Among the many writers and poets born in June, W.B. Yeats is the subject of choice for this post. Irish nationalist, Nobel Prize winning poet, Irish Senator, romantic, a founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin and spiritualist, Yeats’ poetry has spoken to me always.
When I look at a photo of him, young or old, I see a handsome man, one who is perhaps a little prissy (the pince-nez don’t help) or delicate, one with a sensual mouth. When I read about him, I am astounded at the opposition found in the constants of his life: poetry, Irish Nationalism and the occult. Yeats belonged to a spiritual society for decades. He and his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lee, whom he married late in life, practiced “automatic writing,” in which they believed that her hand was guided by a spirit as it wrote, pen to paper.
Through interest in the occult as a young man, he met an ardent young Irish Nationalist, Maud Gonne, an English heiress working in the women’s movement dedicated to the creation of the Irish Republic. She both led and followed Yeats down a tortured path for decades, as she turned down his marriage proposals four times. It was not until late in their unfortunate entanglement that they consummated their affair, although the delay was not caused by innocence or aversion (he had affairs with women throughout his life and she had given birth to two children as a young woman), but the consummation put a merciful end to the affair.
A member of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, Yeats spent much of his life in London, but unlike many fellow members he did not consider himself an Englishman who happened to have been born in Ireland. He maintained a deep connection to the Dublin of his birth, to the Sligo of childhood summers, and to the ideals of Irish Nationalism until his older years, when he bemoaned the decline of Anglo-Irish influence on Irish society and culture, ruining his longstanding reputation as an Irish Republican.
Yeats wrote poetry, essays and plays with great productivity and to the end of his life. Two generations later, fellow Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney lauded Yeats as a giant of poetry, as well as his willingness and ability to change his style as he aged, to continue to produce poetry of the highest level.
He published The Wind in the Reeds in 1899, the year he met Maud Gonne, with whom he shared anguish for much of their lives. This beautiful poem was published in that collection, and reveals his masterful and creative hand at age twenty-four, as well as the pain he’d already absorbed and could express.
He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
For more of Yeats’ poetry, the collected works may be found here:
Do not seek the poems on PoemHunter.com, which hosts robots reading poetry!