W. B. Yeats
by Terence Brown
Yeats, William Butler (1865–1939), poet and dramatist, was born 13 June 1865 at Georgeville, Sandymount Avenue, Dublin, the eldest child of John Butler Yeats (qv) (1839–1922) and Susan Mary Yeats (née Pollexfen; 1841–1900). The couple had six children: besides William there were two other sons, one of whom died in infancy, and three daughters, one of whom also died in infancy.
Family background and early years Susan Yeats came from Sligo town, where her family had established a notable mercantile and shipping dynasty, while John Butler Yeats had strong Sligo connections, as his grandfather had served as rector of Drumcliff parish church in that county. The marriage was unhappy and John Butler Yeats, who abandoned a career at the Irish bar for the risky avocation of portrait and landscape painter, spent time in England apart from his wife and family during Yeats's childhood. During these separations Susan Yeats lived with her children at her father's house in Sligo, where the poet-to-be was powerfully affected by the western landscape, which he would later celebrate in verse. The family spent happier times together from 1879 to 1881, when they lived at the artists’ colony at Bedford Park in London, and from 1881 to 1884 (though without Yeats's brother Jack (qv)) at Howth, Co. Dublin. From 1884 to 1887 the Yeatses resided at 10 Ashfield Terrace, Terenure, in Dublin. Yeats was educated at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, at the Erasmus Smith High School, Dublin, and at the Metropolitan School of Art, Kildare Street, Dublin.
John Butler Yeats as a young man had forsaken the Church of Ireland orthodoxy of his family tradition and his clergyman father, and taken up positivism in the mould of Auguste Comte, a belief system that his elder son found uncongenial to his imagination. From his late teens Yeats, reacting against Darwinian thought and scientific reductionism, was drawn to religious speculation and was open to heterodox ideas, which formed the basis of a life-long passion for occult knowledge. Friendship with George Russell (qv) (AE), whom he met at art school, brought him among the members of a Dublin branch of the Theosophical Society, whose principal prophet was Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. When the family moved from Dublin to London in 1887 Yeats had the opportunity to join those who looked to her in person for spiritual guidance.
First works Yeats began writing poetry and drama in 1884. His early efforts were markedly derivative of the English tradition. It was the old Fenian John O'Leary (qv), whom he met in Dublin in 1885, who introduced him to Irish literature in English, which encouraged him to believe that he could himself extend a distinctively national tradition. The works of Standish James O'Grady (qv) had popularised Celtic saga material and Yeats found in this the inspiration for his own vision of a heroic Irish past, in which the figure of Cuchulain (Cú-Chulainn (qv)) played a major part throughout his career as a writer.
Yeats's first publication in booklet form, the privately printed Mosada: a dramatic poem, appeared in Dublin 1886, but it was The wanderings of Oisin and other poems, published in London in 1889, which served notice that a remarkable poet was in the making. The long title poem in this volume was an impressive work, which employed Irish legend to contrast a vitally pagan Celtic antiquity with the Ireland inaugurated by the coming of the Christian St Patrick. This poem expressed in symbolic terms Yeats's developing conviction that the occult traditions he had been exploring in Dublin and London had links with the pagan religious spirit of pre-Christian Ireland. The poet's immersion in occultism deepened in 1890 when he was initiated in London into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian and Kabbalistic esoteric society which practised ritual magic. Throughout the 1890s the order preoccupied Yeats to a marked degree, feeding his imaginative life and infusing his increasingly hierophantic verse with symbolic implications. The volumes Poems (1895) and The wind among the reeds (1899) were the work not only of a poet who had learned his symbolism from Shelley and Blake (Yeats with Edwin John Ellis had edited and published a three-volume edition of Blake's works in 1893) and from the French symbolists (to whose poems a friend, the poet and critic Arthur Symons, had introduced him) but also of one who yearned for the powers of a magus.
