William Butler Yeats

1865–1939
William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth 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 seventeenth century. Most members of this minority considered themselves English people who merely happened to have been born in Ireland, but Yeats was staunch in affirming his Irish nationality. Although he lived in London for fourteen 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. He was equally firm in adhering to his self-image as an artist. This conviction led many to accuse him of elitism, but it also unquestionably contributed to his greatness. As fellow poet W. H. Auden noted in a 1948 Kenyon Review essay entitled "Yeats as an Example," Yeats accepted the modern necessity of having to make a lonely and deliberate "choice of the principles and presuppositions in terms of which [made] sense of his experience." Auden assigned Yeats the high praise of having written "some of the most beautiful poetry" of modern times.

Eighteen eighty-five was an important year in Yeats's early adult life, marking the 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 twenty 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 he explained in a note included in the 1908 volume Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats: "When I first wrote I went here and there for my subjects as my reading led me, and preferred to all other countries Arcadia and the India of romance, but presently I convinced myself ... that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end."

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 for nearly three decades he courted her; 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 thirty-two 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.

Although Yeats's occult ambitions were a powerful force in his private thoughts, the Golden Dawn's emphasis on the supernatural clashed with his own need—as a poet—for interaction in the physical world, and thus in his public role he preferred to follow the example of John Keats, a Romantic poet who remained—in comparison with Romantics William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley—relatively close to the materials of life. Yeats avoided what he considered the obscurity of Blake, whose poetic images came from mystical visions rather than from the familiar physical world. Even so, Yeats's visionary and idealist interests were more closely aligned with those of Blake—and Shelley—than with those of Keats, and in the 1899 collection The Wind among the Reeds he featured several poems employing occult symbolism.

Most of Yeats's poetry, however, used symbols from ordinary life and from familiar traditions, and much of his poetry in the 1890s continued to reflect his interest in Irish subjects. During this decade he also became increasingly interested in poetic techniques. He befriended English decadent poet Lionel Johnson, and in 1890 they helped found the Rhymers' Club, a group of London poets who met to read and discuss their poems. The Rhymers placed a very high value on subjectivity and craftsmanship and preferred sophisticated aestheticism to nationalism. The club's influence is reflected in the lush density of Yeats's poetry of the times, culminating in The Wind among the Reeds (1899). Although Yeats was soon to abandon that lush density, he remained permanently committed to the Rhymers' insistence that a poet should labor "at rhythm and cadence, at form and style"—as he reportedly told a Dublin audience in 1893.

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 twentieth 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 twentieth 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 nineteenth-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.

Simplification was only the first of several major stylistic changes. In "Yeats as an Example?" an essay in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, the prominent Irish poet Seamus Heaney commended Yeats for continually altering and refining his poetic craftsmanship. "He is, indeed, the ideal example for a poet approaching middle age," Heaney declared. "He reminds you that revision and slog-work are what you may have to undergo if you seek the satisfaction of finish; he bothers you with the suggestion that if you have managed to do one kind of poem in your own way, you should cast off that way and face into another area of your experience until you have learned a new voice to say that area properly."

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 fifteen years of the twentieth 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 had first mentioned the value of masks in 1910 in a simple poem, "The Mask," where a woman reminds her lover that his interest in her depends on her guise and not on her hidden, inner self. Yeats gave eloquent expression to this idea of the mask in a group of essays, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918): "I think all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a re-birth as something not one's self." This notion can be found in a wide variety of Yeats's poems.

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 two-thousand-year era, emblematic moments occurred at the midpoints of the thousand-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 twenty-eight 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 fourteen and sixteen through twenty-eight 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 thirty 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 sixty, 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 fifteen 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 eighteenth-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 eighteenth-century 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 eighteenth 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."

Throughout his last years, Yeats's creative imagination remained very much his own, isolated to a remarkable degree from the successive fashions of modern poetry despite his extensive contacts with other poets. Literary modernism held no inherent attraction for him except perhaps in its general association with youthful vigor. He admired a wide range of traditional English poetry and drama, and he simply was unconcerned that, during the last two decades of his life, his preference for using rhyme and strict stanza forms would set him apart from the vogue of modern poetry. Yeats's allegiance to poetic tradition did not extend, however, to what he considered an often obscure, overly learned use of literary and cultural traditions by T. S. Eliot and Pound. Yeats deplored the tremendous enthusiasm among younger poets for Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922. Disdaining Eliot's flat rhythms and cold, dry mood, Yeats wanted all art to be full of energy. He felt that the literary traditions furnishing Eliot with so many allusions and quotations should only be included in a poem if those traditions had so excited the individual poet's imagination that they could become poetic ingredients of the sort Yeats described in "The Tower": "Poet's imaginings / And memories of love, / Memories of the words of women, / All those things whereof / Man makes a superhuman / Mirror-resembling dream."

