William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats


Who Was William Butler Yeats?

William Butler Yeats published his first works in the mid-1880s while a student at Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art. His early accomplishments include The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and such plays as The Countess Cathleen (1892) and Deirdre (1907). In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He went on to pen more influential works, including The Tower (1928) and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932). Yeats, who died in 1939, is remembered as one of the leading Western poets of the 20th century.

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland, the oldest child of John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Pollexfen. Although John trained as a lawyer, he abandoned the law for art soon after his first son was born. Yeats spent much of his early years in London, where his father was studying art, but frequently returned to Ireland as well.

In the mid-1880s, Yeats pursued his own interest in art as a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. Following the publication of his poems in the Dublin University Review in 1885, he soon abandoned art school for other pursuits.

Career Beginnings

Around this time, Yeats founded the Rhymers' Club poetry group with Ernest Rhys. He also joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that explored topics related to the occult and mysticism. While he was fascinated with otherworldly elements, Yeats's interest in Ireland, especially its folktales, fueled much of his output. The title work of The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) draws from the story of a mythic Irish hero.

Acclaimed Poet and Playwright

In addition to his poetry, Yeats devoted significant energy to writing plays. He teamed with Lady Gregory to develop works for the Irish stage, the two collaborating for the 1902 production of Cathleen Ni Houlihan . Around that time, Yeats helped found the Irish National Theatre Society, serving as its president and co-director, with Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge. More works soon followed, including On Baile's Strand , Deirdre and At the Hawk's Well .

Following his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917, Yeats began a new creative period through experiments with automatic writing. The newlyweds sat together for writing sessions they believed to be guided by forces from the spirit world, through which Yeats formulated intricate theories of human nature and history. They soon had two children, daughter Anne and son William Michael.

The celebrated writer then became a political figure in the new Irish Free State, serving as a senator for six years beginning in 1922. The following year, he received an important accolade for his writing as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to the official Nobel Prize website, Yeats was selected "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."

Yeats continued to write until his death. Some of his important later works include The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), A Vision (1925), The Tower (1928) and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932). Yeats passed away on January 28, 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. The publication of Last Poems and Two Plays shortly after his death further cemented his legacy as a leading poet and playwright.


  • Name: William Butler Yeats
  • Birth Year: 1865
  • Birth date: June 13, 1865
  • Birth City: Dublin
  • Birth Country: Ireland
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
  • Fiction and Poetry
  • Journalism and Nonfiction
  • Astrological Sign: Gemini
  • Metropolitan School of Art (Dublin)
  • Nacionalities
  • Death Year: 1939
  • Death date: January 28, 1939
  • Death City: Menton
  • Death Country: France

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  • Article Title: William Butler Yeats Biography
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  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014

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William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet. He was a leading figure of twentieth-century literature. He is a pillar of the literary establishment in Ireland. He assisted in founding the Abbey Theatre, and also served as Senator of the Free Irish State for two terms. Behind the Irish Literary Revival, he was among the leading force along with Edward Martyn, Lady Gregory, and many others.

The poetry of Yeats is featured with Irish Legends and occult. His first collection of poems was published in 1889. The poems in this collection are slow-paced and lyrical and indebted to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edmund Spenser, and poets of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His 20 th -century poetry was more realistic and physical. In his poetry, he renounced his transcendental beliefs and remained highly preoccupied with the spiritual and physical mask. He also talks about the cyclic theories of life in his poetry. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.

A Short Biography of William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born on 13 th June 1865 in Dublin, Ireland, to John Yeats and Susan Mary Pollexfen. He was the eldest son of the family. His father was a lawyer, and when Yeats was born, he left his profession. Yeats’ early years of life were spent in London and also made frequent visits to Ireland.  His father studied arts in London.

In 1880, Yeats, while attending the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, pursued his own interest in arts. In 1885, he published his poems in the Dublin University Review. Soon after publishing, Yeats abandoned the art school.

Beginning of Literary Career

In the second half of the 1880s, Yeats encountered Lionel Johnson, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. He also met Maud Gonne, a staunch supporter of Irish independence. Maud Gonne was a revolutionary woman and became a muse for Yeats for many years. Yeats proposed to her for marriage several times, but de declined. In 1892, Yeats published a drama Countess Cathleen, which was dedicated to her.

It was during this time that Yeats established the poetry group Rhymer’s Club with Ernest Rhys. He also joined the organization Order of the Golden Dawn. The organization discusses topics related to mysticism and occult. Yeats was much fascinated with the fantastical elements. His interests in the folktales of Ireland were the sources of his poetry. The title of his collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems published in 1889 was drawn from the account of a mythic Irish hero. 

Celebrated Poet and Playwright

Besides poetry, Yeats also wrote plays. He became associated with Lady Gregory and to write works for the Irish theatre. In 1902, Yeats and Lady Gregory collaborated for the production of Cathleen Ni Houlihan . Yeats, during this time, also assisted in founding the National Theatre Society of Ireland. He also served as the president and co-editor along with John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory. Soon more plays were produced, and among them, the most celebrated was Deirdre, At the Hawk’s Well, and On Baile’s Strand.

In 1917, he married George Hyde-Lees. Following the marriage, Yeats entered into a new period of creativity by means of experiments with automatic writing. Yeats and his newly wedded wife would sit together for writing. They both believed that the forces from the spirit world would guide them. From his belief in the spiritual world, Yeats had formulated his intricate theories of human history and nature. The couple had two children: William Michael (son) and Anne (daughter).

Due to his services for establishing Irish Literature, Yeats soon became a political figure in the new Free State of Ireland. In 1922, he became a senator and served for six years. In 1923, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The official website of Nobel Prize asserts that Yeats was given the prize “for his always inspired poetry, which is a highly artistic form that gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

Yeats wrote poetry and other works till his late days. Important works of his late years include A Vision, The Wild Swans at Coole, The Tower, and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems. On 28 th January 1939, Yeats died in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. Shortly after his death, his collection Last Poems and Two Plays was published.

The Writing Style of William Butler Yeats

Yeats is regarded as one of the key poets of the twentieth century in the English language. He is known as a Symbolist poet. He used suggestive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his literary works. He decides on words and arranges them in a unique style that they also suggest the significant and resonating abstract ideas , in addition to a surface meaning. His writing style is mainly based on the use of symbols, which is mostly physical, that gives two meanings: literal and suggestive. Moreover, his symbols have immaterial and timeless qualities. They are applicable and comprehensible in every period.

Yeats has mastered a traditional verse form in his poetry. He does not practice free verse like other modernists. However, Yeats’s writing has been influenced by modernism. The modernism features can be seen in his rejection of more conventional poetic diction that he used in his early work. In his later works, the language is more serious; he directly approaches themes that significantly characterize his plays and poetry of his middle period. The works of the middle period are Responsibilities, The Green Helmet, and In the Seven Wood.

Yeats wrote his later poetry and played in a more personal style. These works were written in the last twenty years of his life. Yeats also refers to his daughter and son in these works. Moreover, these works are full of meditations of growing old. In the poem “The Circus Animals,” Yeats describes the motivation for his late works as:

“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.”

The early poetry of Yeats is heavily based on the myths and folklore of the Irish language. His later works focus more on contemporary issues. The shift of subject from folklore to contemporary issues marks a dramatic transformation in Yeats’s style. His works, and so as his style, can be divided into three periods. The poems written in the early phase are purely Pre-Raphaelite in tone, intentionally elaborated, and silted (according to the unsympathetic critics). At that time, Yeats wrote epic poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and The Isle of Statues. Other poems that he wrote in his early phase are lyrical and based on the subject of the esoteric and mystical subject and themes of love.

In the middle period, Yeats abandoned the writing style of Pre-Raphaelites that was the staunch feature of his early work. In the middle period, he adopted the Landor-style of social ironism. The critics who admire the middle period works of Yeats may feature it as having flexible yet powerful rhythm and also severely modernist, whereas those critics who do not admire his middle period works find his poems as barren with weak imagination.

The latter works of Yeats were based on the mystical system and extract its inspiration from it. Under the influence of spiritualism, Yeats began to work out a mystical system for himself. The poetry of this period, in many ways, marks Yeats’s return to the vision of his earlier works. He reproduced the theme of The Wandering Oisin in his late work, A Dialogue Between Self and Soul . Both poems deal with the subject of opposition between the spiritually-minded man of God and the worldly-minded man of the sword.

Critics also claim that the way Pablo Picasso covered his transition between the paintings Yeats also covered his transition from the poetry of the nineteenth-century to the twentieth century. However, some inquire whether the late poetry of Yeats has much in common with his contemporary modernists T. S. Eliot or the earlier.

The well-known poem of W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” is read by the modernist readers as a dirge for the decay of European civilization. The poem also explains the apocalyptical mystical theories of Yeats. The most important collections of Yeats poetry began with the publication of The Green Helmet in 1910, which was followed by Responsibilities in 1914. With the passing age, Yeats was getting more spare and powerful with the use of imagery. His poetry collection The Tower, The Winding Stair, and New Poems contain his most powerful imagery that features the modernist era of the twentieth century. 