The resettling of the Yeats family in London (once again without Jack) in 1887 not only allowed Yeats to satisfy his occult interests but to acquaint himself with the literary life of the capital. He attended lectures at William Morris's house (where his sister Susan Mary Yeats (qv) trained as a designer and seamstress). He was a member of the Rhymers’ Club, which met in the Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street after c.1891, and had meetings with Oscar Wilde (qv) and George Bernard Shaw (qv). The family home, which from March 1888 was at 3 Blenheim Road, Bedford Park, gave Yeats a base from which to launch himself as a poet and man of letters in fin de siècle London.
In this the cultivation of an Irish and Celtic identity was something of an advantage, conferring a certain fashionable exoticism on the young poet. Yeats attended the Southwark Irish Literary Club and in 1892 helped to found an Irish Literary Society in London and the central National Literary Society in Dublin. He deliberately adopted the ideology of an Irish cultural nationalism as he sought in prolific editorial and reviewing work to promote the ideal of an Irish cultural renaissance. He believed that the death of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) in 1891 and the defeat of the second home rule bill in 1893 had left Ireland like soft wax which could be moulded creatively. This work took him frequently to Ireland, where his hopes for a circulating library of republished Irish literary and historical works were largely disappointed in 1893. His nationalism was also expressed in political republicanism (he may have taken the IRB oath in the 1880s), in which he was encouraged by his friend, the beautiful and redoubtable Maud Gonne (qv). Yeats had met Gonne, the daughter of an English mother and a soldier father, in 1889 and had become deeply enamoured of her beauty and impressed by her revolutionary ardour. She became the object of his romantic longing, a muse courted in his 1890s verse in a way that associates her with Cathleen ni Houlihan as a figure of Ireland herself. She refused his proposal of marriage in August 1891.
In 1894 Yeats met Augusta Gregory (qv), of Coole Park, Co. Galway, who became one of his most generous patrons. Their friendship lasted until Gregory's death in 1932. In 1895 Yeats left the family home to share rooms with Arthur Symons at Fountain Court in the Temple. In February 1896 he moved to rooms at 18 Woburn Buildings, near Euston station, since he wished to conduct an amatory relationship with the married novelist Olivia Shakespear. Their love affair was short-lived, but it was replaced by another of the poet's most lasting friendships. Woburn Buildings remained Yeats's London home until his marriage in 1917. In December 1896 Yeats met John Millington Synge (qv) for the first time, in Paris. Synge's premature death in 1909 affected Yeats profoundly.
Theatre and politics, 1897–1916 Between 1897 and 1915 the Gregory house and estate provided the poet with a retreat and sanctuary where he spent summers recuperating from the stresses of increasingly public life in Britain and Ireland. It was in 1897, shortly before Yeats's first extended stay at Coole, that he and Gregory, together with Edward Martyn (qv) (artistic patron and playwright), conceived the idea of a ‘Celtic’ theatre; this developed into the Irish Literary Theatre, which mounted its first plays in Dublin in May 1899. The inaugural season included Yeats's own drama ‘The Countess Cathleen’, which met with theological objections before the production was staged and condemnation by Cardinal Logue (qv) after its premiere. The play, set in famine times, revolves around an aristocratic lady who sells her soul to pay for relief of the starving peasantry. While catholic objections to it focused on the morality of making one who sells her soul a heroine, nationalist sensibilities were also offended: others remembered how during the famine protestant proselytisers had traded food for souls, and it seemed to them a historical travesty to portray a representative of the ascendancy as a self-sacrificial victim of famine. Yeats was discovering that the cultural wax in Ireland was not as malleable as he had believed.
Events in 1898 had also been enforcing that lesson. In February 1897 in London Yeats was elected chairman of a committee to organise a commemoration of the United Irish rebellion of 1798. This involved him in a great deal of travelling in Britain and Ireland, many public meetings, and in June 1897 a riotous gathering in Dublin. The commemoration in Dublin in August 1898 drew large crowds, when a foundation stone was laid at the north-west corner of St Stephen's Green for a monument to Wolfe Tone (qv), though it was never erected on that site. However, Yeats's hopes that this occasion would prove the stimulus for an effective, peaceable secessionist movement which would quickly dissolve the union of Ireland and Great Britain proved illusory. This was confirmed in 1900 when Queen Victoria visited Ireland to considerable popular acclaim and to a protest letter from the poet in the nationalist press.
