A Nobel prize winner for his poetry, William Butler Yeats(June 13, 1865 – January 28, 1939) was the son of Irish painter John Butler Yeats, a former lawyer who abandoned his practice to work as a portraitist in Dublin. Though his father struggled with money, William’s mother came from a wealthy family, and the education that came from such an upbringing may have been instrumental in the couple encouraging their children to be artistic. Sisters Lollie and Lily were prominent members of the Anglo-American Arts and Crafts Movement, and William’s brother Jack became an expressionist painter and novelist (as well as producing the first Sherlock Holmes comic strip).
As for W. B Yeats himself, he grew up amidst the growing prominence of Irish nationalism. A mediocre student, he was nevertheless an enthusiastic reader, and his juvenile work is heavily influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edmund Spenser. In time, his fascination with the fantasy of those Romantics shifted to an interest in Irish myth and folklore. As a young man in his 20s, he discovered a forgotten poem by William Blake, “Valas, or the Four Zoas,” and his interest in Blake persisted for the rest of his life.
Like Blake, his interest in mysticism and the supernatural experience was profound — in fact, he probably would have called himself a mystic or occultist who wrote poetry, rather than a poet with an interest in the occult. He was involved with Theosophy, astrology, and spiritualism, all of which were reflected in his work. In 1890, he joined the mystical organization the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and became heavily involved with its internal politics and arguments. An occult group formed in England in the previous decade, the Order was like a gentleman’s club for mystic enthusiasts (though women were allowed to join), and included the secrecy and rituals that were characteristic of organizations like the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. The beliefs of the Order combined elements of Christianity with those of Medieval Kabbalah, Theosophy, magical practices, and ancient pre-Christian religions.
His first major publication was paid for by his father when he was 21. Mosada: A Dramatic Poem was followed three years later by The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, which shows the strong Gaelic interest in Yeats’ work, and the adoption of a varying rhythm. He based the story on legends from pre-Christian Ireland — the Fenian Cycle, the same cycle of stories after which the Irish nationalists the Fenians named themselves. Around the turn of the century, he also helped to establish the Irish Literary Theater, an experimental theater meant to stage distinctly Irish plays, drawing on both old Irish traditions and the contemporary Irish spirit.
For almost thirty years, Yeats was obsessed with the young Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, a member of the Order until her conversion to Catholicism. He hesitated in sharing her politics; she hesitated in sharing his bed. He proposed repeatedly before she married another…