The mystical inclinations, well-informed with Hinduism, occult, and theosophical beliefs are the basis of the late poetry of Yeats. However, some critics have claimed that his late poetry shows a lack of credibility. Yeats’ system of beliefs can be read in connection with his system of mysteries that are fundamental present in his book A Vision published in 1925.

There are two common methods by which Yeats wrote poetry. The first method is spontaneous, whereas the other process is laborious and involves substitution and alteration . His spontaneous method belongs to his early period of writing, and he relied chiefly upon the inspiration and temptation of artistic creation without any effort. Whereas, in the later periods of his writing, he inflicted upon himself great pains and polish his verses time and again. Like Ernest Hemingway, he was a painstaking writer who attempted to say in the best possible words. His late artistic method is greatly depicted in his poems. For example, in the “Adam’s Curse,” he writes:

“I said, “All line will take us hours may be;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

Throughout his long literary career, Yeats continued to mature and grow like an artisan, and this the most admirable thing about Yeats. His poetry is characterized by the dreamy flourishing style dull of lulling rhythms. His early poetry has a mostly pensive and nostalgic tone. Like Edmund Spenser, his poetry also had an abundance of exaggerated imagery. 

It is so admirable that a great poet like Yeats soon grew dissatisfied with his ornate style in verse, and attempted to make his verse more simple, and bringing it near to the ordinary speech of daily use. He abandoned the archaism and poeticism in his poetry. In his later poetry, the imager also turned more certain, appropriate, and developed a sharp quality. Yeats’ superfluity and verbiage changed to intensity and potent.  He started using brief and terse diction, and consequently, his poetry matured in density.

At the same time, Yeats also attempted to develop “ passionate syntax .” In doing so, he became master of modulating the rhythm of his poetry so as to be aligned in the spirit of the poem. Yeats’s style is prominent in his poems “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Second Coming,” “The Tower,” “Among the School Children,” and “Easter 1916.” Even one of his earliest poems, “When You are Old,” also shows this style. 

It is astonishing to see the developed assurance and confidence in Yeats’ later poetic style. He employed accurate and definite rhythm, and most importantly, it matches the demands of sublimity and grandeur of language and subject without putting much effort. Yeats’ language became very practical. It has developed into sharp and became adapted to an inclusive range of ideas and concepts. He can easily put simple facts in simple words. For example, in the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” he says:

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick.”

Similarly, in the poem “Vacillation,” he uses simple but sharps words:

“What theme had Homer but original sin?”

After developing his style, Yeats was able to use his poetry to employ various effects of calm or exhortation, passionate or philosophizing condemnation, celebration or lamentation, Prophecy, or nostalgia. His command over the meter and versification was also remarkable during his early period. At that time, he also had close correspondence between the mood and language for his escapist poem (his early poetry is much associated with the escapist poetry of Romanticism). In order to keep the fantastical atmosphere in his early poems, he employed half-spelled rhythm. To get the effect of the fantastical world, Yeats manipulated meditative and wavering rhythm in the poem “The Wind Among the Reeds.

Similarly, in order to keep pace with the theme of the poem in his later poetry, Yeats developed more varied, subtler, and intensely more adaptable rhythms. He also used a more inclusive vocabulary. Consequently, his metaphors appeared to be fresh with a wide range of references. Metaphorical aphorism is also observed in his poetry. Yeats’s perfect poetic use of epigram gives a shock of surprise to his readers. For example:

In his later poetry, again in keeping with his thematic content, Yeats was able to develop subtler, more varied, and dramatically more adaptable rhythms. His vocabulary had also become more inclusive. As a result, the metaphors were fresher and their range of reference wider. We also find that he employs the metaphorical aphorism. His use of epigram is a properly poetic one, giving the reader a shock of surprise. For example: in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, he says:

“Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.”

In Yeats’s poetry, the imaginative structure of the poems and its real expression appears to be definitely polished, natural, and spontaneous in effect.

Right up to the end of his literary career, Yeats continuously grew and matured. With his growth, he developed more confidence and assertion. Moreover, he carried words effortlessly with masterly skills. However, his self-confidence results in his propensity to treat exaggeration and hyperbolas. Various critics considered his inclination towards exaggeration and the use of hyperbolas his serious flaw. While commenting on weakness in Yeats’s poetry, D.S. Savage writes that his exaggeration and over-heightening, his indulgence in intensity are demonstrated in his frequent use of hyperbolic phrases and same-sounding words whose sole effect is to raise the meaning.

To conclude, William Butler Yeats was a gifted and conscious artist who cannot be equaled but by few artists. Certainly, the style of Yeats has some flaws, and these flaws are serious; however, these flaws do not dominate his true greatness as an artist. He wrote poetry from the inner urge, which provides his poetry with a unique inner glow and aspiration. His poetry is placed among the political monuments if it is not placed among the monuments of timeless intellect.

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W. B. Yeats

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Born in Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865, William Butler Yeats was the son of the well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. He spent his childhood in County Sligo, where his parents were raised, and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and to study painting, but quickly discovered that he preferred poetry. Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period, which sought to promote the spirit of Ireland’s native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Irish Gaelic himself, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Also a potent influence on his poetry was the Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889, a woman equally famous for her passionate nationalist politics and her beauty. Though she married another man in 1903 and grew apart from Yeats (and Yeats himself was eventually married to another woman, Georgie Hyde Lees), she remained a powerful figure in his poetry.

Yeats was deeply involved in politics in Ireland and, in the twenties, despite Irish independence from England, his verse reflected a pessimism about the political situation in Ireland and the rest of Europe, paralleling the increasing conservatism of his American counterparts in London,  T. S. Eliot  and  Ezra Pound . His work after 1910 was strongly influenced by Pound, becoming more modern in its concision and imagery, but Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. He had a life-long interest in mysticism and the occult, which was off-putting to some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy, and his poetry continued to grow stronger as he grew older. Appointed a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, he is remembered as an important cultural leader, a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the greatest poets in any language of the twentieth century.

William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and died on January 28, 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

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William Butler Yeats was both poet and playwright, a towering figure in 20th-century literature in English, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, a master of traditional verse forms and at the same time an idol of the modernist poets who followed him.

William Butler Yeats was born into a wealthy, artistic Anglo-Irish family in Dublin in 1865. His father, John Butler Yeats, was educated as an attorney but abandoned the law to become a well-known portrait painter. It was his father’s career as an artist that took the family to London for four years during Yeats’ boyhood. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, was from Sligo, where Yeats spent summers in childhood and later made his home. It was she who introduced William to the Irish folktales which permeated his early poetry. When the family returned to Ireland, Yeats attended high school and later art school in Dublin.

A Young Poet

Yeats was always interested in mystical theories and images, the supernatural, the esoteric and the occult. As a young man, he studied the works of  William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and was a member of the Theosophical Society and Golden Dawn . But his early poetry was modeled on Shelley and Spenser (e.g., his first published poem, “The Isle of Statues,” in The Dublin University Review ) and drew on Irish folklore and mythology (as in his first full-length collection, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems , 1889). After his family returned to London in 1887, Yeats founded the Rhymer’s Club with Ernest Rhys.

In 1889 Yeats met Irish nationalist and actress Maud Gonne, the great love of his life. She was committed to the political struggle for Irish independence; he was devoted to the revival of Irish heritage and cultural identity, but through her influence, he did become involved in politics and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He proposed to Maud several times, but she never consented and ended up marrying Major John MacBride, a Republican activist who was executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Yeats wrote many poems and several plays for Gonne, she earned great acclaim in his Cathleen ni Houlihan .

The Irish Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre

With Lady Gregory and others, Yeats was a founder of the Irish Literary Theatre, which sought to revive Celtic dramatic literature. This project lasted only a couple of years, but Yeats was soon joined by J.M. Synge in the Irish National Theatre, which moved into its permanent home at the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Yeats served as its director for some time and to this day, it plays an active role in launching the careers of new Irish writers and playwrights.

In 1913, Yeats became acquainted with  Ezra Pound , an American poet 20 years his junior who had come to London to meet him, because he considered Yeats the only contemporary poet worth studying. Pound served as his secretary for several years, causing a ruckus when he sent several of Yeats’ poems to be published in Poetry magazine with his own edited changes and without Yeats’ approval. Pound also introduced Yeats to the Japanese Noh drama, on which he modeled several plays.

Mysticism & Marriage

At 51, determined to marry and have children, Yeats finally gave up on Maud Gonne and proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman half his age whom he knew from his esoteric explorations. In spite of the age difference and his long unrequited love for another, it turned out to be a successful marriage and they had two children. For many years, Yeats and his wife collaborated in a process of automatic writing, in which she contacted various spirit guides and with their help, Yeats constructed the philosophical theory of history contained in A Vision , published in 1925.

Immediately after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Yeats was appointed to its first Senate, where he served for two terms. In 1923 Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is generally agreed that he is one of a very few Nobel laureates who produced his best work after receiving the Prize. In the last years of his life, Yeats’ poems became more personal and his politics more conservative. He founded the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932 and continued to write quite prolifically. Yeats died in France in 1939; after World War II his body was moved to Drumcliffe, County Sligo.

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William Butler Yeats Biography

Born: June 13, 1865 Dublin, Ireland Died: January 28, 1939 Roquebrune, France Irish poet and dramatist

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and dramatist (playwright). Some think he was the greatest poet of the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. The works of William Butler Yeats form a bridge between the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century and the hard clear language of modern poetry.