Yeats wanted poetry to engage the full complexity of life, but only insofar as the individual poet's imagination had direct access to experience or thought and only insofar as those materials were transformed by the energy of artistic articulation. He was, from first to last, a poet who tried to transform the local concerns of his own life by embodying them in the resonantly universal language of his poems. His brilliant rhetorical accomplishments, strengthened by his considerable powers of rhythm and poetic phrase, have earned wide praise from readers and, especially, from fellow poets, including W. H. Auden (who praised Yeats as the savior of English lyric poetry), Stephen Spender, Theodore Roethke, and Philip Larkin. It is not likely that time will diminish his achievements.

Career

Writer. Cofounder of Irish Literary Theatre. Senator of the Irish Free State, 1923-29.

Bibliography

  • Mosada: A Dramatic Poem (first published in Dublin University Review, March, 1885), Sealy, Bryers & Walker, 1886.
  • The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, Kegan Paul, Trench & Company, 1889.
  • John Sherman [and] Dhoya (fiction), Cassell Publishing Company, 1891.
  • The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (poetry and plays; includes The Countess Kathleen, play first produced in Dublin at Antient Concert Rooms, May 8, 1899), Roberts Brothers, 1892, title play revised and published separately as The Countess Kathleen, T. Fischer Unwin, 1912.
  • The Celtic Twilight (nonfiction), Lawrence & Bullen, 1893, Macmillan, 1894 , revised and enlarged edition, A. H. Bullen, 1902.
  • The Land of Heart's Desire (play; first produced in London at Avenue Theatre, March 29, 1894), Stone & Kimball, 1894.
  • Poems, T. Fisher Unwin, 1895, revised editions, 1899, 1901, 1912, 1927.
  • The Table of the Law [and] The Adoration of the Magi (fiction), privately printed, 1897, Elkin Mathews, 1904.
  • The Secret Rose (short stories), illustrations by father, John Butler Yeats, Dodd, Mead, 1897.
  • The Wind among the Reeds (poetry), John Lane/Bodley Head, 1899.
  • The Shadowy Waters (play; first produced in Dublin at Molesworth Hall, January 14, 1904), Hodder & Stoughton, 1900, Dodd, Mead, 1901.
  • 1899 to 1900, first edition, 1900, reprinted, F. Cass, 1970.
  • 1901 to 1908, seven volumes, first edition, 1901, reprinted, F. Cass, 1970.
  • Cathleen ni Houlihan (one-act play; first produced in Dublin at St. Teresa's Hall April 2, 1902), A. H. Bullen, 1902.
  • Where There Is Nothing (five-act play; first produced in London at Royal Court Theatre, June 26, 1904), John Lane, 1902, revised (with Lady Gregory) as The Unicorn from the Stars (first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, November 21, 1907 ) in The Unicorn from the Stars and Other Plays, Macmillan, 1908, new edition published as Where There Is Nothing [and] The Unicorn from the Stars, Catholic University Press, 1987.
  • On Baile's Strand (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, December 27, 1904), Dun Emer Press, 1903.
  • In the Seven Woods: Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age, Macmillan, 1903.
  • The Hour Glass: A Morality (play; first produced in Dublin at Molesworth Hall, March 14, 1903, revised version produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, November 21, 1912), Heinemann, 1903, expanded editon, edited by Catherine Phillips, Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Ideas of Good and Evil (nonfiction), Macmillan, 1903.
  • The Hour Glass and Other Plays (includes The Hour Glass: A Morality and The Pot of Broth, first produced in Dublin at Antient Concert Rooms, October 30, 1902), Macmillan, 1904.
  • The King's Threshold (play; first produced in Dublin at Molesworth Hall, October 8, 1903, revised version produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, October 13, 1913), John Quinn, 1904.
  • The King's Threshold [and] On Baile's Strand (plays), A. H. Bullen, 1904.
  • The Hour-Glass and Other Plays, first edition, 1904 , reprinted, Roth, 1976.
  • Stories of Red Hanrahan (short stories), Dun Emer Press, 1905.
  • Poems, 1899-1905, A. H. Bullen (London), 1906.
  • The Poetical Works of William B. Yeats, two volumes, Macmillan, 1906, revised edition, 1912.
  • Deirdre (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, November 24, 1906), A. H. Bullen, 1907.
  • Discoveries: A Volume of Essays, Dun Emer Press, 1907.
