Skip to main content
Select Source:

Yeats, W. B.

W. B. Yeats: (William Butler Yeats), 1865–1939, Irish poet and playwright, b. Dublin. The greatest lyric poet Ireland has produced and one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, Yeats was the acknowledged leader of the Irish literary renaissance.

Early Life

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

Poetry: First Period

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

Drama and Prose

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

Poetry: Second Period, and Later Life

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

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

Bibliography

A Bibliography of the Writings of W. B. Yeats was prepared by A. Wade (3d ed., ed by R. K. Alspach, 1968). See also Yeats's Autobiographies (new ed. 1999), Collected Letters (3 vol., ed. by J. Kelly et al., 1986–), Memoirs (ed. by D. Donoghue, 1973), Collected Poems (new ed., 2d ed. 1997), Collected Plays (enl. ed., reissued 1952), Mythologies (1959), Senate Speeches (ed. by D. R. Pearce, 1960), and Essays and Introductions (1961).

See also biographies by H. Bloom (1970), A. N. Jeffares (1989), T. Brown (1999), B. Maddox (1999), and R. F. Foster (2 vol., 1997–2003); studies by T. F. Parkinson (1951 and 1964), R. Ellmann (2d ed. 1964), P. L. Marcus (1970), J. R. Moore (1971), A. N. Jeffares (1977), and M. Wood (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yeats, W. B.." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Yeats, W. B.." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-w-b

"Yeats, W. B.." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-w-b

Yeats, W.B.

Yeats, W.B. ( William Butler) (1865–1939) Irish poet and dramatist, often cited as the greatest English language poet of the 20th century. In 1904, he and Lady Gregory founded the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, as an Irish national theatre. Yeats' plays On Baile's Strand (1905) and Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902) were on the first bill, the latter often regarded as the beginning of the renaissance in Irish literature. His early poetry, collected in The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems (1889), shows the influence of mysticism. Yeats' unrequited love for Maud Gonne inspired him into more directly nationalist statements. The poetry in Responsibilities (1914) acted as contemporary social commentary. Following the creation of the Irish Free State, he served (1922–28) as a senator. Yeats' mature, symbolist poetry, such as A Vision (1925), often adopted dramatic voices. Works from this second phase include Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921, which contains “The Second Coming” and “Easter 1916”) and The Tower (1928, which contains “Sailing to Byzantium”). Yeats received the 1923 Nobel Prize in literature.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yeats, W.B.." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Yeats, W.B.." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-wb

"Yeats, W.B.." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-wb

Yeats, W. B.

Yeats, W. B. (1865–1939). Dublin-born poet, dramatist, and essayist. His early years were spent in England where his painter father introduced him to William Morris and his circle. The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) reveals a late Romantic fired with enthusiasm for things Irish though his relationship with the nationalists remained equivocal, too much so for his more committed first love, Maud Gonne. He preferred to associate himself with the Anglo-Irish, ‘bound neither to Cause nor to State … the people of Burke and Grattan’. Though in England at the time of the Easter Rising, in poetry he recorded its ‘terrible beauty’. An inveterate myth-maker, his lifelong addiction to the occult was tempered by involvement in public affairs, the resulting tensions evident in his best volume The Tower (1928). By now honoured with the Nobel prize and a seat in the Senate, he had little liking for de Valera's Ireland. As the 1930s drew on, he contemplated the coming cataclysm with savage satisfaction.

John Saunders

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yeats, W. B.." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Yeats, W. B.." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-w-b

"Yeats, W. B.." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-w-b