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William Butler Yeats


William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Nobel Prize winning Irish dramatist, author and poet wrote The Celtic Twilight (1893);

Paddy Flynn is dead;....He was a great teller of tales, and unlike our common romancers, knew how to empty heaven, hell, and purgatory, faeryland and earth, to people his stories. He did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstance than did Homer himself. Perhaps the Gaelic people shall by his like bring back again the ancient simplicity and amplitude of imagination.....Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.—ch. 1, “A Teller of Tales”

As one of the founders of the Irish Literary Revival, along with J. M. Synge (1871-1909) [whom he met in 1896], Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), and Padraig (Padraic) Colum (1881-1972) Yeats’ works draw heavily on Irish mythology and history. He never fully embraced his Protestant past nor joined the majority of Ireland’s Roman Catholics but he devoted much of his life to study in myriad other subjects including theosophy, mysticism, spiritualism, and the Kabbalah. At a young age he was reading Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, John Donne and the works of William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, recommended by his father and inspiration for his own creativity, but fellow Irish poets Standish James O’Grady (1846-1928) and Sir William Ferguson (1818-1886) were perhaps the most influential. A devoted patriot, Yeats found his voice to speak out against the harsh Nationalist policies of the time. His early dramatic works convey his respect for Irish legend and fascination with the occult, while his later plays take on a more poetical and experimental aspect: Japanese Noh plays and modernism being major influences. While his works explore the greater themes of life in contrast to art, and finding beauty in the mundane, he also produced many works of an intimate quality especially in his later years as father and aging man of letters. We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry—“Anima Hominis,” Essays (1924). Yeats spent most of his life between Sligo, Dublin, and London, but his profound influence to future poets and playwrights and theatre, music and film can be seen the world over.

Early Years and Education

William Butler Yeats was born on 13 June 1865 in the seaside village of Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen (1841-1900) was the daughter of a wealthy family from County Sligo. Susan’s father’s political loyalties, that Ireland should remain under the British crown, were in direct opposition to her husband’s John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) who was sympathetic to the Nationalists and Home Rulers. When they married he was studying to become a lawyer, but soon gave that up to follow his dreams of becoming an artist, of which he became a well known portrait painter. In 1907 he moved to New York City where he died in 1922.

Yeat’s mother Susan was the first to introduce him and his two sisters Susan Mary (Lily) (1866-1949) and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) (1868-1940) to the Irish folktales he would grow to love so much. His younger brother Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) like his father would also become an accomplished artist. At the age of two young William’s father decided to move the family to London, England to study art. There William attended the Godolphin School in Hammersmith before the family moved back to Dublin. There William attended Erasmus Smith High School and spent much time at his father’s nearby art studio. Pursuing his own interests in the arts, in 1884 he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin for two years, during which some of his first poems were printed in the Dublin University Review. Yeats’ verse play Mosada, a Dramatic Poem was published privately in 1886.

Poetry: full of his nature and his visions

Fresh from school and in his early twenties now, I was full of thought, often very abstract thought, longing all the while to be full of images, because I had gone to the art school instead of a university.”—from his memoir Four Years (1887-1891) (1921). The Yeats were now living in London in Bedford Park where Yeats’ aesthetic sensibility was oftentimes offended by the ubiquitous red brick, however their home was the lively gathering place for their many writer and artist friends to discuss politics, religion, literature, and art. Around this time Yeats met George Bernard Shaw and William Ernest Henley, editor of London’s The National Observer who became a friend and mentor. He also met many of the other up-and-coming authors and poets of his generation and writes of one in his memoir “My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous.” (ibid). In the year 1890 he and Ernest Rhys founded the London-based Rhymers Club. Yeats’ pre-Raphaelite inspired The Wanderings of Usheen [Oisin] and other Poems was published in 1889, which included “The Ballad of Moll Magee”, the traditional Irish song “Down By The Salley Gardens” and “The Stolen Child”.

Yeats was often homesick for Ireland, of which his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was one of the results,

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Though he visited Sligo almost every summer, he also kept a busy schedule in London: when he was not attending lectures or meetings with the Club, he spent time in the British Museum of Natural History doing research for such collaborations as Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Irish Fairy Tales (1892), and A Book of Irish Verse (1895). He was often shy around women but made the acquaintance of many who became friends including poet Katharine Tynan (1861-1931) and Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), founder of the Theosophical Society of which Yeats joined in 1888. A year later he met his muse and source of unrequited love; poet, feminist, actress, and revolutionary Maud Gonne (1865-1953).

