Yeats was born in Dublin into an artistic family. His father John B. Yeats was a painter and so was his brother Jack B. Yeats. Yeats himself studied at the Dublin School of Art, but at the age of 21 he abandoned art in favour of a literary career.
His early work was influenced by Shelley, Spenser, the Pre-Raphaelites and by his love of Irish folklore and legend. His early collections include Crossways (1889), The Rose (1893) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).
His unrequited love for the beautiful revolutionary Maude Gonne inspired much of his finest love poetry. Yeats proposed to her on a number of occasions but she refused him. He later proposed to her daughter and was refused again. In 1917 he married Georgie Hyde-Lees who was an exponent of automatic writing.
Yeats’ work continued to develop throughout his career becoming more condensed, more cynical and more concerned with contemporary politics. Although Yeats was abroad during the 1916 Easter Rising it had a major affect upon him inspiring the famous lines: ‘ All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born’. His later collections include: The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair (1929) and Last Poems (1939).
WB Yeats died on the Cote d’Azur in January 1939, but it was almost a decade later before his body was brought back to Ireland for burial, mainly because of the second World War. His remains had to be recovered from an ossuary in the French cemetery as they had been removed from the original, temporary grave at Roquebrune. They were brought from Nice to Galway on board the Irish Naval corvette Macha and buried in Drumcliffe in Co Sligo. Yeats’ grandfather had been the rector at Drumcliff between 1811-46.
A newspaper article describes the day he was laid to rest at Drumcliffe :
IRISH TIMES – September 18th, 1948:
THERE WAS a veil of mist over the bare head of Ben Bulben yesterday afternoon when the remains of William Butler Yeats were buried in Irish soil. Soft grey rain swept in from the sea, soaking the Irish tricolour that lay upon the plain wooden coffin, as the body of the poet was laid at last in the churchyard of Drumcliffe.
Members of the Government and local bodies and representatives of every branch of art and literature in Ireland crowded into the little graveyard with the local people to witness the fulfilment of the poet’s last wishes. The scene at Drumcliffe was set by Yeats himself. In his last poem, published in The Irish Times, he wrote:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid . . .
Driving out from Sligo, the crowds that came to pay honour to the dead poet saw the little graveyard, marked the old Celtic Cross, just as he had written, in the little church, still lit by oil lamps. They could see a tablet erected “To the memory of the Rev John Yeats, MA, TCD, son of Benjamin Yeats and Mary Butler, his wife, and Rector of this Parish from 1811 to his death, in 1846.”
The coffin was brought by motor hearse from Galway, and was met at the borough of Sligo by the mayor and corporation of the city. While the procession halted the Mayor M Rooney, said: “On behalf of the people of Sligo I pay this sincere tribute to the memory of one whose genius was inspired by the lakes and mountains of our countryside, and whose poetry has given the name of Sligo a place in the literature of the world – William Butler Yeats.”
Then, preceded by a Sligo band, the hearse moved on towards the town hall through streets lined with townspeople. The blinds of the shops were drawn in accordance with the mayor’s request for general closing between midday and 4pm.
At 2.15 the procession moved off towards Drumcliffe, where the little churchyard was crowded with people. The rain was closing in, and the shape of Ben Bulben was already hidden as the early arrivals pushed forward to look at the grave, which was dug by the path near the church door and had been lined with ferns and brightly-coloured dahlias. It was, perhaps, a more typically Irish scene than if the day had been fine and the sun blazing from the heavens. That would be fitting enough for a burial in Roquebrune. For the poet’s homecoming to his native country and his native county, it was an Irish day: a soft grey sky, a gentle western rain seeping down on the tall trees of the graveyard, and far away across the rough fields, a mist shrouding the bald poll of the mountain that Yeats always recalled so well.
The Committal Service was taken by the Bishop of Kilmore , and as the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” were said as a handful of soil was thrown on the coffin.
Gravediggers came forward with their shovels and heavy Sligo soil thudded down upon the coffin. Slowly the grave was filled.
In 1891 Yeats helped to found the Irish Literary Society and was also instrumental in setting up, with the help of Lady Gregory, the Irish National Theatre.
In 1923 Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
W.H. Auden wrote a moving memorial for him entitled In Memory of W.B.Yeats – containing the well known line: ‘The day of his death was a dark cold day’.
William Butler Yeats (1939)
Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here’s the gist of what they mean.
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard,
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.
Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did.
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Quattrocento put in paint
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky,
Resemble forms that are or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream.
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That heavens had opened.
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!