Friday, May 22, 2015

The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

I read this for the fifty classics project and because W. B. Yeats is one of my favorite poets.  It doesn't really read like an autobiography, but is an account of the literary, artistic, and theatrical luminaries he associated with.  Many of whom I hadn't heard of.  If you are going to read this, it might be helpful to brush up on who was important in the arts in the 1880's-1910's, as well as refresh your knowledge of the pre-Raphaelites.  I am familiar with Oscar Wilde, of course, and Yeats' description of how he decorated his house is one of the gems in this book.  (All white with touches of red.  It sounds like Wilde's drawing room would have been at home in any modern decorating magazine, but must have been deemed singular in the 1880s.)

Here are some pictures of Yeats.  Handsome, no?  I was so struck by his resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis, I had to make sure DDL didn't actually play Yeats in a movie.

Young Yeats

W.B. Yeats or Daniel Day Lewis?

I think we can all agree that William Butler Yeats ranks with  literary hotties such as Charles Lamb and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Thank goodness he had the sense not to grow dreadful Victorian facial hair.

The Autobiography turned out to be a challenge.  It starts out kindly, with Yeats' memories of his childhood in Sligo, but soon you're grappling with the complex literary and spiritual societies Yeats associated with.  He was a member of The Golden Dawn, for example, a society that studied mysticism and the occult.  He was also active in a movement to resurrect Irish literature and drama.  I think of Ireland as having a strong literary tradition, and in my opinion, the Irish are the best writers in the English language.  But Yeats, of course, would have been unaware of how enormous his own contribution to Irish literature was to be, and was writing about the pre-Joyce Ireland.  The Autobiography concludes with his experiences in Sweden, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

I don't know how to conclude this post.  I might have said that I feel enriched for having read this, but Yeats writes in the Autobiography about the limited mental capacity of people who are always trying to enrich themselves.  I never thought I was a genius, but it's unpleasant to see yourself grouped with the lumpen proletariat.  Oh well.

Let's conclude with a poem.  Yeats was my grandfather's favorite poet, and sometimes he would recite for us, from memory, his favorite of Yeats' poems.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.



  1. I had no idea he was so handsome. I might have to go back and read some Yeats.

    I'm currently reading a biography on Django Reinhardt, the great gypsy jazz guitarist. I'm learning lots about Paris in the early part of the century, jazz and gypsy life. I find I need to listen to his music quite a bit as I read. Some books definitely need soundtracks.

  2. Definitely Secret Boyfriend material. Plus poems.

  3. It sounds like an interesting book! This is my favorite Yeats poem (actually, it’s just part of a poem):


    SHE hears me strike the board and say
    That she is under ban
    Of all good men and women,
    Being mentioned with a man
    That has the worst of all bad names;
    And thereupon replies
    That his hair is beautiful,
    Cold as the March wind his eyes.

  4. I enjoyed reading your post! Had no idea Yeats was so handsome... Daniel Day Lewis definitely bears a strong resemblance. The Classics Club has inspired me to read some challenging books, too, but this year I'm devoting most of my classics reading to Anthony Trollope (and loving every moment!)

  5. One could say something about the lack of charity in someone who belittles those who try to enrich themselves. But one won't because one loves "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."