Study Guide

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111200555-Yeats.jpg(©The Nobel Foundation) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Yeats transformed himself from a minor late Romantic poet into the complex artist who became the greatest poet of the twentieth century.

Early Life

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin in 1865. His father was an unsuccessful painter who encouraged his son to pursue a life in the arts. William attempted to follow his father and attended art school in Dublin for a short while. He disliked the form of instruction, however, and found that his talents lay in poetry rather than painting. Yeats’s roots were in Ireland, but he spent an equal amount of time in London. While he was in London, he came in contact with William Morris and other adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this connection increased his already latent Romanticism. He published a long narrative poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” in 1889, and the poem shows the influences on his early poetry. It evokes a legendary Irish hero, Oisin (Ossiah), and is written in the Romantic style of the Pre-Raphaelites. In another early poem, Yeats declares, “Words alone are certain good.” Reality and facts are seen as enemies of the life of the imagination and need to be overcome by “words.” One of the reasons that Yeats turned to Romanticism was that he was poor, badly clothed, and obsessed with the fame and sex that seemed to be so far out of his reach.

Yeats was also seeking to replace the religion that his father and other skeptics had driven out. He was associated for a while with the Theosophists and Madame Blavatsky and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. This interest in mysticism had an effect on his poetry; his second book, The Rose (1893), has a number of poems that allude to Rosicrucianism and a mystical union after death with the beloved. It was during this period that Yeats met the woman he was to love for the rest of his life, Maud Gonne. She was interested in Irish affairs but not in the same way as Yeats was; he wanted to make “an Ireland beautiful in the memory” with his poems, but she was interested in radical political action. He wrote many poems to and about her, and he proposed to her a number of times, but she continued to refuse him. Even after she married John MacBride in 1903, she remained an inspiration for his poems.

Yeats became interested in the theater in the late 1890’s after he met Lady Augusta Gregory, and he founded the Irish National Theatre with her in 1899. As a result of his involvement with the theater and Irish culture and politics, Yeats’s style and subject matter began to change from the shadowy Romanticism of the early poems to the satiric and realistic poems found in the 1914 volume, Responsibilities. The last poem of that volume, “A Coat,” makes his change clear.

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

Life’s Work

By 1914, Yeats had published several books of poetry and a number of well-received plays. If he had died at that time, he would be remembered as an important but minor poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning with Responsibilities, Yeats began to remake himself as a modern poet. The first aspect of that modernity is a satiric rather than a Romantic approach. In poems such as “Paudeen,” “To a Shade,” and “To a Wealthy Man,” Yeats takes on the Irish middle class and scorns them for not knowing excellence when it comes before them. The style is also much leaner and tighter; Yeats’s description of “the fumbling wits, the obscure spite/ Of our old Paudeen in his shop” has a hard edge not to be found in the other-worldly early poems. There are, to be sure, poems on Maud Gonne in the book, but they have changed as well. For example, in “The Cold Heaven,” he describes the relationship with Gonne as one that “should be out of season”; the only reward he receives for his loyalty in love is to be “sent/ Out naked on the roads. . . .”

During this period, Yeats met Ezra Pound, who helped him change his style. Pound also introduced him to Japanese Nō drama, and Yeats was immediately taken with this symbolic theater. He wrote and produced At the Hawk’s Well in 1916 with Japanese-like masks. Another event that altered Yeats was not a literary one but a political one: the Easter Uprising of 1916. The revolutionary politics that he hated had suddenly blossomed and, as a poet, he had to respond. The response is found in “Easter 1916.” The poem describes how everything has been “changed, changed utterly” by the actions of a few heroic fanatics. Moreover, while Yeats celebrates the “terrible beauty” that was born by this revolution, he also makes the political action into a myth and himself into a bard; in that mythic and apolitical dimension, it does not matter whether “England” keeps faith or not. Political action fades before the timelessness of myth.

In 1917, Yeats married Georgia Hyde-Lees, and she gave him some of the stability that he had lacked until this point. They lived at Coole on the estate of Lady Gregory, who had helped and been helped by Yeats for a number of years. His wife also helped Yeats by engaging in automatic writing that was later to produce A Vision (1925) as well as many of the occult symbols and the fascination with history that began to become prominent in Yeats’s poetry.

In The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), some of these new directions in Yeats’s poetry are apparent. There is now an interest in the heroic man who puts by tragedy in “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Gregory is portrayed as an ideal man who combines “Soldier, Scholar, Horseman,” and his death is not tragic but an escape from old age, another of Yeats’s prominent themes. “A Deep-Sworn Vow” is about Maud Gonne, but it is about loss more than love.

Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.

We also find the first signs of the system of A Vision appear in the poetry in such poems as “The Phases of the Moon,” although they are at this time less successful than the love poems and the heroic ones.

