William Butler Yeats Additional Biography

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 entire section is 1567 words.)


(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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)


(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.


(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...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)


(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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 entire section is 1325 words.)


(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.)


(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.)


(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.)