William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, the son of painter John Butler Yeats, he spent much of his childhood in Co Sligo which was a huge source of inspiration for him, not least the beautiful ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree’.
In 1917, William Butler Yeats published ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, and from then onward he reached and maintained the height of his achievement. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and, as a celebrated figure, he was indisputably one of the most significant modern poets and confounded expectations by producing his greatest work between the ages of 50 and 75.
Yeats’ love life was as interesting as his artistic work. At Fifty-two years, he got married, but not to Maud Gonne, the love of his life. Instead he married 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968) despite the fact that only weeks previously, Yeats had proposed to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult Gonne, from her French Boulangist lover Lucien Millevoye. Her husband, John MacBride, participated in the rebellion and was executed afterward. Yeats reacted by writing ‘Easter, 1916,’ an eloquent expression of his complex feelings of shock, romantic admiration, and a more realistic appraisal.
Despite the strange circumstances the marriage of Yeats and Hyde-Lees was a happy one producing two children.
He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, aged 73. He was buried after a discreet and private funeral at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Attempts had been made at Roquebrune to dissuade the family from proceeding with the removal of the remains to Ireland due to the uncertainty of their identity. His body had earlier been exhumed and transferred to the ossuary. Yeats and George had often discussed his death, and his express wish was that he be buried quickly in France with a minimum of fuss. According to George, his actual words were, ‘If I die bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo’. In September 1948, Yeats’s body was moved to Drumcliff, Co Sligo, on the Irish Naval Service corvette LÉ Macha. The person in charge of this operation for the Irish Government was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne MacBride, and then Minister of External Affairs. His epitaph is taken from the last lines of “Under Ben Bulben”, one of his final poems:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
Image | Yeats’s Grave, Drumcliff, Co Sligo | William Duggan Photography
Image | A Coat on a wall in Leiden, Netherlands