William Butler Yeats (pronounced "Yates") (13 June 1865
– 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet, dramatist, mystic and
public figure. Yeats was one of the driving forces behind the Irish
Literary Revival and was co-founder of the Abbey Theatre.
early work tended towards romantic lushness best described by
the title of his 1893 collection The Celtic Twilight, but in his
40s, inspired by his relationships with modernist poets such as
Ezra Pound and his involvement in Irish nationalist politics,
he moved towards a harder, more modern style. Yeats also served
as an Irish Senator.
was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 for what the
Nobel Committee described as "his always inspired poetry,
which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit
of a whole nation".
Yeats was young, his family moved first from Sandymount, County
Dublin, to County Sligo, and then to London to enable his father
John to further his career as an artist. At first, the Yeats children
were educated at home. Their mother, who was homesick for Sligo,
entertained them with stories and folktales from her native county.
1877, William entered the Godolphin school, which he attended
for four years. He did not distinguish himself academically. For
financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin towards the end
of 1880, living at first in the city centre and later in the suburb
October, 1881, Yeats resumed his education at the Erasmus Smith
High School in Dublin. His father's studio was located nearby
and he spent a great deal of time there, meeting many of the city's
artists and writers. He remained at the high school until December
was during this period that he started writing poetry and in 1885,
Yeats' first poems, as well as an essay called "The Poetry
of Sir Samuel Ferguson", were published in the Dublin University
Review. From 1884 to 1886, he attended the Metropolitan School
of Art (now the National College of Art and Design) in Kildare
before he began to write poetry, Yeats had come to associate poetry
with religious ideas and thoughts of sentimental elements. Describing
his childhood in later years, he described his "one unshakable
belief" as "whatever of philosophy has been made poetry
is alone... I thought... that if a powerful and benevolent spirit
has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better discover that
destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart's desire
of the world."
early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore and drew
on the diction and coloring of pre-Raphaelite verse. His major
influence in these years - and probably throughout the rest of
his career as well - was Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a late essay
on Shelley he wrote, "I have re-read Prometheus Unbound...
and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had
thought among the sacred books of the world."
first significant poem was The Isle of Statues, a fantasy work
that took Edmund Spenser for its poetic model. It appeared in
Dublin University Review and was never republished. His first
book publication was the pamphlet Mosada: A Dramatic Poem (1886),
which had already appeared in the same journal, and this printing
of 100 copies was paid for by his father. Following this was The
Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889).
long title poem, the first that he would not disown in his maturity,
was based on the poems of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.
This poem, which took two years to complete, shows the influence
of Ferguson and the Pre-Raphaelites. It introduced what was to
become one of his most important themes: the appeal of the life
of contemplation vs. the appeal of the life of action. After The
Wanderings of Oisin, he never attempted another long poem. His
other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical
and esoteric subjects.
Yeats family had returned to London in 1887, and in 1890 Yeats
co-founded the Rhymer's Club with Ernest Rhys. This was a group
of like-minded poets who met regularly and published anthologies
in 1892 and 1894. Other early collections include Poems (1895),
The Secret Rose (1897) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).
Gonne, the Irish Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre
In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a young heiress who was beginning
to devote herself to the Irish nationalist movement. Gonne admired
Yeats' early poem The Isle of Statues and sought out his acquaintance.
Yeats developed an obsession with Gonne, and she was to have a
significant effect on his poetry and his life ever after.
years after their initial meeting, Yeats proposed to her, but
was rejected. He was to propose to Gonne a total of three more
times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. With each proposal, she rejected
Yeats and finally, in 1903, married the Roman Catholic Irish nationalist
John MacBride. This same year Yeats left for an extended stay
in America on a lecture tour. His only other affair during this
period was with an Olivia Shakespear, whom he met in 1896 and
parted with one year later.
in 1896, he was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend
Edward Martyn, and she encouraged Yeats' nationalism and convinced
him to continue focusing on writing drama. Although he was influenced
by French Symbolism, Yeats consciously focused on an identifiably
Irish content and this inclination was reinforced by his involvement
with a new generation of younger and emerging Irish authors.
with Lady Gregory and Martyn and other writers including J M Synge,
Sean O'Casey, and Padraic Colum, Yeats was one of those responsible
for the establishment of the literary movement known as the Irish
Literary Revival (otherwise known as the Celtic Revival).
from these creative writers, much of the impetus for the Revival
came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in
the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and
the more recent folk song tradition in Irish. One of the most
significant of these was Douglas Hyde, later the first President
of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.
of the enduring achievements of the Revival was the setting up
of the Abbey Theatre. In 1899 Yeats, Lady Gregory, Martyn and
George Moore founded the Irish Literary Theatre. This survived
for about two years but was not successful. However, working together
with two Irish brothers with theatrical experience named William
and Frank Fay and Yeats' unpaid-yet-independently wealthy secretary
Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman (a wealthy Englishwoman who
had previously been involved in the presentation of George Bernard
Shaw's Arms and the Man in London in 1894) the group established
the Irish National Theatre Society.
group of founders was also able, along with J M Synge, to acquire
property in Dublin and open the Abbey Theatre on 27 December 1904.
Yeats' play Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Lady Gregory's Spreading
the News were featured on the opening night. Yeats continued to
be involved with the Abbey up to his death, both as a member of
the board and a prolific playwright.
1902, Yeats helped set up the Dun Emer Press to publish work by
writers associated with the Revival. This became the Cuala Press
in 1904. From then until its closure in 1946, the press, which
was run by the poet's sisters, produced over 70 titles, 48 of
them books by Yeats himself. Yeats spent the summer of 1917 with
Maud Gonne, and proposed to Gonne's daughter, Iseult, but was
September, he proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, was accepted, and
the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was successful,
though she was twenty-six and he was fifty-two at the time. Around
this time he also bought Ballylee Castle, near Coole Park, and
promptly renamed it Thoor Ballylee. It was his summer home for
much of the rest of his life.
Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, and
astrology. In 1885, he and friends formed the Dublin Hermetic
Order. This society held its first meeting on June 16, with Yeats
in the chair. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was
opened with the involvement of Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee.
attended his first séance the following year. Later, Yeats
became heavily involved with hermeticist and theosophical beliefs,
and in 1900 he became head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn, which he had joined in 1889. After his marriage, he and
his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing, Mrs. Yeats
contacting a spirit guide she called "Leo Africanus."
mystical inclinations, informed by Hindu religion (Yeats translated
The Ten Principal Upanishads (1938) with Shri Purohit Swami),
theosophical beliefs and the occult, formed much of the basis
of his late poetry, which some critics attacked as lacking intellectual
or philosophical insights.
In 1913, Yeats met American poet Ezra Pound. Pound traveled to
London to meet the older man, whom he considered "the only
poet worthy of serious study". From that year until 1916,
the two men wintered in the Stone Cottage at Ashdown Forest, with
Pound nominally acting as Yeats' secretary. The relationship got
off to a rocky start when Pound arranged for the publication in
the magazine Poetry of some of Yeats' verse with Pound's own unauthorized
changes reflected Pound's distaste for Victorian prosody. In particular,
the scholarship on Japanese Noh plays that Pound had obtained
from Ernest Fenollosa's widow provided Yeats with a model for
the aristocratic drama he intended to write. The first of his
plays modeled on Noh was At the Hawk's Well, the first draft of
which he dictated to Pound in January 1916.
is generally considered to be one of the twentieth century's key
English-language poets. Yet, unlike most modernists who experimented
with free verse, Yeats was a master of the traditional verse forms.
The impact of modernism on Yeats' work can be seen in the increasing
abandonment of the more conventionally poetic diction of his early
work in favour of the more austere language and more direct approach
to his themes that increasingly characterises the poetry and plays
of his middle period, comprising the volumes In the Seven Woods,
Responsibilities, and The Green Helmet.
The poetry of W.B. Yeats' middle period moved away from the Celtic
Twilight mood of the earlier work. His political concerns moved
away from cultural politics. In his early work, Yeats' aristocratic
pose led to an idealisation of the Irish peasant and a willingness
to ignore poverty and suffering. However, the emergence of a revolutionary
movement from the ranks of the urban Catholic lower-middle class
made him reassess his attitudes.
new direct engagement with politics can be seen in the poem September
1913, with its well-known refrain "Romantic Ireland's dead
and gone,/It's with O'Leary in the grave." This poem is an
attack on the Dublin employers who were involved in the famous
1913 lockout of workers who supported James Larkin's attempts
to organise the Irish labour movement. In Easter 1916, with its
equally famous refrain "All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible
beauty is born", Yeats faces his own failure to recognise
the merits of the leaders of the Easter Rising because of their
humble backgrounds and lives.
was appointed to the Irish Senate (Seanad Éireann) in 1922
and one of his main achievements as a Senator was to chair the
coinage committee that was charged with selecting a set of designs
for the first coinage for the Irish Free State (and the costumes
of Irish judges!). He also spoke against proposed anti-divorce
legislation in 1925. His own characterisation of himself as a
public figure is captured in the line "A sixty-year-old smiling
public man" in the 1927 poem "Among School Children".
He retired from the Seanad in 1928 because of ill health.
his time as a senator Yeats warned his colleagues "If you
show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed
by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will
never get the North … You will put a wedge in the midst
of this nation". As they were virtually all Catholics, they
were offended by these comments.
essentially aristocratic attitudes and his association with Pound
tended to draw him towards Mussolini, for whom he expressed admiration
on a number of occasions. He also wrote some 'marching songs'
(which were never used) for General Eoin O'Duffy's 'Blueshirts',
a quasi-fascist political movement. However, when Pablo Neruda
invited him to visit Madrid in 1937, Yeats responded with a letter
supporting the Republic against Fascism. Yeats' politics are ambiguous:
no friend of the Left (or democracy), he distanced himself from
Nazism and Fascism in the last few years of his life. He was involved
in the eugenics movement.
life and work
In his later poetry and plays, Yeats wrote in a more personal
vein. His subjects included his son and daughter and the experience
of growing old. Yeats himself, in the poem "The Circus Animals'
Desertion", published in his final collection, describes
the inspiration for these late works in the lines "Now that
my ladder's gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In
the foul rag and bone shop of the heart".
1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee for the last time. Much of the
remainder of his life was outside Ireland, but he did lease a
house, Riversdale in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham from 1932.
He wrote prolifically through the final years of his life, publishing
poetry, plays and prose. In 1938, he attended the Abbey for the
last time to see the premier of his play Purgatory. The Autobiographies
of William Butler Yeats was published that same year.
suffering from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, Yeats
died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton,
France on 28 January 1939, aged 73. The last poem he wrote was
the Arthurian-themed The Black Tower.
afterward, Yeats was first buried at Roquebrune, until, in accordance
with his final wish, his body was moved to Drumecliff, County
Sligo in September, 1948, on the corvette Irish Macha. His grave
is a famous attraction in Sligo. His epitaph, which is the final
line from one of his last poems, Under Ben Bulben is "Cast
a cold eye on life, on death; horseman, pass by!" Of this
location, Yeats said, "the place that has really influenced
my life most is Sligo." The town is also home to a statue
and memorial building in Yeats' honor.