William Butler Yeats Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Throughout a literary career spanning a half century, William Butler Yeats distinguished himself principally by means of the production of some dozen volumes of lyric poems. His early work is most clearly indebted to the English Romantics, but his commitment to the cause of the Irish Literary Revival, of which he was the leader, and to the management of its showcase, the Abbey Theatre, gave him an increasingly public voice. The poetry of his last twenty years contains his most complex, modernist, and profound work and is often considered the highest achievement in that genre during the twentieth century.

Yeats was also the author of a considerable body of essays, reviews, and introductions during a career of literary journalism and theatrical management: Essays and Introductions (1961), Explorations (1962), and Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats (two volumes; 1970, 1976). He collected and edited writings and promoted the work of such collaborators as Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge. Yeats’s early excursions into short fiction are collected in Mythologies (1959). Autobiographical fragments are found in Autobiographies (1926, 1955) and Memoirs (1972). A Vision (1925, 1937) sets forth a symbolic ordering of history and human character in a manner chiefly useful in explicating his poetry, while The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats (1960) gathers some of his public statements from the 1920’s. The Yeats correspondence is partially collected in The Letters of W. B. Yeats (1954) and in Ah, Sweet Dancer: W. B. Yeats, Margot Ruddock—A Correspondence (1970).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Butler Yeats’s reputation as one of the masters of modern literature rests mainly on his achievements in poetry, and his dramatic work has long been regarded less favorably as “poetry in the theater.” This aspect of his uvre has, however, been reassessed, and he has come to be regarded as one of the boldest and most original dramatists of the twentieth century. As one of the founders, first playwrights, and lifetime directors of the Abbey Theatre , Yeats was the central figure of the Irish Literary Renaissance . The example of efforts to develop a modern and national literature that drew on Celtic mythology, folklore, and the oral tradition of Ireland provided incentives for the latent talents of such dramatists as Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, Padraic Colum, and Sean O’Casey.

Although Yeats experimented with several dramatic styles, including peasant realism, farce, and naturalism, his genius found its true métier in a highly sophisticated drama that combined poetry, dance, mask, and symbolic action to represent a world of ideals and pure passion. These plays, borrowed from the tradition of the Japanese N for their form and from Celtic heroic tales for their subjects, expressed Yeats’s views of the primacy of imaginative or spiritual realities of which historical change and the differentiation of human character are emanations. Yeats was therefore at odds with modern realism and with its interest in individual character and social relations: An attitude of detachment and impersonality shaped his works into intensely ritualized expressions, having affinities both with religious drama and absurdism.

Yeats lived through revolutions in politics and sensibility. Most important, through a lifelong remaking of dramatic and lyric form and style, Yeats achieved a continuous renovation of his own spirit. Thus, he became one of those primarily responsible for the restoration to Ireland of its cultural heritage, at the same time forging an idiom that the modern world at large considers its own.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Butler Yeats, a prolific writer, composed hundreds of lyrical, narrative, and dramatic poems. It was not unusual to find characters from his short stories appearing in his poems; Michael Robartes and the Dancer, a collection of poems published in 1920, is one example. In addition to writing poetry, he contributed to the Irish dramatic movement, which culminated in the establishment of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. His Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and Deirdre (1906) are typical plays of that early period. Yeats was a prolific and accomplished essayist and also produced various works of autobiography (collected in one volume entitled Autobiographies, 1926, 1955) as well as an ambitious philosophical treatise entitled A Vision (1925, 1937), which details his cosmology.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Butler Yeats’s reputation as one of the major poets of the twentieth century is unassailable, and his influence, particularly on the course of American verse, as practiced most notably by Robert Lowell, is equally well attested. His adaptation of native Irish materials for poetic ends, his mythic projection in verse of his life and times, and his conception of art as an antidote to history have exerted a powerful imaginative influence on poets succeeding him. In a more narrowly Irish context, his ideological pronouncements and cultural commitments—the latter culminating in the establishment of the Abbey Theatre—have constituted an overwhelmingly important instance of the relationship of the artist to society.

Yeats received honorary degrees from Queen’s University (Belfast) and Trinity College (Dublin) in 1922. Receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature followed in 1923, as well as honorary degrees from the University of Oxford in 1931 and the University of Cambridge in 1933.

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Butler Yeats (yayts) was a playwright as well as a poet. During certain periods in his career, he devoted more time and energy to the composition, publication, and production of plays in verse or prose than to the writing of nondramatic poetry. These plays, excluding several early closet dramas, were republished singly or in various collections from 1892 through the year of his death. The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats was published in 1934, and a “new edition with five additional plays” appeared in 1952 (London) and 1953 (New York), the former being the “basic text.” The genuinely definitive publication, however, is the admirably edited Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats (1966).