Early years

William Butler Yeats. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation.

At the age of nineteen Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, intending to become a painter. In 1887 he became a literary correspondent for two American newspapers. Among his acquaintances at this time were his father's artist and writer friends, including William Morris (1834–1896), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), and Oscar Wilde (1856–1900).

Important friendships

In 1889 Yeats met the woman who became the greatest single influence on his life and poetry, Maud Gonne. She was Yeats's first and deepest love. She admired his poetry but rejected his repeated offers of marriage, choosing instead to marry Major John MacBride. 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, Irish independence.

Yeats became a founding member of literary clubs in London, England, and Dublin. During this period he became friends with the dramatist John Millington Synge (1871–1909). He was introduced to Synge in 1896, and later directed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with him.

The American poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972) came to London for the specific purpose of meeting Yeats in 1909. Pound served as Yeats's secretary off and on between 1912 and 1916. Pound introduced Yeats to the Japanese No drama (a form of Japanese theater similar in many ways to Greek tragedy). Yeats's verse dramas (plays in the form of poetry) reflect the ceremonial formality and symbolism of No .

The death of Maud Gonne's husband seemed to offer promise that she might now accept Yeats's proposal of marriage. She turned him down 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.

Soon after their wedding, Yeats's new wife developed the power of automatic writing (writing as though coming from an outside source) and began to utter strange phrases in her sleep that she thought were dictated by spirits from another world. Yeats copied down these fragments and incorporated them into his occult aesthetic system, published as A Vision in 1925. A daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, was born in 1919, and a son, William Michael, two 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), was a combination of modern dramatic forms with ancient beliefs and modern Irish history. He followed this with his collection of romantic tales and mood sketches, The Celtic Twilight (1893). Yeats's Secret Rose (1897) includes poems that he called personal, occult, and Irish. More figures from ancient Irish history and legend appeared in this volume. The Wind among the Reeds (1899) won the Royal Academy Prize as the best book of poems published that year.

The Abbey Theater

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 straight forward in language and imagery.

Some of Yeats's plays show his great interest in 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), Ireland. The tower became a prominent symbol in his best poems, notably in those that make up The Tower (1928).

Yeats was elected an Irish senator in 1922, a post he filled until his retirement in 1928. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. His acceptance of the role and its responsibilities had been foreshadowed (predicted) 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 (in tune) ordering of chaos.

Aesthetic 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 (excessive emotions). By discovering the kind of man who would be his exact opposite, Yeats believed he could then put on the mask of this ideal "antiself" and thus produce art from the synthesis (combination) of opposing natures. For this reason his poetry is often structured on paired opposites, as in "Sailing to Byzantium."

Yeats turned to magic for the illogical system that would oppose and complete his art. He drew upon Buddhism (an ancient Eastern religion), as well as upon Jewish and Christian mystic (spiritual) books to try and capture what he thought was a harmony of the opposite elements of life

Yeats believed that history was cyclical (circular) and that every two thousand years a new cycle, which is the opposite of the cycle that has preceded it, begins. 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."

Yeats's last plays were Purgatory (1938) and The Death of Cuchulain (1938). He died in Roquebrune, France, on January 28, 1929. He had retired there because of ill health. He had the lines of one of his poems engraved on his tombstone in Ireland: "Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!" Yeats was not only one of the greatest poets and a major figure in the Irish literary renaissance (rebirth), but also wrote some of the greatest of all twentieth-century literature.

For More Information

Jeffares, A. Norman. W. B. Yeats, a New Biography. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989.

Larrissey, Edward. Yeats the Poet: The Measures of Difference. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

Macrae, Alistair D. F. W. B. Yeats: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

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William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

Biography: william butler yeats.


In search of commissions, Yeats’s father moved the family to London, which set a pattern for the rest of Yeats’s life as he would move regularly between Dublin to London, summering in Sligo when he was a child, and at his friend Lady Gregory’s estate Coole Park when he was an adult, rarely settling in one place for long, even after he married and raised a family.

Yeats attended high schools in both London and Dublin. College was two years—1883 to 1885—at Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art (now the prestigious National College of Art and Design), an obvious choice for a young man from one of Ireland’s famously artistic families: his brother Jack would become a renowned painter; one of his sisters was an art teacher; and the other an accomplished designer, a protégé of the great William Morris, in whose studio she worked.

But Yeats soon recognized that poetry was his true calling. He established himself as a man of letters, and, for the next 50-plus years of his life, he worked tirelessly as a poet, playwright, and literary critic. Three themes dominate his work: his determination to use his gift in the interest of revitalizing Irish culture, his personal search for a spiritual identity, and his unrequited love for Maud Gonne.

Maud was the daughter of a British army officer but, raised in Ireland, she adopted the cause of Irish independence and became a leading spokesperson for the movement. From the day they met in 1889, she and Yeats were lifelong friends. She attended meetings of the mystical occult societies Yeats was always drawn to, and he attended her political rallies. A trained and gifted actress, she took the lead in his 1902 play Kathleen ni Houlihan . She broke his heart at least twice, first when she confessed to him that her two children (a son, Georges, who died as an infant, and a daughter, Iseult) were not, as she had claimed, adopted, but her natural children with a Paris journalist, married and much older than she. Some years later, she married John McBride, a major in the Irish Republican Army. Even after Yeats married in 1921 and had his own family, he references in his poetry his unrequited love for Maud. Among the poems we anthologize here, Maud appears in “No Second Troy,” “Easter 1916,” and “A Prayer for My Daughter.”

“The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Among School Children,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “Byzantium” touch on Yeats’s interest in discovering and promoting a system of spiritual enlightenment, which would explain the cycles of history, death and reincarnation, and the relationship of the mind and body to the spirit. For much of his life, Yeats was drawn to and took an active role in mystical and occult societies, such as the Order of the Golden Dawn. His wife, George, claimed the gift of automatic writing, the ability to write down information the spirit world dictated to her, and Yeats would claim that much of his philosophical work, A Vision , published in 1926, was based upon information he acquired from the spirit world, which spoke to him through George.

Yeats also used his work to promote the cause of Irish independence, his contribution being a determined effort to forge a distinctly Irish culture, especially a literature. His work as a playwright, though less successful than his poetry, occupied much of his energy throughout his life. He not only wrote but helped to produce the plays of others: J. M. Synge and, later, Sean O’Casey were the best of the playwrights whose work Yeats promoted. With the tireless help from his friend Lady Augusta Gregory, he founded the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904 and which thrives to this day.

As the years went by, Yeats’s fame and status as Ireland’s leading man of letters grew. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, and he became a senator in the Irish Free State after Ireland won conditional independence from Great Britain. He continued to produce astonishing poetry. His last poems, represented here by “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” reveal a diminished interest in the search for a utopian vision of spiritual enlightenment that Byzantium represented for him. Instead, he writes of his need to re-immerse himself in the real world of his politically unstable nation and in the pains that love sometimes entails, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Typically energetic to the end, Yeats was still writing new poems at the time of his death, in France, on January 28, 1939.

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W. B. Yeats by Lauren Arrington LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012 LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0063

William Butler Yeats (b. 1865–d. 1939) was a poet, playwright, theater director, spiritualist, and politician, and the scholarship based on his life and work matches the diversity of his pursuits. He is regarded as belonging to the Romantic and the Modernist traditions, as a defender of democracy and as a champion of fascism. These are two of the most controversial topics debated by some of the most eminent scholars in the humanities. Yet where academics have seen conflict and contradiction, Yeats himself found unity, and this search for Unity of Being is the subject of much of his autobiographical and esoteric writing. As he was one of the foremost writers of the 20th century and a key figure in the Irish Revival, criticism of his work tends to be divided between international and national contexts, both of which are fruitful avenues of inquiry and represented equally here. Most readers come to Yeats through his poetry, but he saw his work for the stage as equal to if not greater than his poetic enterprise. On winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, he surprised the committee with a speech, later published as “The Bounty of Sweden,” focused on his establishment of an Irish National Theatre. This bibliography aims to reflect the unity of Yeats’s vision while reflecting disagreements in critical appraisals. The topics outlined reflect the major areas of study at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and the sources have been selected on the basis of their usefulness for scholars at this level.

Howes and Kelly 2006 is the best place to begin the study of Yeats. It is comprised of introductory essays by eminent scholars on topics for which the scholars have published full-length studies. For example, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s essay on “Yeats and Gender” in Howes and Kelly 2006 is an overview of themes addressed in Cullingford 1993 (cited in Yeats and Women ). Some of the essayists in Howes and Kelly 2006 have also contributed to Holdeman and Levitas 2010 , which gives a more in-depth survey of major themes. Three guides to each genre—poetry, drama, and prose—are recommended here. Unterecker 1996 focuses exclusively on the poetry; although it covers much of the material included in Albright 1994 (cited in Poetry ), it is more discursive and can be read independently or alongside the poems. Yeats’s plays, particularly the drama of the middle and late periods, have a reputation for being challenging and at times obscure. Taylor 1984 can also be read independently of the plays and provides an accessible overview of the major themes of the drama as a whole as well as concise critical appraisals of each play. Unterecker 1996 and Taylor 1984 are both foundational texts, ideal for readers approaching Yeats for the first time and seeking introductions that balance biography with other approaches to the literature. As Yeats’s prose fiction is generally studied by readers who have come to Yeats through the poetry or the drama, O’Donnell 1983 is slightly more advanced than Unterecker and Taylor but is nonetheless a good place to begin exploring themes in the prose that are addressed in further detail in the subject categories. Two scholarly journals have been devoted exclusively to Yeats. Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies contains specialized articles that may be useful for scholars researching a particular topic, poem, or play. It has not been electronically indexed and must be consulted in print. The Yeats Annual was founded in 1982 and is the leading journal of Yeats criticism.

