Reader's Encyclopedia

Yeats, William Butler (1865-1939)

Irish poet and dramatist. Yeats is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The three major concerns of his life - art, Irish Nationalism, and occult studies - are central to his poetry and drama. His greatest work is in the poetry of his maturity and old age; it is characterized by its lyrical and dramatic qualities, its use of symbolism and the mythology of Irish folklore and the occult, its autobiographical and political themes, and its sensuous beauty, realism, precision, and economy.

He was the son of John Butler Yeats, a well-known Irish painter, and he himself studied painting for three years. Yeat's early poetry is characterized by a romantic affectation of melancholy and preoccupation with "the Celtic twilight." "The Wanderings of Oisin" (1889), a long, mystical narrative poem based on Irish legend, and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1893) date from this period.

In London, Yeats was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Rymer's Club, whose aims were to promote pure poetry and the aesthetic cult of Walter PATER. On his return to Ireland in 1896, he became a leader of the IRISH RENAISSANCE. Believing that the Irish poet's task was to communicate with the Irish people, he wrote simple, direct poetry; The Wind among the Reeds (1899) and In the Seven Woods (1903) are collections written during this period. Yeats met Maud GONNE when he was twenty-three and became indirectly involved in her political activities. He was in love with her during much of his life and used her as a central symbol in his poetry.

With LADY GREGORY, GEORGE MOORE, and others, Yeats founded, in 1899, the theatre society that was later to become the celebrated ABBEY THEATRE. He encouraged Lady Gregory and SYNGE to write playes for it, and he himself wrote many works for it including THE COUNTESS CATHLEEN, The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), and Deidre (1907). Under the influence of Ezra POUND, whom Yeats met in 1912, he began to write ritualistic, symbolic dramas, with dance and music, in imitation of the Japanese Nö plays. These plays, in prose and verse, often make symbolic use of Irish heroic legends, especially those about CÚ CHULAINN. Usually, like most of Yeats's work, they are concerned with peasants, aristocrats, beggars, wandering minstrels, and kings and queens, and they are based on his mystical and occult ideas. THE HERNE'S EGG and PURGATORY are characteristic plays of this period.

Yeats had been interested in magic and occult philosophy since his Dublin days with A.E. (q.v.) and when he met Madame BLAVATSKY in London in 1887, he became a devoted disciple. He did not believe in any orthodox religion, but since he felt he needed some system of supernatural belief to give depth to his life and poetry, he half-accepted the doctrines of THEOSOPHY, Hermetism (see HERMES TRISMEGISTUS), and spiritualism. In 1917 he married Georgie Hyde Lees, a spiritualist medium, and with the help of her trances and automatic writing composed A VISION, a prose work that combined a system of magic, philosophy of history, and a philosophy of personality. Yeats's esoteric ideas provided a mythical background and a system of symbols for all his poetry, but especially for his later work.

In technique, Yeats's mature poetry was influenced by the works of John DONNE, Walter Savage LANDOR, and Ezra Pound. It appeared in the volumes The Green Helmet (1910), Responsibilities (1914), The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair (1929). Yeats prepared The Collected Poems (1933) himself, rewriting many of his early poems in accordance with his later stylistic ideas. Among his best-known individual poems are "Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium"; "East 1916," a commemoration of an incident during the Irish rebellion (see Padraic PEARSE); "A Prayer for My Daughter"; "Leda and the Swan"; "Among School Children"; "Lapus Lazuli"; "Long-Legged Fly"; and CRAZY JANE, a series of poems.

Yeats's prose works include Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888); occult works, such as The Celtic Twilight (1893) and The Secret Rose (1897); a collection of essays such as Ideas for Good and Evil (1903), The Cutting of an Agate (1912), and Essays (1937); and Autobiographies (1926). He edited the works of William BLAKE (1893).

At the end of his life Yeats was widely honored as one of the most important poets of the century. He was elected a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922 and was awarded the NOBEL PRIZE in Literature in 1923.