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William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Between the Celtic visions of The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and the intellectual, often obscure poetry of the 1930s, Yeats produced a tremendous amount of works. In his early career Yeats studied William Blake's poems, Emanuel Swedenborg's writings and other visionaries. Later he expressed his disillusionment with the reality of his native country. Central theme in Yeats's poems is Ireland, its bitter history, folklore, and contemporary life.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmith make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
(in 'Sailing to Byzantium')

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin into an Irish Protestant family. His father, John Butler Yeats, a clergyman's son, was a lawyer turned to an Irish Pre-Raphaelite painter. Yeats's mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a wealthy family - the Pollexfens had a prosperous milling and shipping business. His early years Yeats spent in London and Sligo, a beautiful county on the west coast of Ireland, where his mother had grown and which he later depicted in his poems. In 1881 the family returned to Dublin. While studying at the Metropolitan School of Art, Yeats met there the poet, dramatist, and painter George Russell (1867-1935), who was interested in mysticism. His search inspired also Yeats, who at that time associated Protestantism with materialism, and like Blake, he rejected the Newtonian mechanistic worldview. This turn was a surprise to his father, who had tried to raise his son without encouraging him to ponder with such questions, but had given him Blake's poetry to read.

Reincarnation, communication with the dead, mediums, supernatural systems and Oriental mysticism fascinated Yeats through his life. In 1886 he formed the Dublin Lodge of the Hermetic Society and took the magical name Daemon est Deus Inversus. The occult order also attracted Aleister Crowley. The Rhymers' Club, which Yeats founded with Ernest Rhys, he recalled it meeting each night "in an upper room with a sanded floor in an ancient eating-house in the Strand called the Cheshire Cheese".

As a writer Yeats made his debut in 1885, when he published his first poems in The Dublin University Review. In 1887 his family returned to Bedford Park, and Yeats devoted himself to writing. He visited Mme Blavatsky, the famous occultist, and joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, but was later asked to resign. In 1889 Yeats met his great love, Maud Gonne (1866-1953), an actress and Irish revolutionary, whom he wrote many poems. She married in 1903 Major John MacBride, and this episode inspired Yeats's poem 'No Second Troy'. "Why, what could she have done being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn." MacBride was later executed by the British.

Through Maud's influence Yeats joined the revolutionary organization Irish Republican Brotherhood. Maud had devoted herself to political struggle, but Yeats viewed with suspicion her world full of intrigues. A police report described Yeats as "more or less revolutionary". He was more interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of national heritage and for the revival of Celtic identity. His study with George Russell and Douglas Hyde of Irish legends and tales was published in 1888 under the name Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Yeats assembled for children a less detailed version, Irish Fairy Tales (1892, see also Wilhelm Grimm). The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), filled with sad longings, took its subject from Irish mythology.

In 1896 Yeats returned to live permanently in his home country. He reformed Irish Literary Society, and then the National Literary Society in Dublin, which aimed to promote the New Irish Library. Lady Gregory first saw W.B. Yeats 1894 - "...looking every inch a poet," she wrote in her diary - and again two years later. Their relationship started in 1897 and led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Irish National Theatre Society. It moved in 1904 into the new Abbey Theatre, named after the Dublin street in which it stood. Yeats worked as a director of the theatre, writing several plays for it. Another director was the dramatist John Synge (1871-1909), Yeats's close friend, whose masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World (1907) was greeted with riots and had to be performed uder police protection. Edmund Wilson once said, that Yeats's greatest contribution to the theatre was not his own plays but those of Synge.

