William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (June 13, 1865 - January 28, 1939), often referred to as W.B. Yeats, was an Irish poet, dramatist and mystic. He served as an Irish Senator in the 1920s.

Born in Dublin, in 1865, the firstborn of John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Yeats. In 1877, W.B. entered Godolphin school, which he attended for four years, after which he continued his education at Erasmus Smith High School, in Dublin. For a time (from 1884 - 1886), he attended the Metropolitan School of Art.

In 1885, Yeats's first poems were published in the Dublin University Review.

In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a young heiress who was beginning to devote herself to the Irish nationalist movement. Gonne admired Yeats's early poem The Isle of Statues and sought out his acquaintance. Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with Gonne, and she was to have a significant effect on his poetry and his life ever after. Two years after, he proposed to Gonne, but was rejected. In 1896, he was introduced to Lady Gregory by their mutual friend Edward Martyn and began an affair with Olivia Shakespeare, which ended one year later. Lady Gregory encouraged Yeats's nationalism and convinced him to continue focusing on writing drama. In 1899, Yeats again proposed to Gonne, and was again rejected. He proposed again in 1900, and again in 1901; in 1903, Maud Gonne married Irish nationalist John MacBride, and Yeats visited America on a lecture tour.

Yeats spent the summer of 1917 with Maud Gonne, and proposed to Gonne's daughter, but was rejected. In September, he proposed to George Hyde-Lees, was accepted, and the two were married on the 20th of October.

He was highly interested in mysticism and spiritualism, and attended his first séance in 1886. Later, Yeats became heavily involved with hermeticist and theosophical beliefs, and in 1900 he became head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in 1890. That same year, maintaining his interest in the literary arts, Yeats cofounded the Rhymer's Club with John Rhys.

All his life, Yeats maintained friendships with a number of poets and literary figures; for a time in 1913, Ezra Pound served as Yeats's secretary. Yeats was also known and respected by Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, among others.

Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

Yeats, after suffering from a variety of illnesses for a number of years, died in France in January, 1939, eight months before the German invasion of Poland. Soon afterward, Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden composed the poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats. The well known opening lines of the final section of this poem read simply: "Earth receive an honored guest: / William Yeats is laid to rest.". Yeats was first buried at Roquebrune, until his body was moved to Drumecliff, Sligo in September, 1948. Of this location, Yeats said, "the place that has really influenced my life most is Sligo." The town is also home to a statue and memorial building in Yeats's honour.


Yeats's early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore; however his later work was engaged with more contemporary issues. His style also underwent a dramatic transformation. Yeats' work can be divided into three general periods. His earliest work is lushly pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornate, and at times, according to unsympathetic critics, stilted. Yeats began by writing epic poems: The Isle of Statues and The Wanderings of Oisin. After Oisin, he never attempted another long poem. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. Yeats' middle period, after he came under the influence of Ezra Pound, saw him abandon the pre-Raphaelite character of his early work and attempt to turn himself into a Landor-style social ironist. Critics who admire his middle work might characterize it as supple and muscular in its rhythms and sometimes harshly modernist, while others find these poems barren and weak in imaginative power. Yeats' later work found new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he began to work out for himself under the influence of spiritualism. In many ways, this poetry is a return to the vision of his earlier work. The opposition between the worldly-minded man of the sword and the spiritually-minded man of God, the theme of The Wanderings of Oisin, is reproduced in A Dialogue Between Self and Soul.

Some critics claim that Yeats spanned the transition from the nineteenth century into twentieth-century modernism in poetry much as Pablo Picasso did in painting. Others question whether late Yeats really has much in common with modernists of the Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot variety. Modernists read the well-known poem The Second Coming as a dirge for the decline of European civilization in the mode of Eliot, but later critics have pointed out that this poem is an expression of Yeats' apocalyptic mystical theories, and thus the expression of a mind shaped by the 1890s.

Yeats is generally conceded to be one of twentieth century's key English-language poets. Yet, unlike most modernists who experimented with vers libre, Yeats was a master of the traditional verse forms. His most important collections of poetry started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). In imagery, Yeats's poetry became sparer, more powerful as he grew older. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stairs (1929) and New Poems (1938) contained some of the most potent images in twentieth-century poetry; his Last Poems are also conceded to be amongst his best.

Yeats's mystical inclinations, informed by Hindu Theosophical beliefs and the occult, formed much of the basis of his late poetry, which some critics have attacked as lacking in intellectual credibility. W. H. Auden criticizes his late stage as the "deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India". The metaphysics of Yeats's late works must be read, for better or for worse, in relation to Yeats's system of esoteric fundamentalities in A Vision (1925), which is read today primarily for its value shed on his late poetry rather than for any rigorous intellectual or philosophical insights.

His poem, "The Second Coming" is one of the most potent sources of imagery about the 20th century. For instance,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

For the anti-democratic Yeats, 'the best' referred to the traditional ruling classes of Europe, who were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements. For later readers, 'the best' and 'the worst' have been redefined to fit their own political views.

Also, the concluding lines

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This refers to Yeats' belief that history was cyclic, and that his age represented the end of the cycle that began with the rise of Christianity.

See also:

  • Maud Gonne
  • Lady Gregory
  • Leda and the Swan
  • 1886 - Mosada
  • 1888 - Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
  • 1889 - The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems
  • 1891 - Representative Irish Tales
  • 1891 - John Sherman and Dhoya
  • 1892 - Irish Faerie Tales
  • 1892 - The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics
  • 1893 - The Celtic Twilight
  • 1894 - The Land of Heart's Desire
  • 1895 - Poems
  • 1897 - The Secret Rose
  • 1899 - The Wind Among the Reeds
  • 1900 - The Shadowy Waters
  • 1902 - Cathleen in Houlihan
  • 1903 - Ideas of Good and Evil
  • 1903 - In the Seven Woods
  • 1907 - Discoveries
  • 1910 - The Green Helmet and Other Poems
  • 1912 - The Cutting of an Agate
  • 1913 - Poems Written in Discouragement
  • 1914 - Responsibilities
  • 1916 - Reveries Over Childhood and Youth
  • 1917 - The Wild Swans at Coole
  • 1918 - Per Amica Silentia Lunae
  • 1921 - Michael Robartes and the Dancer
  • 1921 - Four Plays for Dancers
  • 1921 - Four Years
  • 1924 - The Cat and the Moon
  • 1925 - A Vision
  • 1926 - Estrangement
  • 1926 - Autobiographies
  • 1927 - October Blast
  • 1928 - The Tower
  • 1929 - The Winding Stair
  • 1933 - The Winding Stair and Other Poems
  • 1934 - Collected Plays
  • 1935 - A Full Moon in March
  • 1938 - New Poems

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