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!"
Further Reading on William Butler Yeats
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).