  • The Golden Helmet (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, March 19, 1908), John Quinn, 1908, revised as The Green Helmet (produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, February 10, 1910), published in The Green Helmet and Other Poems (also see below).
  • (With Lionel Johnson) Poetry and Ireland, first edition, 1908, reprinted, Cuala Press, 1970.
  • Poems: Second Series, A. H. Bullen, 1910.
  • (With Lady Gregory) The Travelling Man (play), first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, March 2, 1910.
  • The Green Helmet and Other Poems (includes poems Words, Against Unworthy Praise, and The Mask), Cuala Press, 1910, R. Harold Paget, 1911, enlarged edition, Macmillan, 1912.
  • Synge and the Ireland of His Time (nonfiction), Cuala Press, 1911.
  • The Cutting of an Agate (nonfiction), Macmillan, 1912, enlarged edition, 1919.
  • Poems Written in Discouragement, 1912-1913, Cuala Press, 1913.
  • Stories of Red Hanrahan, The Secret Rose, Rosa Alchemica (fiction), A. H. Bullen, 1913, Macmillan, 1914.
  • A Selection from the Poetry of W. B. Yeats, Bernard Tauchnitz, 1913.
  • A Selection from the Love Poetry of W. B. Yeats, Cuala Press, 1913.
  • Responsibilities (poetry; includes To a Shade, The Magi, and A Coat), Cuala Press, 1914, enlarged edition, Macmillan, 1916.
  • The Wild Swans at Coole (poetry and plays; includes play At the Hawk's Well, first performed privately in London, April 2, 1916, produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, July 25, 1933), Cuala Press, 1917, enlarged edition, Macmillan, 1919, expanded edition, Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Per Amica Silentia Lunae (nonfiction), Macmillan, 1918.
  • Two Plays for Dancers (includes The Only Jealousy of Emer, first produced in foreign language in Amsterdam at Hollandsche Schouwburg, April 2, 1922, produced in English in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, May 9, 1926, revised as Fighting the Waves [also see below]; and The Dreaming of the Bones, first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, December 6, 1931 ), Cuala Press, 1919.
  • Four Plays for Dancers (includes The Only Jealousy of Emer and At the Hawk's Well), Macmillan, 1921.
  • Selected Poems, Macmillan, 1921.
  • Michael Robartes and the Dancer (poetry), Cuala Press, 1921, expanded edition, edited by Thomas Francis Parkinson and Anne Brannen, Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Plays in Prose and Verse, Written for an Irish Theatre (includes The Player Queen, first produced in London at King's Hall, May 25, 1919), Macmillan, 1922.
  • Later Poems, Macmillan (London), 1922, Macmillan (New York), 1924.
  • Seven Poems and a Fragment, first edition, 1922, reprinted, Cuala Press, 1970.
  • Plays and Controversies, Macmillan (London), 1923, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1924.
  • Essays, Macmillan, 1924.
  • "The Cat and the Moon" and Certain Poems (includes play The Cat and the Moon, first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, May 9, 1926), Cuala Press, 1924.
  • The Bounty of Sweden (nonfiction), Cuala Press, 1925.
  • A Vision: An Explanation of Life Founded upon the Writings of Giraldus and upon Certain Doctrine Attributed to Kusta Ben Luka, T. Werner Laurie, 1925, revised edition published as A Vision, Macmillan (London), 1937, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1938, published as A Critical Edition of "Yeats's A Vision" (1925), edited by George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood, Macmillan, 1978.
  • October Blast (poetry), Cuala Press, 1927.
  • (Translator) Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" (also see below), first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, September 12, 1927.
  • (Translator) Sophocles' "King Oedipus" (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, December 7, 1926), Macmillan, 1928.
  • The Tower (poetry; includes The Tower, Sailing to Byzantium, Leda and the Swan, Nineteen Hundred Nineteen, and Among School Children), Macmillan, 1928.
  • A Packet for Ezra Pound (nonfiction), Cuala Press, 1929.
  • The Winding Stair (poetry), Fountain Press, 1929, enlarged edition, Macmillan, 1933 , expanded edition, Cornell University Press, 1995.
  • Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, Cuala Press, 1932.
  • Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (plays and fiction; includes play The Resurrection, first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, July 30, 1934), Cuala Press, 1932.