The Abbey Theatre and Beyond

In 1894 Yeats met friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) of Coole Park and thus began their involvement with The Irish Literary Theatre which was founded in 1899 in Dublin. (It would become the Abbey Theatre in 1904). As its chief playwright, one of the first plays to be performed there was Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan, with Gonne in the title role. The Abbey Theatre, also known as the National Theatre of Ireland, opened in December of 1904 and became the flagship for leading Irish playwrights and actors. Yeats’ On Baile’s Strand was one of its first productions. Of his many dramatic and successful works to follow, The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894) and The King’s Threshold (1904) are among his best known. When Synge died in 1909 Yeats helped to finish his manuscript for Deirdre of the Sorrows. In 1911 the Abbey Theatre embarked on a tour of the United States.

As a successful poet and playwright now, in 1903 Yeats went on his first lecture tour of the United States, and again in 1914, 1920, and 1932. Yeats and his sisters started the Cuala Press in 1904, which would print over seventy titles by such authors as Ezra Pound, Rabindranath Tagore, Elizabeth Bowen, Jack and John Yeats, and Patrick Kavanagh, before it closed in 1946. At the age of forty-six, in 1911, Yeats met Georgie (George) Hyde Lees (1892-1968) and they married on 20 October, 1917. They had two children; Anne (born 1919) and for whom he wrote “A Prayer for My Daughter”;

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Michael was born on 22 August 1921, for whom Yeats wrote “A Prayer for My Son”;

Bid a strong ghost stand at the head
That my Michael may sleep sound,
Nor cry, nor turn in the bed
Till his morning meal come round;
And may departing twilight keep
All dread afar till morning's back.

George shared Yeats’ interest in mystical and esoteric subjects and introduced him to automatic writing. With her assistance he wrote A Vision (1925), Yeats’ attempt at explanation for his elaborate philosophy and use of symbolism in his poetry.

Later Years and on to Under bare Ben Bulben's head

The same year that the Easter Rising occurred, of which some of his friends had participated and which prompted his poem “Easter” (Sept. 1916)” the first volume of Yeats’ autobiography Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1916) was published, the second following in 1922 titled The Trembling of the Veil. In 1917 Yeats bought the Norman tower ‘Thoor Ballylee’ near Coole Park in Galway for his summer home; “The Wild Swans at Coole” was published in 1919. The same year civil war broke out in Ireland, Yeats received an Honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin (1922). He was elected to the Irish senate the same year, where he served for six years before resigning to due to failing health. In December of 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and continued to work on his essays, poetry and the poetry anthology Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (1936). In 1933, Yeats participated in his first of many BBC radio broadcasts. He was also living in his home ‘Riversdale’ at Rathfarnham, near Dublin when not spending winters in warmer climes.

At the age of seventy-three William Butler Yeats died, on 28 January 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. He was first buried there then as were his wishes, in 1948 re-interred “under bare Ben Bulben’s head” in Drumcliff churchyard, County Sligo, Ireland. His gravestone is inscribed with the epitaph Cast a cold Eye, On Life, On Death. Horseman.pass by! A bronze sculpture of Yeats by Rowan Gillespie stands on Stephen Street overlooking Sligo town and features snippets from his poetry. His last poem written was “The Black Tower” in 1939.

Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.—from “This Book”, The Celtic Twilight (1893)

Other Works include;

Poems (1895),
The Secret Rose (1897),
The Wind Among the Reeds (1899),
Diarmuid and Grania (1901),
The Pot of Broth (1902),
In The Seven Woods (1903),
Where There Is Nothing (1904),
Collected Works in Prose and Verse (1906),
The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910),
Responsibilities: Poems and A Play (1914),
At the Hawks Well (1917),
Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920),
Four Plays for Dancers (1921),
The Tower and Other Poems (1928),
Words for Music, Perhaps (1932),
The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933),
A Full Moon in March (1935),
Dramatis Personae (1935),
Essays 1931-1936 (1937),
New Poems (1938), and
Last Poems (1939).

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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