Poet Biographies

William Butler Yeats: The Irish Literary Revival

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright who played a leading role in the Irish Literary Renaissance. His works often explore themes of mysticism, Irish mythology, and the supernatural.

William Butler Yeats Portrait

William Butler Yeats is regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Remarkably, in 1923, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, cementing him as an all-time literary great. He put Ireland on the literary map through his ability to talk about his cultural roots, including Irish legends and folklore in his works. He garnered a reputation for focusing on the mystical and occult. Butler Yeats’ greatest works include ‘A Coat,’ ‘A Dream of Death,’ ‘Byzantium,’ ‘Leda and the Swan,’ ‘A Dream of Death,’ and ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer.’

Early Life

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865. His father, John Butler 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.

Early Career

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 Yeats often wrote about and a supporter of Irish independence. It is said that Yeats joined the nationalist cause for independence due to his conviction to stick to his Irish roots, but it is clear that his admiration for Maud Gonne was a contributing factor. 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 in 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 in his writing. She encouraged him to focus on writing drama and maintaining 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. At the turn of the century, 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 on January 28, 1939, 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, William Butler Yeats’ poems are considered to be one of the most important works of the twentieth century. His use of symbolsimagery, 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.

Influence from Other Poets

William Butler Yeats was influenced heavily by poets who went before him, such as; William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Politics influenced Yeats due to his relationship with prominent figures within his circle. Maud Gonne was a political activist and feminist who inspired some of his works, particularly ‘When You Are Old.’ They were close, and Gonne shared Yeats’s interest in the spiritual and occult.

In gaining inspiration for his work, Yeats drew significantly from Irish mythology and folklore, sticking to his cultural heritage and pulling from ancient Celtic tales.


What is William Butler Yeats best known for?

William Butler Yeats is best known for his poetry and plays that focus on mythology, mysticism, and spirituality. He took inspiration from his Celtic roots and drew from Irish folklore. Impressively, Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, putting him down as one the most influential poets of the 20th century.

Who was the love of William Butler Yeats’ life?

William Butler Yeats was infatuated with Maud Gonne, an Irish nationalist and English heiress, since the time they met when she was 23. Yeats’ poetry was heavily influenced by her, and he had a lifelong admiration for her. It is said that Yeats was inspired to join the Irish Nationalist movement due to their relationship.

Why is William Butler Yeats controversial?

Despite his reputation within literary circles for his works, William Butler Yeats is seen as a controversial figure due to some of his political beliefs during his time. He was known to support right-wing fascist groups, although modern scholars debate his actual involvement in these movements.

What was the relationship between William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne?

The relationship between William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne was powerful and fulfilling, albeit one-sided. Yeats was infatuated with Gonne, who, as an Irish nationalist, inspired him both politically and poetically. Gonne didn’t reciprocate romantically with Yeats, as he tried to marry her on four separate occasions but was sadly rejected.

What was William Butler Yeats’ inspiration?

William Butler Yeats’ poems were inspired by Irish myth and folklore, capturing the essence of Celtic tales. His biggest influences from the literary past were William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

2 thoughts on “William Butler Yeats: The Irish Literary Revival”

  1. An interesting piece about Yeat’s background, but please refrain from using the term ‘Kids’ instead of children, it’s so plebeian and demeaning.


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