  • Letters to the New Island (essays and reviews), edited by Horace Reynolds, Harvard University Press, 1934, reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Wheels and Butterflies (plays), Macmillan (London), 1934, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1935.
  • The King of the Great Clock Tower (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, July 30, 1934), Cuala Press, 1934, Macmillan, 1935.
  • The Words upon the Window Pane (play; first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, November 17, 1930), Cuala Press, 1934.
  • Wheels and Butterflies (includes Fighting the Waves [revision of The Only Jealousy of Emer; also see above]), Macmillan, 1934.
  • A Full Moon in March, Macmillan, 1935.
  • Poems, Cuala Press, 1935.
  • New Poems, Cuala Press, 1938.
  • The Herne's Egg and Other Plays (includes The Herne's Egg, first produced in 1950), Macmillan, 1938.
  • Purgatory (first produced in Dublin at Abbey Theatre, August 10, 1938), critical edition, Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Last Poems and Two Plays (includes play The Death of Cuchulain,; and poems The Gyres, Lapis Lazuli, The Wicked Old Man, Crazy Jane on the Mountain, The Man and the Echo, Politics, and Under Ben Bulben), Cuala Press, 1939.
  • On the Boiler (nonfiction), Cuala Press, 1939.
  • Two Plays, Cuala Press, 1939.
  • Last Poems and Plays, Macmillan, 1940.
  • If I Were Four-and-Twenty (nonfiction), Cuala Press, 1940.
  • The Death of Cuchulain (first produced in 1949), critical edition edited by Phillip L. Marcus, Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • (With George Moore) Diarmuid and Grania (play; first produced in Dublin at Gaiety Theatre, October 21, 1901), Becker, 1951.
  • The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, 1987.
  • Mythologies (stories and essays), Macmillan, 1959.
  • The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats, edited by Donald R. Pearce, Indiana University Press, 1960.
  • Essays and Introductions, Macmillan, 1961.
  • Explorations (nonfiction), Macmillan, 1962.
  • The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats, edited by Russell K. Alspach, Macmillan, 1966.
  • Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, two volumes, edited by John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson, Columbia University Press, 1970.
  • (With Thomas Kinsella) Davis, Mangan, Ferguson (critical study), Dufour, 1971.
  • The Speckled Bird (unfinished novel), edited by William H. O'Donnell, Cuala Press, 1974, annotated edition, McClelland & Stewart, 1977.
  • (With Swami Shree) The Ten Principal Upanishads, Macmillan, 1975.
  • The Secret Rose: Stories by W. B. Yeats: A Variorum Edition, edited by Phillip L. Marcus, Warwick Gould, and Michael J. Sidnell, Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Byzantium, Black Swan, 1983.
  • The Poems: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran, Macmillan, 1983.
  • Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Selection, with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares, Macmillan, 1984.
  • A Poet to His Beloved: The Early Love Poems of W. B. Yeats, St. Martin's, 1985.
  • Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore, Crown, 1986.
  • Mosada [and] The Island of Statues: Manuscript Materials, edited by George Bornstein, Cornell University Press, 1987.
  • The Early Poems: Manuscript Materials, edited by George Bornstein, Cornell University Press, 1987.
  • (With others) The Second Book of the Rhymers Club, British American Books, 1987.
  • (With Lady Gregory) Complete Irish Mythology, Slaney Press (London), 1994.
  • The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Early Poems, Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Under the Moon: The Unpublished Early Poetry, edited by George Bornstein, Scribner, 1995.
  • Later Essays, Charles Scribner's (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Short Fiction, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats, Scribner Paperback Poetry (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Yeats, Romantic Visionary, Gramercy Books (New York, NY), 1999.
  • "Easter, 1916" and Other Poems, Dover Publications (Mineloa, NY), 1997.
  • Later Articles and Reviews: Uncollected Articles, Reviews, and Radio Broadcasts Written after 1900, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Yeats's Poetry, Drama, and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Parnell's Funeral and Other Poems, edited by David R. Clark, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2003.

