William Butler Yeats, who was born on June 13, 1865, is one of Ireland’s most celebrated poets. His poems are woven into our collective Irish psyche. Some of his works referenced his unrequited love for Maud Gonne, widely seen as his muse, and Ireland was a popular topic for him. His fascination with the supernatural is also well known. People often see him as a somewhat tragic figure, repeatedly proposing to a woman who repeatedly turned him down and writing exquisite poetry about it. (And then also proposing to her adult daughter, who also turned him down.) But Yeats is much more than the most lyrically gifted rejected suitor in Irish history.
1. Sligo Wasn’t His Only Home
The poet and dramatist loved Sligo, but he was born in Sandymount, Dublin and spent most of his youth in London. His family visited Ireland often, and they had a home in Rosses Point, County Sligo, so he did spend summers there growing up. It was in London that he met Maud Gonne and met other Irish writers including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Yeats spent his final months in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the southern coast of France between Monaco and Italy.
2. Yeats Started as a Visual Artist
His father John Butler Yeats was a portrait painter, and his brother Jack Yeats is one of Ireland’s most famous painters. William Butler Yeats naturally enough began studying visual arts at the Metropolitan School of Arts in Dublin. He was a student there when his poems were first saw print. At that point, he devoted himself to writing, using language to paint beautiful scenes.
3. He Did Marry, Eventually
Famous for his persistent proposals to Maud Gonne and then to her daughter, Yeats did eventually find a love that was reciprocated. When he was 52, he married 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees; she shared his love of the supernatural and occult. She introduced him to ‘automatic writing’, and the couple spent hours together, believing that spirits were guiding their hands as they wrote.
4. He Won a Nobel Prize in Literature
Yeats won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for his plays. Unlike most Nobel winners, he wrote some of his greatest works after he won the award. Yeats’ most enduring work is his poetry, particularly his poetry about Ireland. But as a dramatist, he embraced international influences. Some of his plays reflect his interest in the Japanese tradition of Noh plays and involve experimentation with using music, dance and masks.
5. Senator Yeats
From Padraig Pearce to Michael D. Higgins, Ireland has a long history of writers who are also politicians. Yeats was one of them. The poet gained a seat in the first Seanad, the Irish senate, in 1922. While the Dail Eireann, the legislature, first officially sat in 1919, the 60-member Seanad did not form until 1922. That was a turbulent year in Ireland, as the fledging state began to shape itself. Politicians were being abducted and Yeats, like others, had security at his home. Yeats actually moved to Ireland full time after living in London for 30 years when he accepted his nomination to the Seanad.