William Butler Yeats is best known for his large contribution to the Irish Literary Renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, his writing alone would have been unique enough to start a literary renaissance even if he had not been joined by fellow authors Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Edwin Ellis, and many others. Yeats began writing because he was inspired by the culture and history of Ireland. As a child, Yeats moved often and later in life, he travelled constantly throughout Europe and to America. His early writings, based on Celtic myths and beliefs offered to him the foundation of his own culture which had survived for thousands of years, thus allowing him to be rooted in his homeland no matter where he travelled. Yeats style of poetry, especially, is obviously written to be different from any other author's and is meant to touch a part of the mind that has never before been reached by verse or prose.
His approach to poetry was definitely new to the world of literature and perhaps caused the uniqueness in his writing. Yeats, through his literary works, redefined the boundaries that had limited earlier writers and presented possibilities which had not previously been considered in writing poetry. He grasped a better understanding of where poetry should originate: We should write out our thoughts, he said, in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend... The life of William Butler Yeats was affected the most by the three things he loved best: Ireland, his intimate friend Maud Gonne, and literature. Yeats is born on June 13, 1865 in Dublin.
His parents are John Butler Yeats, an artist, and Susan Polexfen. At the age of two, Yeats and his family move to London where his brother Jack and sisters Elizabeth and Susan are born. Yeats moves to Hammersmith, England at the age of twelve and begins writing poetry in the 1880's befor moving back to Dublin in 1881, where he attended Erasmus Smith High School. The following year, Yeats moves to Islandview and falls in love with his distant cousin Laura Armstrong, with whom he has a short-lived romance due to her lack of interest in him. Yeats needs to leave Islandview and Laura behind after being rejected, thus he enrolls in the School of Art in Dublin at the age of nineteen. The following year, his first poems ware published in the Dublin University review and he joins literary clubs in his area.
In 1886, Yeats begins to immerse himself in the folk tales of Ireland, researching Gaelic legends and beginning to write about Ireland and its history. At this time, the Irish Literary Renaissance is beginning and Yeats, along with other Irish writers begins writing not only about Ireland, but his works are also directed toward an Irish audience. When Yeats is twenty-two, his mother suffers two strokes during a period of illness and Yeats moves with his family to London. He then joins the literary circle at the Kelmscott House of William Morris. This begins a period in Yeats writing in which he is greatly influenced by the literary works of Shelley and Spenser (Jeffares, x ). In 1888, Yeats publishes some of his writings in American journals, and for the first time, he becomes known outside of Great Britain.
He works as an editor, reviewer, and critic in the Bodleian, a publication at Oxford. The following year, Yeats publishes Crossways, his first book of poetry and later in the year, The Wanderings of Oisin, which includes more poems. He meets Oscar Wilde, Edwin Ellis, with whom he collaborates in writing Fairy and Folk Tales that year, and Maud Gonne, to whom he is immediately attracted. However, she is an Irish revolutionary and remains uninterested in his quiet, literary nature. He is thus influenced to become involved in the Irish Revolutionary Movement in order to catch the eye of his new found love.
In 1891, Yeats founds the National Literary Society at Dublin and the following year, he writes his first play, The Countess Cathleen for Maud Gonne, hoping that she will someday play the female lead. He also publishes another volume of Irish fairy tales. At the age of twenty-eight, he begins editing the Celtic Twilight and along with Ellis, edits The Works of William Blake. Yeats then publishes The Rose, another collection of poems. Soon after, he visits Paris for the first of many times and writes The Land of Heart's Desire. In 1896, he has an affair with fellow writer Olivia Shakespeare, but soon returns to the love of his life, Maud Gonne.
In another attempt to impress her, Yeats joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization that Yeats himself has little interest in. He then meets many of the other main contributors to the Irish Literary Renaissance, including Lady Gregory and J. M Synge. Yeats spends the following summer with his new friends at Coole, the estate of Lady Gregory and begins writing his only novel, The Speckled Bird, which is never published. In 1898, he goes on a tour of England and Scotland with Maud, who then rejects his proposal of marriage, and he soon goes again to Paris. Wind Among the Reeds is published, which is the first of Yeats poetry that sways from his early style and is obviously influenced by his study of Celtic culture. The Countess Cathleen is first performed in Dublin and receives negative reviews.
