W. B. Yeats

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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 renaissanceIrish literary renaissance,
late 19th- and early 20th-century movement that aimed at reviving ancient Irish folklore, legends, and traditions in new literary works. The movement, also called the Celtic renaissance, was in part the cultural aspect of a political movement that was
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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 BlakeBlake, William,
1757–1827, English poet and artist, b. London. Although he exerted a great influence on English romanticism, Blake defies characterization by school, movement, or even period.
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'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 GregoryGregory, Lady Augusta
(Isabella Augusta Persse), 1859–1932, Irish dramatist. Though she did not begin her writing career until middle-age, Lady Gregory soon became a vital force in the Irish drama.
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, George MooreMoore, George,
1852–1933, English author, b. Ireland. As a young man he lived in Paris, studying at various art schools. Inspired by Zola, Flaubert, Turgenev, and the 19th-century French realists, Moore turned to writing, publishing his first novel, A Modern Lover,
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, 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 TheatreAbbey Theatre,
Irish theatrical company devoted primarily to indigenous drama. W. B. Yeats was a leader in founding (1902) the Irish National Theatre Society with Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge, and A. E. (George Russell) contributing their talents as directors and dramatists.
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 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved. www.cc.columbia.edu/cu/cup/
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Yeats's approach to China and to Chinese arts is by means of "the mind's direct apprehension of the truth," a phrase Yeats used to describe certain Indian, Chinese, and Japanese apprehensive approaches to the truth, which is a way of accessing the truth not merely through a particular physical organ, for instance eyes or ears or nostrils, but through the "heroic ecstatic passion prolonged through years, through many vicissitudes" (Yeats, Essays and Introductions 436).
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What marks this collection as scholarly and "strong," is that the editors and contributors analyze Yeats's revisionary poetics in broadly analytic terms and they focus on the text's particulars, thereby contributing substantially to the current "resurgence of a formalist interest in and approach to Yeats's poetry" after the new historicist dominance of Irish Studies that followed the ascendency of close reading and poststructualism.
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Young Yeats was also introduced to mythology and the occult, subjects that engaged him throughout his life.
A Vision outlines the process of artistic inspiration, which Yeats saw as a violently creative meeting between the artist's mind and external spiritual forces.
To understand the changes that have been rendered in the development of the poem from the myth, it is necessary to further examine the possible sources of Yeats's knowledge of the myth.
Their unapologetic rejection of aesthetic utopianism provides a fissure that may very well allow us to challenge traditional narratives of Victorian optimism and come to a more refined understanding of the nature of the decadent dystopian vision--a vision that was both absorbed and transformed by Yeats.