Yeats’s greatest book is certainly The Tower (1928), and it reflects much of the bitterness he perceived in the civil war in Ireland and the breakdown of old traditions after World War I. The first poem in that volume, “Sailing to Byzantium,” opens with a rejection of a society that has no concern for “Monuments of unageing intellect” since it is caught in its own “sensual music” that is ensnared in the process of “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” His solution is to turn himself into an art object that escapes this cycle. In the poems that follow, however, Yeats returns to confront once more the problems of old age and history. These themes can be seen in the title poem, “The Tower,” in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” and, above all, in “Among School Children.” In that poem, Yeats again confronts the problems of old age, love, and the life of the artist. He seems to conclude that “passion, piety, and affection” are only temporary and “mockers of man’s enterprise.” The last stanza, however, moves to a transcendent union of all things: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?” The last poem in the volume is “All Souls’ Night: Epilogue to ‘A Vision.’ “ It is also a poem of transcendence, but not the natural one of “Among School Children”; it is, instead, a victory of “meditation” and of the cycles of history that Yeats thought he controlled in A Vision.

Yeats believed that “The Tower” was a “distortion” because its bitterness showed only one side. In his next volume, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), the poems celebrate life and the victory of the “Self” over the abstraction of the “Soul” in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Vacillation.” In addition, there is a new emphasis on sexuality in the “Crazy Jane” poems. In 1934, Yeats had a Steinach operation performed to rejuvenate his sexual powers, and an emphasis on the sexual rather than the earlier ideal love began to become more important in his poetry.

In 1938, Yeats moved to France, where he wrote some of his best plays, including Purgatory, and the poems that would later be collected in Last Poems and Plays (1940). His powers did not flag, and while Last Poems and Plays is more uneven than the earlier volumes, it does contain such great poems as “Lapis Lazuli” and “The Circus Animals Desertion.” On January 26, 1939, Yeats suddenly fell ill and died soon after. He was buried in France, but his body was returned to his beloved Ireland in 1948 and was met by Sean MacBride, Minister for External Affairs and the son of Maud Gonne.


William Butler Yeats described some of the stages he went through in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”; the first stage was “that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose/ Through three enchanted islands”; the next was the political stage of the “counter-truth” and its play, The Countess Cathleen, and Maud Gonne, who played the title role; the last was a recognition that his perfect art grew out of imperfect material and needed the realism that the earlier stages lacked:

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.

Yeats began as a gifted late Romantic poet whose poems were more sound than sense, and the doctrine they pronounced was that only the imagination is real. He made himself into a modern poet by changing his subject matter and technique. The middle and last phases of Yeats’s poetry are marked by poems that connect and relate more closely to the concerns of the audience than did the earlier ones. Such great poems as “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” and “Easter 1916” deal intimately with such concerns as the future of one’s child, friendship, and revolution and would have been impossible in his earlier style.

His life as well as his art changed from about 1914 onward. The pursuit of Gonne continued but became angry and realistic rather than Romantic. Yeats became involved in such historical events as the Easter Uprising and World War I, and history itself became prominent in his thought. His position as a senator in the Irish Free State as well as a founder or leader of various Irish cultural groups testifies to his involvement in the world. He may have defied the world in his epitaph (“Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death/ Horseman, pass by”), but he was a part of it. As Richard Ellmann said, “Few poets have found mastery of themselves and their craft so difficult or have sought such mastery, through conflict and struggle, so unflinchingly.”


Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Macmillan, 1948. One of the first “life and works” books on Yeats and still a useful introduction to the poet.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1959. A useful interpretive guide for readers of the poems.

Whitaker, Thomas R. Swan and Shadow. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964. An excellent study of Yeats’s ideas about history and how they are incorporated into the poems.

Yeats, William B. Memoirs: Autobiography, First Draft Journal. New York: Macmillan, 1972. An excellent edition of Yeats’s Autobiography and Journal in one volume, in which Yeats describes his development and his relationship with other poets and Maud Gonne.

The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Critical Evaluation:

Yeats’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it serves as an illuminating background to the greatest body of twentieth century poetry in England, THE COLLECTED POEMS OF W. B. YEATS. Yeats’s poetry is about people: imaginary people Michael Robartes, Crazy Jane, people of Irish legend (Cuchulain, Fergus), people of Irish history (Parnell, Robert Emmet), people to whom Yeats was related (the Middletons, the Pollexfens), people Yeats knew (Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory). All these, and many more, are celebrated in his poems. The main figure in the poems is, of course, “I, the poet William Yeats.”

The poems themselves are not important as autobiography, for the people in them exist in art, not in life. There is a “Yeats country” just as there is a “Faulkner country,” but whereas Faulkner changed the names (Oxford, Mississippi becoming “Jefferson”), Yeats did not. In the “Yeats country” Michael Robartes is as real as Maud Gonne, Cuchulain is as alive as Lady Gregory. Yet we are always aware that many of Yeats’s people are taken from real life, and in the AUTOBIOGRAPHY we are afforded an extraordinary view into that life. We read about the places Yeats made famous: Sligo, Coole, Ballylee. We meet the Yeats family and Irish peasants, poets of the 1890’s, patriots and revolutionaries, spiritualists, and Swedish royalty. We are presented with the real life equivalent of the “Yeats country” of the COLLECTED POEMS, and we see it through the eyes and through the memory of the poet himself.

The first section of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, “Reveries over Childhood and Youth,” begins with Yeats’s earliest memories and concludes with the publication of his first book of poems, THE WANDERINGS OF OISIN AND OTHER POEMS (1889). The chief locales are Sligo, London, and Dublin.

