Biography William Butler Yeats
The Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was the leader of the Irish Literary Renaissance during the early 20th century. Yeats\'s early lyrical poetry and drama drew inspiration from Irish legend and occult learning, but his later writing became increasingly engaged with his own time.
W. B. Yeats, b. Dublin, June 13, 1865, d. Jan. 28, 1939, was perhaps the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century. The major defining elements of Yeats\'s poetic career were visible by his 24th year. He had formed a profound attachment to the county of Sligo, where he stayed for long periods while living in London (1867-83); his interest in the occult led him to found (1885) the Dublin Hermetic Society and to join (1887) the London Lodge of Theosophists; his 1885 meeting with the nationalist John O\'Leary prompted his discovery of Ireland as a literary subject and his commitment to the cause of Irish national identity; in 1889 he fell in love with Maud Gonne and published The Wanderings of Oisin. Yeats\'s lifework was an attempt to \"hammer into unity\" these evolving areas of his experience.
Between 1889 and 1902, Yeats sustained these original commitments. Irish myth and landscapes fill the poems of The Rose (1893). His edition of Blake (1893; with Edwin Ellis) influenced his own thought. He enshrined his unrequited love for Maud Gonne in the stylized, erotic, symbolic verses of The Wind among the Reeds (1899). A meeting (1896) with Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory and visits to Coole Park provided a model of social grace and generosity that was practically useful and, in his poetry, of symbolic importance. Head of the Order of the Golden Dawn (London, 1900), he became (1902) President of the Irish National Theatre Society (later the Abbey Theatre) for which he had written, among other plays, the patriotic Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902). Motivating such activities was Yeats\'s desire to raise national consciousness by cultural means and to extend his own awareness of himself as a poet, as a shaper not only of verses but of the world.From 1903 on, however, Yeats experienced the truth of his dictum that \"consciousness is conflict\": his ideals were thwarted by a world of contrary facts. In 1903, Maud Gonne married the nationalist Major John MacBride, an event beyond the reach even of Yeats\'s lyric melancholy. The National Theatre encountered bitter opposition from its nationalist Catholic audience, outraged (1907) by The Playboy of the Western World of John Millington Synge\'s Middle-class Dublin earned Yeats\'s satiric contempt for its graceless treatment of Hugh Lane\'s bequest (1913) of paintings to the city. Such concerns crowd Responsibilities (1914) with the angry, exhilarated accents of a man whose life and poetic style have undergone radical change. Prompted by the colloquial energies of Synge\'s verse (1909) and encouraged by his friendship (from 1912) with Ezra Pound, this toughening of style broke the grip of earlier romantic and Pre-Raphaelite influences on Yeats. With No theater as a model, Pound also influenced the refinement of Yeats\'s drama (Plays for Dancers, 1916).
In 1917, Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Between 1917 and 1920 her automatic writing and speech gave Yeats the raw material for A Vision (1925; rev. ed., 1937), the work that crowned his pursuit of mystical knowledge. Its \"stylistic arrangements of experience\" provide a systematic geometry of human life--part history, part philosophy, part mysticism, part psychology, but wholly Yeats. Contributing to the \"power and self-possession\" of the dense, symbolic poems in The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933), A Vision provides useful insights into much of the poetry. The titles of the two volumes of poetry refer to Thoor Ballylee in County Galway, a Norman fortification acquired by Yeats in 1917. Lived in for some summers, it became, like so many of the facts of his life, a cluster of symbols in his poetry.
Two events confirmed Yeats\'s dual role as poet and public man. In 1922, at the end of the Anglo-Irish war (1916-22), he became a senator of the Irish Free State. In 1923 he received the Nobel Prize for literature.
Despite illness and old age, Yeats\'s last 15 years or so bristled with astonishing energies. True to the principles of a lifetime, he refused to abandon the attempt to bend the world and himself to his imaginative pattern. One regrettable result of this ambition was his approval during the 1930s of the social and political tenets of fascism. Consonant with his abiding conception of reality as a struggle between Blakean \"contrarieties\" of chaos and design, and responsive to his apocalyptic vision of a universal descent into barbarous ruin--prophesied in \"The Second Coming,\" 1920--the flaw in this unfortunate allegiance lies in the blunt literalism with which Yeats applied his aesthetic principles to the world of politics.
Happily his creative energies, if uneven, were undiminished. He published Essays (1924), Collected Plays (1934), and volumes of poetry. His completed Autobiographies appeared in 1938, giving the definitive, wished-for lineaments to his own identity. His idiosyncratic and controversial edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse came out in 1936, and later plays and Last Poems were published posthumously in 1939. In 1934 he underwent the Steinach operation (a procedure that stimulates the production of sexual hormones), which, he believed, rejuvenated his flagging creativity and stimulated the intensely sexual themes and imagery of many of the late poems. His final play, The Death of Cuchulain, and his last two poems, all dealing with heroic resolution in the face of death, were completed only days before he died.
This willed coincidence between his life and work guarantees Yeats\'s stature as the greatest modern poet in the English language. His life is a spectacular series of revisions and \"re-makings\" of the self; its accidents he repeatedly translated into the permanences of art, his own history into myth. At 19 years of age, \"he lived, breathed, ate, drank and slept poetry.\" In his last letter he wrote, \"Man can embody truth but he cannot know it. . . . You can refute Hegel, but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence.\" Sanctity and poetry were the embodiments of truth. Yeats successfully staked his life on the second: his poetry embodies the truth of his life. As if to carry this truth beyond the grave (he was reinterred in Sligo in 1948), the words on his tombstone are the last words in his Collected Poems: \"Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!\" --Eamon Grennan