Holdeman, David, and Ben Levitas, eds. W. B. Yeats in Context . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Comprehensive volume divided into seven parts: Times, Places, Personalities, Themes, Philosophies, Arts, and Reception. “Themes” incorporates politics, “Class and Eugenics,” and “Fascism,” which are considered separately from “Philosophies,” which includes “Folklore” and “Nietzsche.” Important volume for understanding contexts outside the boundaries that Yeats set for his work, opening up lines for engagement with wider themes in 20th-century literature.

Howes, Marjorie, and John Kelly, eds. The Cambridge Companion to W. B. Yeats . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521650895

Essays on major topics in Yeats criticism, from Romanticism and Modernism to gender and politics. Howes’s introduction addresses dialecticism and continuity in Yeats’s work and gives a summary of his career. Includes basic chronology of life and work. The most useful starting point for readers new to Yeats criticism.

O’Donnell, William. A Guide to the Prose Fiction of W. B. Yeats . Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1983.

Chronological analysis of short stories and novels ( John Sherman and The Speckled Bird ) written between 1887 and 1905. Emphasis on material motivation for turning to prose fiction as an alternative to journalism. Also an emphasis on supernatural themes. Argues against reading John Sherman as early evidence of the philosophy of man and mask (see Ellmann 1988 , cited under Biographies ).

Taylor, Richard. A Reader’s Guide to the Plays of W. B. Yeats . London: Macmillan, 1984.

Introduction provides concise overview of major themes in the drama: ritual, magic, the mask, the idea of tragedy, and the relationship of image, symbol, and style. Plays are grouped according to early, middle, and late periods, emphasizing the formal experiments of the middle period. Provides synopsis and critical gloss of each play.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats . Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

First published in 1959, the Guide is intended to be read alongside the Collected Poems . The first chapter gives an overview of important persons, themes, and symbols in Yeats’s poetry. Each subsequent chapter is devoted to a volume of poems and discusses major revisions and the evolution of themes and symbols. Also provides close readings.

Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies .

Important series containing articles, notes, and editions from leading Yeats scholars of the 1980s and 1990s. Articles not indexed electronically, so the print version of journal must be consulted. Published under the editorship of Richard Finneran by Cornell University Press (1983–1986) and then by UMI Research Press (1986–1999).

Yeats Annual .

Regarded as the leading journal for Yeats criticism. Includes articles as well as notes on texts and editions. Increasingly comprised of special numbers devoted to a single topic, such as “Poems and Contexts” or “Influence and Confluence,” often with guest editors. Published by Humanities Press and Palgrave Macmillan since 1982 under the editorship of Warwick Gould. Articles are indexed in the Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature , which is available only to subscribers. Issues also available for purchase from Palgrave Macmillan .

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yeats short biography

W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, he helped to found the Abbey Theatre, and in his later years served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others.

Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland and educated there and in London. He spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends and the occult. These topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, his poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

#IrishWriters #Nobel

yeats short biography

yeats short biography

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Poet, Dramatist, Man of the Theatre

W.B. Yeats, generally acknowledged to be the greatest poet of the modern era, lived an extraordinarily rich and productive life as the founder and guiding spirit of the Irish Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland. His writing helped to inspire Ireland’s struggle for independence and his ideas on intellectual freedom within a democratic society and the role of culture in shaping a distinctive national identity had an influence that continues to the present day. Yeats served as a member of the Irish Senate formed in 1922 when Ireland won her freedom after 700 years of foreign rule. Yeats was also a folklorist, mythologist and life-long student of Eastern and Western religion as well as the occult mysteries. All of these interests and activities found an outlet in Yeats’s achievement as a poet, dramatist and man of the theater.

Rooted in the existential realities of Ireland and the modern age, Yeats’s visionary art represents a public forum of wisdom literature. For Yeats, the arts were a means of recovering and celebrating the mystical idea of the anima mundi – that is, an awareness that soul-making and the business of everyday life are profoundly implicated in one another. The poetry and plays of Yeats were also intended to enable the Irish people to discover their own sense of selfhood in relationship to community. In 1923 Yeats became the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

In Yeats’s work was the beginning of a discovery of confidence in our own ground, our own place, in our own speech English or Irish.                                                            Seamus Heaney

W.B. Yeats is one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.                                                                            T.S. Eliot                  

The early poetry of Yeats is remarkable for a lyrical intensity that approaches incantation in the power of its emotional and spiritual resonance. That tradition had its roots in the methods employed by the bards of ancient Ireland to recite their poetry to the accompaniment of a harp, the national symbol of Ireland. Throughout his career, the long pulsating breath-lines of Yeats, with their syncopated moment to moment rhythmic changes and a delicate modulation of internal rhymes and half-rhymes – all borrowed from Gaelic verse forms – were characteristic of Yeats’s unique poetic voice.  Therein lies the key to his incomparable ability to carry his listeners and readers to the outer reaches of the imagination, a realm of pure transcendence where anything is possible.

yeats short biography

Man of the Theater

A wise theater might make a training in strong and beautiful life the fashion.

“Discoveries” (1906)

Theater artists and critics have increasingly come to realize that Yeats’s accomplishment as a dramatist equals his enormous achievement as a poet. Fintan O’Toole, the highly respected drama critic of The Irish Times , argues that Yeats is the only modern playwright equivalent to Shakespeare in the universality and timelessness of his archetypal imagery. Other critics such as Denis Donoghue believe that Yeats’s “ poésie du theatre ” provides an example to animate Irish and world theater on into the future.

Yeats once described the theater he envisaged as “a memory and a prophecy.” Following this, the W.B. Yeats Foundation has made a special commitment to realizing Yeats’s vision of a “total theatre” combining poetry, music, dance and the visual arts in a highly expressive and holistic engagement with the mind, emotions, senses and imagination of the audience.

Yeats wrote in perhaps the widest range of forms of any dramatist in history, yet each of his brilliantly conceived one-act plays is a perfect realization of its meaning. Because of this, theater artists who can meet the challenges of Yeats are capable of successfully performing virtually any major dramatist from the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare to such masters of the modern stage as Brecht, Beckett and Stephen Sondheim. The work of Yeats, in its mythopoeic, ritualistic and spiritual dimension, is also directly connected with the traditional performing arts of Japan, India, South America and Africa as well as some of the leading avant garde thinkers and theater artists of our own time. Potentially, the visionary art of Yeats is capable of reinvigorating contemporary theater while inspiring a radically transformative “total theatre” of the future.

yeats short biography

I desire a mysterious art, always reminding and half-reminding those who love it of dearly loved things, doing its work by suggestion, not by direct statement, a complexity of rhythm, colour, gesture, not space-pervading like the intellect but a memory and a prophecy.

                 “A People’s Theatre” (1918)

yeats short biography

The W.B. Yeats Foundation

The Yeats Foundation was established by Yeats scholar, producer and theater director James Flannery in 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death, in order to honor his enormous achievement as a man and artist and thereby gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the richness and diversity of Irish culture. The Foundation was launched in June 1989 with a reading from Yeats’s work titled “The Poet and Politics,” which was held at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts . Readers included Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Eugene McCarthy, Governor Hugh Carey and award-winning actresses Tammy Grimes and Viveca Lindfors . The guests of honor were Irish Senator Michael Yeats , the son of the poet and the Honorary Patron of the Foundation , as well as his wife, the noted singer Gráinne Yeats .

yeats short biography

Yeats International Theatre Festival

From 1989-1993, thanks to the support of Donald R. Keough , the President of the Coca-Cola Company, the Yeats Foundation sponsored a Yeats International Theatre Festival at the world-famous Abbey Theatre , the National Theatre of Ireland. Under the direction of James Flannery , the Festival featured productions of fifteen of the poet’s one act plays grouped under the following titles:

-The Cuchulain Cycle: An Heroic Journey in Five Episodes -Masks of Transformation: Art and Revolution in the Modern World -Sacred Mysteries: A Celtic Way of Love and Sexuality -Yeats and Ireland’s National Identity -Art and Spirituality as a Way to Peace

