William Butler Yeats

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Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

William Butler Yeats 1865–1939

Irish poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, short story writer, and autobiographer. See also Sailing to Byzantium Criticism and The Second Coming Criticism.

Yeats is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. He was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played an important part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas. Further, Yeats employed national themes in his poetry, thereby attempting to restore the cultural unity that he felt was needed to bring an end to Ireland's internal division and suffering. Magic and occult theory were also important elements in Yeats's work. Yeats viewed the poet as kindred to the magician and the alchemist; thus he was deeply interested in spiritualism, theosophy, and occult systems. Many of the images found in his poetry are in fact derived from Rosicrucianism as well as from his own occult researches, which are described in his prose work A Vision.

Biographical Information

Yeats was born in Dublin to Irish-Protestant parents. His father was a painter who influenced his son's thoughts about art. Yeats's mother shared with her son her interests in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent much of his childhood. Yeats's formal education began when he was eleven years old with his attendance at school first in England, then Ireland. As a youth he was erratic in his studies, shy and prone to daydreaming. In 1884 Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. There he met the poet George Russell, who shared Yeats's enthusiasm for dreams and visions. Together they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society for the purposes of conducting magical experiments and "to promote the study of Oriental Religions and Theosophy." Yeats also joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mather's Order of the Golden Dawn. He frequently consulted spiritualists and engaged in the ritual conjuring of Irish gods. In 1885, Yeats met the Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats's first poems in The Dublin University Review and in directing Yeats's attention to native Irish sources for subject matter. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. In 1889, Yeats met the actress Maud Gonne, an agitator for the nationalist cause, whose great beauty and reckless destructiveness in pursuit of her political

goals both intrigued and dismayed him. He accompanied her to political rallies, and though he often disagreed with her extremist tactics, he shared her desire to see Ireland freed from English domination. Although Gonne's repeated refusals to marry Yeats brought him great personal unhappiness, their relationship endured through many estrangements, and nearly all of Yeats's love poetry is addressed to her. In 1917 when he was fifty-two years old, Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Through his young wife's experiments with automatic writing, Yeats gathered the materials on which he based A Vision, his explanation of historical cycles and his theory of human personality based on the phases of the moon. In 1922, after decades of struggle by the Irish nationalists had finally culminated in the passage of the Home Rule Bill, Yeats became a senator forthe Irish Free State. He left the senate in 1928 because of failing health and devoted his remaining years to poetry. He died in France in 1939.

Major Works

Yeats's poetry evolved over five decades from the vague imagery and uncertain rhythms of The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems, his first important work, to the forceful, incantatory verse of the Last Poems. Throughout his career, Yeats...

(The entire section is 61,853 words.)