Yeats's personal life in the final years of the nineteenth century and in the first years of the twentieth was also marked by disappointments and frustrations. In December 1898 Gonne told him of her liaison with a French Boulangist, Lucien Millevoye, with whom she had two children out of wedlock, a son who had died, and a daughter, Iseult. She now seemed willing to marry the poet, but a shocked Yeats baulked, preferring to contract what they together thought of as a ‘spiritual marriage’ with each other. The highpoint of their relationship was Gonne's appearance in the title part of ‘Cathleen ni Houlihan’, the nationalistic and republican play Yeats and Lady Gregory co-authored, which was produced in Dublin in April 1902. The nadir came in February 1903 when Yeats learned that Gonne, having converted to catholicism, had married the nationalist and hero of the Boer war John MacBride (qv). The fact that the marriage, which produced one son, Seán MacBride (qv), quickly became unsustainable, reportedly in sordid circumstances, added to the poet's pained responses to what seemed like a betrayal.
The turn of the century brought further changes for Yeats and his family. In 1900 his mother died in London after a long period of semi-invalidism. In 1901 his father left Bedford Park for Dublin, to be joined by his daughters. In south Co. Dublin ‘Lily’ (Susan Mary Yeats) and ‘Lollie’ (Elizabeth Corbet Yeats (qv)) established in 1902, with Evelyn Gleeson (qv), the Dun Emer Industries, a design and print workshop in the Arts and Crafts tradition; the enterprise included a printing press, whose first published volume was a book of verse by the sisters’ brother ‘Willie’, In the seven woods (1904). Following a split with Gleeson, the Yeats sisters in 1908 founded Cuala Industries and its associated Cuala Press. For Yeats, who served as a literary consultant to Cuala and who sometimes had to provide financial assistance to his sisters’ ventures, the press remained an interest and concern for the rest of his life. Many of his books were first published under the Cuala imprint.
In 1901 Yeats first corresponded with the New York lawyer John Quinn (qv), whose support for Yeats later proved invaluable, and whose financial generosity to John Butler Yeats when he moved permanently to the United States in 1907 was the sharing of a considerable burden. Quinn introduced Yeats to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche in 1902, and Yeats immersed himself in the German philosopher's work, absorbing from it the conviction that conflict in art as in life could energise in dramatic, even heroic ways. This view found expression in Yeats's first play to take Cuchulain as hero, ‘On Baile's strand’ (1904). And it was Quinn who organised Yeats's 1903–4 lecture tour of the United States, which proved both remunerative and a boost to the poet's self-confidence, then at a low ebb following Gonne's marriage and attacks on his national credentials in the nationalist press in Ireland of the same kind as had been made during ‘The Countess Cathleen’ controversy.
In December 1904, under the auspices of the Irish National Theatre Society (successor of the Irish Literary Theatre), of which Yeats was president, the Abbey Theatre mounted its first productions. The opposition that Yeats could expect in such a venture had been suggested in 1903, when John Synge's play for the Irish National Theatre Society ‘In the shadow of the glen’ had drawn patriotic ire (including that of Maud Gonne) for impugning the purity of Irish womanhood. For the rest of the decade Yeats was heavily involved with theatre business, somewhat to the detriment of his poetic creativity. Seeking to establish an art theatre (influenced by Edward Gordon Craig's conception of ‘total theatre’) in competition with more commercial houses in Dublin, he was hampered by what he thought were his actors’ inadequacies, and at the same time had to fight for his vision of a poetic drama (in which battle he was robustly supported by Lady Gregory) in the face of the critical depredations of advanced nationalism. This struggle reached a climax on the first night in January 1907 of Synge's comic masterpiece ‘The playboy of the western world’, when the stage action was terminated by a riotous crowd. Yeats resolutely defended Synge but attributed his untimely death in 1909 to the after-effects of the ‘Playboy’ controversy. In May 1907 Yeats, Lady Gregory, and her son visited Italy together.
