(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

William Butler Yeats was born into a middle-class Church of Ireland family—that is, he was a product of Protestant and English descent. His grandfather and great-grandfather were members of the clergy. His father, however, rebelled against the family’s religious life, so Yeats was not reared in the traditional Christian faith, although Christian imagery and beliefs, especially moral, remained a continuing and powerful element in his poetry. For instance, his Crazy Jane poems thematically echo the conflicts between Christian morality and human desire which are the concerns of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Too, Yeats used the form he used in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” in the seventh section of “Vacillation,” although in the latter poem the debate is between the “Soul” and the “Heart.” Certainly, a knowledge of the story of the conception and birth of Christ, as well as of that birth’s religious significance, is necessary for the reader of the antithetical images of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” However, Yeats’s own “religious” life was a committed interest in, faith in, and even practice (largely synthetic) of various occult beliefs, from his early involvement with the Rosicrucians and Theosophy to his acceptance of aspects of Eastern religions. He was far from being a rationalistic unbeliever.

Yeats was also an Irish patriot and regarded Irish culture as his own; his earliest works are steeped in Irish myth. At the same time, however, he was intensely proud of his English ancestry (to the point of exaggerating its status) and felt himself a part of historical European high culture. He would never really leave Irish myth behind, but his committment to the European tradition, based as it was on the Christian religion, was almost everywhere in his writings. Too, he made direct use of his own life, especially in his later works—a use that gives solidity, facts, and images to his poetry, making them more alive.


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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 2003. A biography in two volumes, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914 and The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939, giving the facts of Yeats’s life and connecting those facts with his works.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968. Commentary on the poems, giving explanations of people, places, and sources in each poem treated.

Rosenthal, M. L. Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Careful chronological working through of Yeats’s poems.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Noonday Press, 1959. Offers a short biographical sketch along with themes and explications of the poems, worked through chronologically.