Authors: William Butler Yeats

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Irish Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright.

June 13, 1865

Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland

January 28, 1939

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France

Biography

William Butler Yeats was the son of John Butler Yeats, an artist of considerable merit who had given up a moderately lucrative law practice in order to devote himself to painting. His mother was a frail, beautiful woman who nurtured in her son a deep love for the "west country" of Ireland that was to last all his life. His early childhood and later vacations were spent there, among the green hills and lakes of Sligo which were to become, in such poems as "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," a symbol of his imaginative escape from the disappointments and unpleasant realities of life.

Much of Yeats’s early life was spent in London, but he and his family spent the years from 1880 to 1887 in Dublin. This time was to have a lasting effect on the impressionable young poet. Stimulated by his father, who loved to read aloud, Yeats discovered William Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and the pre-Raphaelites, explored popular works on Eastern mysticism, became interested in Irish myths and folklore, and, perhaps most important, met the poets and intellectuals of the Irish literary revival, many of whom were to remain lifelong friends. During the period he made several attempts at poetic drama, but the plays were highly imitative and hopelessly cluttered with magic islands and timid shepherds. Back in London, Yeats embarked on a serious study of Irish folk tales in the British Museum and published his first major poem, The Wanderings of Oisin, in 1889. Although the poem is superficially reminiscent of those of Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Yeats’s friend William Morris, the Gaelic theme and unorthodox rhythms are characteristic of Yeats’s quest for a fresh tradition and an individual style.

William Butler Yeats

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(Library of Congress)

There is, however, little that is imitative in poetic plays such as The Countess Cathleen and The Land of Heart’s Desire, or in the lyrics that accompanied the former. The continued use of Irish themes evident in these volumes is indicative of an important and complex aspect of Yeats’s early development. In common with the other writers of the nationalistic Irish literary revival, he wished to create a literature that was purely Irish in tone and subject matter. As part of the same general movement, he strove to reawaken in his people a sense of the glory and significance of Ireland’s historical and legendary past. Furthermore, the remoteness of these Celtic themes was consistent with Yeats’s aesthetic theory, later repudiated in part, of the separation of art from life. Finally, Irish folklore offered an answer to his search for a personal and individual mythology, for he found there a treasury of symbols hitherto unused in English poetry. Yeats’s tendency to make mythical figures into private symbols was encouraged by his contacts with such symbolist poets as Arthur Symons and Stéphane Mallarmé, and by his undisciplined but enthusiastic dabbling in such esoteric subjects as "hermetic" philosophy, astrology, and spiritualism. The Secret Rose and The Wind Among the Reeds are representative of Yeats’s work at this time, and while the clues to the meaning of the poems in these volumes are not always readily accessible to the uninitiated reader, they reveal a major step forward in terms of artistic skill and emotional maturity.

In spite of Yeats’s theoretic dissociation from contemporary Irish life and politics, he could not escape his environment, particularly because he was in love, and was to be for two decades, with the beautiful and fiery actress and nationalist Maud Gonne. In 1899 he and Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, founded the Irish National Theatre Society, which presently became the famous Abbey Theatre of Dublin. During the first decade of the twentieth century, working alongside Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge, Yeats wrote several plays for the Abbey, the best of which are the patriotic propaganda piece Cathleen ni Houlihan and the tragedy Deirdre. In the poetry of this period, too, Yeats reacted against what he considered the sentimentality and divorce from reality of his earlier work. As the legendary past became less important, in order to rescue his imagination from abstractions and bring it closer to actuality, he pressed everything into his poetry: the theater, patriotism, and contemporary controversies.

The Green Helmet characteristically shows a tremendous advance in precision of imagery and syntax as well as an increased use of personal and contemporary themes. Yet along with the substitution of a hard, dry manner and lively, homely detail for the dreamy vagueness of the early poetry, the symbolism that he was evolving becomes more and more esoteric and obscure. In 1917, having had proposals of marriage rejected by both Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult, Yeats precipitously married Georgie Hyde-Lees. The marriage was on the whole a success; one of its curious by-products was their joint experiment in spiritualism and "automatic writing," begun by Hyde-Lees as a game to distract Yeats from personal worries. From the renewed interest in the occult and the mystical that arose out of these investigations, Yeats developed a system of symbols by means of which he hoped to express his philosophy of life and art. This symbolism, which Yeats discusses in detail in A Vision, privately printed in 1925, is extremely complex; but while it provided the poet with a device that gave unity to his ideas on history, art, and human experience, its difficulties need not be a barrier to an understanding of his poems. It is probably enough for the average reader to recognize in the gyre, or ascending spiral, and the phases of the moon, Yeats’s theories regarding the cyclical natures of both human nature and history.