In 1908 an eight-volume collected edition of Yeats's work in poetry, drama, and prose appeared. He had published little verse since 1904 and this publication seemed to confirm him as a fin de siècle figure whose poetic achievement, in its dreamy other-worldliness, was the quintessence of the ‘Celtic twilight’. Collections published in 1910 (The green helmet) and 1914 (Responsibilities) signalled, however, considerable poetic development. These volumes were marked by a willingness to engage, in dramatic lyrics, with the actual conditions of an Ireland in which the poet found himself increasingly embattled. The protracted delay on the part of Dublin corporation in providing an appropriate home for a collection of pictures that Lady Gregory's nephew Sir Hugh Lane (qv) had donated to the city, particularly aroused his satirical contempt in the latter volume.
In 1910 Yeats was granted a civil list pension by the UK government. He began to be preoccupied by spiritualist experiments and from 1912 onwards he attended many séances as his involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn and in the Irish theatrical and political scenes began somewhat to wane. In late 1913 and early 1914 he and the young American poet Ezra Pound shared a residence, Stone Cottage, near Ashdown Forest, Sussex, from where Yeats left on a second tour of the United States in January 1914. He spent extended periods at Stone Cottage with Pound and his wife, Dorothy, in 1915 and 1916; Pound acted as his amanuensis and literary companion at a period during the first world war when Yeats felt alienated from England's military preoccupations and oddly remote from pressing Irish concerns. He turned to Japanese Noh drama, to which Pound introduced him, as a model for his own dramatic experiments and completed an autobiographical work in prose which appeared as Reveries over childhood and youth in 1915.
The Easter rising and its aftermath The Easter rising of April 1916, which he heard about in England, and its sacrificial aftermath, greatly surprised and disturbed the poet. He had doubted that the capacity for heroic tragedy existed in modern Ireland. He spent the summer of 1916 with Maud Gonne in Normandy. He proposed again, once more without success, and then discussed the possibility of marriage with Iseult. From this summer and early autumn came Yeats's famous poem on the rising, ‘Easter 1916’, which he did not publish until October 1920. His play, based on Noh drama, ‘The dreaming of the bones’ (1919), also dealt with these events.
The Easter rising focused Yeats's attention more fully on Ireland again. In March 1917 he purchased a Norman keep at Ballylee, Co. Galway with the intention of making it habitable as his Irish residence. On 20 October 1917 he married Bertha Georgie Hyde Lees (1892–1968; see Bertha Georgie Yeats (qv)), known as George, only daughter of William Gilbert Hyde, afterwards Hyde Lees, army officer, and Edith Ellen Woodmass. Together they supervised the renovation of Thoor, Ballylee, in 1918, intending that it should be their Irish home; in the autumn of that year they occupied the cottage beside their tower for the first time. Yeats gave up his rooms at Woburn Buildings in mid 1919. In the early years of their marriage the young wife and her middle-aged husband resided at various addresses in Britain and Ireland, Oxford and its environs providing some domestic stability during the uncertainty of the war of independence. In 1920 Mrs Yeats accompanied her husband on a five-month lecture tour of the United States. On 26 February 1919 their daughter, Anne (qv), was born and on 22 August 1921 their son, Michael (d. 2007), completed the family; Anne was to become a painter, Michael a politician. In March 1922 the Yeatses settled more permanently at 82 Merrion Square, Dublin.
During the Yeatses’ honeymoon George discovered a capacity for automatic writing. The poet was fascinated and for several years they conducted together, employing automatic script and dream material, what they believed was spiritualist contact with ‘communicators’, who supplied Yeats with an account of the forces governing historical change and human personality. The scheme that emerged, dialectical and cyclical, began to provide metaphors for Yeats's poetry and a means of comprehending more generally in his writings the violence and chaos of the times. Yeats found his collaboration with George in this enterprise personally and imaginatively renewing. The month after their wedding he published a slim Cuala Press volume of verse, The wild swans at Coole. In 1919 this was reissued by his London publishers, Macmillan, with new poems, to make a much more ample volume. It was followed in February 1921 by a further collection, Michael Robartes and the dancer, which contained not only poems of marital satisfaction, but one of Yeats's most resonant poems on historical apocalypse (which drew on imagery and ideas supplied by the automatic script), ‘The second coming’.
