Yeats’ life and poetry were most influenced by two people – firstly by his father, who consciously sought to educate and shape him into a poet, and secondly by the woman who became the great love of his life. John Butler Yeats was a minor artist of the Victorian period who, although he could never quite achieve the visions he set for himself as a painter, was a great lover of the arts, and imparted his creative gifts to all his children. His was a very strong personality, and it dominated the family like an iron glove. Although they did not get along well in his formative years, Yeats acknowledged his father’s very positive impact on his life and ideas in later years.
Maud Gonne, the other great influence on Yeats’s life, was his partner in many plans and schemes to resurrect Irish nationalism, theatre, and literature. He fell desperately in love with this tall, wild woman, but she never requited that love and broke his heart repeatedly. He pursued her for over a decade, and when she married another it looked at first as if he would never recover.
But Yeats did survive, and his poetry was much richer for the experience of loving, and eventually outgrowing the self-absorbed Maud. Some poets prefer simplicity and are not overly complicated, being fond of wine, woman, and song. But Yeats – who definitely loved the first two, but had no ear at all for music – was a complex man of immense yearnings and dreams, and involved himself in numerous movements and causes throughout his life. He was, first and foremost, one of the driving forces behind the Irish literary renaissance. He was also the co-founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, which had an immense impact on drama by providing a place for Irish playwrights “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland.” He was an Irish Nationalist who dreamed of an Ireland independent of Great Britain, but who thought that violence was not the solution. He later came to see the that the “terrible beauty” of the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916 was, in fact, a bloody means to a greater end.
Yeats was also a magician and mystic who enthusiastically joined Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, and later was an early member of the Order of the Golden Dawn – a Rosicrucian/Masonic-style occult society devoted to raising its members’ levels of consciousness as high as possible. The Golden Dawn drew upon the Western kabbalistic and esoteric traditions, and his involvement had a great influence on both Yeats the Man and Yeats the Poet.
For instance, he experimented with séances and automatic writing as a means of contacting the spirits he believed helped him unlock his latent powers as a poet and a magician. But his great breakthrough came after he married the patient and witty Georgie Hyde-Lees (whom he called George) as he neared his fiftieth year. It was Mrs. Yeats’ great gift for automatic writing, and well as Yeats’ dogged persistence, that allowed him to develop his system of symbols, and to become a far deeper poet than the simple lyricist he had been in his youth. Yeats’ poetic vision of masks, his gyres (pronounced with a hard “g”) – whirling spirals shaped like two intersecting triangles, his belief in his daimones (spirit guides or perhaps even muses), and his phases of the moon corresponding to levels of human awareness all sound very odd indeed and make one wonder whether or not he was simply mad. These ideas combined, however, to take his poetry to levels he had never before attained. Even more than these, the most important aspect of his poetic maturation was that he actually achieved what he called Unity of Being, and what others might call the Completeness of Character or Personality, by slowly combining the many and various sides of his psyche into a complete whole. Yeats thus forged himself into the great poet he had always longed to be, and achieved a much greater power with his written words than any other writer of his day and age.
As he grew into old age, Yeats became a revered figure and received many awards and prizes, but he was profoundly troubled by what he felt to be a lessening of his poetic powers. For someone who saw all art as “an expression of desire,” these powers were inextricably interlinked with his libido, and so in 1934 at the age of 68, he underwent a new surgical operation called the Steinach operation. This procedure was evidently a variation on a vasectomy, and promised renewed vigour and strength to those who underwent the knife. Whether it was real or all in his mind, amazingly Yeats’ poetic ability rose phoenix-like and sustained him during the last five years of his life, years during which his wife George sustained, nursed, and humored him for the sake of his work and their love.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919