William Butler Yeats

Gort W.B. Yeats, Nobel Laureate for literature, senator and co-founder with other Burren Lowlands residents, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park and Edward Martyn of Tullira Castle founded Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey Theatre. In 2015, Ireland and the Burren Lowlands celebrated the 150th anniversary of his birth

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin. His father was a lawyer and a well-known portrait painter. Yeats was educated in London and in Dublin, but he spent his summers in the west of Ireland in the family's summer house at Connaught. The young Yeats was very much part of the fin de siecle in London; at the same time he was active in societies that attempted an Irish literary revival. His first volume of verse appeared in 1887, but in his earlier period his dramatic production outweighed his poetry both in bulk and in import. Together with Lady Gregory he founded the Irish Theatre, which was to become the Abbey Theatre, and served as its chief playwright until the movement was joined by John Synge. His plays usually treat Irish legends; they also reflect his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism. 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.

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body's laid asleep.
For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;

WB Yeats - To Ireland in the Coming Times (1893)


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 is full of moving protests against it. He was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922. Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement. His poetry, especially the volumes 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), made him one of the outstanding and most influential twentieth-century poets writing in English. His recurrent themes are the contrast of art and life, masks, cyclical theories of life (the symbol of the winding stairs), and the ideal of beauty and ceremony contrasting with the hubbub of modern life.

William Butler Yeats was the eldest in a family "that had once had money, social influence and a history in Ireland." By the 1860s, the family had only the history left. Yeats's life coincided almost exactly with the decline of his class, as "a sense of cultural and social marginalization and insecurity haunted the Irish Protestant universe" from the 1860s on. "The new world of self-confident Catholic democracy" was taking over of Irish public life and redefining "Irishness." As his sister Lily remarked with some bitterness some years after independence, "We are far more Irish than all the Saints and Martys - Parnell - Pearse - Madam Markiewicz - Maud Gonne - De Valera - and no one ever thinks of speaking of them as Anglo-Irish."

Gort The decline of the Irish Protestant universe was complicated, for Yeats, by his father's preference for the bohemian life of an artist over the respectable career in law he had qualified for at Trinity College Dublin. For much of Yeats's childhood - spent in Sligo, in London, and in Dublin - there was scarcely enough money for food and clothing, let alone money to pay for a good education; he speaks of having felt humiliated and of his youth as "a truly dreadful time." His post-secondary schooling consisted of an undistinguished art school he abandoned when he was 20.

In Yeats's early poetry, up to the volume, In the Seven Woods (1904), we can see the influences of English Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Symbolism. Two further influences were the occult and the languorous world of the Celtic twilight poets of the 1890s. Yeats saw himself as writing for Ireland and out of an Irish poetic tradition. However, his Ireland is the shadowy world of Celtic legend, rather than a contemporary reality. "The Song of Wandering Aengus" captures the essence of Yeats's early poetry.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

WB Yeats - The Song of Wandering Aengus