Also author of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1918. Contributor to periodicals. A Poet to His Beloved has been published with musical score by Lowell Liebermann, T. Presser, 1994.

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES AND DIARIES

  • Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, Cuala Press, 1915, Macmillan, 1916.
  • Four Years, Cuala Press, 1921.
  • The Trembling of the Veil, T. Werner Laurie, 1922.
  • Autobiographies: "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth" and "The Trembling of the Veil," Macmillan (London), 1926, Macmillan (New York), 1927.
  • The Death of Synge and Other Passages from an Old Diary, Cuala Press, 1928.
  • Dramatis Personae, Cuala Press, 1935.
  • "Dramatis Personae," "Estrangement," "The Death of Synge," "The Bounty of Sweden," Macmillan (London and New York), 1936.
  • The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, Consisting of "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth," "The Trembling of the Veil," and "Dramatis Personae," Macmillan, 1938, reprinted, 1987, published with Estrangement, The Death of Synge, and The Bounty of Sweden, as Autobiographies, Macmillan, 1955.
  • Pages from a Diary Written in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty, Cuala Press, 1944.
  • Memoirs: Autobiography, edited by Denis Donoghue, Macmillan, 1972.

LETTERS

  • Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence: 1901-1937, edited by Ursula Bridge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.
  • Some Letters from W. B. Yeats to John O'Leary and His Sister, edited by Allan Wade, New York Public Library, 1953.
  • Letters of W. B. Yeats to Katharine Tynan, edited by Roger McHugh, Macmillan, 1953.
  • The Letters of W. B. Yeats, edited by Allan Wade, Macmillan, 1954.
  • Ah, Sweet Dancer: W. B. Yeats and Margot Ruddock, a Correspondence, edited by Roger McHugh, Macmillan, 1970.
  • The Correspondence of Robert Bridges and W. B. Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran, Macmillan, 1977.
  • Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the First Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge, edited by Ann Saddlemyer, Colin Smythe, 1982.
  • The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume 1: 1865-1895, edited by John Kelly and Eric Domville, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938, edited by Anna Macbride White and Norman A. Jeffares, Syracuse University Press, 1994.

EDITOR

  • (With Edwin John Ellis) The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical, Quaritch, 1893.
  • A Book of Irish Verse, 1900.
  • The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935, Clarendon Press, 1936.
  • (And translator, with Shri Purohit Swami) The Ten Principal Upanishads, Macmillan, 1937.
  • Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, Colin Smythe, 1973.
  • Representative Irish Tales, Dufour, 1979.