In 1900, Yeats mother dies and he gives up his career as a revolutionary by withdrawing from the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood and other similar organizations of which he is a member. In 1902, he becomes president of the Irish National Dramatic Society and publishes Cathleen Ni Houlihan, his most famous play. It is performed the same year in Dublin with Maud Gonne acting in the lead role. The following year, Maud suddenly marries John MacBride, a revolutionary, and a devastated Yeats goes to America for a lecture tour. He returns home and becomes producer and manager of the Abbey Theatre in 1904, and resigns this position in 1910. Over the next few years, Yeats publishes more collections of poems, including In the Seven Woods, Poems 1895-1905 and The Green Helmet.
He travels to Italy with Lady Gregory and Paris with Maud. In 1914, Yeats visits the United States again, where his popularity is growing. Two years later, John MacBride dies and Yeats proposes to the newly widowed Maud Gonne, who again rejects him. He gives up on Maud and marries Georgiana Hyde-Lees in London; they spend their honeymoon at Oxford. Over the next few years, Yeats travels around Great Britain and to America. He publishes The Wild Swans at Coole and Michael Rob artes and the Dancer, and his two children, Anne and Michael, are born.
In 1922, the Irish Civil War begins and Yeats father dies. The same year, Yeats is elected a senator of the Irish free state. He then receives the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, travels across Europe, and publishes A Vision and The Tower, more poems. In 1929, Yeats and his family move back to Dublin and he suffers from Malta fever, causing him to be ill for the rest of his life. Over the next few years, he publishes Seven Sages, Words for Music Perhaps, Collected poems and The Winding Stair; he also goes on his last U.S. tour. Yeats publishes most of his plays and essays in the mid 1930's and dies on January 28, 1939 at the age of 74.
His last poems were published the year of his death. He wrote constantly during the last decade of his life probably because the death of many of his close friends as well as his illness reminded him that he only had a short time left to live. Yeats writing produces many mixed reviews due to the fact that his style is still new and unique, and therefore not easily understood. Yeats poetry first appears in a time when the period of flourishing Anglo-Irish writers such as Swift, Burke, and Edgeworth e has long since ended. Ireland is then in a state of frustrated silence and New light and air had to be let into the closed minds of a people made suspicious and hysterically provincial through persecution and disaster. (Bogan, 7).
In his early years, Yeats is a dramatic young poet with a strong intellect hidden by his youthful indecision. However, his talent as a writer and his powerful personality are soon revealed to his peers after his style becomes more developed. In her 1938 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Louise Bogan observed that Yeats had inherited an intellectual energy, ... whirling yet deeply intuitive and ordered mind, with its balancing streak of common sense from his Anglo-Irish parents. During his childhood, Yeats is exposed to the untamed beauty of rural Ireland and Gaelic-speaking people who still carry with them the old Celtic beliefs and traditions. This experience fuels his interest in the history and culture of Ireland and influences his writing during the Irish Literary Renaissance.
Yeats is also determined to introduce through his poetry a renewed sense of confidence and nationalism to the people of Ireland. His early poetry is musical due to the influence of Percy Bys she Shelley and William Morris (Bogan, 6). It is also comparatively shallow to his later works because he is originally striving to write popular poetry before he begins writing of Gaelic beliefs and the history of Ireland. His early poems, such as the famous Lake Isle of Innis free are full of vivid imagery and sensory details, but do not go any further than to celebrate the beauty of people, places, and emotions (Bogan, 5-9). However, Yeats soon gains a new enthusiasm for writing during his visits to England in the early 1890's and He brought back seeds of this stimulation to Ireland: to a soil which had lain fallow for a long time (Bogan, 7).
