William Butler Yeats


by Anthony Domestico

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) is the figure most associated with the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century; his poetry, prose, and drama helped earn him the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was a complex amalgam of influences and interests, deeply engaged with the political issues of Home Rule yet equally fascinated by esoteric spiritualism, using some of the most traditional poetic forms available yet using them in ways that revealed their flexibility and capacity to accommodate changing and at times violent conditions.

W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865 in the village of Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland.  His father, originally a lawyer, quit his career in the law to become an artist, a career that Yeats’s brother Jack would follow.  After attending the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin from 1884 to 1886, Yeats moved to London with his family.  Here he met George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and other poets and artists.  His first volume of verse, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, appeared in 1889.  In this same year, Yeats met Maud Gonne, a beauty with nationalist sympathies; Yeats’s unrequited love affair with Gonne lasted decades, and she served as the impetus for much of his lyric poetry.

Yeats met Lady Augusta Gregory in 1894, a friendship that proved essential for the Irish Literary Revival.  In 1899, Yeats helped found the Irish Literary Theatre, which become the Abbey Theatre in 1904 and served as the main source for the renaissance of Irish drama in the early years of the 20th century.  It helped put Irish drama at the forefront of world theater, staging the premieres of plays like Yeats’s own On Baile’s Strand and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.

Yeats’s poetic output throughout the years was extremely varied, from the nostalgia-drenched Irish imagery of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” to the 1892 drama The Countess Cathleen, from the abstruse symbology of the 1925 A Vision to the political nature of poems like “Easter 1916.”  His poetry often dealt with the relation between artifice and truth, between poetic creation and natural beauty.  Yeats continued to be interested in Irish national politics even after the country gained independence from England: he was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922.

Yeats’s poetry continued to evolve as he aged. His last years saw the publication of many of his strongest works, including “Among School Children” in 1928 and “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” in 1939. After briefly flirting with the Irish Blueshirts, an Irish Fascist political party, Yeats supported the Free State and distanced himself from Fascism in its German and Italian incarnations. Yeats died in Menton, France in 1939, the most celebrated Irish poet of the century and one of modernism’s most complex creators of verse and drama.