As a very young child Yeats stood in awe of his sea-captain grandfather, William Pollexfen, but it was his father, John Butler Yeats, whose influence was dominant throughout his childhood and adolescence. The elder Yeats, a none-too-successful painter and an opinionated skeptic, influenced his son in several ways. He fostered his interest in literature by reading to him from the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, Chaucer, Shelley, Thoreau, and many other writers, and in the theater by taking him to see Henry Irving in HAMLET. Until he was nearly twenty Yeats seems to have shared most of his father’s opinions (and they were generally outspoken ones) about art, education, and politics. It was only after he had begun to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that he finally was able to break away from his father’s influence. But in some respects his father’s influence was never broken; John Butler Yeats’s hatred for abstractions, for example, was one opinion his son held to all his life, and it greatly influenced the younger Yeats’s attitudes towards politics, art, and life itself. Moreover, Yeats was always conscious of being an artist’s son and aware, therefore, that he must follow a career that would be the whole end of life in itself rather than a means to becoming well off and living pleasantly. The work which Yeats took as the all and end of life was, of course, his poetry.

In this section we read of many things: Yeats’s early interest in natural science (which he later grew to hate); his lack of scholarship and his resultant lack of anything like a systematic formal education; the influence on him of the Fenian leader, John O’Leary; and his continuing interest in legends of the Irish heroes, in stories of ghosts and omens, and in peasant tales of all kinds. It was only natural that Yeats was later to collect these stories (as in THE CELTIC TWILIGHT, 1893), for he was never to forget his mother and a fisherman’s wife telling each other stories such as Homer himself might have told.

Most of all, this section of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a portrait of the artist as a young man. At first Yeats merely played the roles of sage, magician, poet. Sometimes he was Hamlet, or Byron’s Manfred, or Shelley’s Alastor; at other times he was Byron himself. Then he began to write poems in admiring imitation of Shelley and Spenser. All of his early work was derivative: the well-known poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” for example, was heavily indebted to his acquaintance with Thoreau’s Walden. It was not until years afterward that he began, deliberately, to reshape his style by discarding traditional metaphors, employing looser rhythms, communicating emotion that he described as “cold.” But for now there was nothing “cold” about his emotion. Very much under the influence of his father’s belief that only passionate poetry is important, he filled his early lyrics with imagery and color, a heritage from the Romantic poets.

The longest section of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, “The Trembling of the Veil,” deals with the period between 1887 and the turn of the century. On the one hand this section is a record of his friendships during these years. Nearly all of the famous literary figures of the 1890’s are here: W. E. Henley, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Shaw, George Russell (“A. E.”), John Synge, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, William Sharp (“Fiona Mcleod”), Paul Verlaine—Yeats knew them all. On the other hand the section is a record of the coming to maturity of Yeats’s own work and its chief importance is perhaps that it gives us insights into the development of his theories of poetry.

He did not forsake his interest in emotion, but he began to write poems combining personal feeling with larger patterns of myth and symbol. His interest in myth and symbol, an understanding of which is essential to an understanding of his mature poetry, led him into a series of esoteric studies. He was associated with the Theosophist, Madame Blavatsky; he experimented with the evocative power of symbols under the direction of Macgregor Mathers and later in conjunction with his uncle, George Pollexfen. He eventually realized that he had found only a variety of images. He had been searching for a tradition—for the centrality of a tradition—but he had hit upon its opposite: fragmentation.

Yeats envied Dante for having had a unified culture out of which to write. “Unity of Culture,” a unity stemming from a universally accepted mythology, is precisely what, in Yeats’s view, the modern world lacks. Symbolism he saw as the language of mythology. For years Yeats was occupied with the attempt to regain, in Ireland, that “Unity of Culture” which would make the language of symbolism intelligible. He hoped to find his mythology in peasant legendry. He hoped to encourage a national literature, one above politics and all temporal disputes, which would draw upon such a mythology. Finally he came to realize that his dream of a modern nation returned to Unity of Culture, was false. When this dream failed, he inevitably turned inward. Lacking a traditional mythology, he created one of his own, compounded from a complex variety of sources. He adopted myths and symbols from Christianity, from paganism, from the Orient, from Theosophy, and from Irish folklore. Perhaps his most important source was his own life: the people he knew became symbolic personages figuring in a private mythology. Consequently, as we read anecdotes about Synge, Lady Gregory, Maud Gonne, or John O’Leary, we come face to face with the real-life counterparts of some of the chief inhabitants of the “Yeats country.”

In the third section of the AUTOBIOGRAPHY, “Dramatis Personae, 1896-1902,” the chief “Personae” are Edward Martyn, Arthur Symons, George Moore, and, above all, Lady Gregory. This section recounts the struggles of a small group of people to found in Ireland a native and national theater. But most of all it serves as Yeats’s graceful and grateful tribute to Lady Gregory, his patron, collaborator, and friend. She encouraged him in his work and lent him money. Of even greater influence in the development of his art, as Yeats recalled years later, were the times he stayed at Coole, Lady Gregory’s home, where Yeats spent the summers of twenty years. Among the trees and by the lake at Coole, Yeats was to do much of his greatest work, and the place itself, which he said he knew better than any spot on earth, became, like the people he knew, a familiar and important part of the world of his COLLECTED POEMS.

