T.S. Eliot said of William Butler Yeats that he was “one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them’’. Anyone interested in the literature of the twentieth century should read his works and, above all his poetry.
He was born in 1865, son of the painter John Butler Yeats and of Susan Mary Pollexden. His brother Jack was also a painter and they moved frequently between London and Dublin. Despite his father’s rational atheism, his son was drawn to ideas of hierarchy, magic and hidden ancient wisdom which often show up in his poetry.
His early poems are tinged with Irish legends and heroic figures like Cuchalain and Fergus and in his late teens he became involved in Irish nationalism and sought to establish an “Irish culture”. He fell in love with an Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, which further identified him with the Irish cause.
Here is one of his early poems titled “When You are Old” and which clearly shows his lifetime interest in more esoterical domains.
When you are old and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Yeats died in France in 1939. His body was brought back to Ireland and buried in his chosen place with this epitaph.
Cast a cold eye on life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Happy English learning!!