Yeats, William Butler
BORN: 1865, Dublin
DIED: 1939, Roquebrune, France
GENRE: Poetry, plays, essays
The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
The Wild Swans at Coole (1917)
A Vision (1925)
The Tower (1928)
The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933)
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright closely associated with Irish nationalism. He received the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation,” as the citation read.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Anglo-Irish Protestant Upbringing Yeats belonged to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority that had controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland since at least the end of the seventeenth century. Most members of this minority considered themselves English people who merely happened to have been born in Ireland, but Yeats staunchly affirmed his Irish nationality. Although he lived in London for fourteen years of his childhood (and kept a permanent home there during the first half of his adult life), Yeats maintained his cultural roots by featuring Irish legends and heroes in many of his poems and plays. He was equally firm in adhering to his self-image as an artist.
Yeats was born in the Dublin suburb of Sandymount on June 13, 1865. He was the oldest of the four surviving children of the painter-philosopher John Butler Yeats and his wife, Susan Pollexfen Yeats. The poet was proud to belong to the Anglo-Irish Protestant minority in both strains of his blood. His mother's family were ship owners and millers in and about Sligo. The hills and lakes and fens about the busy West of Ireland seaside town became Yeats's spiritual home in childhood and remained so all his life. The young Yeats was dreamy and introspective but by no means housebound. He rode about the Sligo countryside on a red pony and began to immerse himself in the fairy lore of the local peasants. His formal education, however, was not so enriching. He was so slow in learning to read that he was thought to be simple
The Influence of Maud Gonne on Yeats's Nationalism and Spiritualism The year 1885 was important in Yeats's early adult life, marking the first publication of his poetry (in the Dublin University Review) and the beginning of his important interest in the occult. At the end of 1886, Yeats moved to London, where he composed poems, plays, novels, and short stories—all with Irish subjects, characters, and scenes. In addition, he wrote book reviews, usually on Irish topics. The most important event in Yeats's life during these London years, however, was his acquaintance with Maud Gonne, a beautiful, prominent young woman passionately devoted to Irish nationalism—the establishment of an Irish nation independent of British rule. Irish nationalism had grown in fits and starts since 1800, when Ireland was forcefully joined with Great Britain in the British Act of Union. In the 1880s and 1890s, Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell managed to introduce two bills on Irish Home Rule in British Parliament, but both were defeated. It became clear to the Irish that they would not find independence through negotiation alone.
Yeats soon fell in love with Gonne and wrote many of his best poems about her. With Gonne's encouragement, Yeats redoubled his dedication to Irish nationalism and produced such nationalistic plays as The Countess Kathleen, dedicated to Gonne, and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which featured Gonne as the personification of Ireland.
Gonne also shared Yeats's interest in occultism and spiritualism. In 1890 he joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. The society offered instruction and initiation in a series of ten levels, the three highest of which were unattainable except by magi, who were thought to possess the secrets of supernatural wisdom and enjoy magically extended lives. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for thirty-two years and achieved the coveted sixth grade of membership in 1914, the same year that his future wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, joined the society. Yeats's 1899 poetry collection The Wind Among the Reeds featured several poems employing occult symbolism.
The Abbey Theatre The turn of the century marked Yeats's increased interest in theater, an interest influenced by his father, a famed artist and orator. In the summer of 1897, Yeats enjoyed his first stay at Coole Park, the County Galway estate of Lady Augusta Gregory. He, Lady Gregory, and her neighbor, Edward Martyn, devised plans for promoting an innovative, native Irish drama. In 1899 they staged the first of three annual productions in Dublin, including Yeats's The Countess Kathleen. In 1902 they supported a company of amateur Irish actors in staging both George Russell's Irish legend Deirdre and Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan. The success of these productions led to the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society, of which Yeats became president. With a wealthy sponsor volunteering to pay for the renovation of Dublin's Abbey Theatre as a permanent home for the company, the theater opened on December 27, 1904, and featured plays by the company's three directors: Lady Gregory, John M. Synge (whose 1907 production The Playboy of the Western World would spark controversy with its savage comic depiction of Irish rural life), and Yeats, who opened that night with On Baile's Strand, the first of his several plays featuring the heroic ancient Irish warrior Cuchulain.