The AUTOBIOGRAPHY is far from being a complete account of Yeats’s life. The first three sections cover the years 1865 to 1902, but Yeats was to live until 1939, and to do nearly all of his important work during the remaining years. Of the last three sections of the book, two (“Estrangement” and “The Death of Synge”) are but fragmentary extracts from a diary Yeats kept in 1909. “Estrangement” is a collection of scattered and, at times, half-formed ideas about art, and is not, in the true sense of the word, autobiography. “The Death of Synge” is also largely a series of reveries about art; those reveries, in particular, which were induced by his friend’s death. The final section of the book, “The Bounty of Sweden,” (written in 1925), is a relaxed account of his trip to Stockholm in 1923 to receive the Nobel Prize.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The eldest of the four children of John Butler Yeats, the painter, and his wife, Susan Pollexfen, William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin. When he was nine years old, the family moved to London, where he attended the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, taking his holidays with his maternal grandparents in County Sligo in the rural west of Ireland. The Yeats family returned to Dublin in 1880, and the young Yeats thereafter completed his education at the high school and the Metropolitan Art School. During this time, from 1883 to 1886, he came under the influence of George Russell (Æ) and a circle of Dublin mystics, as well as John O’Leary, the aged Fenian leader.

These various influences turned the introverted boy from art to literature; from religious confusion (his mother was a Protestant, his father an agnostic) to Theosophy, the occult, and Rosicrucianism; and from the Oriental themes of his earliest literary efforts to Irish subjects. Yeats moved back to London in 1888. In 1890, he helped organize the Rhymers Club, where he made friends with many of the leading poets of the time, including Arthur Symons, William Morris, and Lionel Johnson, with whom he founded the Irish Literary Society in 1891.

In 1888, Yeats had met Maud Gonne, an actress and activist in behalf of Irish nationalism. A lifelong, unrequited obsession with her (she rejected marriage proposals in 1891 and again in 1916) accounts for the periodic intensification of his enthusiasm for nationalist politics, the subject of much of his poetry and two of his early plays, The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan.

Yeats returned to Dublin in 1896, and in 1899, he collaborated with Edward Martyn and Lady Gregory in founding the Irish Literary Theatre, which in 1904 became the Abbey Theatre. The affairs of this theater—playwriting (peasant and Celtic themes), daily management, the promotion of playwrights with Irish subjects (Synge was the most notable)—were his preoccupations until about 1910.

After Ezra Pound introduced him to the Japanese N drama, Yeats wrote his Four Plays for Dancers: formal, symbolic, ritual plays based on Celtic, Irish, and Christian themes. He married Georgina Hyde-Lees in 1917 and, discovering her capacities as a medium, revived his interest in Spiritualism. With her assistance, he produced the systematized A Vision, which illuminates much of his mature drama and poetry. The couple lived in Dublin and at Thoor Ballylee, a restored Norman tower in County Galway, and had two children. During the last twenty-five years of his life, Yeats produced his most mature work in poetry, prose, and drama. He was appointed a member of the senate of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928, lectured widely in Europe and the United States, and received widespread recognition, including honorary doctorates and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. In 1932, along with George Bernard Shaw and Æ, he founded the Irish Academy of Letters, and in 1936, he edited the controversial Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Failing health forced him to abandon Thoor Ballylee, and in the 1930’s, he spent progressively more of each year in Italy and France. In 1939, shortly after completing his last play, The Death of Cuchulain, he died in the French Riviera and was temporarily buried there. His remains were returned to Drumcliff, County Sligo, his grandfather’s parish, in 1948.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born in Dublin to the painter John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen of Sligo, William Butler Yeats was of Irish Protestant background. His childhood was spent in London, Dublin, and Sligo. He was educated at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, Dublin High School, and the Metropolitan School of Art, where he fell under the spell of George Russell (Æ) and other Dublin mystics. John O’Leary, the Fenian leader, and Maud Gonne, the passionate actress and patriot, were two Irish friends, while Arthur Symons and Lionel Johnson of the Rhymers’ Club were London friends. When Maud Gonne and later her daughter Iseult rejected his marriage proposals, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, an Englishwoman, in 1917. They had one son and one daughter. After the Irish Civil War, he served as Senator for the Irish Free State, 1923-1928. Yeats traveled extensively, including lecture tours to the United States. In 1899, Yeats with Lady Augusta Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore established an Irish theater, which led to the Abbey Theatre. With George Bernard Shaw and George Russell (Æ), Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932. His complex life experiences were literary source material for his works. Acutely aware of the religious and philosophical conflict facing the world, he believed that a viable literature was an alternative resolution until religion and philosophy offered another solution.

William Butler Yeats Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son, William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, Ireland, a small community on the outskirts of Dublin that has since been absorbed by that sprawling metropolis. His father, paternal grandfather, and great-grandfather Yeats were all graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, but only his father, John Butler Yeats, had begun his postcollegiate career in the city where he had studied. Both the great-grandfather and the grandfather had been clergymen of the Protestant Church of Ireland, the latter in county Down, near Northern Ireland, and the former at Drumcliff, near the west-Irish port town of Sligo, with which the poet is so thoroughly identified.

