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W. B. Yeats (William Butler Yeats) Biography

(1865–1939), (William Butler Yeats), Mosada, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, The Celtic Twilight


Irish poet and dramatist, born in Dublin; he spent much of his childhood in Sligo, where his mother's family lived. After a period in London, when he attended the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, he returned to Dublin in 1880 and completed his schooling at the city's Erasmus Smith High School. In 1884 he became a student at Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art, with the intention of making his living as a painter, the profession of his father John Butler Yeats (18391922) and his brother Jack B. Yeats. At this time he began his long friendship with George Russell (‘AE’), whose visionary preoccupations accentuated Yeats's dissatisfaction with the scientific rationalism of the era. Having begun writing poetry at school, he was stimulated to increased activity by Russell's company: as an art student he produced a series of verse-dramas, the best of which, ‘The Island of the Statues’, clearly displays the late Romantic aestheticism characteristic of much of his early work. During the mid-1880s the interests in occultism and Irish nationalism which are of central importance to his poetry were established: with Russell, he was a founding member of the Dublin Hermetic Society; with Katharine Tynan, Douglas Hyde, and others, he was strongly influenced by the Fenian leader John O'Leary, who did much to initiate the Irish Revival.

Following the publication of his play Mosada (1886) and appearances of his work in various journals, by 1887, the year of his return to London, Yeats had decided to devote himself to literature. In 1888 he compiled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry; further collections of folklore followed, of which The Celtic Twilight (1893) is the best-known. The mythological title work of The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) was his first long poem on an Irish subject. In the same year his political consciousness intensified after his meeting with Maud Gonne, the actress and nationalist agitator, who prompted him to write The Countess Cathleen, the title play of his collection of 1892; the volume also contained the passionately lyrical poems later collected as ‘The Rose’, which draw on his esoteric mysticism, his vision of Ireland, and his unrequited love for Gonne, the source of the underlying languor of numerous subsequent poems. His other early works include the substantially autobiographical novel John Sherman, published with the heroic story Dhoya in 1891, his edition of The Poems of William Blake (1893), the play The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), and the allegorical prose narratives of The Secret Rose (1897). In 1892 he was closely involved in the formation of the Irish Literary Societies in London and Dublin. He was also active at this time in various occult orders and as a member of the Rhymers' Club, which he assisted in founding in 1891 and commemorated in ‘The Grey Rock’ of 1913. The greater technical accomplishment he acquired through his absorption of the Rhymers' ethos of poetic craftsmanship is apparent in The Wind among the Reeds (1899); his early manner culminates in its fluently melodious verse, its imaginatively rarefied moods, and the stylized symbolic imagery with which both its Irish and its mystical themes are presented.

From 1897 onward Yeats was much occupied with the Irish Literary Theatre, which produced Countess Cathleen in 1899 as its inaugural production when it was received with accusations of blasphemy and lack of patriotism, and Cathleen Ni Houlihan, with Maud Gonne in the title role, in 1902; he became a director of its successor, the Abbey Theatre, in 1906. He continued to divide his time chiefly between London and Dublin until 1917, the year in which he married Georgiana Hyde-Lees and began preparing the tower he had purchased at Ballylee to serve as a more permanent home. Ballylee was close to Lady Gregory's estate at Coole, near Gort in County Galway, where Yeats had been a regular visitor since 1897 and upon which he based the cultural ideal of ‘The dream of the noble and the beggarman’ reflected in much of his verse. The poetry of In the Seven Woods (1903) moved towards a new lucidity and directness of tone and imagery; this development, which became clearer with ‘No Second Troy’ and other works in The Green Helmet (1910), issued in the forceful immediacy of manner of Responsibilities (1914). Ezra Pound, Yeats's secretary at intervals between 1913 and 1916, encouraged him in the forging of this new style and introduced him to Ernest Fenollosa's versions of Japanese Noh plays, which decisively influenced his practices as a dramatist in Four Plays for Dancers (1921) and succeeding works. Responsibilities indicated Yeats's growing disaffection with a modern Ireland which had failed to realize the cultural ideals of the Revival; despite the disquieted acknowledgement in ‘Easter 1916’ of the heroism displayed in the Rising of 1916, he wrote at about this time that ‘the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false’. The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) reveal a new imaginative authority in poems reflecting the esoteric philosophy of A Vision (1925, revised edition 1937). The system described in this work pervasively informs his later poetry and is of particular relevance to such notable achievements as ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, and ‘The Statues’. These and many other poems exhibit the tone of aristocratic disdain for a modern age when ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ which recurs in The Tower (1928), Words for Music Perhaps (1932), The Winding Stair (1929), A Full Moon in March (1935), and Last Poems and Plays (1940), his principal subsequent collections of poetry.

The energy with which Yeats had continually advanced his art was raised to a new level in the last fifteen years of his life; his late poetry's range and vigour of technique and imagination are equally evident in works of challenging intellectual scope, lyrics of great refinement, and poems and ballads memorable for their outspoken simplicity. He was a senator of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928, chairing the commission on coinage. Having commanded increasing respect as a poet for many years, the award of the Nobel Prize in 1923 gained him universal recognition; in the estimation of many he remains the greatest poet of the twentieth century. From the early 1920s onward he lived principally in Dublin. He died in the South of France and was buried at Roquebrune; in 1948 he was reinterred at Drumcliffe in Sligo, in accordance with what he had written in ‘Under Ben Bulben’, one of his latest poems. Collected Poems (1950) and The Poems: A New Edition (edited by R. Finneran, 1983, revised edition 1989) are the principal collections of his verse. The Variorum Edition of the Poems was produced in 1957. Collected Plays was published in 1952, and the various volumes of his Autobiographies which had appeared since Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915) were collected in 1955. Ideas of Good and Evil (1903), Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), and On the Boiler (1939) are among the numerous collections of essays published during his lifetime; others include Mythologies (1959), Essays and Introductions (1961), and Explorations (1962). He also edited numerous works, his idiosyncratic Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) being the best-known. A Wade's edition of the Collected Letters (1954) and separate volumes covering his correspondence with Katharine Tynan (1953), T. Sturge Moore (1953), and others are now being superseded by the multi-volume Collected Letters (1986), edited by J. Kelly. The most authoritative of numerous biographical studies are J. Hone's W. B. Yeats (1942), R. Ellmann's Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948, revised edition 1979), and A. N. Jeffares's W. B. Yeats: A New Biography (1988). See also symbolism.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Woking Surrey to Æ