Yeats's most famous dramas were Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), in which Maud Gonne gained great acclaim in the title role, and The Land of Heart's Desire (1894). Yeats did not have in the beginning much confidence in Lady Gregory's literary skills, but after seeing her translation of the ancient Irish Cuchulain sagas he changed his mind. Cathleen ni Houlihan has been credited to Yeats but now it is considered to be written by Lady Gregory - the idea came from Yeats and he wrote the chant of the old woman at the end. ('Lady Gregory's Toothbrush' by Colm Toibín, New York Times Review of Books, August 9, 2001)

Ezra Pound, whom Yeats met in 1912, served as his fencing master and secretary in the winters of 1913 and 1914. Pound introduced Yeats to Japanese Noh drama, which inspired his plays. In early 1917 Yeats bought Thoor Ballyle, a derelict Norman stone tower near Coole Park. After restoring it, the tower became his summer home and central symbol in his later poetry. At the age of 52, in 1917, he married Bertha Georgie Hyde Lees. Georgie, who was 26 and came from a well-to-do family, was fluent in French, German and Italian. Her father had died in 1909. She once confided to Yeats, that her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all alcoholics.

Although Yeats first had his doubts, the marriage was happy and they had a son and a daughter. However, before the marriage Yeats had proposed Maud Gonne, but he was also obsessed with Gonne's daughter Iseult, who turned him down. During their honeymoon, Yeats's wife demonstrated her gift for automatic writing. Their collaborative notebooks formed the basis of A Vision (1925), about marriage, occultism, and historical cycles. Most readers gave it a lukewarm reception. Gradually Georgie's role dwindled to copyist, editor, housekeeper, and nurse, and by the early 1930s she was too tired for sexual contact.

The change from suggestive, beautiful lyricism toward disillusionment was marked in Yeats poem 'September 1913' in which he stated: "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone." During the civil war Irish Free State soldiers burned many of Yeats's letters to Maud Gonne when they raided her house. In 1916 Yeats published 'Easter 1916' about the Irish nationalist uprising. It referred to the executed leaders of the uprising and stated: "Now and in time to be, / Wherever the green is worn, / All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." Although Irish politics was a central theme in many of Yeats's writings, he made clear a distinction between political and religious propaganda and art. At the start of the war, Yeats went to Oxford, but then returned to Dublin. In 1922 he became a senator in the Irish Free State. As a politician Yeats defended Protestant interests and took pro-Treaty stance against Republicans. Maud Gonne's son, Sean MacBride, was imprisoned without trial under emergency legislation that Yeats had voted for.

The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) was set on the Coole Park, the estate of Yeats's friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory. The tone of the work is reflective, almost conversational, and occasionally the poet lets loose his bitterness and grief of the past. Yeats registers the death of Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory's son, and Mabel Beardley, sister of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley. Yeats also returns to his relationship with Maud Gonne, who had rejected his love.

In 1932 Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters. Never a sophisticated political thinker, and favoring the leadership of the few, Yeats was briefly involved in 1933-34 with the fascist Blueshirts in Dublin and wrote some marching songs for them. In his final years Yeats worked on the last version of A Vision, which attempted to present a theory of the archetypes of human personality, and published The Oxford Book of Verse (1936) and New Poems (1938).

After finding breathing and walking difficult, Yeats tried to recover his health in the south of France. At one point he said to his wife that it was harder for him to live than to die. While staying at Cap Martin he fell terribly ill. Yeats died in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. He was  buried at Roquebrune. In 'Under Ben Buiben,' one of his last poems, he had written: " No marble, no conventional phrase; On limestone quarried near the spot / By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman; pass by!" Yeats's coffin was taken in 1948 to Druncliff in Sligo, but there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the bones. "The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."

