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William Butler Yeats
1865 - 1939

The Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats was perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and was the leader of the Irish Literary Renaissance.


The work of William Butler Yeats forms a bridge between the romantic and often decadent poetry of the fin de siècle and the hard clear language of modern poetry. Under his leadership the Abbey Theatre Company of Dublin contributed several major dramatists to the modern theatre.

Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin. He was the oldest of four children of John Butler Yeats, a noted portrait artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school, who supplemented William's formal schooling at the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, England, with lessons at home that gave him an enduring taste for the classics. The effect of John Yeats's forceful personality and his personal philosophy - a blend of estheticism and atheism - upon William were felt much later, in the mature poet's abiding interest in magic and the occult sciences and in his highly original system of esthetics. During his holidays each year in Country Sligo (the "Yeats Country" of modern tourism), the mysterious wildness and beauty of western Ireland made a deep impression.

At the age of 19, Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, intending to become a painter. Here he formed a lifelong friendship with the poet "AE" (George Russell), and a year later they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society. In 1887 Yeats joined the Theosophical Society of London and also became literary correspondent for two American newspapers. Among his acquaintances at this time were his father's artist and writer friends, including William Morris, William Ernest Henley, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde.

Important Friendships

In 1889 the Fenian party leader, John O'Leary, introduced Yeats to the woman who became the greatest single influence on his life and poetry, Maud Gonne. A passionate and beautiful woman, fiercely involved in the politics of Irish independence, she was Yeats's first and deepest love. She admired his poetry but rejected his repeated offers of marriage, choosing instead to marry Maj. John MacBride, later executed by the British government for his part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Maud Gonne came to represent for Yeats the ideal of feminine beauty (she appears as Helen of Troy in several of his poems), but a beauty disfigured and wasted by what Yeats considered an unsuitable marriage and her involvement in a hopeless political cause.

Always an organizer of artists and a joiner of groups, Yeats became a founding member of the Rhymers' Club in London in 1891 and of the Irish Literary Society of Dublin in 1892. During this period he formed some of the most important friendships of his life. Mrs. Olivia Shakespeare, whom he met in 1894, became his confidante; John Millington Synge, to whom he was introduced in 1896, later shared the co-directorship of the Abbey Theatre with Yeats; and Lady Augusta Gregory, whom he met in 1896, completed the feminine trinity of friendships of which Yeats later wrote in the poem "Friends": "Three women that have wrought/ What joy is in my days." For 20 years Yeats spent his summers as Lady Gregory's quest at Coole Park, her home in Galway. Her son, Maj. Robert Gregory, a young painter who died in World War I, and her nephew, Hugh Lane, an art collector, both figured prominently in the poems of Yeats's later period.

The young American poet Ezra Pound, the instigator of the imagist and vorticist movements in modern poetry, came to London expressly to meet Yeats in 1909. Pound later married Mrs. Shakespear's daughter Dorothy, and he served as Yeats's secretary off and on between 1912 and 1916. Pound introduced Yeats to the Japanese No drama, which gave a distinctive discipline and mood - ceremonial formality and symbolism - to Yeats's verse dramas. His poetry during this period began to show the hardness, brevity, and conciseness that characterize the best poems of his final period.

The death of Maud Gonne's husband seemed to offer promise that she might now accept Yeats's proposal of marriage. Upon her final refusal in 1917, he proposed to her daughter, Iseult MacBride, only to be rejected by her too. That same year he married Miss George Hyde-Less, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. Soon after their wedding, his wife developed the power of automatic writing and began to utter phrases of a strange doctrine, seemingly dictated by spirits from another world, in her sleep. Yeats copied down these fragments and incorporated them into his occult esthetic system, published as A Vision in 1925. A daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, was born in 1919, and a son, William Michael, 2 years later.

Poet and Dramatist

Yeats's first book of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, was published in 1889. In the long title poem, he began his celebration of the ancient Irish heroes Oisin, Finn, Aengus, and St. Patrick. This interest was evident also in his collection of Irish folklore: Fairy and Folk Tales (1888). His long verse drama, The Countess Cathleen (1892), drew criticism because of its unorthodox theology, but it represents a successful fusion in dramatic form of ancient beliefs with modern Irish history. His collection of romantic tales and mood sketches, The Celtic Twilight (1893), attracted the attention of folklore collectors, among them Lady Gregory, who dated her interest in Yeats from her reading of this volume.