COLLECTED WORKS

  • The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, eight volumes, Shakespeare Head Press, 1908.
  • The Collected Poems, Macmillan (London and New York), 1933.
  • The Collected Plays (includes Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus"), Macmillan, 1934.
  • Nine One-Act Plays, Macmillan, 1937.
  • The Poems of W. B. Yeats, two volumes, Macmillan, 1949.
  • The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Macmillan, 1950.
  • The Collected Plays of W. B. Yeats, Macmillan (London), 1952, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1953.
  • Eleven Plays of William Butler Yeats, Macmillan, 1967.
  • Selected Poems and Three Plays, 3rd revised edition edited by M. L. Rosenthal, Macmillan, 1987.
  • The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose, edited by Richard J. Finneran, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.
  • The Major Works, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Collected works also published in fourteen volumes by Macmillan, 1989—.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Adams, Hazard, The Book of Yeats' Vision: Romantic Modernism and Antithetical Tradition, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  • Albright, Daniel, Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Alldritt, Keith, W.B. Yeats: The Man and the Milieu, J. Murray, 1997.
  • Allison, Jonathan, Yeats' Political Identities, University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  • Archibald, Douglas, Yeats, Syracuse University Press, 1983.
  • Blake, James J., Yeats, "The Wanderings of Oisin," and Irish Gaelic Literature, P. Lang, 1996.
  • Bloom, Harold, Yeats, Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Bradley, Anthony, William Butler Yeats, Ungar, 1979.
  • Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 5: Late Victorian and Edwardian Writers, 1890-1914, Gale, 1991.
  • Conner, Lester I., A Yeats Dictionary: Persons and Places in the Poetry of William Butler Yeats, Syracuse University Press, 1998.
  • Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler, Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry, Syracuse University Press, 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1940-1945, 1982, Volume 19: British Poets, 1840-1914, 1983, Volume 98: Modern British Essayists, First Series, Gale, 1990.
  • Domville, Eric, A Concordance to the Plays of W. B. Yeats, two volumes, Cornell University Press, 1972.
  • Donoghue, Denis, William Butler Yeats, Viking, 1971.
  • Ellis, Sylvia C., The Plays of W. B. Yeats: Yeats and the Dancer, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
  • Ellmann, Richard, The Identity of Yeats, 2nd edition, Faber, 1964.
  • Ellmann, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, 2nd edition, Faber, 1961.
  • Emig, Rainer, Modernism in Poetry: Motivation, Structures, and Limits, Longman, 1996.
  • Fleming, Deborah, A Man Who Does Not Exist: The Irish Peasant in the Work of W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge, University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  • Foster, R. F., W.B. Yeats: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Gorski, William T., Yeats and Alchemy, State University of New York Press, 1996.
  • Haswell, Janis Tedesco, Pressed against Divinity: W.B. Yeats's Feminine Masks, Northern Illinois University Press, 1997.
  • Heaney, Seamus, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Faber, 1980.
  • Henn, Thomas R., The Lonely Tower, 2nd edition, Methuen, 1965.
  • Holdeman, David, Much Labouring: The Texts and Authors of Yeats's First Modernist Books, University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Hone, Joseph W., W. B. Yeats: 1865-1939, 2nd edition, Macmillan, 1965.
  • Howes, Marjorie Elizabeth, Yeats' Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Jeffares, A. Norman, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, 2nd edition, Barnes & Noble, 1966.
  • Jochum, K. P. S., W. B. Yeats: A Classified Bibliography of Criticism, Including Additions to Allan Wade's Bibliography of the Writings of W. B. Yeats and a Section on the Irish Literary and Dramatic Revival, University of Illinois Press, 1978.
  • Larrissy, Edward, Yeats the Poet: The Measures of Difference, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
  • Larrissy, Edward, ed., W.B. Yeats, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Macrae, Alasdair D. F., W. B. Yeats: A Literary Life, St. Martin's, 1995.
  • Malins, Edward Greenway, and John Arthur Purkis, A Preface to Yeats, Longman, 1994.
  • McCready, Sam, A William Butler Yeats Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, 1997.
  • Murphy, William Michael, Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives, Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Nohrnberg, Peter C. L., The Book the Poet Makes: Collection and Re-Collection in W. B. Yeats' "The Tower" and Robert Lowell's "Life Studies", Harvard University, 1995.
  • Parrish, Steven M., A Concordance to the Poems of W. B. Yeats, Cornell University Press, 1963.
  • Peterson, Richard, William Butler Yeats, Twayne, 1982.
  • Pierce, David, Yeats' Worlds: Ireland, England, and the Poetic Imagination, Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Purdy, Dwight H., Biblical Echo and Allusion in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats: Poetics and the Art of God, Associated University Presses, 1994.
  • Ransom, John Crowe, editor, The Kenyon Critics: Studies in Modern Literature from "The Kenyon Review," World Publishing, 1951.
  • Rosenthal, M. L., Running to Paradise: Yeats' Poetic Art, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Scribner, The Irish Dramatic Movement, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
  • Sidnell, Michael J., Yeats' Poetry and Poetics, St. Martin's, 1996.
  • Stanley, Michael, Famous Dubliners: W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carson, Wolfhound Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1996.
  • Toomey, Deirdre, ed., Yeats and Women, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
  • Tratner, Michael, Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, Stanford University Press, 1995.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1978, Volume 11, 1983, Volume 18, 1985, Volume 31, 1989.
  • Unterecker, John Eugene, A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats, Syracuse University Press, 1996.
  • Vendler, Helen, Yeats's "Vision" and the Later Plays, Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Watanabe, Nancy Ann, Beloved Image: The Drama of W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939, University Press of America, 1995.
  • Watson, George J., Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and O'Casey, Catholic University of America Press, 1994.
  • Yeats Annual, Macmillan (London), beginning 1982.
  • Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, Cornell University Press, beginning 1983.
  • Yeats, William Butler, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Macmillan, 1950.
  • Yeats, William Butler, Memoirs: Autobiography, edited by Denis Donaghue, Macmillan, 1972.
  • Yeats, William Butler, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, Consisting of "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth," "The Trembling of the Veil," and "Dramatis Personae," Macmillan, 1987.

PERIODICALS

  • Booklist, August, 1995, p. 1925.
  • Commentary, November, 1995, p. 76.
  • New York Review of Books, April 21, 1994, p. 49.
  • Poetry, October-November, 1995, p. 94.
  • Publishers Weekly, November 13, 1995, p. 53.
  • School Library Journal, April, 1996, p. 90.
  • Times (London), January 28, 1989; May 6, 1989.
  • Tri-Quarterly, winter, 1965.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Articles About WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Audio & Podcasts

Poem Talk Poem of the Day Poem of the Day

Video

Favorite Poem Project

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION Ireland

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

LIFE SPAN 1865–1939

William Butler Yeats

Biography

William Butler Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth 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 seventeenth century. Most members of this minority considered themselves English people who merely happened to have been born in Ireland, but Yeats was staunch in . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.