Where so much of the spirit of art had to be revivified, so many of its forms repaired, and so tight a mould of fanaticism broken, a man was needed who had in himself some of the qualities of the fanatic—a man who was, above all else, an artist, capable of making an occasional compromise with a human being, but incapable of making one with the informing essence of his art. New light and air had to be let into the closed minds and imaginations of a people made suspicious and hysterically provincial through persecution and disaster. It was impossible to weld the opinions of factions, but all could be drawn into "one net of feeling." A man of sensibility, however, was not enough. Not only insight and imagination, but ruthlessness, fervor, disinterestedness, and a capacity for decision and action, were required.
William Butler Yeats first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses. The young man's more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer. But it was during these early years that Yeats was building himself, step by step, into a person who could not only cope with reality but bend it to his will. He tells, in one of his autobiographies, of his determination to overcome his young diffidence. Realizing that he was "only self-possessed with people he knew intimately," he would go to a strange house "for a wretched hour for schooling's sake." And because he wished "to be able to play with hostile minds" he trained out of himself, in the midst of harsh discussion, the sensitive tendency "to become silent at rudeness."
The result of this training began to be apparent before Yeats was thirty. George Moore has recorded how, on meeting him in London (having been badly impressed by his "excessive" getup at a casual meeting some years before), he thought to worst Yeats easily in argument. The real metal of his opponent soon came into view. "Yeats parried a blow on which I had counted, and he did this so quickly and with so much ease that he threw me on the defensive in a moment. 'A dialectician,' I muttered, 'of the very first order'; one of a different kind from any I had met before."
This intellectual energy, this "whirling" yet deeply intuitive and ordered mind, with its balancing streak of common sense, had come to Yeats through a mixed inheritance. The Yeats blood, perhaps Norman, had been Anglo-Irish for centuries, and it is notorious that English families transplanted to Ireland often become more Irish than the native stock. Yeats's paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been Protestant rectors, in County Down and County Sligo respectively, and there had been eighteenth-century soldiers and government officials on this side of the family. Yeats's mother was a Pollexfen; her stock was Cornish—that is to say, English-Celtic. Her father, William Pollexfen, a lonely strong man whom Yeats as a child loved and feared ("I wonder if the delight in passionate men in my plays and poetry is more than his memory"), had settled in Sligo as a shipowner, after a career as master of ships. Yeats spent several of his childhood years and many of his adolescent summers near the town of Sligo, and from that Western countryside, so full of the beauties of lake, mountain, and sea, and from its people, who still had Gaelic in their speech and legends in their memory, he drew the material of his early poetry.
Yeats has told of the deep emotional reserves in his Sligo-born mother, "whose actions were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons." From his father, John Butler Yeats, a man of original mind who had been trained in the law but turned to painting and to the pre-Raphaelite enthusiasms current in the '70s and '80s, Yeats early heard that "intensity was important above all things." The father's passion for Blake, Morris, and Rossetti soon was shared by the son. Yeats had some English schooling; he later was an art student in Dublin. During this period he became a Nationalist. The elder Yeats had friends among Unionists and Nationalists alike, and, well acquainted with the liberal English thought of his time, enthusiastically espoused the cause of Home Rule. His son's Nationalism was both intellectual and emotional. He became the friend of John O'Leary, an old Fenian who had returned to Dublin after imprisonment and exile for youthful conspiracies; and Maude Gonne, a great beauty and successful agitator, was also an influence helping to channel his youthful ardor toward the more heroic and mystic side of the Nationalist movement. In both of these people Yeats felt imaginative and courageous character which transcended political bigotry and dogma. At no time, from the beginning of his career onward, did he for a moment yield to the hard letter of Irish politics. It was the spirit in those politics he wished to strengthen and make serviceable. His ends, and the means to bring about his ends, were always clear in his mind. "We cannot move the peasants and the educated classes in Ireland by writing about politics or about Gaelic, but we may move them by becoming men of letters and expressing primary truths in ways appropriate to this country."
His art was poetry, and, almost from the first, he used that art as a tool, his avowed purpose being to rid the literature of his country from the insincere, provincial, and hampering forms of "the election rhyme and the pamphlet."