Jun 132014


Today is the birthday (1865) of William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. He was not only a pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre, where he served as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honored for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed many of their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929). Yeats was a very good friend of American expatriate poet and Bollingen Prize laureate Ezra Pound. He also wrote the introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali.


Yeats was born in Dublin and educated there and in London; he spent his childhood holidays in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display Yeats’s debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, Yeats’s poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life.

Rather than give you a long exposition on Yeats’s life and ideas, which could take up volumes, I will focus on two aspects of his life and work. First, his relationship with Maud Gonne, which gives us insight into his passions and personality, and second, one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming” which reflects his lifelong interest in the mystical and in alternatives to common Christian visions of history.


In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist. Gonne was eighteen months younger than Yeats and later claimed she met the poet as a “paint-stained art student.” Gonne had admired “The Isle of Statues” and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats became obsessed with her, and she had a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter.

In later years he admitted, “it seems to me that she [Gonne] brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.” Yeats’s love initially remained unrequited, in part due to his reluctance to participate in her ardent nationalist activism. Yeats was an Irish nationalist himself, but his beliefs and activities were more muted.

In 1891, he visited Gonne in Ireland and proposed marriage, but she rejected him. He later admitted that from that point “the troubling of my life began.” Yeats proposed to Gonne three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. She refused each proposal, and in 1903, to his horror, married the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. Subsequently there was a strong element of jealousy and wounded pride in his letters and poetry.

The marriage, as forecast by both their sets of friends and relations, was an early disaster. This pleased Yeats because Gonne began to visit him in London. After the birth of her son, Seán MacBride, in 1904, she and MacBride agreed to end the marriage, although they were unable to agree on the child’s welfare. Despite the use of intermediaries, a divorce case ensued in Paris in 1905. Maud made a series of allegations against her husband with Yeats as her main ‘second’ (her word), though he did not attend court or travel to France. A divorce was not granted as the only accusation that held up in court was that MacBride had been drunk once during the marriage. A separation was granted with Maud having custody of the baby and John having visiting rights.


Yeats’s friendship with Gonne persisted, and, in Paris, in 1908, they finally consummated their relationship. “The long years of fidelity rewarded at last” was how another of his lovers described the event. Yeats was less sentimental and later remarked that “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” The relationship did not develop into a new phase after their night together, and soon afterwards Gonne wrote to Yeats indicating that despite the physical consummation, they could not continue as they had been: “I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.” By January 1909, Gonne was sending Yeats letters praising the advantage given to artists who abstain from sex. Nearly twenty years later, Yeats recalled the night with Gonne in his poem “A Man Young and Old”:

   My arms are like the twisted thorn
   And yet there beauty lay;
   The first of all the tribe lay there
   And did such pleasure take;
   She who had brought great Hector down
   And put all Troy to wreck.

By 1916, Yeats was 51 years old and determined to marry and produce an heir. John MacBride had been executed by British forces for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, and Yeats thought that his widow might remarry. His final proposal to Maud took place in mid-1916. Gonne’s history of revolutionary political activism, as well as a series of personal catastrophes in the previous few years of her life, including chloroform addiction and her troubled marriage to MacBride means it is likely that Yeats’s last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her. Yeats proposed in an indifferent manner, with conditions attached, and the consensus is that he both expected and hoped she would turn him down.


That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (pictured next to Yeats on his right). She was universally known as George, Yeats met her through a mutual friend, Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends—”George … you can’t. He must be dead”—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats’s feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon. The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael. Although in later years he had romantic relationships with other women and possibly affairs, George herself wrote to her husband “When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were.”

During the first years of his marriage, he and George experimented with automatic writing, and George contacted a variety of spirits and guides they called “Instructors.” The spirits communicated a complex and esoteric system of characters and history, which the couple developed into an exposition of phases of history in terms of cones, gyres (spirals), and other physical metaphors. The spirits notified George that they were ready to communicate by filling the house with the scent of mint leaves. Yeats devoted much time to preparing this material for publication as A Vision (1925). In 1924, he wrote to his publisher T. Werner Laurie admitting: “I dare say I delude myself in thinking this book my book of books.” I dare say he was quite correct! As a vision of history the book is not worth reading. But as a pathway into Yeats’s poetic imagery it is invaluable.