The Rose Tree
"O words are lightly spoken",
said Pearse to Connolly;
"Maybe a breath of polite words
Has withered our Rose Tree;
Ore maybe but a wind that blows
Across the bitter sea."
"It needs to be but watered",
James Connolly replied,
"To make the green come out again
And spread on every side,
And shake the blossom from the bud
To be the garden's pride."
But where can we draw water",
Said Pearse to Connolly,
"When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There's nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree."
For further reading: Yeats, the Man and the Masks by Richard Ellman (1948); Swan and Shadow by Thomas Whitaker (1964); Yeats by Denis Donaghue (1976); Yeats at Work by Curtis Bradford (1978); The Poetry of W. B. Yeats by Louis MacNeice (1979); New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares (1984); W.B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares (1988); W.B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland by Donald T. Torchiana (1992); W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914, Vol. 1, by R. F. Foster (1997); Stone Cottage by James Longenbach (1998); The Life of W.B. Yeats by Terence Brown (1999); W. B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares (2001); Yeats: The Irish Literary Revival and the Politics of Print by Yug Mohit Chaudhry (2002); W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914, Vol. 2, by R. F. Foster (2002); Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats by Ann Saddlemyer (2002); W. B. Yeats: A Life, II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 by R. F. Foster (2003); Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by David A. Ross (2009) - Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn: Short lived but influential Western occult order. The founding of the Golden Dawn is based on a manuscript of alleged antiquity, but which may have been a forgery. The Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order was established on March 1, 1888. Yeats was initiated into the temple on March 7, 1890. - Other famous writers born in Dublin: Thomas Moore, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett. - See other writers interested in occultism: Arthur Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley - Suom.: Yeatsilta on julkaistu valikoima Runoja (1966) Aale Tynnin suomentamana. - Note: James Connolly (1870-1916) and Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) were Irish political figures, Pearse also an author. They participated in the Easter Rising in 1916 and were executed by the British authorities.

Selected bibliography:

