Skip to main content
Select Source:

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

The Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923 and was the leader of the Irish Literary Renaissance.

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

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

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

Important Friendships

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

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

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

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

Poet and Dramatist

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

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

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

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

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

Esthetic Theories and Systems

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

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

Last Works

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

Further Reading

The only biography of Yeats is Joseph M. Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (1943; 2d ed. 1962); but additional biographical information is in Alexander Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet (1949). The best studies of Yeats's poetry are Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948) and The Identity of Yeats (1954); Donald A. Stauffer, The Golden Nightingale (1949); Thomas R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1950; 2d ed. 1965); and John Unterecker's indispensable A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats (1959). An excellent short study of Yeats is William York Tindall's pamphlet, W. B. Yeats (1966).

On Yeats as a dramatist, particularly useful are Helen H. Vendler, Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays (1963), and Leonard Nathan, Figures in a Dance: William Butler Yeats' Development as a Tragic Dramatist, 1884-1939 (1965). Two excellent collections of essays by various critics are James Hall and Martin Steinman, eds., The Permanence of Yeats: Selected Criticism (1950), and John Unterecker, ed., Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963). Recommended for general background on the period are Ernest Boyd, Ireland's Literary Renaissance (1916); Dorothy Macardle, The Irish Republic (1937); William York Tindall, Forces in Modern British Literature, 1885-1956 (1965); and Donald Connery, The Irish (1968). □

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"William Butler Yeats." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"William Butler Yeats." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-butler-yeats

"William Butler Yeats." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/william-butler-yeats

Yeats, William Butler

William Butler Yeats

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 was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. He was the oldest of four children of John Butler Yeats, a portrait artist. His father added to William's formal schooling with lessons at home that gave him an enduring taste for the classics. John Yeats had a forceful personality. His personal philosophy was a blend of aestheticism (a belief that art and beauty are important for everything) and atheism (a belief that there is no God). William felt its influence much later as it showed up in his interest in magic and the occult (supernatural) sciences and in his highly original system of aesthetics (beauty).

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 (18341896), George Bernard Shaw (18561950), and Oscar Wilde (18561900).

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 beautyshe appears as Helen of Troy in several of his poemsbut 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 (18711909). He was introduced to Synge in 1896, and later directed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin with him.

The American poet Ezra Pound (18851972) 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 styleless 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."

Last works

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.

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yeats, William Butler." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Yeats, William Butler." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-william-butler

"Yeats, William Butler." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-william-butler

Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865-1939)

Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865-1939)

Famous Irish poet, playwright, and mystic. He was born at Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. His father John Yeats was a talented portrait painter. William's brother Jack Butler Yeats was also an artist, and his sisters Elizabeth and Lily assisted in the establishment of the Dun Emer (later Cuala) Press.

Much of Yeat's childhood was spent in London, where he attended the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, but he also spent time in Dublin and County Sligo, in Western Ireland. At the age of fifteen, he attended Erasmus Smith School, Dublin, then studied art for three years, turning to literature at the age of 21. His first book, a play titled Mosada, was published in 1886. It was followed by two books of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). In 1888, he edited a collection titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, which included some of his fairy verse. He became one of the leading figures in the Irish literary renaissance.

In London he was a founder of the Rhymers' Club and friend of Ernest Rhys, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, William Morris, W. E. Henley, and Arthur Symons. In Ireland, he was associated with J. M. Synge, "AE" (George W. Russell ), Douglas Hyde, George Moore, and Lady Gregory. He helped to establish the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 (later the Abbey Theatre). His poems and plays have become world famous. He was a member of the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928 and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

The occult and mystical side of his life and work received less publicity than his literary work, yet he believed that his poetry owed much to his occult studies. In 1892, he wrote: "If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."

His interest in the writings of Theosophists led to the formation of the Hermetic Society, Dublin, and he presided over its first meeting on June 16, 1885. While in London at the end of 1888, he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. In 1890, he joined the pioneering magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, taking the magical motto "Demon Est Deus Inversus," (DEDI) and continued to be associated with the Golden Dawn over some thirty years. In April 1900, he clashed with Aleister Crowley, also an order member, in a leadership crisis.

Yeats' book Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) contains studies of the mystic element in Blake and Shelley and another essay is titled "The Body of the Father Christian Rosencrux." Another essay titled "Magic" commences: "I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, and what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magic illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the minds when the eyes are closed."

After his declaration, he related how once an acquaintance of his, gathering together a small party in a darkened room, held a mace over "a tablet of many coloured squares," at the time repeating "a form of words," and immediately Yeats found that his "imagination began to move itself and to bring before me vivid images." It was S. L. MacGregor Mathers of the Golden Dawn, states Yeats, "who convinced me that images well up before the mind's eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory."

In a lecture on "Psychic Phenomena" before the Dublin Society for Psychical Research (reported in the Dublin Daily Express, November 1913), he spoke of most amazing experiences during his investigation, which lasted for many years, and declared that so far as he was concerned, the controversy about the meaning of psychic phenomena was closed. But he was not "converted," in the true sense of the word, since he was a born believer, and he had never seriously doubted the existence of the soul or of God.

Yeats and Spiritualism

Lecturing on "Ghosts and Dreams" before the London Spiritualist Alliance in April 1914, he gave another clear account of his beliefs and experiences. In his book Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), he spoke as a poet and mystic in dealing with some of the deeper issues of Spiritualism.

In 1917, he married Georgia Hyde Lees and discovered that his wife was a medium and capable of automatic writing. In 1934, Yeats wrote a one-act play "The Words Upon the Window-Pane" built around a Spiritualist séance at which the spirit of Jonathan Swift communicated.

He showed considerable courage in making known some of his occult beliefs, although he did not publicize his Golden Dawn connections.

His mystical inclinations, stimulated by the Hindu religious philosophy of the Theosophical Society that had also attracted fellow poet "AE," continued to develop. When in his sixties, he became friendly with the Hindu monk Swami Shri Purohit and wrote introductions to the Swami's autobiography An Indian Monk (Macmillan, London, 1932) and his translation of the book by the Swami's guru titled The Holy Mountain (Faber, London, 1934). In 1935, the Swami published a translation of the Bhagaved-Gita under the title The Geeta; The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna (Faber, London), which he dedicated "To my friend William Butler Yeats" on the poet's seventieth birthday. In the same year, the Swami also published a translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, for which Yeats provided a perceptive introduction. He had planned to travel to India to assist the Swami in translating the ten principal Upanishads, but eventually the work was completed by the two friends at Majorca in 1936.

Yeats died January 28, 1939, in the town of Roquebrune, overlooking Monaco, and was buried in the cemetery there until nine years later, when his remains were transferred to the churchyard of Drumcliffe, near Sligo.

Sources:

Harper, George Mills. Yeats and the Occult. London: Macmillan, 1975.

. Yeats' Golden Dawn. London: Macmillan, 1974. Reprint, Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1979.

Yeats, William Butler. Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

. Memoirs. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

. Mythologies. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

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

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865-1939)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865-1939)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-william-butler-1865-1939

"Yeats, W(illiam) B(utler) (1865-1939)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yeats-william-butler-1865-1939