Yeats's The Secret Rose (1897) includes poems that he called personal, occult, and Irish, and it contains his rose and tree symbols based on Rosicrucian and Cabalistic doctrines. More figures from ancient Irish history and legend appeared in this volume: King Fergus, Conchubar the Red Branch King, and Yeats's most powerful hero, Cuchulain. The Wind among the Reeds (1899) won the Royal Academy Prize as the best book of poems published that year.

An important milestone in the history of the modern theater occurred in 1902, when Yeats, Maud Gonne, Douglas Hyde, and George Russell founded the Irish National Theatre Society, out of which grew the Abbey Theatre Company in 1904. Yeats's experience with the theater gave to his volume of poems In the Seven Woods (1907) a new style - less elaborate, less romantic, and more matter-of-fact in language and imagery. These changes were less noticeable in the play contained in this volume, On Baile's Strand. His play The Green Helmet, contained in a volume of poems published in 1910 by his sister's press, still exhibited his preoccupation with ancient royalty and "half-forgotten things," but his poetry was unmistakably new. Yeats's play At the Hawk's Well, written and produced in 1915, showed the influence of Japanese No drama in its use of masks and in its dances by a Japanese choreographer.

From 1918 to 1923 Yeats and his wife lived in a restored tower at Ballylee (Galway), of which the poet said, "I declare this tower is my symbol." Signifying restored tradition, ancient yet modern, nobility, aristocracy, and masculinity, the tower became a prominent symbol in his best poems, notably in those that make up The Tower (1928).

Because Yeats based his esthetic on the principle of opposites, his personal life was made complete when he officially became the "smiling public man" of his poem "Among School Children" through two events: he was elected an Irish senator in 1922, a post he filled conscientiously until his retirement in 1928; and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. His acceptance of the role and its responsibilities had been foreshadowed in his poems Responsibilities (1914). The outbreak of civil war in Ireland in 1922 had heightened his conviction that the artist must lead the way through art, rather than through politics, to a harmonious ordering of chaos.

Esthetic Theories and Systems

Yeats devised his doctrine of the mask as a means of presenting very personal thoughts and experiences to the world without danger of sentimentality or that kind of "confessional poetry" that is often a subtle form of self-pity. By discovering the kind of man who would be his exact opposite, Yeats believed he could then put on the mask of this ideal "anti-self" and thus produce art from the synthesis of opposing natures. For this reason his poetry is often structured on paired opposites, as in "Sailing to Byzantium," in which oppositions work against each other creatively to form a single unity, the poem itself.

Yeats turned to magic for the nonlogical system that would oppose and complete his art. He drew upon theosophy, Hermetic writings, and Buddhism, as well as upon Jewish and Christian apocryphal books (for example, the Cabala). To explain his theories he invented "a lunar parable": the sun and moon, day and night, and seasonal cycles became for him symbols of the harmonious synthesis of opposites, a means of capturing "in a single thought reality and justice." He illustrated his theory with cubist drawings of the gyres (interpenetrating cones) to show how antithetical elements in life (solarlunar, moral-esthetic, objective-subjective) interact. By assigning a different type of personality to each of the 28 phases of the moon (arranged like spokes on a "Great Wheel"), he attempted to show how one could find his exact opposite and at the same time discover his place in the scheme of universal order. Yeats believed that history was cyclic and that every 2,000 years a new cycle begins, which is the opposite of the cycle that has preceded it. In his poem "The Second Coming," the birth of Christ begins one cycle, which ends, as the poem ends, with a "rough beast," mysterious and menacing, who "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born."

Last Works

Yeats's last plays, Purgatory (1938) and The Death of Cuchulain (1938), also presaged his own death, which occurred on Jan. 28, 1939, in Roquebrune, France, where ill health had forced him into semiretirement. His final volumes of poems were The Winding Stair (1933), A Full Moon in March (1935), and New Poems (1938). His Last Poems (1940) brought Cuchulain from the grave into a realm beyond death, and this volume included Yeats's last poem, "Under Ben Bulben," in which he dictated the epitaph that adorns the headstone of his grave in Drumcliffe Churchyard (Sligo): "Cast a cold eye on life on death. Horseman, pass by!"