The Easter Rising While Yeats fulfilled his duties as president of the Abbey Theatre group for the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, his nationalistic fervor waned. Maud Gonne, with whom he had shared his Irish enthusiasms, had moved to Paris with her husband, exiled Irish revolutionary John MacBride, and the author was left without her important encouragement. His emotion was reawakened in 1916's Easter Rising, an unsuccessful, six-day armed rebellion of Irish republicans against the British in Dublin. MacBride, who was now separated from Gonne, participated in the rebellion and was executed afterward. Yeats reacted by writing “Easter, 1916,” an eloquent expression of his feelings of shock and admiration. The Easter Rising contributed to Yeats's eventual decision to reside in Ireland rather than England, and his marriage to Georgianna Hyde-Lees in 1917 further strengthened that resolve. Once married, Yeats traveled with his bride to Thoor Ballylee, a medieval stone tower where the couple periodically resided.
In the 1920s, Ireland was full of internal strife. In 1921 bitter controversies erupted within the new Irish Free State over the partition of Northern Ireland and over the wording of a formal oath of allegiance to the British Crown. These issues led to the Irish Civil War, which lasted from June 1922 to May 1923. Yeats emphatically sided with the new Irish government in this conflict. He accepted a six-year appointment to the senate of the Irish Free State in December 1922, a time when rebels were kidnapping government figures and burning their homes. In Dublin, where Yeats had assumed permanent residence in 1922, the government posted armed sentries at his door. As senator, Yeats considered himself a representative of order amid the new nation's chaotic progress toward stability. He was now the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” of his poem “Among School Children,” which he wrote after touring an Irish elementary school. But he was also a world renowned artist of impressive stature; he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Yeats's famous contemporaries include:
Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891): A world-renowned psychic medium, Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society.
Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852–1932): Lady Gregory was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, as well as Yeats's lifelong benefactor.
John MacBride (1865–1916): This Irish Nationalist married Maud Gonne, the love of Yeats's life, and was executed for his part in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.
John Millington Synge (1871–1909): Synge was an Abbey Theatre playwright who wrote The Playboy of the Western World (1907).
James Joyce (1882–1941): A famous Irish novelist, Joyce is most known for the modern epic Ulysses (1922) and the autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).
Old Age and Last Poems The poems and plays Yeats created during his senate term and beyond are, at once, local and general, personal and public, Irish and universal. The energy of the poems written in response to these disturbing times gave power to his collection The Tower, which is often considered his best single book. Another important element of these later poems is Yeats's keen awareness of old age. His romantic poems from the late 1890s often mention gray hair and weariness, though those poems were written while he was still a young man. When Yeats was nearly sixty, his health began to fail, and he faced what he called “bodily decrepitude” that was real, not imaginary. Despite the author's keen awareness of his physical decline, the last fifteen years of his life were marked by extraordinary vitality and appetite. He continued to write plays, including “The Words upon the Window Pane,” a full-length work about spiritualism and the eighteenth-century Irish writer Jonathan Swift. In 1929, as an expression of thankful joy after recovering from serious illness, he also wrote a series of brash, vigorous poems narrated by a fictitious old peasant woman, “Crazy Jane.”
Yeats faced death with a courage that was founded partly on his vague hope for reincarnation and partly on his admiration for the bold heroism that he perceived in Ireland in both ancient times and the eighteenth century. He died, after a series of illnesses, in 1939, and after a quick burial in France, was exhumed and reburied in his beloved Sligo. His epitaph, one of the most famous of tombstone inscriptions, comes from his own poem “Under Ben Bulben”: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”
Works in Literary Context
Yeats was, from first to last, a poet who tried to transform the concerns of his own life by embodying them in the universal language of his poems. His brilliant rhetorical accomplishments, strengthened by his considerable powers of rhythm and poetic phrase, have earned wide praise from readers and from fellow poets, including W.H. Auden (who praised Yeats as the savior of English lyric poetry), Stephen Spender, Theodore Roethke, and Philip Larkin. It is not likely that time will diminish his achievements.
