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.
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.
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 found occult research a rich source of images for his poetry, and traces of his esoteric interests appear everywhere in his poems. "The Rose upon the Rood of Time," for example, takes its central symbol from Rosicrucianism, and "All Souls' Night" describes a scrying, or divination, ceremony. In his earliest poetic works, such as Mosada, Yeats took his symbols from Greek mythology; however, after meeting John O'Leary, he turned instead to Irish mythology as a source for his images. The long narrative poem, "The Wanderings of Oisin," was the first he based on the legend of an Irish hero. In spite of its self-consciously poetic language and immature imitations of Pre-Raphaelite poetic technique, the poem's theme—the disagreement between Oisin and St. Patrick—makes it important to an understanding of the later Yeats. The sense of conflict between vision and corporeal realities, as symbolized by the saint and the hero, is the essential dichotomy in Yeats's poetry. Additionally, Yeats recog nized that only through imagination could the raw materials of life be transformed into something enduring. For Yeats, the role of the artist was the same as that of the alchemist: he must effect a transformation that obscures the distinction between form and content, between the "dancer and the dance." This theme is most effectively expressed in the later poems "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium." As Yeats grew older and more sure of his themes, his approach to the techniques of poetry changed. Recognizing that faerie songs were less suited to the tragic themes that preoccupied him than were more realistic narratives, he began, with the poems of In the Seven Woods, to write verses describing actual events in his personal life or in the history of Ireland, One of his most famous lyrics, "Easter 1916," about a rebel uprising that resulted in the martyrdom of all who participated, belongs to this later group. In his maturity, Yeats wrote little narrative poetry. Instead he adopted the dramatic lyric as his most characteristic form of expression. Influenced by Ezra Pound, he simplified his diction and modified his syntax to reflect more closely the constructions of common speech, and in works such as Responsibilities, and Other Poems, The Wild Swans at Coole, and Michael Robartes and the Dancer, his verses began to take on the rhetorical, occasionally haughty tone that readers today identify as characteristically Yeatsian. Critics agree that Yeats's poetic technique was impeccable. It was this mastery of technique that enabled him to perfect the subtle, forceful, and highly unusual poetic meter that he used to create the effect of a chant or an incantation in such poems as "The Tower." His remarkable creative development in his final years illustrates a lifelong determination to remake himself into his ideal image of the poet: a sacerdotal figure who assumes the role of mediator between the conflicting forces of the objective and subjective worlds.
Yeats's interest in Irish politics and his visionary approach to poetry often confounded his contemporaries and set him at odds with the intellectual trends of his time. His intent interest in subjects that others labeled archaic and perceived as an affront to their modernity delayed his recognition among his peers. Nonetheless, Yeats's poetic achievement stands at the center of modern literature. By the beginning of the twentieth century he was recognized as the best English-language, Symbolist poet while also considered to be the foremost Celtic revivalist poet. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923, though at the time of his death in 1939, his views on poetry were regarded as eccentric by students and critics alike. This attitude held sway in spite of critical awareness of the beauty and technical proficiency of his verse. Yeats had long opposed the notion that literature should serve society. As a youthful critic he had refused to praise the poor lyrics of the "Young Ireland" poets merely because they were effective as nationalist propaganda. In maturity, he found that despite his success, his continuing conviction that poetry should express the spiritual life of the individual estranged him from those who believed that a modern poet must take as his themes social alienation and the barrenness of materialist culture. As Kathleen Raine wrote of him: "Against a rising tide of realism, political verse and University wit, Yeats upheld the innocent and the beautiful, the traditional and the noble," and, as a consequence of his disregard for the concerns of the modern world, was often misunderstood. However, as critics became disenchanted with modern poetic trends, Yeats's romantic dedication to the laws of the imagination and art for art's sake became more acceptable. Indeed, critics today are less concerned with the validity of Yeats's occult and visionary theories than with their symbolic value as expressions of timeless ideals, considering his interest in arcana as a manifestation of the truth of Wallace Stevens's statement that "poets are never of the world in which they live."