“I made my song a coat Covered with embroideries Out of old mythologies From heel to throat” – on William Butler Yeats’ 150th Birthday.

13 June 1865, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymound.

“My temptation is quiet. Here at life’s end Neither loose imagination, Nor the mill of the mind Consuming its rag and bone, Can make the truth known.“ (W. B. Yeats)

Portrait of William Butler Yeats by John Singer Sargent (1908)

is not difficult to imagine how the European powers’ nationalist kerfuffle of pride, pomp, and circumstance affected those who lived pushed into the tight corners of the empires of Britain, France, Austria and Russia. Minorities sneered at, ignored and deprived of the right of autonomy and self determination. Ireland during the second half of the 19th century certainly was such a case and certainly understood to make herself heard, but, more often than not, her plight fell on deaf ears. In Westminster as well as back home, where more than enough of the Irish, mainly those of Protestant origin, were in sharp opposition to cancel the Union with Great Britain. In the meanwhile, the adoration of elevators and everything the faith in technological and scientific progress of the Industrial Age implicated disenchanted the world in leaps and bounds. “To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty”, Napoleon once said, and around 1885, the twenty years old up-and coming poet decided to create a counter-draft to things falling apart in a world whose centre would not hold for much longer, a generation before the blood-dimmed tides were loosed in earnest. Young Yeats contributed to the first complete edition of William Blake’s works, indulged himself in Shelley and pre-Raphaelite poetry, kindred spirits all, and added his own heritage, Irish mythology and folklore that lead him right back into the political turmoil of his homeland. Yeats tried to keep himself apart from immediate political ongoings, falling in – more or less – unrequited love with the freedom fighter Maud Gonne changed that attitude for a while, when matters exploded in 1916 and things of terrible beauty were born. He held back his poems inspired by the Easter Rising until the foundation of the Free State though, but became a member of the senate for a while and that was that. He might or might not have been an Irish nationalist at heart, his interests were elsewhere long since, portraying ancient Celts and their myths as he saw them in Romantic pictures before and humanity afterwards.

W.B. Yeats, a photograph from 1923

“deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic“ as W.H. Auden belittled Yeats’ fascination for the occult certainly had its part to play in the poet’s try to be aloof from all-to worldly matters that would give him no answers. Yeats was indeed a member of several occult societies, married an alleged medium, experimented with psychography and the guidance of spirits that finally led to the design of a complex esoteric system in 1925, drawing par with Blake under the auspices of the late 19th century, Symbolism and Modernity after the long nineteenth century had finally ended with the Great War. Based on the influence of contemporary Irish politics and the then modern Realist movement, Yeats created plays full of political myth and charged with archetypical symbols for a while, only to return to Blake at the end, interpreting the world along his visions. Ironically, the latter belongs to his late work, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, and the poems of the last period of Yeats’ creativity are certainly the verbally most expressive and matured he wrote, mumbo-jumbo of magic or not. And this versatility along with the steady increase of climaxing poetical output certainly makes him not only one of Ireland’s most important poets but maybe the lyricist who reflects the period between 1890 to 1940 at its best.

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