Ireland's Writer In 1885 Yeats met John O'Leary, a famous patriot who had returned to Ireland after twenty years of imprisonment and exile for revolutionary activities. O'Leary had a keen enthusiasm for Irish books, music, and ballads, and he encouraged young writers to adopt Irish subjects. Yeats, who had preferred more romantic settings and themes, soon took O'Leary's advice, producing many poems based on Irish legends, Irish folklore, and Irish ballads and songs. He explained in a note included in the 1908 volume Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats: “When I first wrote I went here and there for my subjects as my reading led me, and preferred to all other countries Arcadia and the India of romance, but presently I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.” Indeed, Yeats turned almost exclusively to the folklore, culture, history, and landscape of Ireland for his inspiration.
Works in Critical Context
For many years, Yeats's intent interest in subjects that others labeled archaic delayed his recognition among his peers. At the time of his death in 1939, Yeats's views on poetry were regarded as eccentric by students and critics alike. This attitude held sway in spite of critical awareness of the beauty and technical proficiency of his verse. Yeats had long opposed the notion that literature should serve society. As a youthful critic he had refused to praise the poor lyrics of the “Young Ireland” poets merely because they were effective as nationalist propaganda.
In maturity, he found that despite his success, his continuing conviction that poetry should express the spiritual life of the individual estranged him from those who believed that a modern poet must take as his themes social alienation and the barrenness of materialist culture. As Kathleen Raine wrote of him: “Against a rising tide of realism, political verse and University wit, Yeats upheld the innocent and the beautiful, the traditional and the noble,” and in consequence of his disregard for the concerns of the modern world, was often misunderstood. As critics became disenchanted with modern poetic trends, Yeats's romantic dedication to the laws of the imagination and art for art's sake became more acceptable.
Indeed, critics today are less concerned with the validity of Yeats's occult and visionary theories than with their symbolic value as expressions of timeless ideals.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Yeats's ideas and themes, while varied, were mired in his love for Ireland, and his imagery was often centered around Irish landscape and folklore. Here are some other works with significantly nationalistic themes.
Dr. Zhivago (1956), by Boris Pasternak. This torrid love story is set during the turbulent Russian Revolution of 1917.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), by Gabriel García Márquez. Set in the fictional town of Macondo, this novel is an extended metaphor about Colombian and South American history.
The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), by Margaret Atwood. Chronicles the trials and tribulations of a woman living in the Canadian wilderness in the late nineteenth century.
The Winding Stair and Other Poems The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) includes sixty-four poems in a wide range of form and tone. The volume opens with the beautiful romantic rhapsody “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” addressing the horse-riding Gore-Booth sisters of his Sligo youth, remembered as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle,” but now “withered old and skeletongaunt” with time and political passion. The poem ends in an ecstasy of acceptance and defiance of tragic reality in which Yeats does not separate his own history from theirs.
The emblems of the tower and Sato's sword keep recurring in this volume. In the tiny poem “Symbols” the tower carries its usual connotations of withdrawal, contemplation, and arcane study, and the sword blade is violently active, “all-destroying.” Yeats is both the tower's “blind hermit” and the “wandering fool” who carries the sword. But the tower is also the house of the marriage bed, and the phallic sword's housing is the feminine “gold-sewn silk” of the scabbard. So the final couplet couples the coupling of all the emblems: “Gold-sewn silk on the sword-blade / Beauty and fool together laid.”