  • The Island of Statutes, 1885
  • Mosada, 1886
  • Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888 (with George Russell and Douglas Hyde)
  • The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, 1889
  • John Sherman, and Dhoya, 1891
  • The Countess Cathleen. And Various Legends and Lyrics, 1892
  • Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1893 (edited by W.B. Yeats)
  • The Celtic Twilight, 1893
  • The Lake Isle of Innisfree, 1893
  • The Works of William Blake, 1893 (ed., with Edwin J. Ellis)
  • The Celtic Twilight: Men and Women, Dhouls and Faeries, 1893
  • The Land of Heart's Desire, 1894
  • Poems, 1895
  • The Secret Rose, 1897 (with illustrations by J. B. Yeats) 
  • Where There Is Nothing, 1897
  • The Tables of the Law; The Adoration of the Magi, 1897
  • The Specled Bird, 1897-1901
  • The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899
  • The Shadowy Waters, 1900
  • Cathleen ni Houlihan, 1902
  • Ideas of Good and Evil, 1903
  • On Baile's Strand, 1903
  • The Hour Glass: A Morality, 1903
  • In the Seven Woods, Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age, 1903
  • The Kings Treshold: A Play in Verse, 1904
  • Stories of Red Hanrahan, 1905 (with Lady Augusta Gregory)
  • Poems, 1899-1905, 1906
  • Discoveries: A Volume of Essays, 1907
  • Deirdre... Being Volume Five of Plays for an Irish Theatre, 1907
  • The Golden Helmet, 1908 (with Lady Gregory)
  • Poetry and Ireland: Essays by W. B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson, 1908
  • The Unicorn from the Stars, and Other Plays, 1908 (with Lady Gregory)
  • The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910
  • The Traveling Man, 1910
  • Plays for the Irish Theatre, 1911
  • The Pot of Broth, 1911
  • The Countess Cathleen, 1912
  • Poems Written in Discouragement, 1913
  • Reveries over Childhood and Youth, 1914
  • Responsibilities: Poems and a Play, 1914
  • Sailing to Byzantium, Politics, the Second Coming, Blood and the Moon, Easter, 1916
  • At the Hawk's Well, 1916
  • Per amica silentia lunae, 1917
  • The Wild Swans at Coole, 1917
  • Easter, 1916, 1916
  • The Cutting of an Agate, 1918
  • Two Plays for Dancers, 1919
  • Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1920
  • Four Plays for Dancers, 1921
  • Four Years (1887-91), 1921
  • The Trembling of the Veil, 1922
  • Plays in Prose and Verse, 1922
  • Seven Poems and a Fragment, 1922
  • Plays and Controversies, 1923
  • The Cat and the Moon, and Certain Poems, 1924
  • A Vision: An Explanation of Life Founded upon the Writings of Giraldus and upon Certain Doctrines Attributed to Kusta ben Luka, 1925 (rev. 1937)
  • The Bounty of Sweden: A Meditation, and a Lecture Delivered before the Royal Swedish Academy and Certain Notes, 1925
  • The Tower, 1928
  • Selected Poems: Lyrical and Narrative, 1930
  • Stories of Michael Bobartes and His Friends, 1932
  • Words for Music Perhaps, and Other Poems, 1932
  • The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933
  • Collected Poems, 1933
  • Collected Plays, 1934
  • The Words Upon the Window Pane, 1934
  • Wheels and Butterflies, 1934
  • Dramatis Personae, 1896-1902, 1935
  • Parnell's Funeral and Other Poems, 1935
  • A Full Moon in March, 1935
  • The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935, 1936 (edited by W.B. Yeats)
  • The Ten Principal Upanishads, 1937 (put into English by Shree Purohit Swāmi and W. B. Yeats)
  • Essays 1931-36, 1937
  • New Poems, 1938
  • The Herne's Egg: A Stage Play, 1938
  • Purgatory, 1938
  • Last Poems and Two Plays, 1939
  • On the Boiler, 1939
  • Letters on Poetry from W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 1940
  • Letters of W.B. Yeats to Florence Farr, 1941 (edited by Clifford Bax)
  • Diamuid and Grania, 1951 (with George Moore)
  • Collected Plays, 1952 (2d ed.)
  • W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 1901-1937, 1953  (edited by Ursula Bridge)
  • Some Letters of W.B. Yeats to John O'Leary and His Sister, 1953
  • Letters of W.B. Yeats to Katherine Tynan, 1953
  • The Letters of W.B. Yeats, 1954
  • Autobiographies, 1955
  • Poems, 1957
  • Mythologies, 1959
  • The Senate Speeches, 1960 (edited by Donald R. Pearce)
  • Essays and Introductions, 1961
  • Explorations, 1962 (selected by Mrs. W.B. Yeats)
  • Selected Criticism, 1964 (edited, with an introd. and notes by A. Norman Jeffares)
  • The Variorum Edition of the plays of W.B. Yeats, 1966 (edited by Russell K. Alspach, assisted by Catharine C. Alspach)
  • The Poems of W.B. Yeats, 1970 (selected, edited, and introduced by William York Tindall)
  • Ah, Sweet Dancer: W.B. Yeats, Margot Ruddock: A Correspondence, 1970 (edited by Roger McHugh)
  • Uncollected Prose, 1970-1976 (2 vols.,  edited by John P. Frayne)
  • Memoirs, 1972 (transcribed and edited by Denis Donoghue)
  • The Correspondence of Robert Bridges and W.B. Yeats, 1977 (edited by Richard J. Finneran)
  • The Secret Rose: Stories, 1981 (edited by Phillip L. Marcus, Warwick Gould and Michael J. Sidnell)
  • A Poet to His Beloved: The Early Love Poems of William Butler Yeats, 1985 (introduction by Richard Eberhart)
  • The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats, 1986- (ed. John Kelly et al.)
  • Purgatory: Manuscript Materials Including the Author's Final Text, 1986 (edited by Sandra F. Siegel)
  • Selected Poems and Three Plays of William Butler Yeats, 1986 (3rd ed., edited and with a new foreword and revised introduction and notes by M.L. Rosenthal)
  • The Poems, 1989   (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume I)
  • Prefaces and Introductions, 1990  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume VI)
  • The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938, 1992 (edited by Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares)
  • Later Essays, 1994  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume V)
  • Autobiographies, 1999 (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume III, edited by William H. O'Donnell, et al.)
  • The Plays, 2001  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume II)
  • The Irish Dramatic Movement, 2003 (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume VIII)
  • Early Articles and Reviews, 2004  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume IX)
  • Early Essays, 2007  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume IV)
  • A Vision: The Original 1925 Version, 2008 (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume XIII)
  • Later Articles and Reviews, 2010 (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume X)
  • John Sherman and Dhoya, 2011  (The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume XII)
  • The Resurrection: Manuscript Materials, 2011 (by Jared Curtis and Selina Guinness)
  • W.B. Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters, 2011 (edited by Ann Saddlemyer)

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