Yeats, William Butler (1865-1939), poet, playwright, founder of the Abbey Theatre, and driving force of the Irish literary revival; born in Dublin, the son of John Butler Yeats, a portrait-painter whose own father was a Church of Ireland clergyman. Yeats's mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a Sligo family that owned mills and a small shipping company. From 1867 to 1872 the Yeatses lived mainly in London, from 1872 to 1874 in Sligo, then in London again from 1874 to 1881. Yeats went to the Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin, 1881-3. In 1884 he entered the Metropolitan School of Art, and met George Russell. In 1885 he met John O'Leary, who introduced him to translations of Irish literature into English. Stimulated by reading Standish James O'Grady's histories and fictions, he determined to give the legends and mythology of Ireland new literary expression by writing poetry about Irish places. At the same time his interest in Indian thought and theosophy led him to the Dublin Hermetic Society. His first volume, Mosada: A Dramatic Poem, appeared in 1886. The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), a long poem based on the Fionn cycle, was published in the year when ‘the troubling of his life’ began in the meeting with Maud Gonne. In 1892 Yeats wrote his play The Countess Cathleen for her, and addressed to her over the years many wistful love-poems. The marriage proposal that he made in 1891 was refused.

In 1890 he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; interested in magic, astrology, and the Cabbala, he made a study of Blake (whose poems he edited with Edwin J. Ellis in three volumes, 1893), as well as reading Swedenborg. His Representative Irish Tales and John Sherman and Dhoya were published in 1891, the year of Parnell's death. He began planning a new Irish Literary Society in London, hoping that a cultural revival could be launched. In the following June in Dublin he inaugurated the National Literary Society at a meeting in the Rotunda. Irish Fairy Tales and The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics were published in 1892. In this period his poetry became more obscure, while a collection entitled The Celtic Twilight (1893) gave its name to the kind of poetry then being produced by imitators. This ‘Celtic’ poetry reached its ultimate development in the symbolic lyrics of his The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). Having first met Lady Gregory in London during 1894 he visited her at Coole Park, her country house in Co. Galway in 1896 and spent long periods there during the summer for many years. Coole provided Yeats with a peaceful routine, and he did much work there, Lady Gregory rekindling his interest in folk tales and peasant speech. While staying at Coole in the summer of 1897, Yeats planned the Irish Literary Theatre with Lady Gregory, and another Co. Galway land owner, Edward Martyn at Duras House, in Kinvara [see Abbey Theatre]. Yeats became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood to please Maud Gonne, but soon grew disillusioned with revolutionaries, especially after the Dublin riots of 1897.

In 1902, Maud Gonne acted in the title-role of Cathleen Ni Houlihan, a play which made a great impression on Irish nationalists, causing Yeats to wonder later in reference to the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising if it had ‘sent out certain men the English shot’. He was shattered by her sudden marriage to John MacBride in 1903, but continued to write love poetry to and about her. As President of the Irish National Dramatic Society, and Director of the Abbey Theatre, Yeats was deeply immersed in theatre policy and management during this period. Poems in The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914) express disillusion. On Baile's Strand (1904) was the first of his plays about the Irish hero Cú Chulainn. An inveterate letter-writer, he also composed many essays: Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) and Discoveries (1907) were followed in 1916 by Reveries over Childhood and Youth, being the first part of Autobiographies. His continuing interest in aristocratic art was reflected in imitations of the Japanese Noh, and 1916 saw a production of At the Hawk's Well, the first of his Four Plays for Dancers (1921). When the 1916 Rising took place in Dublin, Yeats realized that the Irish leaders executed for their part in it had been transformed into national martyrs through the ‘terrible beauty’ of their sacrifice. Among them was John MacBride. Yeats went to Normandy, where Maud Gonne was living with Seán (born 1904), her son by MacBride, and Iseult (1894-1954), her second child by Lucien Millevoye, a French right-wing politician. There he proposed marriage, was refused, and next proposed to Iseult, who gave no definite answer. In 1917, on receiving a final refusal, he turned to Georgie Hyde Lees, whom he married in 1917. Marriage transformed Yeats's life. His wife's automatic writing underpinned the views on history and human personality sketched in the prose Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918) and which he systematized in A Vision (1925).