In addition to poems and plays, Yeats published prolifically during the course of his life in almost every imaginable genre except the novel. Numerous prose tales, book reviews, nationalistic articles, letters to editors, and so on far exceeded poems and plays in volume in the early stages of Yeats’s career. In 1908, The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats—including lyrics, narrative poems, stories, plays, essays, prefaces, and notes—filled eight volumes, of which only the first contained predominantly nondramatic poetry. Previously, stories and sketches, many of them based wholly or in part on Irish folk tales, had been collected in The Celtic Twilight (1893) and The Secret Rose (1897). Rewritten versions of those tales from The Secret Rose that featured a roving folk poet invented by Yeats were later published as Stories of Red Hanrahan (1904). Similarly, relatively formal critical and philosophical essays were collected and published as Ideas of Good and Evil (1903), The Cutting of an Agate (1912), and Essays, 1931-1936 (1937).

A slender doctrinal book, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), is generally regarded as something of a precursor to A Vision (1925). The first edition of A Vision itself, an exposition of Yeats’s mystical philosophy, appeared in 1925. A considerably revised edition first published in 1937 has revealed to scholars that while the book unquestionably owes much to his wife’s “automatic writing,” as avowed, more than a little of its content is generally based on Yeats’s or his and his wife’s earlier occult interests and contacts. In 1926, Yeats published a volume titled Autobiographies. In 1938, an American edition titled The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats was released, with the addition of several sections or units that had been published separately or in groups in the interim. Then, in 1955 a final British issue appeared with the original title and one sub-unit not included in the American edition. A posthumous supplement to Autobiographies is Memoirs (1972), combining the draft of an earlier unpublished autobiography with a complete transcription of the private journal from which Yeats had used only selected portions in the post-1926 versions of his original book. A large and carefully edited collection of Yeats’s correspondence, The Letters of W. B. Yeats, was published in 1954, and various smaller collections of correspondence with certain people have been published from time to time since the poet’s death.

Most of Yeats’s major prose, other than A Vision, Autobiographies, and his editor’s introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), has been collected and republished in three volumes printed simultaneously in London and New York. Mythologies (1959) includes The Celtic Twilight, The Secret Rose, Stories of Red Hanrahan, the three so-called Rosa Alchemica stories from 1897 (which involve Yeats’s fictional personae Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne), and Per Amica Silentia Lunae. Essays and Introductions (1961) incorporates Ideas of Good and Evil, most of The Cutting of an Agate, Essays, 1931-1936, and three introductions written in 1937 for portions of a projected edition of Yeats’s works that never materialized. Explorations (1962) brings together a number of miscellaneous items, most of them previously not readily accessible. There are three introductions to books of legend and folklore by Lady Augusta Gregory, introductions to some of Yeats’s own plays, a sizable body of his early dramatic criticism, the essay “If I Were Four and Twenty,” Pages from a Diary Written in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty (1944), and most of the author’s last prose piece On the Boiler (1939), a potpourri including late political philosophy.

As to fiction not already mentioned, two stories from 1891—a long tale and a short novel—have been republished in a critical edition, John Sherman and Dhoya (1969), and a fine scholarly edition of Yeats’s early unfinished novel, The Speckled Bird (published in a limited edition in Dublin in 1974), was printed in 1976 as an item in the short-lived Yeats Studies series. In another highly competent piece of scholarship, almost all the previously mentioned early book reviews, nationalist articles, and so on, as well as some later essays, have been edited and republished in Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, Volume 1 in 1970 and Volume II in 1976. Finally, the bewildering mass of Yeats’s unpublished materials—thousands of pages of working drafts, notebooks, proof sheets, personal and family letters and papers, occult documents, automatic scripts, and the like—were made available on microfilm by the poet’s son, Senator Michael Yeats, in 1975. Two sets of these films are housed, one each, at the National Library of Ireland and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. With the generous permission of Yeats’s daughter and son, Anna and Michael, scholars are currently studying, transcribing, and editing many of these materials. Several books that employ or reproduce portions of them have been published. Several volumes of Yeats’s letters, The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, trace his life and poetic influences between the years 1865 and 1904. Most of the letters included are from Yeats’s twenties, when he was passionately involved with furthering two causes: his own career and Irish literature as a whole.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

William Butler Yeats is generally regarded as one of the major English-speaking poets of the “modern” era (approximately 1890 to 1950). Some authorities go even further, designating him the most important twentieth century poet in any language. Although in his late career and for some time thereafter, he was overshadowed by the poetic and critical stature of T. S. Eliot, in the years since Eliot’s death, Yeats’s reputation has continued to grow whereas Eliot’s has declined. Like most modern poets, writing in a period labeled the age of the novel, Yeats has been relatively obscure and inaccessible to the general reader, but among academicians his eminence has flourished, and, even more significant, his influence on other poets has been both broad and deep.

