Illustration by JB Yeats “The Stolen Child”

John Butler Yeats, father of the poet WB
John Butler Yeats, father of the poet WB

In researching the prologue to my Yeats-Gonne series, which is told from the point of view of the fathers of WB Yeats and Maud Gonne, I came across the above black-and white-print by JB Yeats, sold at Whytes Gallery auction recently.

It fetched €6,400, which is rather ironic, as poor JB found it hard to sell his work at any price in his lifetime.

He did this illustration for Atalanta magazine, c. 1887. We know this because somebody crossed out JB’s name and address, 58 Eardley Crescent, Earls Court (the Yeats’ family address up to mid-87) and replaced it with 3 Blenheim Road, Bedford Park, Chiswick (the address to which they moved)

It is one of a few illustrations JB ever succeeded in placing.

John Butler Yeats

JB or Johnny Yeats was brought up in a strict protestant evangelical tradition but became a sceptical positivist.

A failed portrait painter but a successful conversationalist and talking head, with highly developed opinions on art and literature, England and Ireland, in particular, JB was the foil against which his son sharpened his mystical spiritual beliefs and literary ideals.

At the time when he completed this sketch, JB Yeats had left Dublin, where he was struggling to support his family on the unreliable income of a portrait painter, for London, where he was going to attempt making a living doing illustration work.

He submitted woodcuts and drawings to such publishing firms as Atalanta, Cassell’s, Harper’s and the Tract Society, but a distinct lack of marketing skills resulted in few of his works selling.

It was a painful time for him, as he realized his long-held dream of supporting his family as an artist would not work out.

His wife, Susan Yeats (née Pollexfen), had resented the plan from the start, and at this time was retreating into silent depression, with worse to come.

The story of the family’s move from Dublin to London is core to this first book in my Yeats-Gonne series, available to my new fiction patrons in February 2022. (If you’d like to read it, you can sign up to become a fiction patron here)

The Stolen Child Print

This print represents a rare – possibly unique – example of this part of JB Yeats’ oeuvre and, according to his biographer, William Murphy in Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, it is possibly inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem “The Stolen Child”, written in 1886, and reproduced below.

If that’s right, this interpretation is unlikely to have pleased Willie, who based his poem on sinister Irish folklore about changelings. His father’s very chocolate-box, very English Victoriana, was the antithesis of what he was trying to achieve as a poet.

And indeed what JB was trying to achieve as an artist.

In A Life Before This One, it leads to an almighty clash between father and son.


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The Stolen Child
WB Yeats

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
This poem is in the public domain.


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