William Butler Yeats was born on June 13,
1865 in Dublin. His father, John B Yeats, was a lawyer turned Pre-Raphaelite
painter. In 1867, the family moved to London and settled in Bedford Park. In
1881, they returned to Dublin, where William studied at the Metropolitan School
of Art. It was during this period that he became fascinated with Hindu
philosophy, theosophy, and the occult. In 1886, Yeats formed the Dublin Lodge of
the Hermetic Society.
As a writer, Yeats made his debut in 1885 when he published his
first poems in The Dublin University Review. In 1887, the 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 loved unrequitedly the rest of his life. She
inspired much of his early work and drew him into the Irish nationalist movement
for independence. However, she married Major John MacBride in 1903, inspiring
Yeats' poem "No Second Troy".
Yeats was interested in folktales as a part of an exploration of the Irish
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 title Fairy and Folk Tales of the
Irish Peasantry. Yeats assembled for children a less detailed version, Irish
Fairy Tales, which appeared in 1892. The Wanderings Of Oisin And Other
Poems published in 1889, took its subject from Irish mythology.
In 1896, Yeats returned to live permanently in his home country. He reformed the
Irish Literary Society, and then the National Literary Society in Dublin, which
aimed to promote the New Irish Library. In 1897, he met Lady Isabella Gregory,
with whom he founded the Irish Literary Theatre. Yeats worked as a director of
the theatre to the end of his life, writing several plays for it. His most
famous dramas were The Land Of Heart's Desire and Cathleen Ni Houlihan.
In early 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lee and bought Thoor Ballyle, a
derelict Norman stone tower near Coole Park. After restoring it, the tower
became his summer home and a central symbol in his later poetry. During their
honeymoon, Yeats' wife demonstrated her gift for automatic writing. Throughout
his life, he continually revised his work,
recounting episodes from his life in his Autobiographies and Dramatis
Personae. As Yeats grew older, he turned to practical politics, serving in
the Senate of the new Irish Free State in 1922. He received the Nobel Prize in
Yeats and his wife's collaborative notebooks formed the
basis of A Vision in 1925, a book of marriage therapy spiced with
occultism. It attempted in prose to explain the
mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that Yeats used in much of his work. It
discusses the eternal opposites of objectivity and subjectivity, art and life,
soul and body that are the basis of his philosophy.
In 1932, Yeats founded the Irish Academy of Letters and was briefly involved
with the fascist Blueshirts in Dublin the following year. Yeats
also wrote short plays on the Celtic legendary hero Cuchulain, combined as Four
Plays for Dancers. They were strongly influenced by the No drama of the
Japanese court, which was being translated in 1913 by Ezra Pound. Yeats plays
were designed more for small, appreciative audiences in aristocratic drawing
rooms than for the middle-class public in commercial Dublin theatres.
He also accomplished the feat, rare among poets, of
deepening and perfecting his complex styles as the years advanced. His later
writings are generally acknowledged to be his best. Yeats worked on the last
version of A Vision, which attempted to present a theory of the variation
of human personality, and published The Oxford Book Of Verse in 1936 and
New Poems in 1938.
Yeats died on January 28, 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France.