W. B. Yeats

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Yeats, W. B.

Yeats, W. B. (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).


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).

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References in periodicals archive ?
Ah Sweet Dancer: W. B. Yeats and Margot Ruddock: A Correspondence.
Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley.
One year on, Jeffares publishes W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, omitting any reference to the award emanating from the state which he had visited himself during its Olympic annus mirabilis, and on whose frontier he had been living for some recent years.
The transmission of ignorance could be well illustrated in the line which reaches from Cullingford in 1981 to W. B. Yeats: A Beginner's Guide (2002).
Grattan Freyer's W. B. Yeats and the Anti-Democratic Tradition is the most intriguing, not least because the author had also written about Peadar O'Donnell.
Because the National Gallery has the finest collection of John Butler Yeats paintings in the world, as well as one of the few authenticated works by W. B. Yeats, it has been possible to show Jack in the context of his family.
Color and rhythm persist in the poetry W. B. Yeats published in the late editions of the Broadsides, exhibited also from time to time in the museum.
, See also W. B. Yeats, Explorations, selected by Mrs W.
Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life: 1: The Apprentice Mage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) p.
FOSTER W. B. Yeats: a Life Volume II: The Arch-poet 1915-1939 Oxford University Press, 2003, $45.00
Halloran brings his expertise as editor of the correspondence of William Sharp to his essay, "W. B. Yeats, William Sharp, and Fiona MacLeod, A Celtic Drama, 1897." The piece traces Yeats's growing suspicion and eventual realization of MacLeod's true identity, and probes Sharp's own reasons for creating a female, fashionably Celtic literary double in Fiona MacLeod.
Balliet, "W. B. Yeats: Literary Masochism and Poetic Stimulation' in the Previously Unpublished 'Poem of Lancelot Switchback.'" Sorting out confusions in Conrad's article, Jeffares warns us that we ignore Gogarty at our peril: "I draw attention to Balliet's venial mistake because evidently neither he nor his editor have read Lyon's biography of Gogarty." Jeffares defends Gogarty's reputation and urges us to return to his writing and biography not only for lessons on Yeats but also for the literary value of Gogarty's verse.