Even though he was never very robust, suffering from chronic respiratory problems and extremely poor eyesight throughout much of his adult life, Yeats lived a long, productive, and remarkably multifaceted life. How one person could have been as completely immersed in as many different kinds of activity as he was is difficult to conceive. Throughout his life, he was involved in occult pursuits and interests of one kind or another, a preoccupation that has long been considered by many authorities (especially early ones) as more an impediment than a contribution to his literary career. Of more “legitimate” significance, he was, with a handful of associates, a leading figure in the initiation of the related movements that have come to be known as the Irish Renaissance and the Celtic Revival. Especially as a cofounder and codirector of the Irish National Theatre—later the famous Abbey Theatre—he was at the center of the literary movement, even aside from his prolific publication of poems, plays, essays, and reviews and the editorship of his sisters’ artistically oriented Cuala Press. Moreover, between 1903 and 1932, Yeats conducted or participated in a series of five theater or lecture tours in America, thereby enhancing his renown in English-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Major expressions of national and international recognition for such endeavors and achievements were forthcoming in the last decades of Yeats’s life in such forms as honorary degrees from Queen’s University (Belfast) and Trinity College (Dublin) in 1922, Oxford University in 1931, and Cambridge University in 1933; appointment as senator for the newly established Irish Free State in 1922; and, most gratifying of all, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Furthermore, in 1935 Yeats was designated editor of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, having declined previously an offer of knighthood in 1915 and an invitation to lecture in Japan in 1919. From young manhood, Yeats had lived and played out the role of the poet in society, gesturing, posing, and dressing for the part. In middle years and old age, he experienced genuine fulfillment of his dream and enjoyed self-realization as “the great man” of Anglo-Irish literature within his own lifetime.

Yeats’s greatest accomplishment, however, was the achievement, in both his life and his work, of an astonishing singleness or oneness in the midst of myriad activities. Driven by an obsessive precept that he labeled “Unity of Being,” he strove unceasingly to “hammer” his thoughts into “unity.” Though never a masterful thinker in terms of logic or ratiocination, Yeats possessed unequivocal genius of the kind recognized by today’s psychologists as imaginative or creative, if not visionary. In addition to an almost infallible gift for the precisely right word or phrase, he had a mind awesomely capacious in its ability to conceive and sustain complexly interwoven structures of symbolic suggestion, mythic significance, and allusive associations. He used these abilities to link poems to plays, and oeuvre to a self-consciously dramatic life, which was itself hardly other than a supremely sculpted objet d’art. By the time of his death at the age of seventy-three, Yeats had so completely interfused national interests, philosophical convictions, theories of symbolic art, and mythopoeic techniques of literary composition that he had indeed fulfilled his lifelong quest to master experience by wresting unity from multiplicity, achieving an intricately wrought identity of life and work in the midst of almost unimaginably manifold diversity.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

With what is William Butler Yeats concerned in the writings from his Celtic Twilight period?

In what ways do the events of Irish history influence and impact Yeats’s poetry and drama?

What are some of Yeats’s major themes across the body of his work?

How does Yeats’s love for Maude Gonne influence his writing?

What does Byzantium come to symbolize for Yeats, and how does he use this in his poetry?

What is Yeats’s understanding of history, and how is this understanding articulated in poems such as “The Second Coming”?

In what ways does Yeats represent the transition to modernism in literature during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century?

Why is Yeats considered by critics to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aldritt, Keith. W. B. Yeats: The Man and the Milieu. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997. Discusses Yeats’s life and times.

Bloom, Harold. Yeats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. An influential work by a leading contemporary critic. The emphasis is on Yeats’s Romanticism. The poet is seen as the English Romantic poetry’s heir. The prosodic, aesthetic, and imaginative implications of the inheritance are the subject of much intense and sophisticated discussion.

Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A study of Modernism in Ireland, England, and the United States, focusing on Yeats and James Joyce. Bibliography and index.

