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Encyclopedia > W.B. Yeats
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A 1907 engraving of Yeats.

William Butler Yeats June 13, 1865January 28, 1939), often referred to as W.B. Yeats, was an Irish poet, dramatist, mystic and public figure. Yeats was one of the driving forces behind the Irish Literary Revival and was co-founder of the Abbey Theatre.


His early work tended towards a romantic lushness and fantasy-like quality best described by the title of his 1893 collection The Celtic Twilight, but in his 40s, inspired by his relationships with modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and his active involvement in Irish nationalist politics, he moved towards a harder, more modern style.


As well as his role as member of the board of the Abbey, Yeats served as an Irish Senator. He took his role as a public figure seriously and was a reasonably hard-working member of the Seanad. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 for what the Nobel Committee described as "his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation". In 1934 he shared the Gothenburg Prize for Poetry with Rudyard Kipling.

Contents

Early life and work

Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin. His father, John Butler Yeats was descended from Jervis Yeats, a Williamite linen merchant who died in 1712 and whose grandson Benjamin married Mary Butler, daughter of a landed County Kildare family. At the time of his marriage, John Yeats was studying law, but soon abandoned his studies to take up a career as a portrait painter. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, came from an Anglo-Irish family in County Sligo. Soon after his birth, Yeats moved to Sligo to stay with his extended family and he came to think of it as his true childhood home. The Butler Yeats family were highly artistic; William's brother Jack went on to be a well-known painter and his sisters Elizabeth and Susan were both involved in the Arts and Crafts movement.


Eventually, the family moved to London to enable John to further his career. At first, the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother, who was homesick for Sligo, entertained them with stories and folktales from her native county. In 1877, William entered the Godolphin school, which he attended for four years. He appears not to have enjoyed the experience and did not distinguish himself academically. For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin towards the end of 1880, living at first in the city center and later in the suburb of Howth.


In October, 1881, Yeats resumed his education at the Erasmus Smith High School, Dublin. His father's studio was located nearby and he spent a great deal of time there, meeting many of the city's artists and writers. He remained at the high school until December 1883. It was during this period that he started writing poetry and in 1885, Yeats' first poems, as well as an essay called "The Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson", were published in the Dublin University Review. From 1884 to 1886, he attended the Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design) in Kildare Street.


The young poet

Even before he began to write poetry, Yeats had come to associate poetry with religious ideas and sentiments. Describing his childhood in later years, he described his "one unshakable belief" as the belief that "whatever of philosophy has been made poetry is alone... I thought... that if a powerful and benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better discover that destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart’s desire of the world"


Yeats' early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore and drew on the diction and coloring of pre-Raphaelite verse. His major influence in these years - and probably throughout the rest of his career as well - was Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a late essay on Shelley he wrote, "I have re-read Prometheus Unbound... and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world."


Yeats' first significant poem was The Isle of Statues, a fantasy work that took Edmund Spenser for its poetic model. It appeared in Dublin University Review and was never republished. His first book publication was the pamphlet Mosada: A Dramatic Poem (1886), which had already appeared in the same journal, and this printing of 100 copies was paid for by his father. Following this was The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). The long title poem, the first that he would not disown in his maturity, was based on the poems of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. This poem, which took two years to complete, shows the influence of Ferguson and the Pre-Raphaelites. It introduced what was to become one of his most important themes: the appeal of the life of contemplation vs. the appeal of the life of action. After The Wanderings of Oisin, he never attempted another long poem. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects.


The Yeats family had returned to London in 1887, and in 1890 Yeats cofounded the Rhymer's Club with Ernest Rhys. This was a group of like-minded poets who met regularly and published anthologies in 1892 and 1894. Other early collections include Poems (1895), The Secret Rose (1897) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).


Maud Gonne, the Irish Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre

In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a young heiress who was beginning to devote herself to the Irish nationalist movement. Gonne admired Yeats' early poem The Isle of Statues and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with Gonne, and she was to have a significant effect on his poetry and his life ever after. Two years after their initial meeting, Yeats proposed to Gonne but was rejected. He was to propose to her a total of three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901. With each proposal, Gonne rejected Yeats and finally, in 1903, married Irish nationalist John MacBride. This same year Yeats left for an extended stay in America on a lecture tour. His only other affair during this period was with an Olivia Shakespeare, whom he met in 1896 and parted with one year later.