The reason for the identification with Sligo is that John Butler Yeats married the sister of his closest collegiate schoolmate, George Pollexfen, whose family lived in Sligo. Dissatisfied with the courts as a fledgling barrister, J. B. Yeats abandoned law and Dublin to follow in London his inclinations as a graphic artist in sketches and oils. The combination of limited finances and his wife’s dislike of urban life resulted in numerous extended visits by her and the growing family of children back to Sligo at the home of the poet’s maternal grandfather, a sea captain and partner in a shipping firm. Thus, Yeats’s ancestral line doubled back on itself in a sense. In the Sligo area, he became acquainted with Yeats descendants of the Drumcliff rector, and in memory and imagination the west-Irish valley between the mountains Ben Bulben and Knocknarea was always his spiritual home.

Yeats’s formal education was irregular, at best. His earliest training was in London at the hand of his father, who read to him from English authors such as Sir Walter Scott and William Shakespeare. He did not distinguish himself at his first school in London or at Erasmus High School when the family returned to Dublin in 1880. Declining to matriculate at Trinity in the tradition of his forebears, he took up studies instead at the Metropolitan School of Art, where he met George Russell (laterÆ), who was to become a lifelong close acquaintance. Yeats soon found that his interests inclined more toward the verbal arts than toward the visual, however, and by 1885, he had discontinued his studies in painting and had published some poems. At this same relatively early time, he had also become involved in occult interests, being among the founders of the Dublin Hermetic Society.

In 1887, the family returned to London, where Yeats was briefly involved with the famous Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. The years 1889 to 1892 were some of the most important in this crucially formative period of his life. He was active in the many diverse areas of interest that were to shape and color the remainder of his career. In rapid succession, he became a founding member of the Rhymers Club (a young group of Pateresque fin de siècle aesthetes) and of the Irish Literary Society of London and the Irish Literary Society of Dublin (both devoted to reviving interest in native Irish writers and writing). He also joined the newly established Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian secret society in which he became an active leader for a number of years and of which he remained a member for more than two decades. In 1889, Yeats published The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems and became coeditor of an edition of William Blake’s work, an experience that was to influence greatly much of his subsequent thought and writing. No event in this period, however, had a more dramatic and permanent effect on the rest of his life than his introduction in the same year to Maud Gonne, that “great beauty” of Ireland with whom Yeats fell immediately and hopelessly in love. The love was largely unrequited, although Maud allowed the one-sided relationship to continue for a painfully long time throughout much of the poet’s early adult life—in fact, even after her marriage and widowhood.

From this point on, Yeats’s life was a whirlwind of literary, nationalistic, and occult activity. In 1896, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge, with both of whom he was later to be associated in the leadership of the Abbey Theatre, as well as in investigation of the folklore and ethos of west-Irish peasants. The purpose of the Abbey Theatre, as far as these three were concerned, was to produce plays that combined Irish interests with artistic literary merit. The acquaintance with Lady Gregory also initiated a long series of summer visits at her estate in Coole Park, Galway, where his aristocratic inclinations, as well as his frequently frail physical being, were nurtured. During parts of 1895 and 1896, Yeats shared lodgings in London briefly with Arthur Symons, of the Rhymers Club, who, as author of The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), helped to acquaint him further with the French Symbolist mode. Actually, however, through his intimate relationships with Hermetic lore and the English Romantics—especially Blake andPercy Bysshe Shelley—Yeats was already writing poetry in a manner much like that of his continental contemporaries. Later in 1896, Yeats moved in to 18 Woburn Buildings, Dublin, which came to be his permanent residence, except for rather frequent travels abroad, for an extended period.

At about the turn of the century and just after, Yeats abandoned his Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism and adopted a more “manful” style. Not wholly unrelated to this was his more outgoing involvement in the daily affairs of the nationalist theater movement. The fact should be remembered—for it is easy to forget—that at this time Yeats was in his late thirties, already moving into a somewhat premature middle age. In 1909 he met Ezra Pound, the only other major figure in the modernist movement with whom he was ever to develop an acquaintance to the point of literary interaction and influence. The relationship reached its apex in the years from 1912 to 1915, during which Pound criticized Yeats’s romantic tendencies and, perhaps more important, encouraged the older poet’s interest in the highly stylized and ritualistic N drama of Japan.

In the same years, another important aspect of Yeats’s life and interests had been developing in new directions as well. Beginning about 1908-1909, his esoteric pursuits shifted from active involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn to investigations in spiritism, séances, and “psychical research.” This preoccupation continued until 1915 or 1916, at which point some biographers seem to indicate that it ended. Yet, in one sense, spiritism as an obsessive concern simply redoubled itself about this time on the occasion of Yeats’s late-life marriage, for his wife turned out to be the “mystic” par excellence, through whose mediumship came the ultimate flowering of his lifelong prepossession with occult aspects of human—and superhuman—experience.

After Maud Gonne MacBride’s husband was executed for his participation in Dublin’s 1916 Easter uprising, Yeats visited Maud in Paris and proposed to her, only to be rejected as on previous occasions years before. He then became attracted to her daughter Iseult and proposed to her in turn. Once again rejected, he decided to marry an English woman whom he had known in occult circles for some years and who was a close friend of mutual acquaintances—Georgie Hyde-Less. On their honeymoon in 1917, Georgie began to experience the first of what came to be a voluminous and almost literally fantastic collection of “automatic writings,” the basis of Yeats’s famous mystic system, as elaborated in his book A Vision.

