Autobiographies Summary

Introduction

William Butler Yeats’s Autobiographies, originally published in 1955, is a collection of essays written by a man many consider to have been the greatest poet in the English language. The first essays, ‘‘Reveries Over Childhood and Youth’’ (1915) and ‘‘The Trembling of the Veil,’’ (1922), cover Yeats’s life through his late twenties. In 1936, another four autobiographical essays were published, ‘‘Dramatis Personae,’’ ‘‘Estrangement,’’ ‘‘The Death of Synge,’’ and ‘‘The Bounty of Sweden,’’ extending Autobiographies well into the poet’s fifties, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

While the information contained in these essays is roughly in chronological order, Yeats’s goal seems to be not to catalogue exact details about his life but to deliver a sense of how he became the man he was. The pages of his autobiography are filled with the names of hundreds of friends and enemies and of societies formed and joined, contributing to a picture of a man passionate for Ireland and Irish nationalism. Writing from the vantage point of the early part of the twentieth century, Yeats acknowledges many of his past errors in judgment and admits to some bitterness over attempted projects that did not end well. In the later pages of his autobiography, Yeats covers his years of contributing to the Abbey Theater in Dublin, a place in which he made his long-time dream of an Irish national dramatic movement a reality. In addition, in the essays, Yeats reveals his increasing fascination throughout his life with the supernatural and mysticism.

Autobiographies Summary

Autobiographies comprises six essays describing Yeats’s life from childhood through 1923 when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Chapter One: ‘‘Reveries over Childhood and Youth’’
The first essay in Yeats’s Autobiographies covers the author’s life through his twenties, beginning with recollections of his maternal grandfather, William Pollexfen, and continuing through the publication of Yeats’s first collection of poetry in 1889, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems.

Yeats remembers having a very unhappy childhood but is never quite able to specify what caused his unhappiness. He suspects: ‘‘my miseries were not made by others but were a part of my own mind.’’ As he grew older, Yeats reports that he became happier.

Yeats writes of the first time he experienced hearing an inner voice as a child, which he decided later was his conscience. When he was an adult, this voice continued to come to him ‘‘at moments of crisis.’’ He also remembers experiencing various mystical events, such as witnessing the work of ‘‘faeries’’ and seeing a ‘‘supernatural bird.’’

When his family moved to London’s North End, Yeats found himself involved in many fights with schoolmates who teased him about being Irish. He rarely won these fights and struggled over the fact that he never felt as brave as his grandfather Pollexfen. Eventually the family moved to Bedford Park, a neighborhood of art aficionados.

The first poems Yeats heard were a stableboy’s rhymes. When he was eight or nine years old, his father began reading poetry to him and continued this practice as Yeats grew up. Yeats describes himself as a poor student and not much of an athlete but very interested in collecting bugs and being outdoors. He greatly anticipated the occasions when he was allowed to sail to Ireland and visit his Sligo relatives. Yeats’s family moved to Dublin from London when Yeats was fifteen years old.

Yeats’s difficulty with his studies continued throughout his teenage years, and he became even more entranced with being outdoors. Yeats even slept in a cave for a period of time, causing great consternation among his teachers.

Yeats attended art school in Dublin from 1884 through 1886 but did not enjoy it. He spent most of his time writing poetry and studying the occult and supernatural. Yeats also frequented a number of clubs and societies involved in political debate and the issue of Irish nationalism—the idea that Ireland should be a country independent from England. He met numerous famous Irish nationalists, including John O’Leary, and began meeting with the Young Ireland Society, organized to promote the idea of Irish nationalism through Irish literature.

Chapter Two: ‘‘Book I: Four Years: 1887–1891’’
Yeats writes of the four years during which he met numerous poets and artists who would have lasting effects on his life and would become longtime friends and confidants. Yeats was in his early twenties and obviously excited about the numerous philosophical discussions he shared with his father’s friends and others. During this period he met Maude Gonne, the Irish beauty and activist who, while becoming an enduring friend to Yeats, never reciprocated his romantic love.

Yeats was involved with many of the intellectuals and literary...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)