The Music Director of the Yeats Festival was Bill Whelan , The Grammy Award-winning composer of Riverdance , who has often credited his work on Yeats’s plays with inspiring that phenomenally successful piece of total theater. Besides members of the Abbey Company and other distinguished Irish artists, performers in the Yeats productions included stage and film stars Ciarán Hinds in the role of the Celtic hero Cuchulain , Olwen Fouéré as Cathleen ni Houlihan and Fionnula Flanagan in the title role of The Countess Cathleen . Guest directors included master puppeteer Roman Paska and Stan Wojewodski , Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and Dean of the Yale School of Drama . The Yeats Festival also included lectures by such major public figures, artists and scholars as President Mary Robinson of Ireland , eminent choral conductor Robert Shaw, feminist leader Betty Friedan , Northern Irish political activist Bernadette Devlin McAlliskey , novelist Ben Kiely , poets Eavan Boland, Robert Bly, Theo Dorgan, Brendan Kennelly, John Montague and Nualla ni Dhomhnaill , historians Margaret Curtin and Conor Cruise O’Brien , philosopher Mark Hederman , theologian Terence McCaughey , critics Eric Bentley , Terence Brown , Denis Donoghue, Declan Kiberd and William McCormac k as well as painters Robert Ballagh and Anne Yeats , the daughter of the poet.

yeats short biography

Concerts presented by the Yeats Festival featured such renowned performers as singer-songwriter Paul Brady, Elvis Costello,   Christy Moore and Hothouse Flowers . Also a program at Kilmainham Gaol titled “The Walls Speak” featuring the Israeli cellist Maya Beiser , choral group Anuna , singer Andy Irvine and actress Olwen Fouéré reciting poems and other works inspired by the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising who were executed in the stone yard of the prison.

yeats short biography

The Festival placed a special emphasis on promoting peace and reconciliation through the arts with exhibitions on the impact of violence in Northern Ireland, “ Dúchas ”, or the spiritual meaning of identity in Ireland, and contemporary children’s art in Ireland North and South. As a contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland, the Festival also organized a choral workshop for singers from throughout Ireland North and South under the direction of Robert Shaw as well as an ecumenical service at Christ Church Cathedral. Symposiums organized as part of the Yeats Festival included: “The Role of the Muse in Ireland: Art as A Catalyst for Peace in Northern Ireland” and “Are Ireland’s Heroes Her National Enemies : A Response to Yeats’s ‘Cuchulain Cycle , ’ ” which was broadcast live on Telefis Eireann , Ireland’s National Television Network.

                Ciaran Hinds as Cuchulain

yeats short biography

The Yeats International Theatre Festival was launched in 1989 with a production of Yeats’s magnus opus , the five-play “Cuchulain Cycle.” This was the first production of the full Cycle at the Abbey Theatre . Written by Yeats over a period of thirty-five years and inspired by a range of different dramatic forms from the Greeks, Shakespeare and the Japanese Noh to commedia dell’arte and German expressionism, the Cycle is a microcosm of the extraordinary achievement of Yeats the dramatist as well as a meditation on the development of Ireland during the turbulent decades of its emergence as an Independent nation.

yeats short biography

Click below in order to listen to excerpts from the brilliant score by Bill Whelan for At the Hawk’s Well , the first play of the Cycle.

Eye of the Mind

Human Faces

Emer’s Song

Under the title, “Masks of Transformation,” the 1990 Yeats Festival featured the brilliant Irish actress Olwen Fouéré in the title role of Yeats’s revolutionary play, Cathleen ni Houlihan . The production also included two other plays dealing with the cult of violence that continued to wreak a terrible toll on Irish life throughout the century, especially in Northern Ireland.

yeats short biography

   “Sacred Mysteries,” the title of the 1991 Yeats Festival, explored the theme of heroism from a feminine perspective in three powerful plays: Deirdre , A Full Moon in March and The Shadowy Waters . In each of the plays it is the heroine who makes a decisive choice that challenges the patriarchal order of masculine privilege and brings about a new order of self-realization and fulfillment for both sexes.

The accompanying documentary includes interviews with iconic feminist leader betty friedan ,, poet and cultural activist robert bly, and noted irish literary and theatrical figures niualla ni dhomnaill , noel pearson , garry hynes and joan o’hara . the film also features the mesmerizing dance by sarah jane scaife to music by bill whelan that brought the production of full moon in march to a climax..


The Yeats Festival is of immeasurable importance to the Abbey Theatre and the cultural life of Ireland. The Festival has enabled a whole generation of Irish artists and audiences to become aware of Yeats’s enormous contribution to our heritage. It has enabled the Abbey to realize one of Yeats’s original goals, namely to become a theatre not just of entertainment but of intellectual excitement. Finally it has given long overdue recognition to Yeats’s accomplishment as a dramatist equivalent to his reputation as the greatest poet of the twentieth century.                                               

Noel Pearson, Chairman, Board of Directors, Abbey Theatre

Atlanta Presentations

yeats short biography

Audiences in Atlanta have also enjoyed a wide range of public events presented by the Yeats Foundation over the past thirty years, many of them at Emory University . These have included lectures by such noted figures as American Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith , Prime Minister of Ireland Albert Reynolds , Sein Fein leader Gerry Adams , Oscar and Tony Award-winning producer Noel Pearson , literary critics Seamus Deane , Luke Gibbons, Declan Kiberd and Robert Welch as well as historians Tim Pat Coogan and Kerby Miller .

Musical events presented by the Yeats Foundation include concerts by the National Concert Orchestra of Ireland , “Atlantic Bridges: A Celebration of Northern Irish and Appalachian Artists,” singer Tommy Sands (known as the Bob Dylan of Northern Ireland), musician-scholar Mick Moloney , the Ulster-Scots Folk Orchestra , harper Janet Harbison (director of the Belfast Harp Festival), “A Tribute to John McCormack” with tenor James Flannery and “Let Ye All Be Irish Tonight: A St. Patrick’s Day Concert of Irish-American Music, Song and Dance.”

Exhibitions sponsored in Atlanta by the Yeats Foundation include “Homeland: Turn of the Century Ulster in Photographs,” “ An Gorta Mór : The Great Irish Famine” and, in cooperation with the Margaret Mitchell House, “Fire on the Hearth: Portraits of Irish American Women.”

In addition to the above, the Yeats Foundation has produced a number of symposiums featuring internationally noted scholars, artists and public figures:

-“Ulster Roots/Southern Branches: The Scots-Irish Heritage of Northern Ireland and the American South” -“The Quiet Man and After: Reinventing Ireland Through Film” -“The Great Tapestry: The Source and Meaning of Celtic Spirituality” -“ An Gorta Mór : The Great Irish Famine” -“Making Connections: The Celtic Roots of Southern Music”

yeats short biography

         Noted Irish films given their American premieres by the Yeats Foundation include the Oscar-winning My Left Foot as well as Some Mother’s Son and Dancing with Lughnasa .


yeats short biography

  In collaboration with the Irish Consulate of Atlanta, the Yeats Foundation also produced “Still Here/Here Still,” a program in June 2015 commemorating the 150 th anniversary of the birth of Yeats at the Carlos Museum, Emory University . Participants included Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Georgia Poet Laureate David Bottoms as well as Yeats scholars Geraldine Higgins and Ronald Schuchard. The program also featured a staged reading of Yeats’s The Cat and the Moon under the direction of James Flannery with music by Joseph Sobo l and actors from the Atlanta theater company Aris.

Click here to watch Natasha Tretheway’s deeply personal interpretation of Yeat’s Iconic poem, “Easter 1916” as well as Ronald Schuchard’s brilliant analysis and reading of “The Second Coming” and “A Stare’s Nest by My Window.”

yeats short biography

In recognition of its efforts demonstrating the contributions of Ireland to the distinctive culture of the American South, James Flannery and the Yeats Foundation received the 2002 Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities.

Southern Celtic Christmas Concert

yeats short biography

For eighteen years, a signature event of the Yeats Foundation was an annual Christmas program that became recognized as one of the highlights of the Atlanta holiday season. In 2010 A Southern Celtic Christmas Concert program was filmed for broadcast on Georgia Public Broadcasting and went on to win a 2013 Emmy Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Arts and Entertainment.” In poetry, music, song, dance and story, the program celebrates the Christmas traditions of Ireland and the other Celtic lands and their connections with similar traditions in the American South. Over the past six years the program has been distributed nationally on PBS , reaching every major market in the country.

To learn more about the award-winning Southern Celtic Christmas Concert featuring the talents of three Grammy Award-winning artists as well as a rare television appearance by the beloved Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, click on the Celtic Christmas page at the top of our site.

yeats short biography

William Butler Yeats

Short stories.

William Butler Yeats

The poet William Bulter Yeats (1865 - 1939) was a lion of English and Irish literature in the 20th century, awarded the Noble Prize in Literature in 1923. His recognition so soon after Ireland's independence afforded him the opportunity to promote Irish nationalism and cultural independence. In addition to his accomplishments as a poet and short story author, Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre, spearheaded the Irish Literary Revival, and served in the Irish Senate for two terms late in his life.

Yeats grew up in Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland where he attended school, before studying in London. He enjoyed poetry at an early age, reading Irish myths and works of the occult. The Island of Statues was his first significant poem. Yeats published his first book of lyrical work titled, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889, comprising magical and fantasy pieces based on the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. His early works were clearly influenced by Percy Bysshe Shelley , Edmund Spenser , and William Blake . Yeats moved from Transcendentalism and a fascination with Irish mythology in his early years; he transitioned to poetry, which afforded more realistic and grounded expressions in the physical. His style is considered symbolist.