In “Blood and the Moon” Yeats abruptly alters the symbolic value of the tower, making it “my symbol” and emblematic of a self that is specifically Irish, involved in historical time and in the conflicting spiritual values that divide real personalities. “Quarrel in Old Age” of this volume describes Dublin offhandedly as “this blind bitter town,” and “Remorse for Intemperate Speech” puts in capsule form the compacted bitterness that Yeats had long seen as genetic in Irish character: “Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us from the start.” In “Blood and the Moon” his scene is contemporary Ireland, against which he erects his roofless tower: “In mockery of a time / Half dead at the top.” Yeats's verse swoops and soars with his mind: “I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare / This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair; / That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.”
“The Second Coming” Based in part on his ideas in A Vision, “The Second Coming” has resonance today. The poem moves with a confident mastery, but here the vision is sweeping and apocalyptic, the rhetoric formal, grand, full of power, the structure that of two stately violent blank-verse paragraphs. In it, Yeats dramatizes his cyclical theory of history: that whole civilizations rotate in a “gyre” of about two thousand years, undergoing birth, life, and death and preparing all the while for the life of its opposing successor. The critical period of the “interchange of tinctures,” when one era struggles to die and its “executioner” struggles to be born, will be violent and dreadful. Yeats's poem remembers war and revolution and inhabits an apocalyptic climate in which man has lost touch with God, with any center of order.
Essayist Joan Didion borrowed from the poem the title of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem and this is generally regarded as one of Yeats's most important and most widely anthologized poems.
Responses to Literature
- Study Yeats's “The Second Coming” and construct a version of his gyres for today. What sorts of events and people do you think might be caught in the inter-secting cones? If Yeats were alive today, which political events do you think he would choose to include?
- Read W.H. Auden's “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and connect this eulogy to any five of Yeats's poems. Do you think Yeats would have felt “honored” by Auden's poem?
- Read “Adam's Curse,” “No Second Troy,” and “When You Are Old” and determine 1) why you think these poems could be about Maud Gonne specifically and 2) whether Yeats was truly in love with her or merely obsessed with the idea of her.
Alldritt, Keith. W.B. Yeats: The Man and the Milieu. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997.
Allen, James Lovic. Yeats's Epitaph: A Key to Symbolic Unity in His Life and Work. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
Brown, Terence. The Life of W.B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.
Chaudhry, Yug Mohit. Yeats, the Irish Literary Revival, and the Politics of Print. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2001.
Doggett, Rob. Deep-Rooted Things: Empire and Nation in the Poetry and Drama of William Butler Yeats. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
Finneran, Richard J. ed., Critical Essays on W. B. Yeats. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986.
Fletcher, Ian. W.B. Yeats and His Contemporaries. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
Hall, James, and Martin Steinmann, eds., The Permanence of Yeats. New York: Collier, 1961.
MacBride, Maud Gonne. A Servant of the Queen. Dublin, Ireland: Golden Eagle, 1950.
Marcus, Phillip L. Yeats and the Beginning of the Irish Renaissance. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.
Robinson, Lenox. Ireland's Abbey Theatre: A History 1869-1951. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1951; Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968.
Vendler, Helen H. Yeats's “Vision” and the Later Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.
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.
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."
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!"
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). □
Yeats, William Butler
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.
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 (1834–1896), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), and Oscar Wilde (1856–1900).
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.
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.
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.
Yeats, William Butler
YEATS, WILLIAM BUTLER
YEATS, WILLIAM BUTLER (1865–1939), Irish poet.
"I had three interests," William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, "interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality." Throughout a long life of exceptional creativity, Yeats was to try and hammer these thoughts into a unity. Drawing on his ancient Irish culture, he strove after a uniquely modern image of artistic, political, and spiritual wholeness. His heroic commitment to his task obliged Yeats to engage with his times as both a public and a private man. In so doing, the Irishman created some of the most important European poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Yeats's interest in nationality places him against Ireland's struggle to find its political independence from imperial England as well as its own unique cultural identity. In his youth, Yeats was greatly influenced in these matters by the commanding figure of John O'Leary (1830–1907), who, at Dublin's Contemporary Club, offered Yeats the influential notion of an elite Irish intelligentsia steeped in traditional values and strongly antibourgeois in its sentiments.