Brown, Terence. The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Brown’s book is very much a critical biography, attending more to Yeats’s art than to his life, with relatively little frolicking around in the poet’s boudoir. Still, Brown conveys the texture of Yeats’s life, selecting just the right details from what is now a copious historical record.

Chaudhry, Yug Mohit. Yeats, the Irish Literary Revival and the Politics of Print. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2001. A study of Yeats’s political and social views as well as a critique of his writings. Bibliography and index.

Donoghue, Denis. Yeats. London: Fontana, 1971. A good brief survey of the subject. Yeats’s life, works, and thoughts are clearly presented in their many complex interrelations. The study’s unifying argument is the author’s conception of Yeats’s understanding of, and identification with, power. Contains chronology and bibliography.

Ellmann, Richard. W. B. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Macmillan, 1948. The first biography to avail itself of unrestricted access to Yeats’s posthumous papers. The poet’s doctrine of the mask is adopted as a biographical trope. Life and work are perceived as being mutually reinforcing. In many ways, the most satisfactory biographical treatment of Yeats.

Fleming, Deborah. “A Man Who Does not Exist”: The Irish Peasant in the Work of W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Discusses Yeats’s transforming Irish folklore into art and thus helping establish a new sense of cultural identity in Ireland. Examines Yeats as a postcolonial writer and his belief that peasant culture was a repository of ancient wisdom.

Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997-2003. An excellent guide to Yeats and his work.

Holdridge, Jefferson. Those Mingled Seas: The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, The Beautiful and the Sublime. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000. A study of Yeats’s poetry that suspends it between the philosophies of both Kant and Burke, focusing on the source of the power of Yeats’s mysticism.

Howes, Marjorie, and John Kelly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Yeats scholars from the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland contribute eleven essays to this work, illuminating the personal and political events in Yeats’ life. Howes and Kelly chronicle his early interests in theater, politics, and the occult, along with the portrayal of these topics in his writing. The essays take a look at Yeat’s shifting interests and how these shifts emerge in his poetry. This work includes a detailed time line of Yeat’s life and writing, along with a bibliography and index.

Jeffares, A. N. A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1984. This commentary was published in order to be in alignment with the 1983 edition of Yeats’s poems. Otherwise the approach is the same as in the previous edition. The contents of Yeats’s The Collected Poems are comprehensively annotated. Dates of composition are supplied, difficult allusions clarified, links to other works by Yeats made. An indispensable students’ guide.

Jeffares, A. Norman. W. B. Yeats: A New Biography. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1989. A definitive biography of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Larrissy, Edward. W. B. Yeats. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1998. A basic biography of Yeats that examines both his life and works. Bibliography and index.

McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1985. A study that lives up to the broad range of its title. Contains a crucial culminating section on Yeats, conceived of as poet and playwright, and more importantly, as ideologue. Essential for an appreciation of Yeats in his Irish context. An important example of the realignment of Yeats’s achievement and significance.

Maddox, Brenda. Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Maddox examines Yeats’s connection to spiritualism and the occult. Bibliography and index.

Murphy, William M. Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Family. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Raine, Kathleen. W. B. Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination. Ipswich, Mass.: Golgonooza Press, 1999. Raine argues that by his “learning of the Imagination” Yeats was not only a great poet but also a great imaginative mind. His work marks a cultural watershed; whereas English poetry up to and including T. S. Eliot drew upon European civilisation, Yeats additionally drew upon world culture: Irish mythology, Arabic, Japanese, Indian wisdom, and much besides.

Richman, David. Passionate Action: Yeats’s Mastery of Drama. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 2000. Richman examines the dramatic works of Yeats and discusses Irish literature. Bibliography and index.

Torchiana, Donald. Yeats and Georgian Ireland. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1966. One of the major ways in which Yeats derived myth from history was through his reading of the works of major Irish writers of the eighteenth century. This study analyzes Yeats’s knowledge of Jonathan Swift, Bishop George Berkeley, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke. The influence of these thinkers on Yeats’s poetry and prose is then assessed. An illuminating study of the impact of the Irish context particularly on the poet’s later work.

Tratner, Michael. Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. Discusses the political context of Yeats’s modernism. Reviews Yeats’s poetics of violence. Although the chapter on Yeats is primarily concerned with his poetry, it is helpful for an understanding of Yeats’s literary efforts to create a national mind.

Vendler, Helen. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. A guide to Yeats’ poetry that focuses exclusively on his use of form and the ways in which meaning is derived from it. Useful to scholars and students of poetry.

White, Anna MacBride and A. N. Jeffares, eds. The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.