the assumption shared by many that the freezing temperatures weakened Yeats’s already weak heart.
The stark first stanza reads:
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
The quintessential biography of Yeats’s life and legacy is R.F. Foster’s acclaimed two-volume biography: W. B. Yeats, A Life, Vol. I, The Apprentice Mage, and W. B. Yeats, A Life, Vol. II: The Arch-Poet.
Irish poet Paul Muldoon says of Foster’s opus: "The Yeats who emerges from these pages is allowed to be haughty and humble, polemicist and priest, prig and profligate, arch-poet in the sense of 'first poet' but also in the sense of clever, cunning, crafty, roguish, waggish.”
Violet Martin, an Irish novelist who knew Yeats, said of his impact on Irish poetry [and we can now safely say on virtually all poetry], that he had “flung open a great window.”
Don Bates for many years was vice president of the W.B. Yeats Society of New York. He teaches business prose writing at New York University.