Ownership of Thoor Ballylee, a medieval tower in Co. Galway, and of a town house at 82 Merrion Square gave him the sense of being rooted in Ireland. He became a senator of the Irish Free State [see Irish State] in 1922, chairing the committee on the new Irish coinage, and later causing a controversy with his defence of divorce in June 1925. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Of the collections in this period, Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) included a bleak vision of the future in ‘The Second Coming’, and praise of ceremony in ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’. The magnificent poems of The Tower (1928) focused on legends surrounding Thoor Ballylee, the problem of age, inherited characteristics, civil war, and love. The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) continued this rhetorical poetry. Various medical conditions took their toll, though Yeats's output continued impressively with Collected Poems (1933), Collected Plays (1934), Wheels and Butterflies (1934), A Full Moon in March (1935), and Dramatis Personae (1935). After editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Yeats revised A Vision (1937), published New Poems (1938), planned On the Boiler (1939) and composed Purgatory and The Death of Cuchulain. Riversdale became his last Irish residence in 1932. He died at Roquebrune, Cap Martin in the South of France. The leading literary figure in Ireland in his time, who virtually invented modern Irish literature in English, and one of the greatest modern poets in any language, Yeats has cast a long shadow. See: A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet (1948); and R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life (1997 and 2001).


Irish poet and playwright, b. Dublin. The greatest lyric poet Ireland has produced and one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, Yeats was the acknowledged leader of the Irish literary renaissance.

Early Life

Son of the painter John Butler Yeats, William studied painting in Dublin (1883–86). As a boy he attended school in London and spent vacations in County Sligo, Ireland, which was the setting for many of his poems. He became fascinated by Irish legends and by the occult. His first work, the drama Mosada (1886), reflects his concern with magic, but the long poems in The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) voiced the intense nationalism of the Young Ireland movement.

Poetry: First Period

Yeats's verse can be divided into two periods, the first lasting from 1886 to about 1900. The poetry of this period shows a debt to Spenser, Shelley, and the Pre-Raphaelites. It centres on Irish mythology and themes and is mystical, slow-paced, and lyrical. Among the best-known poems of the period are “Falling of Leaves,” “When You Are Old,” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Yeats edited William Blake's works in 1893, and his own Poems were collected in 1895.

Drama and Prose

Yeats's efforts to foster Irish nationalism were inspired for years by Maud Gonne, an Irish patriot for whom he had a hopeless passion and to whom he repeatedly and fruitlessly proposed marriage. In 1898 with Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn he founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin; their first production (1899) was Yeats's The Countess Cathleen (written 1889–92). Yeats helped produce plays and collaborated with Lady Gregory on the comedy The Pot of Broth (1929) and other plays. The Irish Literary Theatre produced several of Yeats's plays including Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), and—after the Abbey Theatre was opened—The Hour Glass (1904), The Land of Heart's Desire (1904), and Deirdre (1907). Yeats's prose tales of Irish legend were collected in The Celtic Twilight (1893) and in the symbolic The Secret Rose (1897).

Poetry: Second Period, and Later Life

Yeats's poetry deepened as he grew older. In the verse of his middle and late years he renounced his early transcendentalism; his poetry became stronger, more physical and realistic. A recurring theme is the polarity between extremes such as the physical and the spiritual, the real and the imagined. Memorable poems from this period include “The Second Coming,” “The Tower,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats initiated his second period in such volumes as In the Seven Woods (1903) and The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). In 1917 he married Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees (known as Georgie or George), and his occultism was encouraged by his wife's automatic writing. His prose work A Vision (1937; privately printed 1926) is the basis of much of his poetry in The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) and Four Plays for Dancers (1921).

Yeats ultimately became a respected public figure, a member (1922–28) of the Irish senate, and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. Some of his best work was his last, The Tower (1928) and Last Poems (1940). All of Yeats's work shows interesting and important revisions from earlier to later versions (see The Variorum Edition of his poems, ed. by Peter Allt and Russell R. Alspach, 1957).










This web page was last updated on: 23 December, 2008