William Butler Yeats

Contributors: DÓC, TOR.

Writer, dramatist, founder of the Abbey Theatre, and the greatest modern poet writing in English. William Butler Yeats was born on 13 June 1865 at 5 Sandymount Avenue, Dublin. He was the son of John Butler Yeats, a barrister who became a fine (though financially unsuccessful) portrait painter and Susan Pollexfen, the daughter of a wealthy Sligo merchant family. Shortly after his birth the family moved to London, where his father thought he might have more success. Yeats went to the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, but spent delightful holidays in Sligo with his grandparents. When the family returned to Dublin in 1880 he attended Erasmus Smith High School, in Harcourt Street, Dublin. His father wished him to go to Trinity College, following the family tradition, but he refused: he feared that would not meet the entrance requirements. Instead he studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in 1884–5, and then in 1886 at the Royal Hibernian Academy.

At the Metropolitan he became friendly with the mystic and poet George Russell (known as Æ) and a group of others interested in the occult. At the Contemporary Club, where there was a ferment of ideas and lively debate, he met Douglas Hyde, Stephen Gwynn, John O’Leary, Michael Davitt and other important figures. From an early age he had been writing poetry and plays in imitation of Shelley and Spenser, and about 1886 he decided to abandon art and devote himself to writing.

Yeats published his first lyrics in the Dublin University Review in 1885. He worked for some time as literary correspondent for American newspapers, including the Boston Pilot. His interest in Irish myth and his commitment to the cause of Irish national identity stemmed mainly from living in the West of Ireland and from his contact with the Fenian, John O’Leary. He joined the Blavatsky London Lodge of the Theosophical Society (1887) and the Order of the Golden Dawn (1890). Yeats’s experiments with the occult were as much a matter of the poetic imagination as a pursuit of the supernatural. He met most of the poets of his generation at the Rhymers’ Club, which he helped found. In 1891 he helped establish the Irish Literary Society of London. The following year, in Dublin, he joined with John O’Leary in founding the National Literary Society to publicise the literature, folklore, and legends of Ireland. In 1888 he had published Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry and his Irish fairy tales appeared in 1892.

In 1889 he published The Wanderings of Oisin, a long, highly imaginative poem based on Irish mythology, and in 1892 The Countess Cathleen, his first poetic play. His volume of folk stories, The Celtic Twilight, appeared in 1893. In 1895 he edited A Book of Irish Verse and published Poems. Three collections of poems appeared in 1897: The Secret Rose, The Tables of the Law, and The Adoration of the Magi.

Yeats first met the love of his life, Maud Gonne, in 1889. For him she symbolised the spirit of tragic beauty and Irish nationalism. He proposed marriage to her in 1891 but was rejected. He was impressed by her revolutionary activities and she was the subject of many of his love poems. His long-sustained passion for her was to have enormous consequences for his politics and his poetry. When he later wrote of nationalist politics in his Autobiographies as ‘the fixed ideas of some hysterical woman, a part of the mind turned into stone’, he had her in mind. He became active in advanced nationalist politics after the Parnellite split (1890) and tried to mobilise nationalist literary groups as a basis for an Irish artistic revival. He joined the IRB and played a prominent part in the celebrations of the centenary of the 1798 Rising.

In 1896 he met Lady Augusta Gregory, a talented and capable woman whose house at Coole Park, Co Galway, offered a warm welcome to writers and artists. She encouraged him and helped him establish the Irish Literary Theatre. George Moore and Edward Martyn (who had introduced Yeats to Lady Gregory) joined with Yeats as the directors of the Irish Literary Theatre Society. It had its first performance, Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen, in 1899 and there was a great lot of controversy over it. In 1902 Maud Gonne played the title role in Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan: it was a dramatic triumph. He was still deeply in love with her, but she rejected him again and to his horror married Major John McBride in 1903.