The Yeatses spent some of the worst months of the civil war in 1922 at Thoor, Ballylee, where a bridge was blown up by anti-treaty forces. In December of that year the poet was appointed a senator in the Free State parliament and awarded an honorary D.Litt. by TCD (further honorary degrees followed from the universities of Aberdeen, 1924, and Oxford, 1931). In November 1923 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.
As senator Yeats contributed conscientiously to debates on social and cultural matters. His speech of 11 June 1925 on divorce was a robust defence of personal liberty that aroused considerable controversy. In 1926 he was appointed chairman of a committee charged with the design of a new coinage for the state; the images chosen raised objections because of their lack of Christian iconography. Also in 1926 the play about the Easter rising by Sean O'Casey (qv) for the Abbey Theatre, ‘The plough and the stars’, provoked a near riot. Once again Yeats was forced into the public arena to defend a work of art. At the beginning of 1926 there appeared Yeats's prose work A vision, which adumbrated at length the historical and psychological schema his wife's mediumship had made available. Yeats hoped its vision of conflict as a creative force in human affairs and in the life of the mind would alleviate sterile controversy in post-civil-war Ireland. The assassination of Kevin O'Higgins (qv) on 10 July 1927, which troubled Yeats deeply, indicated how profoundly the new Ireland was destructively divided.
In November 1927 Yeats visited Spain and the south of France. He became seriously ill with congestion of the lungs and was forced to convalesce at Cannes in early 1928. On his recovery he travelled to Rappallo in Italy, where he and George rented an apartment in which they hoped to winter in future years. They vacated their house in Merrion Square, leaving it in July 1928, and took an apartment in Fitzwilliam Square in early August. Yeats left the senate in September 1928, though not before he had registered in print his opposition to the bill that prepared the way for the Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. The autumn of 1928 and much of 1929 were spent in Rappallo, Italy, where he became acutely ill with Malta fever in December of the latter year. His recovery was in doubt. He recuperated in Italy, returning to Ireland only in July 1930.
The tower (1928), which many critics consider Yeats's finest single volume of poetry, has as one of its themes the kind of bodily decrepitude that had begun to afflict the poet before its publication. It sets an ageing, self-questioning poet against the turbulence of a violent history in which the consolations of art and occult knowledge and the memories of love seem only partial bulwarks against a tragic sense of life. These themes are in tune with Yeats's versions of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the king’, first performed at the Abbey Theatre in December 1926, and a version of ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ from September 1927. Some of The tower's darkest passages evoke the horrors of both the war of independence and the civil war in Ireland. Only the dramatic energy of the language suggests how the poet defeated the temptation to despair.
Last years Between July 1930 and July 1932 the Yeatses led an unsettled life. They moved for a time to a house at South Hill, Killiney, in February 1931, where they remained until May of that year, before returning to Fitzwilliam Square. In 1931 and 1932 the poet spent much of the autumn and winter at Coole, where Lady Gregory was terminally ill. She died on 22 May 1932. In July 1932 the Yeatses moved to Riversdale, Rathfarnham, Dublin, the poet's last home. In the autumn, following the foundation of an Irish Academy of Letters, which Yeats organised to oppose literary censorship, the poet departed for what would prove his last visit to the United States. Back in Ireland, in the summer of 1933 he became excited by the short-lived, quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement and offered his support. The disillusionment with democratic politics that this step represented found anguished expression in some of the poems collected in The winding stairs and other poems, which was published in September 1933. A concern with the body and with explicit sexuality in this book marked a new direction that his work had taken since the start of the 1930s. His Collected poemsappeared in November 1933 and his Collected plays in November 1934.