The various honors that Yeats received in the 1920’s and 1930’s have been outlined already under “Achievements.” Ironically, from these same years, not earlier ones, came most of the poems and collections by which his importance as a major modern literary figure is to be measured. Two interrelated experiences were very likely the chief contributors to the newfound vigor, imagery, and stylistic devices characteristic of these late works—his marriage and the completion of his mystic system in A Vision. The nature and degree of indebtedness to the latter of these influences, however, has often been both misunderstood and overestimated. The connection can probably never be assessed with complete accuracy, whereas various other possible factors, such as his renewed interest in the writings of John Donne and Jonathan Swift, should not be ignored or minimized.

In 1926 and 1927, Yeats’s health became a genuinely serious problem, and at times in the last dozen years of his life, to live seemed to him to be almost more difficult than to die. There can be little question that such prolonged confrontation with that ultimate of all human experiences is responsible for some of the combined profundity, choler, and—paradoxically—wit of his last poems and plays. During this period, winters were usually spent in various Mediterranean locales for climatic reasons. Death eventually came in the south of France in January, 1939. With characteristic doggedness, Yeats continued working to the very end; he wrote his last poem only a week before his death and dictated to his wife some revisions of a late poem and his last play after the onset of his final illness, only two days before he died. Because of transportation difficulties at the beginning of World War II, Yeats was initially buried at Roquebrune, France. His body was exhumed in 1948, however, and transported aboard an Irish corvette for reburial at Drumcliff Churchyard, as he had specified at the end of his valedictory poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” As his friend and fellow authorFrank O’Connor said on the occasion, that event brought to its appropriate and symbolic conclusion a life that was itself a work of art long planned.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111200555-Yeats.jpgWilliam Butler Yeats Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Butler Pollexfen Yeats (yayts) was born on June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, a middle-class suburb of Dublin, Ireland, the son of the painter and philosopher John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfan Yeats. Both parents were members of the Anglo-Irish minority, an important detail of Yeats’s later life. The Yeats family settled in Ireland during the seventeenth century. Yeats’s mother and her family were from County Sligo, in the western part of Ireland. Yeats’s parents had four surviving children, of whom William was the eldest. John Butler Yeats studied law but decided to pursue his natural talent for drawing and painting. This decision led to a great deal of financial hardship for the family.

Because of difficult family circumstances, young William spent extended periods with his mother’s family in Sligo. These stays away from the family home, which was by this time in London, were a formative influence. While in Ireland, Yeats derived his interest in Irish folklore, the phenomenon of racial memory, and the love of nature, all of which are to be found in his poetry.

Although Yeats was for the most part unhappy in London, the city had an influence upon him. Through his father, he became acquainted with many of the leading cultural figures of the day, including William Morris and Oscar Wilde. Yeats’s dual allegiance to Ireland and London became one of the many sources of the creative tension that animates his mature poetry. It was in Ireland, however, that Yeats made his initial mark as a writer. The family returned to Dublin in 1880, where the poet’s lackluster efforts at school continued. After an abortive attempt to study art, and unable to meet university entrance requirements, Yeats abandoned formal education in 1886 to devote himself to writing.

Two of Yeats’s early interests manifested themselves in his work. One was his attachment to the cause of Irish nationality, which enabled him to establish a distinctive cultural identity. The other was the development of his interest in Theosophy and spiritualism, which contributed to the growth of the poet’s spiritual self. Both these orientations were idealist and symbolic in character, and they form the aesthetic and metaphysical foundation for Yeats’s poetry. Yeats’s early verse adapts his cultural and spiritual interests to the main poetic current of the time. This current owed much to French poetry, which relied on mood and color rather than on narrative and event. In 1891, Yeats formed the Rhymers Club with some English practitioners of this style.

In 1893, Yeats produced a volume of Irish folklore called The Celtic Twilight. His interest in the Celtic past, combined with his fresh perception of the possibilities of lyric poetry, led to his use of pre-Christian Celtic material as distinctive poetic subject matter. Indeed, Yeats’s work at this time led to the formation of a school of Irish literature known as the Celtic Twilight. This movement, with its emphasis on Irish history and identity, contributed greatly to the growth of Irish literature in subsequent years.

A number of other events took place early in Yeats’s career that had lasting effects on his life. One was his meeting Maud Gonne in 1889. He fell in love with Gonne, who steadfastly refused his proposals of marriage. Nonetheless, Yeats drew on Gonne and her beauty and physical energy as subject matter for his poetry. In 1896, Yeats first met Lady Augusta Gregory. She provided his art with financial and moral support and introduced him to the Anglo-Irish aristocratic life. This way of life was to be a major source of Yeats’s vision of cultural unity.

Through Lady Gregory, Yeats became committed to the establishment of an Irish national theater, a commitment that culminated in the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904. As a result of his involvement with the theater, Yeats not only developed into a powerful playwright but also enhanced the strong dramatic undertones of his verse. The success of the Abbey and the growing maturity of his own poetry gave Yeats an increasingly prominent profile in the English-speaking world. To some extent, however, events in Ireland made him a marginal figure in his own country. The rebellion of Easter, 1916, which Yeats memorably commemorated in a poem, inspired a more populist conception of Irish destiny than Yeats’s art envisaged. The Irish war of independence (1919 to 1921), and the civil war that almost immediately followed it, also gave rise to some of Yeats’s greatest verse. At the same time, however, the poet withdrew from public life, establishing residence in Thoor Ballylee, a tower dating from Norman times, in the west of Ireland.