A poster for the opening run at the Abbey Theatre; two plays by Yeats featured.
A poster for the opening run at the Abbey Theatre; two plays by Yeats featured.

Also in 1896, he was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn and Lady Gregory encouraged Yeats' nationalism and convinced him to continue focusing on writing drama. Although he was influenced by French Symbolism, Yeats consciously focused on an identifiably Irish content and this inclination was reinforced by his involvement with a new generation of younger and emerging Irish authors. Together with Lady Gregory and Martyn and other writers including John M. Synge, Sean O'Casey, Padraic Colum and James Stephens, Yeats was one of those responsible for the establishment of the literary movement known as the Irish Literary Revival (otherwise known as the Celtic Revival).


Apart from these creative writers, much of the impetus for the Revival came from the work of scholarly translators who were aiding in the discovery of both the ancient sagas and Ossianic poetry and the more recent folk song tradition in Irish. One of the most significant of these was Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland, whose Love Songs of Connacht was widely admired.


One of the enduring achievements of the Revival was the setting up of the Abbey Theatre. In 1899, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Martyn and George Moore founded the Irish Literary Theatre. This was not successful and survived for about two years. However, working together with two Irish brothers with theatrical experience named William and Frank Fay and Yeats' unpaid secretary Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman (a wealthy Englishwoman who had previously been involved in the presentation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man in London in 1894) the group established the Irish National Theatre Society. This group of founders was also able, along with John Millington Synge, to acquire property in Dublin and open the Abbey Theatre on December 27, 1904. Two of Yeats' plays were featured on the opening night. Yeats continued to be involved with the Abbey up to his death, both as a member of the board and as a prolific playwright.


In 1902, Yeats helped set up the Dun Emer Press to publish work by writers associated with the Revival. This became the Cuala Press in 1904. From then until its closure in 1946, the press, which was run by the poet's sisters, produced over 70 titles, 48 of them books by Yeats himself. Yeats spent the summer of 1917 with Maud Gonne, and proposed to Gonne's daughter, Iseult, but was rejected. In September, he proposed to George Hyde-Lees, was accepted, and the two were married on the 20th of October. Around this time he also bought Ballylee Castle, near Coole Park, and promptly renamed it Thoor Ballylee. This tower served as his summer home for much of the rest of his life.


Mysticism

Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism and spiritualism. In 1885, he and some friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Order. This society held its first meeting on June 16, with Yeats in the chair. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was opened with the involvement of Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee. Yeats attended his first sťance the following year. Later, Yeats became heavily involved with hermeticist and theosophical beliefs, and in 1900 he became head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he had joined in 1890. After his marriage, he and his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing.


Yeats's mystical inclinations, informed by Hindu religion (Yeats translated The Ten Principal Upanishads (1938) with Shri Purohit Swami), theosophical beliefs and the occult, formed much of the basis of his late poetry, which some critics have attacked as lacking in intellectual credibility. W. H. Auden criticized his late stage as the "deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India". Nevertheless, he wrote much of his most enduring poetry during this period. The metaphysics of Yeats's late works must be read in relation to his system of esoteric fundamentalities in A Vision (1925), which is read today primarily for its value shed on his late poetry rather than for any rigorous intellectual or philosophical insights.


Modernism

In 1913, Yeats met the young American poet Ezra Pound. Pound had travelled to London at least partly to meet the older man, whom he considered "the only poet worthy of serious study". From that year until 1916, the two men spent the winters in a cottage in Ashdown Forest with Pound nominally acting as Yeats' secretary. The relationship got off to a rocky start when Pound arranged for the publication in the magazine Poetry of some of Yeats' verse with Pound's own unauthorised alterations. These changes were mostly designed to reflect Pound's distaste for Victorian prosody. However, both men soon found that they had a good deal to learn from each other. In particular, the scholarship on Japanese Noh plays that Pound had obtained from Ernest Fenollosa's widow provided Yeats with a model for the aristocratic drama he intended to write. The first of his plays modelled on Noh was At the Hawk's Well, the first draft of which he dictated to Pound in January 1916.