For our purposes now the most important image is that of history as a gyre – a conical spiral with a fixed starting point that spirals upward and outward for 2,000 years, fragments, and then starts again. This image is evident in the first lines of the poem “The Second Coming.”

    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?

Yeats wrote this in 1919 in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War. “Things fall apart” about sums up the feeling of the time. I am not going to give you a whole analysis of the poem; you can do that for yourself. What I do want to point out, though, is that Yeats expresses a sentiment here that is shockingly current. “The centre cannot hold” expresses a key concept. The “centre” is the starting point of the gyre of history that acts as its anchor and foundation. But as things spiral upward and outward we lose track of the “centre” – we lose our purpose; we lose our way. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We are lost and adrift in history. At this point, Yeats believes, “things fall apart,” chaos reigns, and so we start the gyre all over again. This supposedly happens every 2,000 years. So the present gyre began in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus.

However, the world did not fall apart in 1919 even though it descended into another world war in 1939, and many people in the contemporary world believe that things continue to fall apart through endless wars, destruction of the environment, loss of basic values, and so forth. Yeats speaks to us as much now as to his own generation. Perhaps some time soon all will collapse and we will find a new idea to anchor us slouching towards Bethlehem.


I have chosen Irish stew to honor Yeats. Irish stew is a traditional stew made from lamb, or mutton as well as potatoes, onions, and parsley. It may sometimes also include carrots or be made with goat. Oxford Companion to Food says:

Irish stew is a celebrated Irish dish, yet its composition is a matter of dispute. Purists maintain that the only acceptable and traditional ingredients are neck mutton chops or kid, potatoes, onions, and water. Others would add such items as carrots, turnips, and pearl barley; but the purists maintain that they spoil the true flavour of the dish. The ingredients are boiled and simmered slowly for up to two hours. Mutton was the dominant ingredient because the economic importance of sheep lay in their wool and milk produce and this ensured that only old or economically non-viable animals ended up in the cooking pot, where they needed hours of slow cooking. Irish stew is the product of a culinary tradition that relied almost exclusively on cooking over an open fire.

This should be enough for cooks to work with, but I can add some more details. When cooking in an iron pot suspended over a fire the ingredients were probably not browned first, but in the modern kitchen you can. Also I like to add carrots even though, strictly, they are not traditional. But I’ve never had the stew without carrots. I’ve also had Irish stew many times in Ireland with suet dumplings. Pearl barley, however, seems to me to be going too far because the barley fundamentally alters the flavor. If you can get mutton, so much the better. The essence of Irish stew is the savor of the meat. Here’s my generalized recipe.

Sauté 2 roughly diced onions in oil until translucent. Transfer to a large pot. Lightly brown in batches about 2 lbs of meaty lamb neck bones. Transfer to the pot and cover generously with light stock. Add chopped parsley, salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is tender and falling from the bones. Cool and then refrigerate overnight. In the morning there will be a thin film of hardened fat on the top of the stock. Take this off (reserve it for frying), and return the pot to the stove over medium heat. The stock will be a jelly at first. As soon as it is liquid and slightly warm, remove all the lamb, strip the meat from the bones and return it to the stock. Discard the bones. Add about 1 ½ lbs of potatoes scrubbed well, roughly diced in big chunks, but not peeled. Add carrots prepared in the same manner if you wish. You may also add another ½ onion chopped and some additional parsley and pepper to boost the flavors lost in the long simmering. Simmer uncovered until the potatoes (and carrots) are thoroughly cooked through. Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread and butter.

Serves 4

  2 Responses to “W.B. Yeats”

  1. I adore Irish stew. I have to admit that I also add a little fresh thyme.

    • I doubt the Irish stew police will be knocking on your door in the middle of the night. I’ve been known to add rosemary.

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