In 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, and the couple soon became parents. In 1923, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, thereby securing his international reputation. Other honors followed, notably a doctorate in letters from the University of Oxford in 1931. In 1922, he was nominated to the senate of the Irish Free State, a symbolic political honor, though his record as a senator is one of valuable activity and outspokenness.

In his later years, Yeats’s thoughts evolved from a concern with Irish matters to concern with cosmic themes. These themes address the possibility of unity, which had long been one of the poet’s ideals. Yet historical developments not merely in Ireland but also in the West generally seemed determined to frustrate this ideal. Pursuit of his vision of unity led the poet to envision in a mythological light the significant attainments of his generation and to support some of the international political strongmen of the 1930’s. He developed a theory of apocalyptic history that posited a long period of unity followed by a long period of fragmentation, a cycle of winding and unwinding that continued infinitely.

Poor health necessitated long periods away from Ireland after the conclusion of his senate term in 1928. He continued to produce poetry of great vitality and deep thought until his death in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in the south of France, on January 28, 1939. Because of World War II, Yeats’s remains were not removed to Ireland until 1948, when he was buried in Drumcliff, in County Sligo.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

There are a number of reasons for considering William Butler Yeats a major poet, if not the major poet of the twentieth century. One is his comprehensive growth. Each of his books of poetry represents a development and refinement of his thought. Taken as a whole, therefore, the body of his work not only offers commentary on the culture and history of his time but also traces the course of a poet coming of age.

Yeats’s career offers an exceptional glimpse of the transition from Romanticism to modernism. In addition, Yeats’s desire to create meaningful relationships between such different phenomena as love and art, history and poetry, Christianity and apocalypse, and passion and vision remains a striking example of his mind’s range. As in the poetry of William Blake, Yeats simultaneously provides readers with competing and contradictory visions of reality.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111200555-Yeats.jpgWilliam Butler Yeats Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Butler Yeats (yayts) was the son of John Butler Yeats, an artist of considerable merit who had given up a moderately lucrative law practice in order to devote himself to painting. His mother was a frail, beautiful woman who nurtured in her son a deep love for the “west country” of Ireland that was to last all his life. His early childhood and later vacations were spent there, among the green hills and lakes of Sligo which were to become, in such poems as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a symbol of his imaginative escape from the disappointments and unpleasant realities of life.{$A[geo]CATHOLIC;CHRISTIAN}{$A[geo]CHRISTIAN;CATHOLIC}{$S[geo]GRE AT BRITAIN;ENGLAND, IRELAND, SCOTLAND, WALES}{$S[geo]HOLLAND;NETHERLANDS, THE}{$S[geo]YUGOSLAVIA;BOSNIA, SERBIA}

Much of Yeats’s early life was spent in London, but he and his family spent the years from 1880 to 1887 in Dublin. This time was to have a lasting effect on the impressionable young poet. Stimulated by his father, who loved to read aloud, Yeats discovered William Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and the pre-Raphaelites, explored popular works on Eastern mysticism, became interested in Irish myths and folklore, and, perhaps most important, met the poets and intellectuals of the Irish literary revival, many of whom were to remain lifelong friends. During the period he made several attempts at poetic drama, but the plays were highly imitative and hopelessly cluttered with magic islands and timid shepherds. Back in London, Yeats embarked on a serious study of Irish folk tales in the British Museum and published his first major poem, The Wanderings of Oisin, in 1889. Although the poem is superficially reminiscent of those of Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Yeats’s friend William Morris, the Gaelic theme and unorthodox rhythms are characteristic of Yeats’s quest for a fresh tradition and an individual style.

There is, however, little that is imitative in poetic plays such as The Countess Cathleen and The Land of Heart’s Desire, or in the lyrics that accompanied the former. The continued use of Irish themes evident in these volumes is indicative of an important and complex aspect of Yeats’s early development. In common with the other writers of the nationalistic Irish literary revival, he wished to create a literature that was purely Irish in tone and subject matter. As part of the same general movement, he strove to reawaken in his people a sense of the glory and significance of Ireland’s historical and legendary past. Furthermore, the remoteness of these Celtic themes was consistent with Yeats’s aesthetic theory, later repudiated in part, of the separation of art from life. Finally, Irish folklore offered an answer to his search for a personal and individual mythology, for he found there a treasury of symbols hitherto unused in English poetry. Yeats’s tendency to make mythical figures into private symbols was encouraged by his contacts with such symbolist poets as Arthur Symons and Stéphane Mallarmé, and by his undisciplined but enthusiastic dabbling in such esoteric subjects as “hermetic” philosophy, astrology, and spiritualism. The Secret Rose and The Wind Among the Reeds are representative of Yeats’s work at this time, and while the clues to the meaning of the poems in these volumes are not always readily accessible to the uninitiated reader, they reveal a major step forward in terms of artistic skill and emotional maturity.