Collaboration with Frank and William Fay led to the founding of the Irish National Theatre, Yeats and Lady Gregory being co-directors. After the turn of the century he abandoned active politics and devoted himself to writing. Annie Horniman, a wealthy Englishwoman from Manchester, bought the Mechanics’ Institute in Abbey St, Dublin, for the Irish Theatre in 1904 and gave it a subsidy for some years. On the opening night, 27 December 1904, the Abbey Players presented a treble bill, On Baile’s Strand and Cathleen Ni Houlihan by Yeats and Spreading the News by Lady Gregory. It produced a new Yeats play nearly every year. In 1906, under a new constitution, Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge were appointed directors. Yeats remained a director until his death. The founding of the Abbey, which was in his own words ‘a small dingy and impecunious theatre’, marked the launching of a dramatic movement that made Dublin an important literary capital in the first quarter of the century. Yeats took a firm stand against clerics and nationalists, who quarrelled over the political and moral role of the theatre.

Yeats was, above all, famous as a great poet. An American lecture tour (1903–4) helped establish his reputation. In 1913 he received a Civil List pension of £150 a year, but he refused a knighthood in 1915. A year later he proposed again to Maud Gonne, now a widow since the execution of her husband John MacBride, for his part in the Rising. She refused yet again.

His greatest achievement in poetry came with the publication of four volumes between 1919 and 1933. The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), and the Winding Stair (1933). Several of his poems were written in honour of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising, some of whom had been fellow-workers in the literary movement.

In 1917 Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees (she was 26 and he was 52). Marriage changed his life and Georgie influenced his poetry. In A Vision (1925), a piece full of symbolism, he set out his ideas on mankind and art, and this was the framework of later poems. Two children were born, Anne in 1919, and Michael in 1921. He bought Thoor Ballylee, a small derelict tower-house in Co. Galway, close to Lady Gregory’s home, and 82 Merrion Square, a fine Georgian house in Dublin in 1922.

He was made a Senator of the Irish Free State by President Cosgrave and he played an active role in the Senate. He chaired the committee on the design of the new coinage. Later he made a remarkable contribution to the debate on divorce, including a noble defence of the Irish Protestant tradition with which he strongly identified:

‘We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift and Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this county’.

He received honorary degrees from Queen’s University College Belfast and University College Dublin. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1932 he co-founded with George Bernard Shaw the Irish Academy of Letters, for the promotion of creative writing in Ireland.

In the mid-twenties, his health began to fail. On medical advice he spent many winters in Italy and France from 1927 on. One of his last major literary undertakings was his editorship of the controversial Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 (1936). Despite age and ill-health, his output was remarkable, especially his powerful New Poems (1938) and Last Poems (1938–9). Late in the winter of 1938 he left Ireland for the Riviera in failing health. He died at Roquebrune, Cap Martin, in the south of France on the 28 January 1939. His remains were brought back to Ireland in 1948 and re-interred in the churchyard of his grandfather’s parish at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo. His headstone bears his own cryptic epitaph:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Writings, Biography, & Studies. Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London 1949). Collected plays (London 1952). A. Norman Jeffares (ed), Yeats’s Poems (Dublin 1989) [many times reprinted]. John Kelly (ed), The collected letters of W. B. Yeats (3 vols, Oxford 1986–97) [in progress]. Autobiographies: Reveries over childhood and youth (1915), The trembling of the veil (1922), and Dramatis personae (1936). Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats, 1865–1939 (London 1942). Richard Ellmann, Yeats: the man and the masks (London 1948). Richard Ellmann, The identity of Yeats (London 1954). Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Passion and cunning: an essay on the politics of W. B. Yeats’, in A. Norman Jeffares & K. W. G. Cross (ed), Excited reverie: a centenary tribute to William Butler Yeats (London 1965). A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats (London 1971). Denis Donoghue, Yeats (London, 1971). Frank Tuohy, Yeats (London 1976). Elizabeth Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London 1981). Grattan Freyer, W. B. Yeats and the anti-democratic tradition (Dublin 1981). A. Norman Jeffares, A new commentary on the poems of W. B. Yeats (London 1984). Mary Lou Kohfeldt, Lady Gregory: the woman behind the Irish renaissance (London 1985). A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: a new biography (London 1988). R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: a life (2 vols, (Oxford 1997–2003). W. J. McCormack, Blood kindred: W.B. Yeats: the life, the death, the politics (London 2005).

Donnchadh Ó Corráin