Gaelic becomes more popular in Ireland during this period and Yeats follows this movement by including in his poetry essences of a mournful spiritual beauty (Jeffares, xv), commonly found in Gaelic verse. His beliefs, which were less than steadfast to his protestant upbringing, allowed him to sufficiently explore the possible truths of old Irish beliefs in his next volume of poetry. Yeats poetry from The Wind Among the Reeds, his first collection containing Celtic symbolism and Gaelic rhythm, was badly received by the public. However, these poems, these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened...
Ireland's ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music. (Bogan, 8). Around the turn of the century, his poetry reflects his worship of Maud Gonne and many poems from The Green Helmet express his lovesick devastation caused by her rejection (Jeffares, xv). In the 1910's, Yeats writing undergoes another change, resulting in his work shedding the last traces of immaturity. His poetry becomes almost prosaic, and he no longer hides the truths of his message in either imagery or symbolism. Yeats says of this new aspect of his writing style: If I can be sincere and make my language natural, and without becoming discursive, ...
I shall, if good or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet; for it will no longer be a question of literature at all. (Bogan, 9). This new writing was expressing the complexity of Yeats personality in simpler terms; baring his emotions and opinions and creating a clear picture for the reader. In his later poetry, he came to be an expert at the dramatic presentation of thoughts concerning love, death, the transience and hidden meaning of all things, not only in the form of a philosopher's speculation, a mystic's speech, or a scholar's lonely brooding, but also in the cracked and rowdy measures of a fool's, and old man's and an old woman's song. (Bogan, 11). Yeats so-called way with words is the main reason why he is easily understood as well as why he is easily misunderstood.
His love for Ireland is expressed in his later poetry and plays through demonstrating what society can be rather than praise of the history and traditions (Heaney, 4-5). At this point, he wants Ireland to be unified, and this comes off through his poetic self unification. He bridges the gaps between his previous opinions and his writing reflects a certain peace that he has attained and that he wishes Ireland may attain also (Heaney, 5). Cathleen Ni Houlihan is one of Yeats best known plays. It is a brief commentary on the past, present, and future of Ireland which is placed in historical context. It takes place in 1798, a pivotal date in Ireland's history and is meant to be connected to a similar situation during the time in which it was written.
The beginning expresses the everyday concerns of average Irish middle class people. However, their seemingly unimportant lives come to a crossroads when they encounter a strange old woman. They are kind to her, unlike some others who see her as a hopeless old woman. She talks of normal occurrences at first and then speaks cryptically about her life and the people she has known. She claims that many a man has died for love of [her]. (Yeats, 54) and the other characters are obviously disbelieving since she is only a poor old stranger.
The woman represents Ireland and the fight for independence, which is old and tired and in need of support. The other characters kindness toward her shows that some people still have faith in Ireland and hope for the future. She has come a long way but has not finished her journey yet and can still be seen at whatever time there's war or trouble coming. (Yeats, 50).
She complains that her fields have been stolen and that there are too many strangers in her house; the English have stolen almost all of Ireland from its people and have inhabited a land in which they are not welcome. At the end of the play, she is seen walking away from the other characters house and is no longer an old tired woman but a young girl [who] had the walk of a queen. (Yeats, 57). At this time, the French are arriving to fight for Ireland, and she is therefore young and revitalized because she is once again worth loving and fighting for. Yeats is suggesting that Ireland has already come so far and its future is full of possibilities. He is also reminding the reader that Ireland is still worth fighting for because it is still being taken advantage of by the English.
In his writing, Yeats covers the time before his birth, the events within the span of his lifetime, and the future after his death. He gives either a frank or an eloquent voice to the words of Ireland and its people and for that as well as his many other literary contributions, Yeats has given... Ireland the greatest [poet] it has ever known. (Bogan, 13). Bogan, Louise. William Butler Yeats.
The Atlantic Monthly. May 1938: 1-13. Heaney, Seamus. All Ireland's Bard. The Atlantic Monthly. November 1997: 1-11.
Wes dorp, Jack. Yeats Chronology. [Online]. Available at 20 May 2000. Yeats, W.B. Selected Poetry. A. Norman Jeffares, editor. London: Macmillan & Co., 1962.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952.