William Butler Yeats - Biography and Works

Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats was one of the foremost writers of the 20th century. The Nobel laureate and leader of the Irish Renaissance was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865. He went to school in London and Dublin, where he studied painting.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

His stay at Sligo County inspired his enthusiasm for Irish tradition. He moved with his family to London in 1887. His characters are from the ancient Celts in his lyrical, symbolic poems written on pagan Irish themes in the romantic melancholy tone. He spent a large part of his life in London, although his interest in Irish cultural and political life remained constant. He was a co-founder of the Irish National Theatre Company (later based at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and his play The Countess Cathleen (1892) began the Irish theatrical revival.

Yeats served as a senator of the Irish Free State (1922-28) and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. The Celtic Twilight and The Secret Rose (1897) deal with Irish legends. Yeats met the beautiful Irish patriot Maud Gonne on a visit to Ireland, whom he loved unrequitedly the rest of his life. She inspired much of his early work and drew him into the Irish nationalist movement for independence. After Yeats returned to Ireland in 1896, he became a close friend of the nationalist playwright Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory. With Lady Gregory Yeats helped found the famous Abbey Theatre in 1904. As its director and dramatist, he helped develop the theatre into one of the leading theatrical companies of the world, and a center of the Irish literary revival called the Irish Renaissance. Cathleen ni Houlihah (1902) and Deirdre (1907) were the plays, Yeats created for the theatre.

Yeats composed some of the most respected poetry of the 20th century. The theme of art, Irish nationalism, and occult studies all serve as central ideas in Yeats’s works. Yeast’s later writings are generally considered as his best. Yeats explored many themes including Irish folklore, spirituality, unrequited love, and Ireland’s struggle for independence. As Yeats grew older, he turned to practical politics, serving in the Senate of the new Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928. Since 1917, Yeats writings were greatly influenced by his wife; Georgie Hyde-Lees. A Vision (1925) is an elaborate attempt in prose to explain the mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that Yeats used in much of his work.

Yeats also wrote short plays on the Celtic legendary hero Cuchulain. They were strongly influenced by the no drama of the Japanese court, which was being translated in 1913 by the American poet Ezra Pound. Yeats derived many of his innovative techniques like the use of rituals, masks, chorus, and dance, from the no drama. Yeats brought poetry back to theater, from which it had long been absent.

Yeats's poetic career can be divided into five phases in terms of the themes of his poems: First one is the romantic period; in which the poems were written as an early phase or the youthful days of Yeats when he was influenced by the late Pre-Raphaelites (Decadents) of London. During this time, he also inherited and gained the knowledge about the life of the peasantry of the countryside Sligo. He was also deeply influenced by the patriotic zeal of Irish nationalism. But before he actually went to Ireland and joined the movement, he was, in this first phase, the self conscious romantic poet.

In the second phase, Yeats began to write on the subjects of the Irish national movement. He was actively involved in Irish politics; he was patronized by the aristocratic Lady Gregory, who was the leader of the movement. He drew heavily from the myths and legends of Ireland, and its glorious history. The aim and responsibility of the poet were to guide the movement culturally, by inspiring the people towards an identity and dignity of an independent Irish nation. Yeats also developed a consistently simpler and more popular style. He had begun to combine the colloquial and formal language in his poetry by this time. It was the time Yeats passionately fell in love with an extremely beautiful hard hearted girl named Maud Gonne, a daughter of an army personnel in Ireland. She refused to marry the poet telling him that she would not waste her potential in marriage and domestic life instead of sacrificing it for the nation and her people, but she did marry "a drunker lout", a sailor very soon; the man divorced her very soon.

In the third phase Yeats bitterly left Ireland and returned to London. He was made the senator for the Irish Free State. He became more and more conservative and supported the Protestant landed class. He wrote poems like 'A Prayer for my Daughter' in which he has supported the aristocratic ideals.

The fourth phases of Yeats’s poems are changed with an influence of Eliot and Pound resulted in the poetic taste in the twenties. He developed the theory of history and civilization (that of the gyres and the rise and fall of human cultures and civilization). He was becoming the mature poet- the one we know as a 'symbolist-realist-metaphysical' poet who writes about almost everything in life-old age, love, romantic yearning for escape to an ideal world, the apocalypse, the degradation of culture, corruption of the politicians, the rise and fall of civilizations, myth and history, and so on.

In the fifth or the final phase Yeats turned into a terrible realist in his old age. He wrote poems that were even rather vulgar. The poems, like 'Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’, 'Lapis Lazuli', and 'Circus Animals Desertion' were written in this phase. Yeats accepts the foul, the tragic, and the common as an essential part of life's reality (correspondingly) in these poems.

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Sharma, K.N. "William Butler Yeats - Biography and Works." BachelorandMaster, 23 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/biography/william-butler-yeats.html.