1908 drawing by John Singer Sargent

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was a playwright, literary critic, politician, and first and foremost a poet, specifically, Ireland’s greatest poet. In 1923 Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Yeats added, “I consider that this honor has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature.” I AM OF IRELAND/Yeats in Song is a celebration of W. B. Yeats and the land that he loved. 

His early poetry was emotional and memorable. In middle age, as R. F. Foster writes, “…WBY from 1914 was to become incrementally more and more ‘interesting’ until he died a quarter of a century later.” Yeats never lost his creativity, continually reinventing himself as he moved between London, Dublin, and Coole Park. 

Events in his personal life were often revealed in his poetry, the most famous being his thirty year pursuit of Maud Gonne, the beautiful English-born Irish revolutionary. Refusing his first marriage proposal, she replied, “No, Willie, the world will thank me for not marrying you. Let us continue to be such good friends – and go on writing me those lovely poems.” She would reject several more proposals due to what she considered his lack of radical nationalism. A third of the songs featured on this album focus on Maud Gonne. 

Other songs on the album are poems derived from Yeats’s personal experiences but are not of a romantic nature. They include An Irish Airman foresees his Death (in memory of Lady Augusta Gregory’s son, Major Robert Gregory, killed in action during WWI), September 1913 (Yeats declares his disdain for middle class greed), The Lake Isle of Innisfree (the poet yearns to escape the noise and crowds of London), and The Wild Swans at Coole (the poet searches for lasting beauty in a changing world). 

Examples of allegorical poems include The Ballad of the Foxhunter (a dying old man dreams of one last hunt), I am of Ireland (based on a 14th century poem proclaiming the eternal myths and legends of Ireland), and The Fiddler of Dooney (a merry old fiddler looks forward to heaven). 

I defer analysis of Yeats and his work to qualified scholars. The following resources are listed below for those interested in learning more about Yeats.

--Ray Driver

R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914, OUP, 1997 

R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939, OUP, 2003 

William M. Murphy, Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), Syracuse University Press, 2001 

William M. Murphy, Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives, Syracuse University Press, 1995

Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, The Macmillan Company, 1948 

Sam McCready, A William Butler Yeats Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1997

Maud Gonne

(1899) photo of the Yeats Building, Hyde Bridge/Sligo