W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats: (William Butler Yeats), 1865–1939, Irish poet and playwright, b. Dublin. The greatest lyric poet Ireland has produced and one of the major figures of 20th-century literature, Yeats was the acknowledged leader of the Irish literary renaissance.

Early Life

Son of the painter John Butler Yeats, William studied painting in Dublin (1883–86). As a boy he attended school in London and spent vacations in County Sligo, Ireland, which was the setting for many of his poems. He became fascinated by Irish legends and by the occult. His first work, the drama Mosada (1886), reflects his concern with magic, but the long poems in The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) voiced the intense nationalism of the Young Ireland movement.

Poetry: First Period

Yeats's verse can be divided into two periods, the first lasting from 1886 to about 1900. The poetry of this period shows a debt to Spenser, Shelley, and the Pre-Raphaelites. It centers on Irish mythology and themes and is mystical, slow-paced, and lyrical. Among the best-known poems of the period are "Falling of Leaves," "When You Are Old," and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." Yeats edited William Blake's works in 1893, and his own Poems were collected in 1895.

Drama and Prose

Yeats's efforts to foster Irish nationalism were inspired for years by Maud Gonne, an Irish patriot for whom he had a hopeless passion and to whom he repeatedly and fruitlessly proposed marriage. In 1898 with Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn he founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin; their first production (1899) was Yeats's The Countess Cathleen (written 1889–92). Yeats helped produce plays and collaborated with Lady Gregory on the comedy The Pot of Broth (1929) and other plays. The Irish Literary Theatre produced several of Yeats's plays including Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), and—after the Abbey Theatre was opened—The Hour Glass (1904), The Land of Heart's Desire (1904), and Deirdre (1907). Yeats's prose tales of Irish legend were collected in The Celtic Twilight (1893) and in the symbolic The Secret Rose (1897).

Poetry: Second Period, and Later Life

Yeats's poetry deepened as he grew older. In the verse of his middle and late years he renounced his early transcendentalism; his poetry became stronger, more physical and realistic. A recurring theme is the polarity between extremes such as the physical and the spiritual, the real and the imagined. Memorable poems from this period include "The Second Coming," "The Tower," and "Sailing to Byzantium." Yeats initiated his second period in such volumes as In the Seven Woods (1903) and The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). In 1917 he married Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees (known as Georgie or George), and his occultism was encouraged by his wife's automatic writing. His prose work A Vision (1937; privately printed 1926) is the basis of much of his poetry in The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) and Four Plays for Dancers (1921).

Yeats ultimately became a respected public figure, a member (1922–28) of the Irish senate, and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature. Some of his best work was his last, The Tower (1928) and Last Poems (1940). All of Yeats's work shows interesting and important revisions from earlier to later versions (see The Variorum Edition of his poems, ed. by Peter Allt and Russell R. Alspach, 1957).

Bibliography

A Bibliography of the Writings of W. B. Yeats was prepared by A. Wade (3d ed., ed by R. K. Alspach, 1968). See also Yeats's Autobiographies (new ed. 1999), Collected Letters (3 vol., ed. by J. Kelly et al., 1986–), Memoirs (ed. by D. Donoghue, 1973), Collected Poems (new ed., 2d ed. 1997), Collected Plays (enl. ed., reissued 1952), Mythologies (1959), Senate Speeches (ed. by D. R. Pearce, 1960), and Essays and Introductions (1961).

See also biographies by H. Bloom (1970), A. N. Jeffares (1989), T. Brown (1999), B. Maddox (1999), and R. F. Foster (2 vol., 1997–2003); studies by T. F. Parkinson (1951 and 1964), R. Ellmann (2d ed. 1964), P. L. Marcus (1970), J. R. Moore (1971), A. N. Jeffares (1977), and M. Wood (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Plays and Controversies
W. B. Yeats.
Macmillan, 1924
Librarian’s tip: "Countess Cathleen" begins on p. 219, and "The Land of Heart's Desire" begins on p. 297
FREE! Responsibilities and Other Poems
William Butler Yeats.
Macmillan, 1916
The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats
Donald R. Pearce; W. B. Yeats.
Indiana University Press, 1960
Tragic Victory: The Doctrine of Subjective Salvation in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats
Larry Brunner.
Whitston, 1987
Running to Paradise: Yeats's Poetic Art
M. L. Rosenthal.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Yeats and the Logic of Formalism
Vereen M. Bell.
University of Missouri Press, 2006
What Rough Beast? Yeats, Nietzsche and Historical Rhetoric in "The Second Coming."
Harrison, John R.
Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall 1995
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats
Malcolm Brown.
University of Washington Press, 1973
Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats
Michael Tratner.
Stanford University Press, 1995
Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration
Donald J. Childs.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment
Vicki Mahaffey.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Yeats: the Nineteenth Century Matrix
Dwight Eddins.
University of Alabama Press, 1971
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