William Butler Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He belonged to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority that had controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland since at least the end of the 17th century. Most members of this minority considered themselves English people who happened to have been born in Ireland, but Yeats was staunch in affirming his Irish nationality. Although he lived in London for 14 years of his childhood (and kept a permanent home there during the first half of his adult life), Yeats maintained his cultural roots, featuring Irish legends and heroes in many of his poems and plays.
In 1885, an important year in Yeats’s early adult life, he saw his first publication, in the Dublin University Review, of his poetry and the beginning of his important interest in occultism. It was also the year that he met John O’Leary, a famous patriot who had returned to Ireland after totaling 20 years of imprisonment and exile for revolutionary nationalistic activities. O’Leary had a keen enthusiasm for Irish books, music, and ballads, and he encouraged young writers to adopt Irish subjects. Yeats, who had preferred more romantic settings and themes, soon took O’Leary’s advice, producing many poems based on Irish legends, Irish folklore, and Irish ballads and songs.
As Yeats began concentrating his poetry on Irish subjects, he was compelled to accompany his family in moving to London at the end of 1886. There he continued to devote himself to Irish subjects, writing poems, plays, novels, and short stories—all with Irish characters and scenes. In addition, he produced book reviews, usually on Irish topics. The most important event in Yeats’s life during these London years, however, was his acquaintance with Maud Gonne, a tall, beautiful, prominent young woman passionately devoted to Irish nationalism. Yeats soon fell in love with Gonne, and courted her for nearly three decades; although he eventually learned that she had already borne two children from a long affair, with Gonne’s encouragement Yeats redoubled his dedication to Irish nationalism and produced such nationalistic plays as The Countess Kathleen (1892), which he dedicated to her, and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which featured her as the personification of Ireland in the title role.
Gonne also shared Yeats’s interest in occultism and spiritualism. Yeats had been a theosophist, but in 1890 he turned from its sweeping mystical insights and joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. The society offered instruction and initiation in a series of ten levels, the three highest of which were unattainable except by magi (who were thought to possess the secrets of supernatural wisdom and enjoy magically extended lives). Yeats was fascinated by the possibility of becoming a magus, and he became convinced that the mind was capable of perceiving past the limits of materialistic rationalism. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years, becoming involved in its direction at the turn of the century and achieving the coveted sixth grade of membership in 1914, the same year that his future wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, also joined the society.
The turn of the century marked Yeats’s increased interest in theatre, an interest influenced by his father, a famed artist and orator whose love of highly dramatic moments in literature certainly contributed to Yeats’s lifelong interest in drama. In the summer of 1897 the author enjoyed his first stay at Coole Park, the County Galway estate of Lady Augusta Gregory. There he devised, with Lady Gregory and her neighbor Edward Martyn, plans for promoting an innovative, native Irish drama. In 1899 they staged the first of three annual productions in Dublin, including Yeats’s The Countess Kathleen, and in 1902 they supported a company of amateur Irish actors in staging both George Russell’s Irish legend “Deirdre” and Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan. The success of these productions led to the founding of the Irish National Theatre Society with Yeats as president. With a wealthy sponsor volunteering to pay for the renovation of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre as a permanent home for the company, the theatre opened on December 27, 1904, and included plays by the company’s three directors: Lady Gregory, John M. Synge (whose 1907 production “The Playboy of the Western World” would spark controversy with its savage comic depiction of Irish rural life), and Yeats, who was represented that night with On Baile’s Strand, the first of his several plays featuring heroic ancient Irish warrior Cuchulain.
