1. William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Susan, who schooled young William, spent endless hours telling him tales of Irish folklore, which, along with ancient mythology, would serve as a basis for many of his early works.
2. Yeats first met Irish Nationalist Maud Gonne in 1886 and would propose five times between their initial meeting and 1916, when he finally resorted to proposing to her daughter, Iseult, the subject of his poem “To A Child Dancing in the Wind.” Like her mother, Iseult also refused.
3. Yeats met Lady Gregory, a longtime friend and collaborator, in 1897. Together they founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Yeats refers to her in his poem “These Are the Clouds.”
4. Yeats and his sisters Elizabeth and Susan founded the Dun Emer Press (later changed to Cuala Press) in 1902 to publish work in support of the Celtic Revival. Of Cuala Press’s seventy some-odd titles, forty-eight would be penned by its most famous founder.
5. The September following Iseult’s refusal, Yeats proposed to George (Georgie) Hyde-Lees—who accepted. Yeats wrote, “A Prayer for My Daughter” for Anne Butler Yeats, born in 1919. Both Yeats and his wife used to participate in séances—she even had her own spirit guide.
6. Yeats believed that world history revolved around 2,000-year cycles he called “gyres.” How did he know this? Spirits told him. As strange as that may sound, there’s some truth to the dark imagery found in his poem “The Second Coming” (1920), reflective of the chaos and fear many felt in post-World War I Europe.
7. In 1922, as a new appointee of the Irish Senate, Yeats spoke out against anti-divorce legislation. (He also chaired the committee that designed the first coins of the Irish Free State.).
8. Once he was famous in his own right, Yeats’ former secretary Ezra Pound declared Yeats “the only poet worthy of serious study.”
9. Yeats countered illness in his later years with a series of young mistresses, among them poet/actress Margot Ruddock and radical/novelist Ethel Mannin. It’s thought these muses helped him remain a prolific writer to pen, what most critics consider, the strongest work of his career.
10. When Yeats died on January 28, 1939, his wife respected his final wishes to grant him a quiet, private service and bury him quickly in France. In 1948, the final stage of his wishes was carried out when his body was dug up and reburied in County Sligo, Ireland, where he had spent his childhood. The last lines of one of his last poems,”Under Ben Bulben”-“Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman pass by!”-were engraved on his tombstone.
Playwright, essayist, and frequent contributor to Discover magazine’s popular “20 Things You Didn’t Know About…” column.