The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats by William Butler Yeats

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,565 words.)