Biography of William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in County Dublin on June 13, 1865. Due to the demands of his career as an artist, Yeats' father moved the family to London when Yeats was still young, but he spent summers in County Sligo, in Western Ireland. When Yeats was fifteen, his family moved back to Dublin, where he attended the Metropolitan School of Art.

Yeats' first work was published in the Dublin University Review in 1885. What is generally considered to be his first mature work, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Works, came out in 1893. After The Wanderings of Oisin, which was based on an ancient Irish saga, Yeats never attempted another long poem and confined himself to the lyric form.

Yeats grew interested in the occult at an early age. He visited a famous theosophist, Madame Blatavsky, and joined a Theosophy Society. Theosophy holds that all beliefs are a part of a larger spiritual system, and all hold some measure of the truth. Yeats attended many séances, beginning in 1886.

Madame Blavatsky later asked Yeats to become a member of the inner circle of London’s Theosophical Society as part of its Esoteric Section. However, Yeats was more interested in magical experiments and astrology, and was eventually expelled from the Theosophists. He later joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a cult that also included famous figures such as Aleister Crowley and Bram Stoker. His involvement in this cult may have led to his interest in theatre, as the cult often performed rituals using props. His mystical interests, many of which coalesced during his time in this cult, included a newfound belief in the magic of poetry and words themselves, which he believed can transport the reader to higher planes of understanding, much like a magic spell.

In 1889, Yeats met the love of his life, an Irish revolutionary named Maude Gonne (1866-1953). Unfortunately, Maude did not return his ardor, and after refusing his marriage proposals three times, she married Major John MacBridge in 1903. Collections of poetry from this time include The Rose (1893) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

Yeats' early poetry drew on ancient Irish epics as well as the contemporary nationalist movement that was gaining force in Ireland. In the Ireland of 1880s and 1890s, the two were sometimes inseparable. Many members of the Gaelic League, formed to prevent the disappearance of the Irish language and rehabilitate its classics, were also members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a precursor organization to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Yeats was fascinated by folktales, and, under the tutelage of George Russell and Thomas Hyde, he published Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888. In 1897, Yeats met Lady Gregory, another member of what was termed the Gaelic Revival, and she convinced him to start writing drama with Irish subject matter. Together with George Moore and Edward Martyn, the two set up The Abbey Theatre, Ireland's national theater, in Dublin in 1904. Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan, a nationalist play personifying Ireland as a woman, was performed on the opening night.

In 1917, Yeats bought Thoor Ballylee, a Norman stone tower in County Sligo, near Coole Park. He spent the following summer with Maude Gonne's family, and proposed to her daughter, Iseult, but was turned down. The same year, he married Georgie Hyde-Lee. His wife shared his interest in the occult and claimed a gift of "automatic writing," in which her hand was directed by a divine force. Together, the two produced The Vision, a notebook of spiritual thoughts, in 1933.

As well as writing poetry and plays and continuing to serve on the artistic board of the Abbey Theatre, Yeats became a member of the Seanad, the Irish senate, from 1922-25. He served on the committees that helped to create coinage for the new state. He left in disgust when the governmental organization was split in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War (1923-24).

Yeats remained political as he grew older, though much of his status as the key poet of the Irish Revolution of the early 20th century is based on myth. Having described his political sensibilities as "a continual quarrel and a continual apology," Yeats did identify as an Irish nationalist, hoping for the unification of war-torn Ireland—but he also hated conflict, and he published his revolutionary poem, Easter 1916, near the end of the Irish Revolution. 1919 found Yeats considering moving away to Japan or Italy to escape the guerrilla warfare that was tearing apart his country.

As Yeats grew older, he developed a friendship with Ezra Pound, a poet who drew him away from his mystical, lyrical style into something drier and sparer. Arguably his most famous collection, The Tower (1928) contains political poems as well as a more modernist return to mythological topics like "Leda and the Swan." Yeats became increasingly political in his old age, publishing a collection called Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921, which includes his famous "Easter, 1916" in which he describes the birth of modern Irish nationalism with the famous phrase, "a terrible beauty is born." The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) contains poems that focus on Yeats' own estate at Coole Park—the winding stair being the stair at Thoor Ballylee. His later poems, especially "Under Ben Bulben," express his desire to be buried there. After his death, he was buried in Sligo, and he rests under the epitaph "Cast a cold eye on life, on death; horsemen, pass by!"


Study Guides on Works by William Butler Yeats

"The Second Coming" is a poem by William Butler Yeats, written in 1919, several years after the end of World War I. It is named after the Christian "Second Coming," which is the Biblical prophecy that predicts Jesus's return to earth to reign...