In April 1934 Yeats underwent the Steinhach operation in the hope that it would revive his sexual potency. Whatever its effect, Yeats, between bouts of ill health, conducted a series of erotic dalliances with a number of women in the final years of his life, as his work in poetry and drama became daringly open about sexual desire. In 1934 he began amatory friendships with a young actress, Margot Collis, and with the novelist Ethel Mannin (1900–84). In 1934 he also met the poet Dorothy Wellesley, who offered Yeats a retreat at her Sussex home and a romantic entanglement conducted through the shared medium of verse making.
In 1935 Yeats's longest friendship ended when AE died. At the end of the year, with the publication of Dramatis personae, he completed the autobiographical prose reflections on his early life and career, begun in Reveries over childhood and youth and continued in The trembling of the veil (1922). In November the poet sailed for Majorca in the company of Shri Purohit Swami, with whom he intended to work on a translation of the Upanishads (they appeared as The ten principal Upanishads in 1937). In late January 1936 he once more became dangerously ill. His wife was summoned. By April he had recovered but his new-found health was disturbed in May when Margot Collis arrived in Majorca, exhibiting symptoms of the insanity that would eventually incapacitate her. Yeats returned to Ireland in June. In November The Oxford book of modern verse, which Yeats had edited, appeared to considerable controversy. He had excluded from his anthology, among others, the war poet Wilfred Owen, and had included in it work by friends to a degree that some found excessive (the poetry of Dorothy Wellesley was extensively represented).
In 1937 Yeats was elected to membership of the Athenaeum, made several broadcasts for the BBC, and published a revised version of A vision (upon which he had spent many years). In May he announced his retirement from public life. His personal life was enhanced by a new friendship, with the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald. In 1938 Yeats spent January to mid-March in the south of France, where he returned in November, leaving Ireland for the last time. In the final year of his life he worked to put both the Cuala Press and the Abbey Theatre on sound footings. His new play, ‘Purgatory’, was produced at the Abbey in August, rousing some theological controversy. Its implied argument that miscegenation with the native Irish was a cause of Anglo-Irish degeneration derived from Yeats's interest in eugenics (he was a member of the Eugenics Society). An elitist fear of mass society, an aversion from middle-class politics, and a wish for population control found even franker, rebarbative expression in a pamphlet he completed in 1938 (On the boiler, published posthumously in 1939). These attitudes influenced some of the pieces in New poems, published in May 1938, finding expression in verses based on broadside ballads, in a way that indicated the poet's desire to sing ‘the Irishry’ in a traditional mode and defy a degraded modernity.
Death and legacy Yeats died at the Hôtel Idéal-Séjour, Cap-Martin, in the south of France on 28 Janaury 1939. He was buried at Roquebrune cemetery (his remains were disinterred and laid to rest in Drumcliff churchyard, Co. Sligo, in 1948). His posthumous volume, Last poems and two plays (which included the testamentary ‘Under Ben Bulben’ and the play completed on his death-bed, ‘The death of Cuchulain’), appeared in July 1939.
On his death Yeats was widely recognised as one of the great poets of the era. T. S. Eliot described him in 1940 as ‘one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them’ (James Hall and Martin Steinmann (ed.), The permanence of Yeats (1961), 307). Since then his reputation has increased, as he has come to be recognised as one of the greatest of English-language poets, whose extraordinary development as an artist took him from the other-worldly reveries of the ‘Celtic twilight’ and from Shelleyan Romantic idealism to tragic engagements with the modern, in poetry that shared something of the experimentalism of the high Modernist period. His achievements as a dramatist have never received quite the same acclaim, though his innovations in theatrical technique are now identified by critics as among the significant influences on the dramaturgy of Samuel Beckett (qv).
Yeats's papers are deposited in many libraries in Ireland, Britain, and the United States, including the Berg Collection, New York Public Library; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the British Library; the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia; the Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Lilly Library, University of Indiana; the Kenneth Spenser Research Library, University of Kansas; the NLI; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
There are statues of Yeats in Sligo town and at St Stephen's Green, Dublin. Among the principal portraits of the poet are those by Augustus John (etching, 1907, Manchester City Galleries; oils, 1930, Glasgow City Art Gallery), John Singer Sargent (charcoal, 1908, private collection), and John Butler Yeats (oils, 1900, NGI).