Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399
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 achievers of England and Ireland during these four years. For example, when Yeats published his first collection of poetry, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, Oscar Wilde praised the book. He and Wilde spent some time together; Wilde was quite fond of the younger poet’s ability to tell Irish folk tales.
Yeats also began his association with Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society and was initiated into MacGregor Mathers’s mystical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Chapter Three: ‘‘Book II: Ireland after Parnell’’
Yeats recounts the years he spent organizing the Irish Literary Society, founded in London in 1891, and the National Literary Society, founded the next year in Dublin. Both societies were formed to promote the independence of Ireland from England through the development of Irish national literature and arts.
One of the primary projects undertaken by the two societies was the New Irish Library. Through this effort, the society arranged to have a number of agreed-upon Irish literary works published and distributed to libraries throughout Ireland. A struggle between Sir Charles Gaven Duffy and Yeats ensued over the editorship of the series. Duffy won the editorship, but eventually in-fighting between Yeats and ‘‘half a dozen young men’’ put a stop to the project. Yeats expresses a great deal of bitterness about the effort he put into the project.
The title of this part of the essay refers to Charles Stuart Parnell, Irish politician and founder of the Irish Home Rule Association which supported the idea of Irish autonomy. For many, Parnell’s untimely death in 1891 signaled the end of any possibility for a nonviolent settlement of the question of Irish independence. Yeats saw this time as the end of attempting a political solution for Ireland’s difficulties and the beginning of an effort to raise the profile of Irish literature and arts to secure a sense of Irish nationalism.
Chapter Four: ‘‘Book III: Hodos Chameliontos’’
The title of this section, which, according to Yeats can be translated as ‘‘The Path of Chameleon,’’ denotes the multiplicity, confusion, and unpredictability in his life. Yeats recalls with pleasure, though, the times he spent with his uncle George Pollexfen in Sligo, Ireland. During this period, Yeats searched for a unifying philosophy for himself and for Ireland. In support of this effort, he spent many hours experimenting with the symbols he had learned from Mathers’s Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats was convinced through his own experiences that a trained person thinking of a particular symbol could prompt a change in another person’s mind.
Chapter Five: ‘‘Book IV: The Tragic Generation’’
Here, Yeats writes about the artists and authors he knew in the late 1890s, many of whom met with such difficulties as public condemnation and serious ill health. For example, he remembers the events surrounding Oscar Wilde’s downfall. Wilde was found guilty of homosexual acts and sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor. About three years after his release, Wilde died. In addition to Wilde’s story, Yeats notes that a number of his artist friends became drunks or went mad during these years.
Chapter Six: ‘‘Book V: The Stirring of the Bones’’
In this essay, Yeats recalls with some disappointment the dissolution of what he wanted for Ireland, due to the violence of many Irish activists during the final few years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Maude Gonne gained much notoriety during this period for her fiery rhetoric in support of an independent Ireland, but Yeats expresses concern over the violence to come. One high point in this period is his introduction to Lady Gregory. She invited him to stay at her estate in Ireland to recuperate (from poor health), and together they began collecting folk tales from the surrounding countryside and discussing the possibility of a theater devoted to Irish plays.
Chapter Seven: ‘‘Dramatis Personae: 1896–1902’’
Yeats relates here, too, his meeting Lady Gregory and how they became close friends. Much of this essay is concerned with the two friends’ work on developing an Irish dramatic tradition. Yeats and Lady Gregory founded the Irish National Theatre in Dublin and produced a number of plays, including Yeats’s Countess Cathleen and Edward Martyn’s The Heather Field. Florence Farr, an actress for whom Yeats had great respect, appeared in many of their productions.
Chapter Eight: ‘‘Estrangement: Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909’’
This section of Autobiographies is a collection of sixty-one diary entries dated from January 14 through March 12, 1909. Most of the brief entries are concerned with Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre, Yeats’s family, and his consideration of the occult and philosophy.
Chapter Nine: ‘‘The Death of Synge: Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909’’
These fifty entries, dated March 12, 1909 through October 1914, primarily cover John Synge’s death in March 1909 and Yeats’s remembrances of the playwright whom he called the greatest Irish dramatist. Yeats writes also about Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre.
Chapter Ten: ‘‘The Bounty of Sweden’’
In this final essay, Yeats writes about receiving the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature and his trip to Stockholm to receive the award. He also includes the text of his acceptance speech, ‘‘The Irish Dramatic Movement.’’