For the aging Yeats, this concept of the cyclical character of history was in a sense his defense against time. The poems of his later years are dominated by the figure of the poet, withdrawn from the "blood and mire" of life into the eternal realm of art, smiling with "tragic joy" at the cycles of life and death, creation and destruction, which mark human existence. However, Yeats could not, either in his life or in his art, consistently maintain this withdrawal. In 1923 he was made a senator of the new Irish Free State, a post he entered into with enthusiasm, if not always tact. Some of Yeats’s last poems, such as the "Crazy Jane" group, are a harsh, almost bitter glorification of the physical and even the sensual. As he says in "The Circus Animal’s Desertion" from Last Poems and Plays, he "Must lie down where all the ladders start,/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

The period after 1923, when Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, saw the production of some of his best and most exciting poetry. In 1939, his mind still alert and active, Yeats died on the French Riviera. No sparse biographical outline can adequately characterize the complex personality of Yeats. He was fascinated by strange and supernatural phenomena but scorned the wonders of modern science. He was by nature inclined toward mysticism but found little that attracted him in Christianity. He was an ardent patriot who dissociated himself as far as possible from the revolutionary course his country was following; he was a disciple of the doctrine of the separation of life from art. His poetry had its basis in his own quick response to life and was indeed a criticism of life. Yeats was aware of the contradictions in his nature and in life, and throughout his career he sought a philosophical and artistic system that would resolve the conflict between his vision of what art should be and the recognition of what life is. Yeats is not always an easy poet to read, but his compact, intellectually intense, and supremely lyrical poetry deserves the careful attention it demands.

Author Works Poetry: Mosada: A Dramatic Poem, 1886 Crossways, 1889 The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems, 1889 The Countess Kathleen, and Various Legends and Lyrics, 1892 The Rose, 1893 The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899 In the Seven Woods, 1903 The Poetical Works of William B. Yeats, 1906, 1907 (2 volumes) The Green Helmet, and Other Poems, 1910 Responsibilities, 1914 Responsibilities, and Other Poems, 1916 The Wild Swans at Coole, 1917, 1919 Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1920 The Tower, 1928 Words for Music Perhaps, and Other Poems, 1932 The Winding Stair, and Other Poems, 1933 The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1933, 1950 The King of the Great Clock Tower, 1934 A Full Moon in March, 1935 Last Poems and Plays, 1940 The Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1949 (2 volumes) The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1956 The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1957 (P. Allt and R. K. Alspach, editors) The Poems, 1983 The Poems: A New Edition, 1984 Short Fiction: John Sherman and Dhoya, 1891, 1969 The Celtic Twilight, 1893 The Secret Rose, 1897 The Tables of Law; The Adoration of the Magi, 1897 Stories of Red Hanrahan, 1904 Mythologies, 1959 Drama: The Countess Cathleen, pb. 1892 The Land of Heart’s Desire, pr., pb. 1894 Cathleen ni Houlihan, pr., pb. 1902 The Pot of Broth, pr. 1902 (with Lady Augusta Gregory) The Hour-Glass, pr. 1903, revised pr. 1912 The King’s Threshold, pr., pb. 1903 (with Lady Gregory) On Baile’s Strand, pr. 1904 Deirdre, pr. 1906 (with Lady Gregory) The Shadowy Waters, pr. 1906 The Unicorn from the Stars, pr. 1907 (with Lady Gregory) The Golden Helmet, pr., pb. 1908 The Green Helmet, pr., pb. 1910 At the Hawk’s Well, pr. 1916 The Player Queen, pr. 1919 The Only Jealousy of Emer, pb. 1919 The Dreaming of the Bones, pb. 1919 Calvary, pb. 1921 Four Plays for Dancers, pb. 1921 (includes Calvary, At the Hawk’s Well, The Dreaming of the Bones, and The Only Jealousy of Emer) The Cat and the Moon, pb. 1924 The Resurrection, pb. 1927 The Words upon the Window-Pane, pr. 1930 The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats, pb. 1934, 1952 The King of the Great Clock Tower, pr., pb. 1934 A Full Moon in March, pr. 1934 The Herne’s Egg, pb. 1938 Purgatory, pr. 1938 The Death of Cuchulain, pb. 1939 Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats, pb. 1966 (Russell K. Alspach, editor) Nonfiction: Ideas of Good and Evil, 1903 The Cutting of an Agate, 1912 Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918 Essays, 1924 A Vision, 1925, 1937 Autobiographies, 1926, 1955 A Packet for Ezra Pound, 1929 Essays, 1931-1936, 1937 The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, 1938 On the Boiler, 1939 If I Were Four and Twenty, 1940 The Letters of W. B. Yeats, 1954 The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats, 1960 (Donald R. Pearce, editor) Essays and Introductions, 1961 Explorations, 1962 Ah, Sweet Dancer:W. B. Yeats, Margot Ruddock, A Correspondence, 1970 (Roger McHugh, editor) Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, 1970, 1976 (2 volumes) Memoirs, 1972 The Collected Letters of William Butler Yeats: Volume I, 1865-1895, 1986 Miscellaneous: The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, 1908 Bibliography 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. Still, Brown conveys the texture of Yeats’s life, selecting 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. 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’s 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 Yeats’s shifting interests and how these shifts emerge in his poetry. This work includes a detailed time line of Yeats’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.

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