William Butler Yeats

A Fictional Life

June 13, 2017

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”


Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1923, William Butler Yeats interpreted the honor as belonging to his beloved Ireland. The poet was born on June 13, 1865 and, despite a number of years in England, his writing and politics were inspired by his early life on the Emerald Isle.

His poetry should be read through the lens of Yeats fascination with the occult. From the infallible Wikipedia:

“Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualismoccultism and astrology. He read extensively on the subjects throughout his life, became a member of the paranormal research organisation “The Ghost Club” (in 1911) and was especially influenced by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg.  As early as 1892, he wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

yeats gonnePersonally, I find his own life’s story even more implausible than his writing. He met Maud Gonne, the woman who most inspired him, when he was 24 years old. Thus began a relationship which spanned over 30 years, involved four marriage proposals and four rejections AND a fifth proposal to Maud’s 21 year old daughter. Maud’s own story is book worthy and she must have been one heck of a woman!

In fairness to Yeats – who seemed to have some warped code of honor – the fourth proposal to her involved terms and conditions which he hoped she would find unacceptable. Once that final offer was rejected he sought out a younger woman (he was 51 by then) who could produce an heir. Since Maud’s daughter, who at the age of 15 had herself proposed to him, upon his proposal said no he found another woman:

“That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), known as George, whom he had met through Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends—‘George … you can’t. He must be dead’—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’ feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael. Although in later years he had romantic relationships with other women, Georgie herself wrote to her husband ‘When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were.’”

Truly any fiction writer could not conceive of a plot line as convoluted as the true life of WB Yeats. Multiple proposals, unrequited love, political intrigue, and the execution of his romantic and political rival, connect the pieces of the tale!

To learn more about Yeats life there is the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._B._Yeats or a much tamer version here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/william-butler-yeats

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