After World War I, Yeats became disillusioned by the efficacy of democracy, lost much of his revolutionary spirit, and began favoring totalitarianism. He served as a Senator of the Irish Free State from 1922-1928. After winning the Nobel Prize, his book sales increased and he had enough wealth to pay off his family's debts.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but rather the lighting of a fire."

After many years of poor health, he underwent an operation, regaining his zeal for writing poetry, and dating younger women. In 1936, Yeats edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 . He passed away in 1939. His grave's epitaph is an excerpt from his poem, Under Ben Bulben : Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by!

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William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats, at the age of seventy-three, stands well within the company of the great poets. He is still writing, and the poems which now appear, usually embedded in short plays or set into the commentary and prefaces which have been another preoccupation of his later years, are, in many instances, as vigorous and as subtle as the poems written by him during the years ordinarily considered to be the period of a poet's maturity. Yeats has advanced into age with his art strengthened by a long battle which had as its object a literature written by Irishmen fit to take its place among the noble literatures of the world. The spectacle of a poet's work invigorated by his lifelong struggle against the artistic inertia of his nation is one that would shed strong light into any era.

The phenomenon of a poet who enjoys continued development into the beginning of old age is in itself rare. Goethe, Sophocles, and, in a lesser degree, Milton come to mind as men whose last works burned with the gathered fuel of their lives. More often development, in a poet, comes to a full stop; and it is frequently a negation of the ideals of his youth, as well as a declination of his powers, that throws a shadow across his final pages.

Yeats in his middle years began to concern himself with the problem of the poet in age. He wrote in 1917, when he was fifty-two:&mdash

A poet when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision, without new bitterness, new disappointment.... Could he if he would, copy Landor who lived loving and hating, ridiculous and unconquered, into extreme old age, all lost but the favor of his muses.... Surely, he may think, now that I have found vision and mask I need not suffer any longer. Then he will remember Wordsworth, withering into eighty years, honoured and empty-witted, and climb to some waste room, and find, forgotten there by youth, some bitter crust.

We can trace, in Yeats, the continually enriched and undeviating course of an inspired man, from earliest youth to age. We can trace the rectitude of the spiritual line in his prose and poetry alike. And there is not a great deal of difference between the "lank, long-coated figure . . . who came and went as he pleased," dramatizing himself and his dreams in the streets of Dublin (the youth who had known William Morris and was to know Dowson and Wilde), and the man who, full of honors in our day, impresses us with his detachment and subtle modernity. Yeats, the fiery young Nationalist, rolling up with his own hands, the red carpet spread on a Dublin sidewalk "by some elderly Nationalist softened or weakened by time, to welcome Viceroyalty," is recognizable in the poet of advanced years who does not hesitate to satirize certain leaders of the new Ireland.

Yeats's faith in the development of his own powers has never failed. He wrote, in 1923, after receiving from the King of Sweden the medal symbolizing the Nobel Prize:—

It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, "I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young." I am even persuaded that she is like those Angels in Swedenborg's vision, and moves perpetually "towards the dayspring of her youth."

Irish literary and dramatic movement, in general belief, rose, late in the nineteenth century, in some vague manner from the temperament of the Irish people. As a matter of fact, Ireland in Yeats's young manhood was as ungrateful a soil for art as any that could be found, in a particularly materialistic time. The native Celtic genius that Arnold had felt to be so open to the influence of "natural magic" had been, for over a century, drawn off into politics. The Anglo-Irish tradition, having produced in the eighteenth century Swift, Congreve, Edgeworth, Goldsmith, Berkeley, and Burke, flowered no more.

The Land Agitation (the struggle of the peasantry against their landlords) and the Young Ireland and Fenian Movements (the struggle of the Irish people against English rule) from the '40s on had absorbed the energies and the eloquence of talented young Irishmen. Irish writers, as Stephen Gwynn has said, having been taught by Swift that written English could be used as a weapon against their oppressors, never forgot their lesson. The Catholic Emancipation Bill, by the efforts of Daniel O'Connell, was passed in 1829. In 1842 the Young Ireland Movement was given a newspaper by Thomas Davis: the Nation , whose motto was "to create and foster public opinion in Ireland and make it racy of the soil." The Nation fostered, as well, a school of Irish poets. Their audience was eager for stirring and heartening words; the verse which spoke to it most clearly was the rhetorical and sentimental ballad, celebrating the Irish race and inciting it to action and solidarity. This verse, when it was not written in the sentimental and insipid vein made famous by Tom Moore, was filled, as has been pointed out, with the hortatory gusto of Lord Macaulay. Versifiers used its forms with skill, and one or two—Clarence Mangan and Sir Samuel Ferguson—touched them with real color and depth of feeling. But there is no doubt that Irish literature, in the years between 1848 and 1891, had fallen upon barren times.

The year 1891 brought Parnell's death. The tragic end of a leader intensely hated and loved, and the loss of much political hope thereby, threw the national consciousness violently back on itself. Yeats has described the situation (he was twenty-six at the time). "Nationalist Ireland was torn with every kind of passion and prejudice, wanting so far as it wanted any literature at all, Nationalist propaganda disguised as literature. All the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland the blameless hero, and poet, novelist and historian had but one object, to hiss the villain, and only the minority doubted the greater the talent the greater the hiss. It was all the harder to substitute for that melodrama a nobler form of art, because there had been, however different in their form, villain and victim."

At the breakup of the Catholic State in the wars of the seventeenth century "Irish laws and customs, the whole framework of the Gaelic civilization, had been annihilated. Music, literature, and classical learning, loved by even the poorest of the Irish, had been driven into hiding, with only 'hedge-schoolmasters' and wandering bards to keep them from oblivion." During the years when the Nation was coming to be the literary force behind Irish Nationalism, traditional Gaelic survived in the minds of Gaelic-speaking peasants. Elsewhere it had disappeared, and from these minds and memories it was rapidly fading. After generations of poverty and oppression, the orally transmitted songs and histories had become fragmentary. Few educated Irishmen knew them, since no educated Irishman knew Gaelic. The Irish language was forbidden in the national schools, and the sons of Anglo-Irish landlords and rectors who passed through Trinity College in Dublin learned English culture and English literature. Standish James O'Grady had published his Bardic History in 1880, but, since O'Grady was a champion of the aristocracy, the book made little impression on the partisan-minded country as a whole. When, in 1894, an Irish landlord with literary ambitions, Edward Martyn, said to another of the same class, George Moore, "I wish I knew enough Irish to write my plays in Irish," Moore replied, "I thought nobody did anything in Irish but bring turf from the bog and say prayers." And Yeats has testified in an essay on the Irish Dramatic Movement: "When we began our work we tried to get a play in Gaelic. We could not even get a condensed version of the dialogue of Oisin and St. Patrick."

Where so much of the spirit of art had to be revivified, so many of its forms repaired, and so tight a mould of fanaticism broken, a man was needed who had in himself some of the qualities of the fanatic—a man who was, above all else, an artist, capable of making an occasional compromise with a human being, but incapable of making one with the informing essence of his art. New light and air had to be let into the closed minds and imaginations of a people made suspicious and hysterically provincial through persecution and disaster. It was impossible to weld the opinions of factions, but all could be drawn into "one net of feeling." A man of sensibility, however, was not enough. Not only insight and imagination, but ruthlessness, fervor, disinterestedness, and a capacity for decision and action, were required.

William Butler Yeats first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses. The young man's more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer. But it was during these early years that Yeats was building himself, step by step, into a person who could not only cope with reality but bend it to his will. He tells, in one of his autobiographies, of his determination to overcome his young diffidence. Realizing that he was "only self-possessed with people he knew intimately," he would go to a strange house "for a wretched hour for schooling's sake." And because he wished "to be able to play with hostile minds" he trained out of himself, in the midst of harsh discussion, the sensitive tendency "to become silent at rudeness."

The result of this training began to be apparent before Yeats was thirty. George Moore has recorded how, on meeting him in London (having been badly impressed by his "excessive" getup at a casual meeting some years before), he thought to worst Yeats easily in argument. The real metal of his opponent soon came into view. "Yeats parried a blow on which I had counted, and he did this so quickly and with so much ease that he threw me on the defensive in a moment. 'A dialectician,' I muttered, 'of the very first order'; one of a different kind from any I had met before."

This intellectual energy, this "whirling" yet deeply intuitive and ordered mind, with its balancing streak of common sense, had come to Yeats through a mixed inheritance. The Yeats blood, perhaps Norman, had been Anglo-Irish for centuries, and it is notorious that English families transplanted to Ireland often become more Irish than the native stock. Yeats's paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been Protestant rectors, in County Down and County Sligo respectively, and there had been eighteenth-century soldiers and government officials on this side of the family. Yeats's mother was a Pollexfen; her stock was Cornish—that is to say, English-Celtic. Her father, William Pollexfen, a lonely strong man whom Yeats as a child loved and feared ("I wonder if the delight in passionate men in my plays and poetry is more than his memory"), had settled in Sligo as a shipowner, after a career as master of ships. Yeats spent several of his childhood years and many of his adolescent summers near the town of Sligo, and from that Western countryside, so full of the beauties of lake, mountain, and sea, and from its people, who still had Gaelic in their speech and legends in their memory, he drew the material of his early poetry.

