(b. June 13, 1865, Sandymount, Dublin, Ire.-d. Jan. 28, 1939, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France)
The Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
In 1867, when Yeats was only two, his family moved to London, but he spent much of his boyhood and school holidays in Sligo, in western Ireland, with his grandparents. This country-its scenery, folklore, and supernatural legend-would colour Yeats’s work and form the setting of many of his poems. In 1880 his family moved back to Dublin, where he attended the high school. In 1883 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where the most important part of his education was in meeting other poets and artists.
Meanwhile, Yeats was beginning to write. His first publication, two brief lyrics, appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885. When the family moved back to London in 1887, Yeats took up the life of a professional writer. He joined the Theosophical Society, whose mysticism appealed to him because it was a form of imaginative life far removed from the workaday world. His early poems, collected in The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems (1889), are the work of an aesthete, often beautiful but always rarefied, a soul’s cry for release from circumstance.
Yeats quickly became involved in the literary life of London. He became friends with William Morris and W. E. Henley, and he was a cofounder of the Rhymers’ Club, whose members included his friends Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symons. In 1889 Yeats met Maud Gonne, an Irish beauty, ardent and brilliant. He fell in love with her, but she was not in love with him.
Her passion was lavished upon Ireland; she was an Irish patriot, a rebel, and a rhetorician, commanding in voice and in person. When Yeats joined in the Irish nationalist cause, he did so partly from conviction, but mostly for love of Maud. When Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan was first performed in Dublin in 1902, she played the title role.
After the rapid decline and death of the controversial Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, Yeats felt that Irish political life lost its significance. The vacuum left by politics might be filled, he felt, by literature, art, poetry, drama, and legend. The Celtic Twilight (1893), a volume of essays, was Yeats’s first effort toward this end, but progress was slow until 1898, when he met Augusta Lady Gregory, an aristocrat who was to become a playwright and his close friend.
Yeats (along with Lady Gregory and others) was one of the originators of the Irish Literary Theatre, which gave its first performance in Dublin in 1899 with Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleew. To the end of his life Yeats remained a director of this theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904. In the crucial period from 1899 to 1907, he managed the theatre’s affairs, encouraged its playwrights (notably John Millington Synge), and contributed many of his own plays that became part of the Abbey Theatre’s repertoire.
The years from 1909 to 1914 mark a decisive change in his poetry. The otherworldly, ecstatic atmosphere of the early lyrics has cleared, and the poems in Responsibilities: Poems and a Play (1914) show a tightening and hardening of his verse line, a more sparse and resonant imagery, and a new directness with which Yeats confronts reality and its imperfections.
In 1917 Yeats published The Wild Swans at Coole. From then onward he reached and maintained the height of his achievement-a renewal of inspiration and a perfecting of technique that are almost without parallel in the history of English poetry. The Tower (1928), named after the castle he owned and had restored, is the work of a fully accomplished artist; in it, the experience of a lifetime is brought to perfection of form.
Still, some of Yeats’s greatest verse was written subsequently, appearing in The Winding Stair (1929). The poems in both of these works use, as their dominant subjects and symbols, the Easter Rising and the Irish civil war; Yeats’s own tower; the Byzantine Empire and its mosaics; Plato, Plotinus, and Porphyry; and the author’s interest in contemporary psychical research.
In 1922, on the foundation of the Irish Free State, Yeats accepted an invitation to become a member of the new Irish Senate: he served for six years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now a celebrated figure, he was indisputably one of the most significant modern poets. He died in January 1939 while abroad.
Had Yeats ceased to write at age 40, he would probably now be valued as a minor poet writing in a dying Pre-Raphaelite tradition that had drawn renewed beauty and poignancy for a time from the Celtic revival. There is no precedent in literary history for a poet who produces his greatest work between the ages of 50 and 75. Yeats’s work of this period takes its strength from his long and dedicated apprenticeship to poetry; from his experiments in a wide range of forms of poetry, drama, and prose; and from his spiritual growth and his gradual acquisition of personal wisdom, which he incorporated into the framework of his own mythology.