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William Butler Yeats

Nobel Prize-winning poet

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865, the first of three children born to John Butler Yeats, a portrait painter, and Susan Mary Pollexfen, the daughter of a wealthy family.

In 1867, the family moved to London so the elder Yeats could further his art career. At first the Yeats children were educated at home, with their mother entertaining them with stories and Irish folktales and their father providing an erratic education in geography and education. In 1877, William entered the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, where he studied for four years. For financial reasons, the family returned to Dublin toward the end of 1880, living at first in the suburb of Harold's Cross and later in the suburb of Howth. In 1881, Yeats resumed his education at Dublin's Erasmus Smith High School. Between 1884 and 1886, William attended the Metropolitan School of Art (now the National College of Art and Design). It was during this period that he started writing poetry, and, in 1885, Yeats' first poems were published in the Dublin University Review. His first verse play, Mosada, a Dramatic Poem, was published privately in 1886. This was followed by the collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), which arranged a series of Irish mythological verse that dated as far back as the mid-1880s. His other early poems, most of which are meditations on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects, include Poems (1895), The Secret Rose (1897), and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

In 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne, then a 23-year-old heiress and ardent Nationalist. Yeats developed an obsessive infatuation with her beauty and outspoken manner, and she was to have a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter. He proposed to her four times over the years, and she turned him down each time.

In 1899, with Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats founded the Irish Theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904, and served as its chief playwright until the movement was joined by John Synge. Of the many Yeats plays performed at the theatre, The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The King's Threshold (1904), and Deirdre (1907) are among the best known. In 1911, the Abbey Theatre embarked on a tour of the United States.

In 1904, Yeats and his sisters started the Cuala Press, which would print over seventy titles by such authors as Ezra Pound, Rabindranath Tagore, Elizabeth Bowen, Jack and John Yeats (William's brothers), and Patrick Kavanagh, before it closed in 1946.

After 1910, Yeats's dramatic art took a sharp turn toward a highly poetical, static, and esoteric style. His later plays were written for small audiences; they experiment with masks, dance, and music, and were profoundly influenced by the Japanese Noh plays. Although a convinced patriot, Yeats deplored the hatred and the bigotry of the Nationalist movement, and his poetry from this time is full of moving protests against it.

Yeats met Georgie Hyde Lees in 1911, and the two were married on October 20, 1917. They had two children; Anne (born 1919) and Michael (1921).

The first volume of Yeats’ autobiography, Reveries over Childhood and Youth, was published in 1916; the second volume, The Trembling of the Veil, was published in 1922, the same year he was elected to the Irish Senate, where he served for six years before resigning due to failing health.

Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize, which he received in 1923. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement, with The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), and Last Poems and Plays (1940) being among his best known.

William Butler Yeats continued writing up to the time of his death, which came in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, on January 28, 1939. Originally buried in France as per his wishes, his remains were removed to Drumcliff churchyard in County Sligo in 1948.

Academy of American Poets
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Poetry Foundation

Ezra Pound

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This page was last updated on 06/13/2018.