The genius of William Butler Yeats and his inspiring muses

Yeats was a pillar of the Irish and British literary establishments and in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre. 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.”

Below James Flannery, Winship Professor of Arts and Humanities and Director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University, looks at the book “W.B. Yeats and the Muses” and how nine women influenced the great poet’s works.

Photo by: Wikipedia

Photo by: Wikipedia

It will come as no surprise to admirers of W.B. Yeats that this greatest of modern poets was a celebrant of the art of love from the beginning to the end of his long and immensely productive career. But now, thanks to a brilliant and magisterial work of scholarship by Joseph M. Hassett, we can fully appreciate how much Yeats owed to the women in his life – nine women, to be precise, whose alluring mystery held him in thrall and inspired in him the heightened state of consciousness he believed necessary for creative expression.

As Hassett explains, from the outset of his career Yeats was convinced that art at its most sublime springs from the influx of a supernal form of knowledge far beyond the realm of ordinary discourse. In following this belief Yeats was predisposed to accept the Greek idea that poetry is inspired by the Muses, as expressed in Plato’s dictum that “all good poets…compose their beautiful poems not by art [techne] but because they are inspired and possessed” by the Muse who speaks through them. In Ireland this concept was also part of the courtly love tradition imported by the Normans in the twelfth century and grafted onto the highly spiritualized love poetry of the Gaelic bardic order. In the Irish version of courtly love, a leanansidhe, or fairy mistress from the otherworld, afflicted the poet with an overwhelming desire to celebrate the magical wonders of the beloved and thus win her for himself. Such profound feelings did the leanansidhe inspire that to be deprived of her presence was equivalent to losing one’s faith in God. Hence the theme of love and loss that recurs over and over again in the hauntingly beautiful love songs of Gaelic Ireland – a tradition with which Yeats was thoroughly familiar from his study of Irish folklore. […]

(From Irish Central, James Flannery, 28.01.2015)

 

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