William Butler Yeats

W. B. Yeats (Dublin, 1865 – Menton, France, 1939) paid many visits to France but, as elsewhere, his hold on the physical aspects of his surroundings always appears less than total. Perhaps, as the critic  Patrick Rafroidi puts it, “Yeats had a sense of observation all right, but he was not interested in cities. …He does not ‘see’ anything. …Yeats wants to see ‘through’ things.”

Verlaine's home, rue Descartes
Yeats’ other-worldly attitude can be surmised from a couple of episodes. For example, after his first visit to the French capital in February 1894, he wrote that he met the poet Paul Verlaine “in a little room at the top of a tenement house in the rue Saint Jacques”, whereas Verlaine actually lived in the rue Descartes (5th arrondissement). On a later visit, he wrote to his friend JM Synge to say that he had forgotten the name of the man at whose house he was to speak that evening and the number of his house.
1, avenue Duquesne
On his first visit in 1894, Yeats initially stayed with the eccentric British occultist, MacGregor Mathers, at 1, avenue Duquesne (7th arrondissement). While he visited Verlaine, he missed another French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, who had just departed for London. Yeats also went to the first night of Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist play, Axël, at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in rue de la Gaîté (14th arrondissement). This play was to have a profound influence on Yeats’ art.

Yeats returned to Paris at the beginning of December 1896, this time staying at that most emblematic place in Irish Paris, the Hôtel Corneille at number 5 in the street of the same name (6th arrondissement). Characteristically, Yeats later couldn’t remember why on earth he took a room there since he “thought it expensive”. Nor could he remember the person that introduced him to the “poor Irishman at the top of the house”, who turned out to be John Millington Synge. Yeats and Synge became friends, but Yeats soon moved out of the Hôtel Corneille because while “Synge’s biographer says that you boarded there for a pound a week…I was accustomed to cook my own breakfast, and dine at an Anarchist restaurant in the Boulevard St. Jacques for little over a shilling.” So it was that by January 1897, Yeats was staying at the Grand Hôtel de de la Haute Loire at 203, bvd. Raspail (14th arrondissement).

In the meantime, he had gone to see the first night of Ubu Roi at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in rue Ballu (9th arrondissement, building no longer exists). Seeing Ubu Roi was, in the words of critic John Kelly, yet another Parisian experience that was to have a “cathartic effect” on Yeats’ thinking. On New Year’s Day 1897, Synge had accompanied Maud Gonne to the inaugural meeting of the Association irlandaise in rue des Martyrs (9th arrondissement). Just over two months later, Yeats wrote to another Irish group in Paris, the Association de Saint Patrice, to repudiate the suggestion by one of its members that Gonne was an English spy.

The Hôtel de la
Yeats stayed again with Mathers in April 1898, this time at 87, avenue Mozart (16th arrondissement), and came again to the French capital from late January to mid-February 1899, when he stayed at the Grand Hôtel de la Haute-Loire (where he met the Belfast painter, Paul Henry). This was not a happy trip, for Maud Gonne turned down his marriage proposal. Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory on February 9 that “I have had a black, depressing time here” and that he had had a “cold of an astonishing violence that kept me in bed without eating…”
The Hôtel Gavarni
 Yeats’ next visit to Paris appears to have been almost a decade later, when he was again on the trail of Maude Gonne. In June 1908, he checked into the Hôtel Gavarni in the rue Gavarni (16th arrondissement), just 50 metres from Maude Gonne’s home at the time in the rue de Passy. After Ubu Roi and Axël, Yeats’ discovery of the paintings of Ingres, David and Gustave Moreau during this visit were to constitute the last of “three nodal points in his journey from late Romanticism to early modernism”, according to John Kelly. Yeats came again to Paris in early December 1908 (conforming to type, he lost his glasses in Victoria Station in London at the start of his journey) and stayed for a month, during which time he called on the Irish sculptor and Paris resident, John Hughes. In April 1911, Yeats travelled again to Paris with Lady Gregory and in May 1914 appeared at séances organized by Juliette Alexandre-Bisson on his way to investigate bleeding statues in a church near Poitiers. Returning to London, Yeats stayed with Maud Gonne at her home, and in the summers of 1916 and 1917, he joined her and her two children at Gonne's summer house in Colleville, Normandy.

Yeats passed through Paris several times after the First World War, often on his way to the south of France. But by this stage Maud Gonne had left Paris, so perhaps Yeats felt less need for lengthy stays. His last meaningful visit may well have been in January 1922, when Sinn Féin invited him to give a talk at the Irish Race Congress, held in the Grand Hôtel at 2, rue Scribe (9th arrondissement). The same month also saw the opening of a major Irish art exhibition in Paris.


Select Bibliography
Autobiographies (1955) W. B. Yeats

Uncollected Prose, vols. 1 and 2 (1970)
W. B. Yeats, Ed. John P. Frayne

W.B. Yeats, the Man and the Milieu (1997)
Keith Alldritt

Maud Gonne – W.B. Yeats, letters 1893-1938 (1992)
Ed. Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares

Yeats: The Man and his Masks (1987) Richard Ellmann

W. B. Yeats – A Life i. The Apprentice Mage (1998) ii. The Arch Poet (2003)
Roy Foster

W.B. Yeats—Man and Poet (1962, 2nd edition)
A. Norman Jeffares

A W.B. Yeats chronology (2003)
John Kelly

Yeats’ Ghosts: the Secret Life of W.B. Yeats (1999)
Brenda Maddox

W.B. Yeats, a Literary Life (1995)
Alasdair D. F. Macrae

Yeats the European (1989)