During the entire first decade of the 20th century Yeats was extremely active in the management of the Abbey Theatre company, choosing plays, hiring and firing actors and managers, and arranging tours for the company. At this time he also wrote ten plays, and the simple, direct style of dialogue required for the stage became an important consideration in his poems as well. He abandoned the heavily elaborated style of The Wind among the Reeds in favor of conversational rhythms and radically simpler diction. This transformation in his poetic style can be traced in his first three collections of the 20th century: In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910), and Responsibilities (1914). Several poems in those collections use style as their subject. For example, in “A Coat,” written in 1912, Yeats derided his 1890s poetic style, saying that he had once adorned his poems with a coat “covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies.” The poem concludes with a brash announcement: “There’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” This departure from a conventional 19th-century manner disappointed his contemporary readers, who preferred the pleasant musicality of such familiar poems as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which he wrote in 1890.
Eventually, Yeats began experimenting as a playwright; in 1916, for instance, he adopted a deliberately esoteric, nonrealistic dramatic style based on Japanese Noh plays, a theatrical form to which he had been introduced by poet Ezra Pound. These plays were described by Yeats as “plays for dancers.”
While Yeats fulfilled his duties as president of the Abbey Theatre group for the first 15 years of the 20th century, his nationalistic fervor, however, was less evident. Maud Gonne, with whom he had shared his Irish enthusiasms, had moved to Paris with her husband, exiled Irish revolutionary John MacBride, and the author was left without her important encouragement. But in 1916 he once again became a staunch exponent of the nationalist cause, inspired by the Easter Rising, an unsuccessful, six-day armed rebellion of Irish republicans against the British in Dublin. MacBride, who was now separated from Gonne, participated in the rebellion and was executed afterward. Yeats reacted by writing “Easter, 1916,” an eloquent expression of his complex feelings of shock, romantic admiration, and a more realistic appraisal.
The Easter Rising contributed to Yeats’s eventual decision to reside in Ireland rather than England, and his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917 further strengthened that resolve. Earlier, in an introductory verse to Responsibilities,he had asked his ancestors’ pardon for not yet having married to continue his Irish lineage: “Although I have come close on forty-nine, / I have no child, I have nothing but a book.” Once married, however, Yeats traveled with his bride to Thoor Ballylee, a medieval stone tower where the couple periodically resided. With marriage came another period of exploration into complex and esoteric subjects for Yeats. He had long been fascinated by the contrast between a person’s internal and external selves—between the true person and those aspects that the person chooses to present as a representation of the self.
Yeats also continued to explore mysticism. Only four days after the wedding, his bride began what would be a lengthy experiment with the psychic phenomenon called automatic writing, in which her hand and pen presumably served as unconscious instruments for the spirit world to send information. Yeats and his wife held more than four hundred sessions of automatic writing, producing nearly four thousand pages that Yeats avidly and patiently studied and organized. From these sessions Yeats formulated theories about life and history. He believed that certain patterns existed, the most important being what he called gyres, interpenetrating cones representing mixtures of opposites of both a personal and historical nature. He contended that gyres were initiated by the divine impregnation of a mortal woman—first, the rape of Leda by Zeus; later, the immaculate conception of Mary. Yeats found that within each 2000 year era, emblematic moments occurred at the midpoints of the 1000 year halves. At these moments of balance, he believed, a civilization could achieve special excellence, and Yeats cited as examples the splendor of Athens at 500 B.C., Byzantium at A.D. 500, and the Italian Renaissance at A.D. 1500.
Yeats further likened these historical cycles to the 28 day lunar cycle, contending that physical existence grows steadily until it reaches a maximum at the full moon (phase fifteen), which Yeats described as perfect beauty. In the remaining half of the cycle, physical existence gradually falls away, until it disappears completely at the new moon, whereupon the cycle begins again. Applying this pattern both to historical eras and to individuals’ lives, Yeats observed that a person completes the phases as he advances from birth to maturity and declines toward death. Yeats further elaborated the scheme by assigning particular phases to specific types of personality, so that although each person passes through phases two through 14 and 16 through 28 during a lifetime, one phase provides an overall characterization of the individual’s entire life. Yeats published his intricate and not completely systematic theories of personality and history in A Vision (1925; substantially revised in 1937), and some of the symbolic patterns (gyres, moon phases) with which he organized these theories provide important background to many of the poems and plays he wrote during the second half of his career.