O'Leary also opened his library to Yeats, where the poet began to find in his Celtic inheritance the ideals and images that could foster a sense of nationhood. This initiative, called for its dreamy qualities the Celtic Twilight, led to Yeats's exploring versions of Irish folklore, to the recovery of mythical Irish heroes in The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and, most fruitfully perhaps, to the lyrics gathered in that early masterpiece of the Irish Literary Renaissance: The Wind among the Reeds (1899). These poems, inspired by a sense of magical Ireland and hopes for the mystical transformation of loathed Victorian materialism—ideas nurtured by such mentors in London as William Morris (1834–1896) and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)—lead to a consideration of Yeats's occult interests.
Yeats lost his Christian faith as a boy, but his naturally spiritual temperament was homesick. He would soon turn to occultism, the belief that the supernatural can be approached through ritual and incantation. A profound study of the English Romantic poet William Blake (1757–1827) showed Yeats the importance of a spiritual life rooted in the imagination, and he joined Madame Blavatsky's Theosophists in London before becoming a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Drawing on the widest traditions of the occult and defiantly opposed to materialism, the Order's rituals appeared to offer its members a shared, instinctual, and numinous experience of life that could be felt as spiritual release. Such impulses inform the lyrics of The Rose (1893), which also contains Yeats's most famous and popular evocation of romantic Ireland, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." In this poem, the exquisitely subtle vowel sounds create a mood of dreaming and escape into a redemptive world of vividly realized natural beauty as the poet imagines living alone in the "bee-loud glade." Here is Yeats's early style of Celtic Twilight at its finest.
Among the members of the Golden Dawn was the woman who was to dominate much of Yeats's life: the wildly beautiful and politically radical Maude Gonne (1866–1953), whose passionate commitment to Irish independence further inflamed Yeats's own. Their long, often painful relationship is deeply woven into Irish nationalist history, nowhere more vividly than when, in 1902, Gonne played the eponymous heroine of Yeats's play Cathleen ni Houlihan, a drama which examines the ruthless demands made by nationalism.
Yeats was greatly aided in the writing of this play by another woman friend: Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (1852–1932), a patrician Anglo-Irish widow who, in middle age, was discovering her own formidable literary talent. Together they founded the Abbey Theatre, which had an incalculable influence on the flowering of Irish drama, not least through promoting Yeats's own dramatic works and above all the plays of J. M. Synge (1871–1909). Meanwhile, the life at Lady Gregory's house at Coole moved Yeats's own thought in an ever more aristocratic direction, impulses deepened by his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). These influences led to a greater firmness and directness in Yeats's poetic style and subject matter, qualities to be seen in "To a Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if It Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures."
Celtic Twilight was fading before a horror of mass society, and Yeats now excoriated the majority of Dubliners as philistines unworthy of his ideal Ireland. He was caught unawares, however, by the Easter Uprising against the British and so by the deep, unflinching, reckless nationalism of men such as Patrick Henry Pearse (1879–1916). In his great poem on the subject, "Easter 1916," Yeats, deeply stirred, attempted a mixture of impartiality and wonderment as he realized how from this event, futile although it appeared, "a terrible beauty is born." Yeats's poetry—inspired by the occult, honed in its vigor, and politically informed—was beginning to stare at the ineluctable violence that lies at the heart of the twentieth century.
Yeats, William Butler. Autobiographies. London, 1955.
——. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach. New York, 1957.
——. The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats. Edited by Russell K. Alspach. London, 1966.
Coote, Stephen. W. B. Yeats: A Life. London, 1997.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Rev. ed. London, 1979.
Finneran, Richard, ed. Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1983–.
Foster, Roy. W. B. Yeats: A Life. 2 vols. Oxford, U.K., 1997–2003.
Harper, George Mills. The Making of Yeats's "A Vision." 2 vols. London, 1987.
Henn, T. R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London, 1950.