Yeats is generally conceded to be one of twentieth century's key English-language poets. Yet, unlike most modernists who experimented with vers libre, Yeats was a master of the traditional verse forms. The impact of modernism on Yeats' work can be seen in the increasing abandonment of the more conventionally poetic diction of his early work in favour of the more austere language and more direct approach to his themes that increasingly characterises the poetry and plays of his middle period, comprising the volumes In the Seven Woods, Responsibilities, and The Green Helmet.


Politics

Thanks in part to his exposure to the work of the younger modernists he met through Pound, the poetry of Yeats' middle period moved away from the Celtic Twilight mood of the earlier work. His political concerns also moved away from the arena of cultural politics he was so involved in during the early years of the Revival. In his early work, Yeats' essentially aristocratic pose led to an idealisation of the Irish peasant and a corresponding willingness to ignore the very real poverty and suffering that was the daily lot of that class. However, the emergence of a revolutionary movement from the ranks of the urban Catholic lower-middle class left him little choice but to reassess his attitudes.


Yeats' new direct engagement with politics can be seen in the poem September 1913, with its well-known refrain "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,/It's with O'Leary in the grave." This poem is an attack on the Dublin employers who were involved in the famous 1913 lockout of workers who supported James Larkin's attempts to organise the Irish labour movement. In Easter 1916, with its equally famous "All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born" refrain, Yeats faces his own failure to recognise the merits of the leaders of the Easter Rising because of their apparently humble backgrounds and lives.


Yeats was appointed to Seanad …ireann in 1922 and one of his main achievements as a Senator was to chair the coinage committee that was charged with selecting a set of designs for the first coins issued by the Free State. He also spoke against proposed anti-divorce legislation in 1925. His own characterisation of himself as a public figure is captured in the line "A sixty-year-old smiling public man" in the 1927 poem "Amongst School Children". He retired from the Seanad in 1928 because of ill health.


Yeats' essentially aristocratic attitudes and his association with Pound tended to draw him towards Mussolini, for whom he expressed admiration on a number of occasions. He also wrote some 'marching songs' for General Eoin O'Duffy's 'Blueshirts', a quasi-fascist political movement (which were never used). However, when Pablo Neruda invited him to visit Madrid in 1937, Yeats responded with a letter supporting the Republic against Fascism. Yeats's politics are ambiguous: no friend of the Left (or democracy) he distanced himself from Nazism and Fascism in the last few years of his life. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that he ever reconciled himself to democracy in any meaningful sense. He was also deeply involved in the eugenics movement.


Later life and work

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Yeats statue in Sligo, Ireland

In his later poetry and plays, Yeats moved away from the directly political subjects of his middle years and started to write in a more personal vein. His subjects included his son and daughter and the experience of growing old. Yeats himself, in the poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion", which was published in his final collection, describes the inspiration for these late works in the lines "Now that my ladder's gone,/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart".


In 1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee for the last time. Much of the remainder of his life was outside Ireland, but he did lease a house in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham from 1932. He wrote prolifically through the final years of his life, publishing poetry, plays and prose. In 1938, he attended the Abbey for the last time to see the premier of his play Purgatory. The Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats was published that same year.


After suffering from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, Yeats died in France in January, 1939, eight months before the German invasion of Poland. The last poem he wrote was the Arthurian-themed The Black Tower. Soon afterward, Yeats was first buried at Roquebrune, until, as was his final wish, his body was moved on the corvette Irish Macha to Drumecliff, Sligo in September, 1948. His grave is a famous attraction in Sligo. His epitaph, which is the final line from one of his last poems, Under Ben Bulben is "Cast a cold eye on life, on death; horseman, pass by!" Of this location, Yeats said, "the place that has really influenced my life most is Sligo." The town is also home to a statue and memorial building in Yeats' honour.


Bibliography

See also

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