Last reviewed: June 2017
Irish Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright.
June 13, 1865
Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland
January 28, 1939
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
William Butler Yeats
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.