William Butler Yeats

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At a Glance

William Butler Yeats was an instrumental part of the “Irish Literary Revival” that redefined Irish writing, and it is impossible to imagine 20th-century Irish literature without him. He came to prominence during a tumultuous period in his country’s history, and the idea of an independent Irish identity was crucial to Yeats’s work as a poet. In addition to his extensive and varied volumes of poetry, Yeats also wrote for the theater. He helped form a theatrical collective that led to the founding of the legendary Abbey Theatre, whose mission was to refocus drama on the plays themselves. Throughout his long career, Yeats influenced countless generations of dramatists and poets, including American writer Ezra Pound.

Facts and Trivia

  • Early in his career, Yeats was heavily influenced by other poets such as William Blake and Percy Shelley. The latter’s Prometheus Unbound was among Yeats’s favorite works.
  • In his youth, Yeats and some other poets formed the Rhymer’s Club. The group was an open forum for reading new works, and they eventually published several volumes of poetry.
  • One of Yeats’s longest works is The Wanderings of Oisin, an epic poem based in Irish mythology that took two years to finish.
  • Yeats’s A Vision was a collaborative work created with his wife Georgie. The writings are supposedly a result of decoded messages channeled from the spirit world.
  • In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetry, helping draw international attention to the Irish literary boom.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Yeats transformed himself from a minor late Romantic poet into the complex artist who became the greatest poet of the twentieth century.

Early Life

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, near Dublin in 1865. His father was an unsuccessful painter who encouraged his son to pursue a life in the arts. William attempted to follow his father and attended art school in Dublin for a short while. He disliked the form of instruction, however, and found that his talents lay in poetry rather than painting. Yeats’s roots were in Ireland, but he spent an equal amount of time in London. While he was in London, he came in contact with William Morris and other adherents of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this connection increased his already latent Romanticism. He published a long narrative poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” in 1889, and the poem shows the influences on his early poetry. It evokes a legendary Irish hero, Oisin (Ossiah), and is written in the Romantic style of the Pre-Raphaelites. In another early poem, Yeats declares, “Words alone are certain good.” Reality and facts are seen as enemies of the life of the imagination and need to be overcome by “words.” One of the reasons that Yeats turned to Romanticism was that he was poor, badly clothed, and obsessed with the fame and sex that seemed to be so far out of his reach.

Yeats was also seeking to replace the religion that his father and other skeptics had driven out. He was associated for a while with the Theosophists and Madame Blavatsky and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. This interest in mysticism had an effect on his poetry; his second book, The Rose (1893), has a number of poems that allude to Rosicrucianism and a mystical union after death with the beloved. It was during this period that Yeats met the woman he was to love for the rest of his life, Maud Gonne. She was interested in Irish affairs but not in the same way as Yeats was; he wanted to make “an Ireland beautiful in the memory” with his poems, but she was interested in radical political action. He wrote many poems to and about her, and he proposed to her a number of times, but she continued to refuse him. Even after she married John MacBride in 1903, she remained an inspiration for his poems.

Yeats became interested in the theater in the late 1890’s after he met Lady Augusta Gregory, and he founded the Irish National Theatre with her in 1899. As a result of his involvement with the...

(The entire section is 3,554 words.)