Yeats, William Butler
YEATS, WILLIAM BUTLER
Irish poet and dramatist; b. Dublin, June 13, 1865;d. Cap Martin, France, Jan. 28, 1939. His father was the painter John Butler Yeats; his mother was Susan Pollexfen. Yeats attended art school but soon discovered that his true vocation was poetry. Yet, his narrative poem The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) is filled with painterly imagery, and his early lyric poetry is suffused with the sentiments of the Pre-Raphaelites. Their successors, the poets of the 1890s, were Yeats's associates and friends, but he was to grow beyond them into a new dimension.
Several influences served to exorcise fin-de-siècle languor from Yeats's poetry: his concern for Irish history and the life of the Irish peasantry; his friendship with Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory and through it an enhanced appreciation of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy; his experience with the Irish Literary Theatre, which he and Lady Gregory founded and the long course of his unrequited love for Maud Gonne (1865–1953). His failure in heroic love, "theatre business, management of men," and the attempt to relate the world of dream to harsh reality matured the poet and changed his style. He renounced the exotic colors that he claimed Shelley had brought out of Italy into English poetry and hoped instead that he might write poetry "as cold and passionate as the dawn."
Like others of his generation, Yeats was much concerned with the relation of art to religion, with the artist conceived as a priest of the imagination, and with the possibility that—now that science had made its shattering impact—poetry might have to substitute for religion. This lifelong concern arose early. As a youth he came to feel for science "a monkish hate," and, "deprived by Huxley and Tyndall … of the simple-minded religion" of his childhood, he was compelled, he tells us, to make up a "new religion" out of stories, personages, and emotions handed down by the poets and painters.
In 1917 Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees. His marriage brought to a head his new religion, for Mrs. Yeats was a medium, and through her automatic writing the "teaching spirits" gave him the material for a remarkable book, A Vision (1925). Yeats characterized the work as a "system of thought," but the spirits told Yeats that their purpose was to give him metaphors for his poetry, and Yeats told the reader that his own purpose was to "restore to the philosopher his mythology." Like blake's prophetic books, A Vision is a personal mythology. Whether or not reading A Vision helps one to understand Yeats's poetry, writing the book was clearly helpful to Yeats: he told Lady Gregory that it enabled him to simplify his poetry.
In 1923 Yeats was awarded the Nobel prize, but it was not until the publication of The Tower (1928) that his greatness became generally recognized. His readers were driven to revalue the poems of earlier volumes, such as The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), and the plays, particularly those after 1917 modeled on the Japanese nō drama. At his death he was generally regarded as the greatest poet writing in English.
Yeats set his face against his age. Through a lifetime he warred against what he called "Whiggery"—a "levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind/That never looked out of the eye of a saint/Or out of a drunkard's eye." The heroes of his poems are the aristocrat and the peasant, the artist and the saint; his great theme, the drama of the soul as it struggles with its own contrarieties to achieve its own truth. Christians, of course, cannot admit Yeats's claim that his refurbished religion is not anti-Christian but in fact includes Christianity; but Yeats's imagination was gripped by Christian symbols and his mind was constantly engaged with the historical and doctrinal problems of Christianity. He refuses to trivialize or simplify the human drama; he pushes aside timid Victorian pieties and Pre-Raphaelite softenings to invoke Christianity as the world-shaking force displayed in Byzantine art or in the intellectual history of the Western world. His poetry returns to Christianity the dimension of awe. But even when he sings the "Profane perfection of mankind," his poetry constantly asserts against the intellectual corruptions of our times the dignity and power of the human spirit.
Bibliography: Autobiography (New York 1953); Collected Poems (New York 1955); Collected Plays (New York 1953); Letters, ed. a. wade (New York 1955); A Vision (New York 1956); Essays and Introductions (New York 1961); Variorum Edition of the Poem, ed. p. allt and r. k. alspach (New York 1957). r. ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (New York 1948). a. n. jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet (New Haven 1949).