William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. His father, John Yeats, studied law and art, and his mother, Susan, was descended from a wealthy merchant family. After his birth, they moved to Merville, Sligo, where Yeats grew up. He often wrote about the area and its influence on his art. Yeats siblings, Jack, Elizabeth, and Susan Mary, were all artists. The two sisters were part of the Arts and Crafts movement, and his brother became a fairly well-known painter.
The family moved to England in 1867, where John followed his career as an artist. The children were educated at home before Yeats spent some time at Godolphin school. The Yeats family had to return to Dublin due to financial strains at the end of 1880. The young poet started writing during this period.
During the mid-1880s, perhaps inspired by his father, Yeats studied art at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. His interest in art waned, though, after he published his first collection of poetry in 1885. During this same period, Yeats met several important figures in the British literary scene. These included George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. One of the most important people he came into contact with was Maud Gonne, a revolutionary woman who Yeats often wrote about and who was a supporter of Irish independence. One such poem that’s considered to be inspired by Gonne is ‘When You Are Old,’ He loved her throughout his life and proposed to her several times (in 1891, 1899, 1900, and 1901), but she refused each time. She eventually married Major John MacBride, an Irish nationalist. When speaking about her, the poet said:
it seems to me that she brought into my life those days—for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface—the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an over-powering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes.
The family moved back to London in 1887, and Yeats founded the Rhymers’ Club poetry group and joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. The latter explored topics of the occult and mysticism. His interest in magic, particularly folktales, is a clear influence on his writing. ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ is a great example. The Rhymers’ Club was a group of London poets who met and recited their verse. Two anthologies were published of their work. The first truly important poem that Yeats published was ‘The Island of Statues,’ a long fantasy piece that was never republished in his lifetime due to its length. His first solo publication was Mosada: A Dramatic Poem, published in 1886. The Wanders of Oisin and Other Poems followed in 1889. It was also during this time that he wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’
William Butler Yeats’s only other major love affair during this period was with Olivia Shakespear, with whom he spent the years between 1894 and 1897. He ended his friendship with Maud Gonne in 1908 after her marriage to MacBride had fallen apart.
Later Career and the Theatre
In 1896, he met Lady Gregory, a patron who would be incredibly influential on his writing. She encouraged him to focus on writing drama and maintain his Irish identity in his poetry. She, along with writers like J.M. Synge and Padraic Colum, helped to establish the Irish Literary Revival movement. In 1902, along with Lady Gregory, he developed works for the rich stage. This included Cathleen Ni Houlihan and Deirdre. During the first decade of the century, Yeats was focused on the management of the Abbey Theatre company. He wrote ten plays during this period, simplified his style, and published several poetic collections. These were In the Seven Woods, The Green Helmet and Other Poems, and Responsibilities.
In 1917, at 51 years old, he married Georgie Hyde Lees in an effort to produce an heir. He had briefly reconsidered marrying Maud Gonne but was refused once more. He also turned his eye towards Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter with Lucien Millevoye, who was twenty-one at the time. He proposed to Georgie, who was twenty-five. The two married and had two children. Their marriage is generally considered to be a success despite their age difference.
Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. When speaking about why he was given the award, the committee said:
[…] for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.
Yeats considered the award an important step towards recognizing Irish literature, especially so soon after the Easter Rising and the recent fight to gain independence. (Yeats wrote about the former in ‘Easter Rising, 1916.’) Yeats spent two terms in the Irish Senate in the 1920s while also battling with his health. During the last years of his life, he dedicated himself to writing and the pursuit of relationships with younger women. He edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and traveled to Majorca. Some of his later important works include The Tower, published in 1928, and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, published in 1932. The former (which included the poem ‘The Tower‘) is often cited as his most important single book. Yeats was very aware of his age and mortality during this period.
Death and Legacy
William Butler Yeats died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Menton, France, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried soon after at a small funeral. His final resting place is in County Sligo, where his remains were moved. His life was commemorated in Sligo town with a 1989 statue created by Rowan Gillespie.
Today, Yeats is considered to be one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. His use of symbols, imagery, and historical context made his work incredibly significant. He also mastered traditional forms, something that set him apart from his contemporaries. Despite the focus on his poetry, his dramatic works, like On Baile’s Strand, At the Hawk’s Well, and The Countess Cathleen, are also quite notable.