During these years of Yeats’s esoterica Ireland was rife with internal strife. In 1921 bitter controversies erupted within the new Irish Free State over the partition of Northern Ireland and over the wording of a formal oath of allegiance to the British Crown. These issues led to an Irish civil war, which lasted from June 1922, to May 1923. In this conflict Yeats emphatically sided with the new Irish government. He accepted a six-year appointment to the senate of the Irish Free State in December 1922, a time when rebels were kidnapping government figures and burning their homes. In Dublin, where Yeats had assumed permanent residence in 1922 (after maintaining a home for 30 years in London), the government even posted armed sentries at his door. As senator, Yeats considered himself a representative of order amid the chaotic new nation’s slow progress toward stability. He was now the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” of his poem “Among School Children,” which he wrote after touring an Irish elementary school. But he was also a world renowned artist of impressive stature, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Yeats’s poems and plays produced during his senate term and beyond are, at once, local and general, personal and public, Irish and universal. At night the poet could “sweat with terror” (a phrase in his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”) because of the surrounding violence, but he could also generalize those terrifying realities by linking them with events in the rest of the world and with all of history. The energy of the poems written in response to these disturbing times gave astonishing power to his collection The Tower (1928), which is often considered his best single book, though The Wild Swans at Coole (1917; enlarged edition, 1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower, The Winding Stair (1929); enlarged edition, 1933), and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932), also possess considerable merit.
Another important element of poems in both these collections and other volumes is Yeats’s keen awareness of old age. Even his romantic poems from the late 1890s often mention gray hair and weariness, though those poems were written while he was still a young man. But when Yeats was nearly 60, his health began to fail and he was faced with real, rather than imaginary, “bodily decrepitude” (a phrase from “After Long Silence”) and nearness to death. Nevertheless, despite the author’s often keen awareness of his physical decline, the last 15 years of his life were marked by extraordinary vitality and an appetite for life. He continued to write plays, including Sophocles’ King Oedipus and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (translations performed with masks in 1926 and 1927) and The Words upon the Window Pane (1934), a full-length work about spiritualism and the 18th century Irish writer Jonathan Swift. In 1929, as an expression of gaiety after recovering from a serious illness, he also wrote a series of brash, vigorous poems narrated by a fictitious old peasant woman, Crazy Jane. His pose as “The Wild Old Wicked Man” (the title of one of his poems) and his poetical revitalization was reflected in the title of his 1938 volume New Poems.
As Yeats aged, he saw Ireland change in ways that angered him. The Anglo-Irish Protestant minority no longer controlled Irish society and culture, and with Lady Gregory’s death in 1932 and the consequent abandonment of the Coole Park estate, Yeats felt detached from the brilliant achievements of the 18th Anglo-Irish tradition. According to Yeats’s unblushingly antidemocratic view, the greatness of Anglo-Irishmen such as Jonathan Swift, philosopher George Berkeley, and statesman Edmund Burke, contrasted sharply with the undistinguished commonness of contemporary Irish society, which seemed preoccupied with the interests of merchants and peasants. He stated his unpopular opinions in late plays such as Purgatory (1938) and the essays of On the Boiler (1939).
But Yeats offset his frequently brazen manner with the personal conflicts expressed in his last poems. He faced death with a courage that was founded partly on his vague hope for reincarnation and partly on his admiration for the bold heroism that he perceived in Ireland in both ancient times and the 18th century. In proud moods he could speak in the stern voice of his famous epitaph, written within six months of his death, which concludes his poem “Under Ben Bulben”: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” But the bold sureness of those lines is complicated by the error-stricken cry that “distracts my thought” at the end of another late poem, “The Man and the Echo,” and also by the poignantly frivolous lust for life in the last lines of “Politics,” the poem that he wanted to close Last Poems: “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms.”