Yeats has told of the deep emotional reserves in his Sligo-born mother, "whose actions were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons." From his father, John Butler Yeats, a man of original mind who had been trained in the law but turned to painting and to the pre-Raphaelite enthusiasms current in the '70s and '80s, Yeats early heard that "intensity was important above all things." The father's passion for Blake, Morris, and Rossetti soon was shared by the son. Yeats had some English schooling; he later was an art student in Dublin. During this period he became a Nationalist. The elder Yeats had friends among Unionists and Nationalists alike, and, well acquainted with the liberal English thought of his time, enthusiastically espoused the cause of Home Rule. His son's Nationalism was both intellectual and emotional. He became the friend of John O'Leary, an old Fenian who had returned to Dublin after imprisonment and exile for youthful conspiracies; and Maude Gonne, a great beauty and successful agitator, was also an influence helping to channel his youthful ardor toward the more heroic and mystic side of the Nationalist movement. In both of these people Yeats felt imaginative and courageous character which transcended political bigotry and dogma. At no time, from the beginning of his career onward, did he for a moment yield to the hard letter of Irish politics. It was the spirit in those politics he wished to strengthen and make serviceable. His ends, and the means to bring about his ends, were always clear in his mind. "We cannot move the peasants and the educated classes in Ireland by writing about politics or about Gaelic, but we may move them by becoming men of letters and expressing primary truths in ways appropriate to this country."

His art was poetry, and, almost from the first, he used that art as a tool, his avowed purpose being to rid the literature of his country from the insincere, provincial, and hampering forms of "the election rhyme and the pamphlet."

The music of Yeats's early poetic efforts was in part derived from Morris and Shelley. The earliest poems, published in the Dublin University Review in 1886, paid youth's tribute to romantic subjects and foreign landscape: Spain, India, Arcadia. The poems in The Wanderings of Oisin , published in 1889, celebrated Irish landscape as well. Actual Sligo place names appeared in them, and, along with imaginary words put into mouths of legendary Irish figures, Yeats had built poems on the single line of a song, or around a few words heard from peasants. Sligo continued to be the home of his imagination during the next ten years, when he was much away from Ireland, working as a journalist in London. His best-known early poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," came to his mind in a London street, and expressed his homesick memory of an islet in Lough Gill, a lake near the town of Sligo.

In England he not only was drawn into the end-of-the-century literary movement, but played an active part in shaping it. With Ernest Rhys he founded, in London, the Rhymers Club, to which Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons belonged. He knew Wilde and was published by W. E. Henley in the National Observer . Yeats went to Paris in 1894, at a time when Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel was exerting its power over the young for the first time. This poem, "the swan song of romanticism," a mixture of Gothic gloom, Rosicrucian occultism, and Symbolist poetry, was to influence more than one generation of young writers. "Axel or its theme," Yeats wrote thirty years later, "filled the minds of my Paris friends. I was in the midst of one of those artistic movements that have the intensity of religious revivals in Wales and are such a temptation to the artist in his solitude. I have in front of me an article which I wrote at that time, and I find sentence after sentence of revivalist thoughts that leave me a little ashamed." Contact with such enthusiasm, however, did much to confirm Yeats's own belief in the importance of standing out for l'art pour l'art . He had been exposed, at exactly the proper moment in his young career, to literary excitement heightened into a kind of religious fervor. He brought back seeds of this stimulation to Ireland: to a soil which had lain fallow for a long time.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, an interest in Gaelic was growing. Douglas Hyde, a brilliant student at Trinity in Dublin, had learned Gaelic and had begun to translate Gaelic songs and legendary material into the beautiful Tudor English still spoken in the West. Gaelic idiom had been brought over into this speech, and Yeats immediately recognized the language, English yet un-English, in which he wished to write. His poetry soon took to itself not only Gaelic effects of alliteration and assonance, but Gaelic effects of rhythm: that "gapped music" so delicate that it seems to come from the rise and fall of intonation in the Irish voice.

Many Irish people, particularly the young (as Joyce has testified), were haunted by the harp-like fluidity of these songs, and imaginatively stirred by the traditional symbols, the heroic Druid figures Yeats revived. But political societies and the press turned against his aesthetic purposes. The poems in The Wind among the Reeds (1899) were termed "affected," "un-Irish," "esoteric," "pagan," and "heretical." Yeats in later years was to admit a "facile charm, a too soft simplicity," in his early work. He soon began to clear his style of its symbolic trappings, to make it austere, flexible, resonant—an instrument of great lyric and dramatic range. Had he clung to the early style, with its long swing, almost like incantation, its heavy imagery, he would have limited himself unduly. Coming when they did, however, these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened, as more severe music could not then waken, Ireland's ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music.

Yeats had the good fortune to form, in the late '90s, one of the most important friendships of his life. He met Lady Gregory when his need for a staying influence was crucial. He had not entirely escaped the results of the romantic violence let loose (more into their personal lives than into their poetry) by the poets of the decade, in their revolt against respectable bourgeois strictures. He has indicated the nature of his own crisis in Dramatis Personae . "When I went to Coole [Lady Gregory's estate in Galway] the curtain had fallen upon the first act of my drama. . . . I must have spent the summer of 1897 at Coole. I was involved in a miserable love-affair. . . . Romantic doctrine had reached its extreme development. . . . My nerves had been wrecked."

Lady Gregory, whom Yeats met through Arthur Symons and Edward Martyn (Martyn's demesne, Tillyra, adjoined Coole), was a woman of much cultivation and generosity of spirit. Yeats had lost the power to impose upon himself regular habits of work. Lady Gregory, who was later to write out the Irish legends in the simple speech of the peasants of her countryside, took him from cottage to cottage collecting folklore. Coole and its environs were to give the mature Yeats a background for his later work, as Sligo had given him a scene for his earlier. With his technical apprenticeship and his most excessive enthusiasms behind him, Yeats turned away from the middle-class culture of Dublin to the people of Galway farms and villages, "Folk is our refuge from vulgarity." Once he had regained "a tolerable industry," his grasp on reality was further strengthened by the struggle to found what was to become the Abbey Theatre. To this task he and Lady Gregory, with the help of Edward Martyn and George Moore, now applied themselves.

Yeats knew that nothing was read in Ireland but "prayer books, newspapers, and popular novels." He also knew that the Irish had been trained, by politics and the Church, to listen. They were a potential audience, in the primary sense of that word. He had already formed in Dublin the National Literary Society, with the intention of giving "opportunity to a new generation of critics and writers to denounce the propagandist verse and prose that had gone by the name of Irish literature." He now wanted a literary theater. He had written plays, but had no stage, unless it were the stage of small halls, where they could be presented.

Against him were ranged the entrenched powers of the commercial theatre, the Church, and the press, the last two informed with the special Irish fear of "humiliation" and misinterpretation, bred from Ireland's peculiar political situation. "But fight that rancor I must." He fought it for more than ten years, not only for the sake of his own plays, but for the plays of other Irish dramatists, particularly Synge. His own plays caused mild trouble. Synge's Playboy , presented in 1904, brought on a week of riots and emptied the Abbey Theatre for months. But Yeats held out, against an enraged Dublin and an intimidated company. By 1912 the public had learned how to listen to imaginative drama with appreciation, to satiric plays without resentment. The Irish Dramatic Movement had come through, at the cost of great energy and courage expended by its founders. Yeats then turned away from the "popular" theatre, and began to write plays which could be presented in a room by a few amateurs and musicians, plays which could carry his special music and dramatic formality with the least theatrical machinery.

"We should write out our thoughts," Yeats has said, "in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend." And again: "If I can be sincere and make my language natural, and without becoming discursive, like a novelist, and so indiscreet and prosaic, I shall, if good or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet; for it will no longer be a question of literature at all."

If we grant naturalness, sincerity, and vigor to Yeats's late style, we still have not approached its secret. Technical simplicity may produce, instead of effects of tension and power, effects of bleakness and poorness. What impresses us most strongly in Yeats's late work is that here a whole personality is involved. A complex temperament (capable of anger and harshness, us well as of tenderness), and a powerful intellect, come through; and every part of the nature is released, developed, and rounded in the later books. The early Yeats was, in many ways, a youth of his time: a romantic exile seeking, away from reality, the landscape of his dreams. By degrees—for the development took place over a long period of years—this partial personality was absorbed into a man whose power to act in the real world and endure the results of action (responsibility the romantic hesitates to assume) was immense. Yeats advanced into the world he once shunned, but in dealing with it he did not yield to its standards. That difficult balance, almost impossible to strike, between the artist's austerity and "the reveries of the common heart,"—between the proud passions, the proud intellect, and consuming action,—Yeats finally attained and held to. It is this balance which gives the poems written from (roughly) 1914 on (from Responsibilities , published in that year, to poems published at present) their noble resonance. "I have had to learn how hard is that purification from insincerity, vanity, malignance, arrogance, which is the discovery of style."

Technically, the later style is almost lacking in adverbs—built on the noun, verb, and adjective. Its structure is kept clear and level, so that emotionally weighted words, when they appear, stand out with poignant emphasis. The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) opens:—

The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry, Under the October twilight the water Mirrors a still sky; Upon the brimming water among the stones Are nine and fifty swans.