In spite of Yeats’s theoretic dissociation from contemporary Irish life and politics, he could not escape his environment, particularly because he was in love, and was to be for two decades, with the beautiful and fiery actress and nationalist Maud Gonne. In 1899 he and Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, founded the Irish National Theatre Society, which presently became the famous Abbey Theatre of Dublin. During the first decade of the twentieth century, working alongside Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge, Yeats wrote several plays for the Abbey, the best of which are the patriotic propaganda piece Cathleen ni Houlihan and the tragedy Deirdre. In the poetry of this period, too, Yeats reacted against what he considered the sentimentality and divorce from reality of his earlier work. As the legendary past became less important, in order to rescue his imagination from abstractions and bring it closer to actuality, he pressed everything into his poetry: the theater, patriotism, and contemporary controversies.

The Green Helmet characteristically shows a tremendous advance in precision of imagery and syntax as well as an increased use of personal and contemporary themes. Yet along with the substitution of a hard, dry manner and lively, homely detail for the dreamy vagueness of the early poetry, the symbolism that he was evolving becomes more and more esoteric and obscure. In 1917, having had proposals of marriage rejected by both Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult, Yeats precipitously married Georgie Hyde-Lees. The marriage was on the whole a success; one of its curious by-products was their joint experiment in spiritualism and “automatic writing,” begun by Hyde-Lees as a game to distract Yeats from personal worries. From the renewed interest in the occult and the mystical that arose out of these investigations, Yeats developed a system of symbols by means of which he hoped to express his philosophy of life and art. This symbolism, which Yeats discusses in detail in A Vision, privately printed in 1925, is extremely complex; but while it provided the poet with a device that gave unity to his ideas on history, art, and human experience, its difficulties need not be a barrier to an understanding of his poems. It is probably enough for the average reader to recognize in the gyre, or ascending spiral, and the phases of the moon, Yeats’s theories regarding the cyclical natures of both human nature and history.

For the aging Yeats, this concept of the cyclical character of history was in a sense his defense against time. The poems of his later years are dominated by the figure of the poet, withdrawn from the “blood and mire” of life into the eternal realm of art, smiling with “tragic joy” at the cycles of life and death, creation and destruction, which mark human existence. However, Yeats could not, either in his life or in his art, consistently maintain this withdrawal. In 1923 he was made a senator of the new Irish Free State, a post he entered into with enthusiasm, if not always tact. Some of Yeats’s last poems, such as the “Crazy Jane” group, are a harsh, almost bitter glorification of the physical and even the sensual. As he says in “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” from Last Poems and Plays, he “Must lie down where all the ladders start,/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

The period after 1923, when Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, saw the production of some of his best and most exciting poetry. In 1939, his mind still alert and active, Yeats died on the French Riviera. No sparse biographical outline can adequately characterize the complex personality of Yeats. He was fascinated by strange and supernatural phenomena but scorned the wonders of modern science. He was by nature inclined toward mysticism but found little that attracted him in Christianity. He was an ardent patriot who dissociated himself as far as possible from the revolutionary course his country was following; he was a disciple of the doctrine of the separation of life from art. His poetry had its basis in his own quick response to life and was indeed a criticism of life. Yeats was aware of the contradictions in his nature and in life, and throughout his career he sought a philosophical and artistic system that would resolve the conflict between his vision of what art should be and the recognition of what life is. Yeats is not always an easy poet to read, but his compact, intellectually intense, and supremely lyrical poetry deserves the careful attention it demands.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

William Butler Yeats was born June 13, 1865, in Sandymont, Ireland, to John Butler Yeats, a lawyer who later became a painter, and Susan Mary...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

William Butler Yeats Biography

William Butler Yeats


It is impossible to imagine 20th-century Irish literature without William Butler Yeats. He was an instrumental part of the “Irish Literary Revival” that redefined Irish writing. He came to prominence during a tumultuous period in his country’s history, and the idea of an independent Irish identity was crucial to Yeats’s work as a poet. In addition to his extensive and varied volumes of poetry, Yeats also wrote for the theater. He helped form a theatrical collective that led to the founding of the legendary Abbey Theatre, whose mission was to refocus drama on the plays themselves. Throughout his long career, Yeats influenced countless generations of dramatists and poets, including American writer Ezra Pound.

Essential Facts

  1. Early in his career, Yeats was heavily influenced by other poets such as William Blake and Percy Shelley. The latter’s Prometheus Unbound was among Yeats’s favorite works.
  2. In his youth, Yeats and some other poets formed the Rhymer’s Club. The group was an open forum for reading new works, and they eventually published several volumes of poetry.
  3. One of Yeats’s longest works is The Wanderings of Oisin, an epic poem based in Irish mythology that took two years to finish.
  4. Yeats’s A Vision was a collaborative work created with his wife Georgie. The writings are a result of decoded messages channeled from the spirit world.
  5. In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetry, helping draw international attention to the Irish literary boom.

William Butler Yeats Biography (Poetry for Students)

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in the Dublin suburb of Sandymount. His father was a lawyer and a well-known portrait...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

William Butler Yeats Biography (Poetry for Students)

Born June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, Ireland, to John Butler Yeats, a lawyer turned portrait painter, and Susan Mary Pollexfen, daughter of a...

(The entire section is 395 words.)