Equipped with this instrument, Yeats could put down, with full scorn, his irritation with the middle-class ideals he had hated from youth:—

What need you, being come to sense, But fumble in a greasy till And add the halfpence to the pence And prayer to shivering prayer, until You have dried the marrow from the bone; For men were born to pray and save: Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, It's with O'Leary in the grave. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Was it for this the wild geese spread The grey wing upon every tide; For this that all that blood was shed, For this that Edward Fitzgerald died And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, All that delirium of the brave? Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, It's with O'Leary in the grave.

On the other hand he could celebrate Irish salus, virtus , as in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," and in the fine elegies on the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

And Yeats came to be expert at the dramatic presentation of thoughts concerning love, death, the transience and hidden meaning of all things, not only in the form of a philosopher's speculation, a mystic's speech, or a scholar's lonely brooding, but also (and this has come to be a major Yeatsian effect) in the cracked and rowdy measures of a fool's, an old man's, an old woman's song. The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929) contain long meditations— some "in time of civil war"—upon his life, his times, his ancestors, his descendants; upon the friends and enemies of his youth.

The short plays, composed on the pattern of the Japanese No drama, which Ezra Pound had brought to Yeats's attention,— Four Plays for Dancers (1921), Wheels and Butterflies (1934), The King of the Great Clock Tower (1935),—Yeats made the vehicle for the loveliest of his later songs, for all his later development of pure music:—

Come to me, human faces, Familiar memories; I have found hateful eyes Among the desolate places, Unfaltering, unmoistened eyes. Folly alone I cherish I choose it for my share, Being but a mouthful of air I am content to perish. I am but a mouthful of sweet air.

The opening song in the play Fighting the Waves illustrates the variety of stress, the subtlety of meaning, of which Yeats became a master:—

A woman's beauty is like a white Frail bird, like a sea-bird alone At day-break after a stormy night Between two furrows of the ploughed land; A sudden storm and it was thrown Between dark furrows of the ploughed land. How many centuries spent The sedentary soul In toil of measurement Beyond eagle and mole, Beyond hearing or seeing, Or Archimedes' guess, To raise into being That loveliness? A strange unserviceable thing, A fragile, exquisite pale shell, That the vast troubled waters bring To the loud sands before day has broken. The storm arose and suddenly fell Amid the dark before day has broken. What death? what discipline? What bonds no man could unbind, Being imagined within The labyrinth of the mind, What pursuing or fleeing What wounds, what bloody press Dragged into being This loveliness?

From youth on, Yeats has thought to build a religion for himself. Early "bored with an Irish Protestant point of view that suggested, by its blank abstraction, chlorate of lime," he eagerly welcomed any teaching which attested supersensual experience, or gave him a background for those thoughts which came to him "from beyond the mind." "Yeats likes parlor magic," George Moore maliciously remarked, in the '90s. At that time, when religious belief and man's awe before natural mysteries were rapidly breaking up, the wreckage of the supernatural had been swept into mediums' shabby parlors and into the hands of quacks of all kinds. Many men of Yeats's generation took refuge in the Catholic Church. But Yeats kept to his own researches. He had experimented, when an adolescent, with telepathy and clairvoyance, in the company of his uncle, George Pollexfen, a student of the occult. He later studied the Christian Cabala and gradually built up, from his own findings and from the works of Blake, Swedenborg, and Boehme, his theories of visionary and spiritual truth. But he was never, as Edmund Wilson has pointed out, a gullible pupil. He invariably tried to verify phenomena. And to-day, when we know more than we once knew concerning the meaning of man-made symbols, the needs of the psyche, and the workings of the subconscious, Yeats's theories sound remarkably instructed and modernly relevant. His Anima Mundi closely resembles Jung's universal or racial unconscious, and even his conceptions of Image and Anti-Image, the Mask and its opposite, are closely related to psychological truth.

Of late years, after a lifetime spent at efforts to break up the deadening surface of middle-class complacency, Yeats has drawn nourishment from the thought of the relation of eighteenth-century Anglo Irish writers to their society. These men—Swift, Berkeley, Grattan—had behind them, he believes, a social structure capable of being an aid to works of imagination and intellect. The ideal of the artist built into his background, sustaining it and sustained by it, Yeats has termed "Unity of Being." He has striven all his life to give Ireland a sense of what such a society can be, and to make himself an artist worthy of the energy which built "the beautiful humane cities."

In age, he shows no impoverishment of spirit or weakening of intention. He answers current dogmatists with words edged with the same contempt for "the rigid world" of materialism that he used in youth. He is now content to throw out suggestions that are not, perhaps, for our age to complete, as it is not for our age fully to appreciate a man who reiterates: "If we have not the desire of artistic perfection for an art, the deluge of incoherence, vulgarity, and triviality will pass over our heads." But adherence to that creed, and that creed alone, has given us the greatest poet writing in English to-day, and Ireland the greatest it has ever known.

Move upon Newton's town, The town of Hobbes and of Locke, Pine, spruce, come down Cliff, ravine, rock: What can disturb the corn? What makes it shudder and bend? The rose brings her thorn, The Absolute walks behind.

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Yeats and Irish Folklore

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In this insightful exploration, we critically assess William Butler Yeats’ role in shaping Irish folklore. Born during a transformative period in Ireland, Yeats was a major figure in the Irish literary revival and the ‘Celtic Twilight’ movement. However, his approach to integrating personal ideologies with traditional folklore has been contentious.

Our discussion aims to peel back the layers of Yeats’s influence, questioning the authenticity and implications of his modifications to Irish folklore, and suggesting more genuine sources for those interested in the untainted traditions of Ireland.

✨ A Guest Post by Morgan Daimler

One of the main sources for Irish folklore that many people look to is William Butler Yeats, a late 19th century poet and writer who was inspired by Irish culture. Born in 1865 and dying in 1939, Yeats’ life spanned a pivotal time in both Ireland and in the field of folklore which was nascent in the late 1800s.

He is considered a key figure in the Irish literary revival and in the ‘Celtic Twilight’ a movement which revived interest in Celtic cultures as inspiration for art across a range of media. He also inserted his own ideas into the folklore he shared in ways that are still profoundly affecting Irish folklore to this day.

WB Yeats Early Work

Yeats early work focused on poetry, inspired by various European sources but without any Irish cultural notes. He began writing in his late teens, while still in school, and that may have influenced what inspired him during this period, however he quickly moved to writing about Irish themes, especially folkloric and mythic ones, and branched out to write both prose and plays.

The bulk of Yeats’ writing, of any type, would come to focus on Irish culture and expressed both a longing to believe and desire to share belief in things beyond human perception.

Fairy and Folk Tales

The Irish gods and the Aos Sidhe were commonly found across his work, and Yeats was friends with various other significant writers focused on Irish folklore of the time including Lady Gregory [ whose influence is now well known but also deserves a critical eye – Editor ].

In 1888 Yeats would produce an Irish folklore anthology ‘ Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry ’ which he edited and which included submissions from a range of Irish folklorists of the time like Thomas Crofton Croker and Douglas Hyde.

The Influence of Yeats

Yeats influence on modern folklore shouldn’t be underestimated. His work on Irish folk belief, which is now largely in the public domain and free on various websites, is often cited although there is ongoing debate about whether or not he was in any form a folklorist. While he may never have used that term for himself he was clear that his intention in his work, at least in part, was to collect and share Irish folklore and in that he was acting no differently than any folklorist of the time.

Yeats himself was open about this intention, for example saying in The Celtic Twilight :

“I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined.” (Yeats, 1893).

This gives readers the impression that Yeats material is indeed the folklore of the time, gathered and shared through Yeats work, despite the strong influence his personal ideas had on the end result.

The Problem with Yeats

The problem with Yeats is multilayered and complex, but at its simplest is that people today take his work without any discernment or questions. Yeats was, ultimately, a product of his time and his [English] background which both influenced his work and shaped how he presented the material he shared.

As a writer relaying folklore of the late 19th century Yeats didn’t hesitate to reshape the material he was sharing rather than making any attempt to record it as it had been relayed to him, despite the way he chose to frame it all as genuine folk belief and despite his claims to the contrary.

He was a teller of tales and a weaver of words whose first and perhaps preferred language was poetry and he was a man with his own agendas, some of which clashed with wider Irish folk belief. Rather than seeing him as a vessel for that folk belief we should understand him as a man who was using folklore as a tool to his own ends and as a lens through which he could express his imagination.

Better Sources for Irish Folklore

🔗 We have a whole blog post on Essential Irish Folklore Resources – Here .

If you are interested in Irish folklore from the late 1800s and early 1900s a much better source is Duchas.ie , a website created by University College Dublin which hosts, in part, a collection of folklore gathered by students during that period.

While it can be somewhat more difficult to navigate Dúchas than it would be with a paperback book the site is a treasure trove of folk belief, unfiltered through any single person’s opinions and offering an array of beliefs about Irish folklore.

Dúchas is what many people falsely perceive Yeats to be – a snapshot of Irish belief in a specific time period.

💚Learn More About William Butler Yeats in Morgan Daimler’s New IPS Class – 🔗 A Critical Look at WB Yeats 🔗

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